Willie Nelson: Looking Back and Looking Forward
By Kurt Wolff
Talking to Willie Nelson is, on one hand, a straightforward experience. He speaks calmly and in small bites, with a gentle laugh and friendly smile always on hand to put you at ease. He’s quick with an answer but also patient, thoughtful and willing to go deep when it comes to speaking about his long life experience, the varied terrain of American music, and where the two have (frequently) intersected.
A Willie Nelson conversation can also go in any number of directions. When Radio.com sat down with Nelson for a chat on his bus last month, the conversation started on topic with his latest album Band of Brothers. Soon, though, it moved into text messaging, concept albums, the enduring influence of the Grand Ole Opry, old friends of his like Billy Joe Shaver and Chet Atkins, and why he loves performing and touring so much (six decades down the road and “it’s still fun”). It’s a meandering path, but it’s a hell of a fun journey — and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Two key building blocks of Nelson’s long career came up repeatedly: songwriting and performing. The latter has always been at the heart of Nelson’s musical world. Even now performing is his chief occupation; he spends more nights on his tour bus than he does at his ranch in Texas.
As for songwriting, that’s what jump-started his commercial career, thanks to songs he wrote like “Crazy,” “Family Bible” and “Night Life.” By his own estimation Nelson has written thousands, and this year he added even more to the roster. His latest album Band of Brothers, released this past June, includes nine newly written compositions that have no problem standing on their own as part of Nelson’s extensive catalog.
“It’s been a while since I wrote that much,” Nelson told Radio.com. We were speaking on his bus before a July 12 show with his band, the Family, at Ravinia, a lovely outdoor amphitheater just north of Chicago.
Curiously, Band of Brothers is the first Nelson album to focus on newly written material since his 1996 album Spirit. What took him so long?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nelson said. “Roger Miller said it pretty good, he said, ‘Sometimes the well runs dry. And you’ve got to wait till you live a while to let it fill up again.’ And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”
When pressed, Nelson admitted that it wasn’t just surge of personal inspiration that got him writing again. He had some outside motivation.
“The secret ingredient here is Buddy Cannon,” Nelson said. “He and I work well together. And it’s rare I find anyone I can really feel comfortable writing with. But he and I kinda hit a stride there and wrote some pretty good songs.”
Cannon is a veteran Nashville songwriter and producer best known for his work with Kenny Chesney (he’s produced the bulk of Chesney’s albums, including his upcoming collection The Big Revival). All nine of the Nelson-penned songs on Band of Brothers were cowritten with Cannon.
That, however, doesn’t mean Nelson and Cannon sat down in a room together to hash things out, as is typical among many Nashville songwriters. Instead, they wrote songs by passing ideas back and forth via text messages.
“It just happened to be the easiest way to do it,” Nelson said. “I’ll write a verse, he’ll write a verse. One of us will put a melody down. And he’s got all those great musicians there in Nashville and he can cut the track. And next thing you know we’ve got an album.”
Nelson said he’s never written that way before, but he emphasized that “it’s a lot easier. You’re free to think or say or write what you want to. And Buddy does the same thing. He’s got great instincts, and we seem to be fairly successful together.”
Band of Brothers isn’t the first time Cannon and Nelson have collaborated. “I had him do some producing for me on a couple albums I did,” including recent releases Moment of Forever, Heroes and Let’s Face the Music and Dance. “We just became good friends and started having a good time writing and making records.”
Collaborations are nothing new to Nelson, of course. He’s recorded countless duets and he was part of country supergroup the Highwaymen that included Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. And of course he was often paired with Jennings during the 1970s, when both were branded ‘outlaws.’
“I met him in Phoenix,” Nelson remembers of his first encounter with Jennings. “He was playing a club down there, before he ever went to Nashville. We were both from Texas, so we had a lot to talk about—sit there and lie to each other. But then I saw his show and said, ‘You know, you ought to go to Nashville.’ And he told me, ‘Aw, I’m doing alright here.’ And I said, ‘How much you making here?’ And he said, ‘400 dollars a night.’ And I said, ‘Well s–t, stay here!’ But he didn’t listen to me.”
The 1970s were one of the most fertile periods in modern country music, with artists like Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Tompall Glaser and Bobby Bare taking country in new directions. Leading the pack were Jennings and Nelson. Nelson’s albums from this period, including Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, The Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust, are among his most enduring.
Nelson was still signed to RCA and working with producer Chet Atkins (“we got along great together”) when he released Yesterday’s Wine. What helped that album stand apart, in addition to the fact that it contained such knockout songs as “December Day” and “Me and Paul,” was that the material was bound under a larger conceptual idea, in this case about the cradle-to-grave journey of an ‘imperfect’ man.
“There was, as far as I know, not that many concept albums in country music back then,” Nelson said, when asked how Yesterday’s Wine was received. “So I knew I was pushing a heavy wagon uphill trying to get that stuff out. Which is true. Commercially I don’t think it did that great. But I felt from a music standpoint it was pretty good.”
The album that made him a household name, though, was The Red-Headed Stranger. Released in 1975, it was his first for new label, Columbia.
Luckily for Nelson, his new contract allowed him full creative control of the release, because, as Nelson said, when the Columbia executives first heard the music, they weren’t sure what to make of it.
“I remember they didn’t think it was finished. They thought it was a demo. And I laughed, ’cause I’d kind of anticipated what they were going to think.”
The album, however, turned into a smash. “It restored my faith in the music fans and the people, because I had an instinct that they would like that,” he said of the album’s spare production and engaging storytelling. “I’d like to be able to do another one like that.”
It also earned Nelson his first-ever No. 1 single for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Nelson said earning that chart-topping spot was a thrill but also something he took in stride. “If you’re exceptionally overconfident like me, you kind of accept it and expect it to happen,” he said of hitting No. 1. “And when it does you say, ‘See there? I told you!'”
Nelson’s confidence might have been high, but it wasn’t false; it was based on years of experience building a relationship with his audience. So even if the music he was releasing didn’t always match label expectations (that ‘unfinished’ sound Nelson had insisted on), he knew it would connect with his fans.
“I’d been playing to the real people out there for many, many years,” Nelson said. “And I know what they like.”
The success of Red-Headed Stranger didn’t settle him into any kind of comfortable groove, either. A couple years later, Nelson turned another stylistic corner and presented Columbia with Stardust, a polished collection of pop and jazz standards. Again, the folks at the label balked. “[It’s] another one of those albums that they said, ‘This is not a good idea. It costs too much money first of all, and these old songs, nobody wants to hear ‘em anymore.'” But, Nelson said, “again, they were wrong.”
That’s putting it mildly. Released in 1978, Stardust went on to sell in the millions, cementing Nelson’s newfound mainstream success. It’s currently certified as five-times platinum.
The music on Stardust wasn’t ‘country’ per se, but those standards were as much a part of Nelson’s musical background as the Texas honky-tonk of Lefty Frizzell and the western swing of Bob Wills. “I grew up singing ‘Stardust’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont,'” Nelson said of the material. “My sister [Bobbie Nelson] and I played that music all our lives, so it wasn’t a huge stretch for me to record it.”
Born in 1933, Nelson grew up in a small town in Texas, and between blues, country, Tex-Mex sounds, western swing and pop, the state was a major musical melting pot of genres, sounds and styles.
“We lived across the street from four Mexican families,” Nelson remembered, “and all night long I could hear great Mexican music over there. So I learned a lot. Also when I was working in the cotton fields or in the corn fields, I heard Mexican singing over here, I heard black singing over here, gospel, spiritual, whatever. So I got a huge education.”
While songwriting got him in the door in Nashville, one thing that continuously bubbles up between the lines of our conversation is the importance of performing live—a passion for which still drives him today. You can see it on his face at any of his shows, when he kicks into songs like “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” “Crazy” or “Night Life”—songs he’s played countless times. Why else would he still be still touring so extensively when he could have easily retired decades ago?
It makes sense, then, that Nelson chose to call his band the Family, because that’s who they are. The current lineup features bandmates he’s been working with since at least the ’70s, including drummer Paul English (the subject of Nelson’s song “Me and Paul”), harmonica player Mickey Raphael and “Sister Bobbie,” two years his senior, with whom Nelson’s been playing since the two of them were children back in Abbott, Tex.
Nelson’s live shows remain active, evolving affairs. He fills his set lists with familiar material (“On the Road Again,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”) that please his longtime fans, who fill the seats night after night. But never for a second think that Nelson gets bored. “The songs I do on the show, I never get tired of doing them,” he explained matter-of-factly. “If I do I’ll take them out, do something else.”
Individual songs, though, often take on different personalities each night, rolling from the stage at a gentle, languid pace or jumping forward in a wild flash. At Ravinia, for instance, he included a smooth, sweet version of “Vous Et Moi” by Django Reinhardt (one of Nelson’s guitar heroes) that ran seamlessly into his own ’60s-era song “I Never Cared for You.” The latter began calmly, then burst open with surprising force. And when Nelson played “Night Life”—a genuine classic he wrote more than 50 years ago—little by little he began pulling the song’s foundation apart. He’d stop and start the rhythm at will, filling the space with fresh bursts of notes from his famous nylon-stringed guitar named Trigger. This wasn’t a country veteran taking fans down memory lane for a pleasant sing-along; it was far more in the explorative spirit of free jazz.
Nelson’s guitar playing is, in fact, often the focal point of the show. Never mind his age, his playing remains impressively agile, his fingers equally at home picking out a soft, delicate melody as they strumming hard and building a sound that’s far more aggressive.
With so much ground to cover, yet new albums regularly coming at the pace of one or two a year, how does Nelson find room to introduce audiences to the more recent material? Is there a vetting process to ensure the new songs fit in correctly?
“You just do it,” Nelson said of adding new material to his sets. “You say, ‘Here’s a new song’…boom.” And as for his audiences, “they’re not going to get up and leave,” he said with a gentle laugh. “They’ll hear it, they’ll listen. But then they want ‘Whiskey River’ or ‘On the Road Again.’ That’s cool.” Currently, he said, the band is frequently performing two songs from the new album, “Band of Brothers” and “Bring It On.”
And later this year, audiences might hear songs from another new Nelson album as well. Band of Brothers has only been out since June, but already Nelson’s talking up his next release, which he said is titled December Day.
“We already got it pretty much finished,” Nelson said. And the vibe this time will be different from that on Band of Brothers. “It’s me and my band, and our sound. As opposed to the Nashville guys” that Cannon assembled to record Band of Brothers. Which, Nelson is quick to point out, is also “a great sound” in its own right.
The song selection for December Day will be a mix of originals and standards. “Some songs of mine,” Nelson said, “I think there’s seven or eight originals.” He lists off a few, including “Summer of Roses” and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.” In addition, he said, “we’re doing things like the Irving Berlin song ‘What’ll I Do’ and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.'”
The title track is one Nelson included more than 40 years ago on Yesterday’s Wine. He figured he probably wrote it even earlier.
“It was back in the late ’60s, I guess, in Nashville.” And what was the inspiration? “I was on my way to the airport. And it looked like a December day.” He paused and smiled. “Then…there you are.”
“December Day” is a great example of how, for Nelson, there’s been no single best method or trick for writing songs. They can come from anywhere or at anytime—and it often takes just a simple image or moment to spark an idea. Another December Day track, “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” arrived during a trip out West with one of his kids.
“I wrote that about one of my daughters, who was a teenager at the time and was going through all those teenager problems,” said Nelson. “I was with her on my way to Colorado. We took a little father-daughter trip up the road just to spend some time together. And I wrote that song on the way up.”
And beyond the upcoming December Day album? The ideas are still flowing. Nelson and his buddies Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson (the three together performed with Blake Shelton on the GRAMMY Awards this year) have floated the idea of a joint recording project. And Kacey Musgraves is also eager to cut a song with Nelson.
“I’d love to record with her,” said Nelson of Musgraves, who opened some shows for him earlier this summer. “She’s a great artist.”
And it’s not just any song from his catalog: According to Nelson, Musgraves has a very specific track in mind, “Are You Sure,” which first appeared on his 1965 album Country Willie – His Own Songs.
“This is the one she wanted to do,” Nelson said. “It’s one of those obscure songs of mine that I wrote many years ago in Nashville.”
Nelson shared cowriting credits on that particular song with Buddy Emmons, a steel guitarist who performed with such legends as Ernest Tubb, Ray Price (as did Nelson for a time) and Roger Miller.
“Funny story,” said Nelson, regarding that song. “It was written when I was sitting at a table there at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. We were having a beer, and this guy, kind of a bug, would come over and started talking to me a while, interviewed me, then he’d go over and interview Buddy, and back over to me. And Buddy finally said, ‘Are you sure this is where you want to be?’ So I said, ‘That’s a good song, Buddy, I’ll give you half of it.'”
And beyond that?
“I want to do a tribute album to Ray Price also. He was the best singer out there.”