by: Kevin O’Hare
At the age of 77, Willie Nelson is still riding high and riding strong, touring steadily as always and celebrating the release of his exceptional new album “Country Music.” It’s the latest in a rather astounding catalog of more than 200 albums, some dating back to his earliest days as a songwriter in the early 1960s, when he attracted the interest of stars like Patsy Cline, who famously recorded Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Ray Price, who had a major hit with Nelson’s “Night Life.”
Eventually Nelson shifted from Nashville to Austin where he became a key player in the “country outlaw’ movement that tossed aside every known stereotype about traditional country music of the era. Nelson’s hair got longer, he became well known for smoking marijuana and he turned into a superstar in 1978 with his distinct reworking of pop standards titled “Stardust.”
He began recording at a frenzied pace around this period, making sure to release albums of duets with old friends like Price, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell and many others. Whether he over-saturated the market at the time is still worthy of debate but his concert sales remain strong and steady to this day.
He recently spoke from his home in Texas about his amazing career, famous friends like the late great Cline, his reputation for smoking lots of weed, his new album and his thoughts for the future:
You’ve released more than 200 albums. How in the world can you try and deliver something fresh on the new album “Country Music?”
Well it depends a lot on the songs, the producers and the musicians. With this particular album “Country Music” it was a no brainer. T Bone Burnett knows this music as well as anyone. I’m sure it was easy for him to come up with great musicians and come up with some great songs. “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Oceans of Diamonds” and all those great songs that we’ve all heard and sung for many years but they’ve been sort of lost in the shuffle along the way and he was sharp enough to put them all together and say “Hey let’s do these again.”
What was it like working with T Bone Burnett and how did you guys get to first know each other?
Well, we’re old Texas buddies, he’s from Ft. Worth and I’m from somewhere around there. I’ve known about him for years and years. His wife and my wife were buddies. We played golf together not too long ago and talked about doing something. He’d just had the “Crazy Heart” movie and I felt maybe it’d be a good time for us to do a CD together and I just turned it over to him really.
There’s a great song on the album called “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Do you see Satan in the world around us? If so, where?
Well of course. We all see things that are the opposite of peace and love so we put a name on it and it’s Satan. No matter what your thoughts and beliefs are, God is good, Satan is hate. And that’s just the way it is. We who sing gospel songs talk about God and Satan as mortal enemies. In this particular song, it’s an old traditional, it’s a wonderful song.
“I’ve been promising myself to take it easy on myself and not work so hard so we’ll see how it goes.”
– Willie Nelson
“Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Tell me a little about the song.
That song has been in my repertoire for a long, long time. Al Dexter, who originally recorded it, was a friend of mine, we knew each other back in the old days back in Ft. Worth. I’ve sung the song a lot. When T Bone brought it to the session I said “Hey where’s that song been?”
Speaking of “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” who’s the craziest woman you ever had a relationship with?
(extended laughter) How much time you got?
I got the time, if you’ve got the money.
I probably shouldn’t put names on them but there are a few (laughs).
When you had the huge breakthrough in the 1970s with “Red Headed Stranger” and then “Stardust” you started recording albums at an amazing pace. Did you ever worry that you might be over-saturating the market?
Well I was sort of warned that I could, but there really wasn’t a lot that I wanted to do about it because this was my shot and I had a chance to get stuff, record it and get it out there. I felt I could do it, I wasn’t overloading myself. I might have been overloading the record companies and their ability to market all that stuff. I could see where they were coming from.
There was some talk years ago that you might do an album of duets with Bob Dylan. Whatever happened to that?
It was an idea that is still a good idea that may or may not happen. As close as we came, we did write one song together, we were gonna write a whole album and then record it but we ended up doing one song together. He hummed a melody and cut a track and it went like (Nelson sings melody). What it wound up being was (“Heartland”) “There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland … My American dream fell apart at the seams.” He wrote it a little bit, I wrote it a little bit, we went into the studio and cut it.
On April 30 you turned 77. You’re still playing about 200 dates every year. How can you keep that up?
I don’t know, it’s crazy and I’ll probably slack off a little bit. I’ve been promising myself to take it easy on myself and not work so hard so we’ll see how it goes.
I interviewed B.B. King a few years ago and he said the same thing but I don’t think he’s slowed down too much either.
No but it’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re down here rounding third so it’s really whether we want to slide into home or just kind of trot across (laughs).
You take a lot of kidding for your rather legendary marijuana smoking. Larry King seemed startled that you had smoked up before appearing on his show recently. When did you start and do you ever see a day when you’ll stop?
Oh, I have stopped before and gone days and days and days. It’s not as though if I don’t get marijuana I get headaches. There have been cases where if I smoked too much my lungs get congested and I lay off awhile. Things are getting so simple now. In California and about 12, 15 different states you can buy edibles and you can get high eating candy. It’s not necessary to destroy your lungs anymore smoking if you just want to get high.
Is your bus as bad as Toby Keith says?
Toby can’t handle it (laughs) He’s a little wimpy in that department. He’s the first to admit it. God love him.
A few years ago you took up running. Are you still doing that?
I went out for a little run today. I don’t run as far or as fast as I used to but I still try and get in a few steps a day.
You’re still golfing?
I’ve had to stop golfing for awhile because I hurt my arm … golfing naturally. So I’ve not been golfing for about three months now.
That must be killing you.
Well, it’s good enough for me I guess, if I had a better swing I wouldn’t have done it.
Hopefully you’ll be back on the course soon.
One of these days, but I had a ruptured bicep from overdoing something and then I tore the rotator in my left arm. My left side is a little bit out but it will get better.
Can you tell me a little bit about Patsy Cline?
Well, she was the greatest female vocalist maybe all around ever, but for sure, for country, that I ever heard. There’s this joke. After Patsy Cline did “Crazy” and everyone else has tried it, and this joke is really not meant to hurt anybody else’s feelings but when they say “How many girl singers does it take to sing “Crazy” and they answered “All of them.” But as Patsy Cline nailed it, who else since then, it’s like Ray Charles singing “Georgia.” I had enough nerve to cover him but I never thought I did as good a job on it as he did.
Were you and Patsy close?
Yeah, we toured together and … I first met her one night back there in Tootsies Bar, drinking a little beer and her husband Charlie Dick was there and we were talking, listening to some songs that I’d just brought up from Texas. I had Tootsie put a couple of 45s on her jukebox. One of them had “Crazy” and “Night Life.” And Charlie Dick just really loved “Crazy” and wanted to play it for Patsy. We went over to his house and he wanted me to go in and meet Patsy and I wouldn’t do it. I said “No it’s late and we’re drinking, I don’t want to wake her up. He said “Aw she’ll be fine.” I didn’t go in. He went in and then she came out and got me and made me go in. She was a wonderful person, fixed us coffee, was just a great gal. I got to know her real well, we toured some together and she was just great.
\You were in the Highwaymen. What are your favorite memories of playing and touring with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and you all in one band?
Well every night was a great show for me ‘cause I was way over on the right and I got to see three of my heroes perform all night long all over the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.
What was it like after the shows?
Well we had all our families with us. Most of our wild days were behind us by the time we got together in the Highwaymen. Actually the last two or three times we went on tour, we had all our kids and families and went to Singapore and Australia and different places. We had 278 pieces of luggage.
Who had the idea of the four of you working together?
We had gone to Switzerland to do a Christmas show with Johnny Cash and June Carter. They invited me and Waylon and Kris to play on their Christmas show. We were having a photo session one day and the photographer said “What are you all going to Switzerland for?” And we said. “That’s where Jesus was born.” And the photographer said “Oh, ok.” We laughed about that awhile. We did that and decided it was a lot of fun and thought maybe we should do some records together. Someone, I forget who it was, had the song “The Highwayman,” the Jimmy Webb song. We played it and liked it and thought this might be something we want to do.
How long did it take you to record the new album “Country Music?”
A couple of minute s (laughs) It was really quick. Everyone knew the songs. Most of the things we did in one or two takes, it doesn’t take long to record when you do it that way.
You’re not a seven, or eight or nine take guy anyway are you?
No, three’s my limit. Usually I get it in one ‘cause usually we do not press the record button until we know just what we’re doing. Then once that happens I like to do two more just for insurance in case I’m not hearing something. But a lot of times I take the first take.
Of the movies you have made, which one is your favorite and why?
I liked “Barbarosa” and “Red Headed Stranger.” Hell, I enjoyed doing “The Songwriter” and “A Pair of Aces” with Kris. With “The Songwriter,” Kris and I always had a lot of fun. As far as “Red Headed Stranger” and “Barbarosa,” I like horses a lot and I got along with them ok so that was always fun where I could ride a horse or play my guitar.
Speaking of your guitar, your Martin guitar has a huge hole in it. That hole was there back in the 1970s. Has it gotten bigger and how long can you keep playing it?
It’ll last longer than I do probably. It still plays fine. I have to take it in every few years and have them do a reinforcement in the inside to make sure it hasn’t collapsed anymore in there. But right now it’s in fine shape, it’ll last longer that I will.
You have a lot of signatures on there right?
Well the first person I heard of anybody signing their guitar was Leon Russell and he asked me to sign his. I said “Sure” and I started to sign it with a marker and he said “No scratch it in there with a knife.” He had a knife there so I scratched my name with a knife. Then I said “Now that I’ve done yours why don’t’ you do mine?” So I had him scratch his name on Trigger (the name of Nelson’s guitar), he was the first one I had on there.
How is Leon Russell doing, I’d heard he’s been sick.
I think he’s doing fine. I think he and Elton John are doing an album together and he’s supposed to play my 4th of July picnic down in Austin so I think he’s doing better.
You two made a great album, “One For the Road”
We have another one that’s in the can that we’re waiting to put out.
When did you record it?
Last year sometime.
What songs did you do?
We did some country things that I like, some Vern Gosdin things. We did “My Cricket and Me, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash, “Chiseled in Stone,” a lot of different songs that we like.
What do you still want to achieve and what are you working on next?
Honestly, I want to achieve this tour (laughs). It’s been a long one. Then I can figure out what I want to do next. Once it’s over with, I want to rest a while and then I can figure out what I want to do next. So far we’ve had a good year, the album’s doing good, I really don’t have a lot to worry about anything right now.”