Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Willie Nelson interview, with Chet Filippo (Rolling Stone July 13, 1978)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

[I post this a lot, but it’s one of my favorites.  He was one of best interviewers I have ever got to read.  I miss getting to read Chet Filippo’s articles.]
by: Chet Filippo
July 13, 1978

The saga of the king of Texas, from the night life to the good life

The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. “Got no Willie Nelsons today.” He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook.

He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: “You goin’ to see Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had ta haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, ‘Man, you die fast in this town.’

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.”

“Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . ”

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.”

Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?” He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs – Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few – but Willie’s own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him.

Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.”

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does.

I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.'” Willie fell over laughing. “Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?”

“What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?”

With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes.

Eyes that don’t miss much. He is not the most talkative person around – lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers. Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he’s sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both.

Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music.

He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music. “I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.”

Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of him – in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.”

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds, they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.”

Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three “concept” or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday’s Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it. At the time, Willie’s house in Nashville had burned – there’s an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album. He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as “before life and after life.”

Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn’t promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages.

Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvall, along with other CBS executives, thought it underproduced and weird, but it, and the single off the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” broke the C&W crossover market wide open. (It also recently brought Willie a movie deal with Universal for a filmed version of Stranger and a movie based on Willie’s life.)

After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete. Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business.

But Willie’s success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of ’72.

When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun. The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades. I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while. He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled. He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was. Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible” – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.” Traveled there in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract. Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. “I’ll do all right.”

Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on. Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.”

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time. When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate. I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I still don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong. His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life. “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it.

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. “Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans.

There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one’s lover. No wonder Nashville didn’t know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics:

The flesh around your throat is pale
Indented by my fingernails
Please don’t scream, please don’t cry
I just can’t let you say goodbye.

Willie’s explanations of his songs sound almost too simple: “I’d been to bed and I got up about three or four o’clock in the morning and started readin’ the paper. There was a story where some guy killed his old lady and I thought, well, that would be a far-out thing to do.” He laughed. “To write this song where you’re killin’ this chick, so I started there. ‘I had not planned on seeing you’ was the start, and I brought it up to where she was really pissin’ him off, she was sayin’ bad things to him and so he was tryin’ to shut her up and started chokin’ her.” All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? “Ah, well, chokin’ seemed to be the way to do it at the time.”

Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: “Opportunity to Cry” is about suicide, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, “I’ve Got a Wonderful Future behind Me” means just what it says. Some of Willie’s best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. “What Can You Do to Me Now?” and “Half a Man” resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in “One Day at a Time”:

I live one day at a time
I dream one dream at a time
Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at a time.

“I don’t know whether I’ve ever written any just hopeless songs,” he said. “Maybe I have, maybe I’m not thinking back far enough. I’m sure I have. Songs I’m writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it. Even though the story I’m trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like ‘Walking’: ‘After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain’t no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I’ve been lying to thee all along/There ain’t nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I’ll be gone’ – to me that’s a happy song. This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too.”

Is writing his form of therapy?

“Yeah, it’s like taking a shit.” He laughed his soft laugh. “I guess a lotta people who can’t write songs, instead of writing songs they’ll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time. I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don’t have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs. And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There’d be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad.”

Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. “Gonna go out and run three miles,” he said. “Wanta come along?”

“I can’t do 300 yards,” I replied. He laughed.

Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum. Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus’ only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert. The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people’s land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice.

I thought of a Willie Nelson song, “Slow Movin’ Outlaw,” that talked about that:

The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty,
Now stands with scars on her face;
And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly,
From the weight of the whole human race;
And it’s not that I blame them for claiming her beauty,
I just wish they’d taken it slow;
‘Cause where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go? 1

Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro’s evening traffic. Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell’s Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!” Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence.

The song I was thinking of was “The Troublemaker:”

I could tell the moment that I saw him
He was nothing but the troublemaking kind
His hair was much too long
And his motley group of friends
Had nothing but rebellion on their minds
He’s rejected the establishment completely
And I know for sure he’s never held a job
He just goes from town to town
Stirring up the young ones
Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob.2

The song’s about Jesus, in case you didn’t guess.

The Hell’s Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who’s been with Willie since 1954. English was once what used to be called “a police character” in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour. Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called “You Look like the Devil.” He does, too, and he’s still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat’s-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he’s as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard’s father.

Although the 17,000-seat coliseum was not full, it was a splendid evening of music: Billy Joe Shaver opened, followed by Emmylou Harris and then Willie. The bulk of his set was material from Red Headed Stranger, and when he started “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in his powerful baritone, I heard actual gasps of awe from the front rows. Been a long time since I heard that.

When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in “Amazing Grace” and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward.

One of Willie’s friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During “Amazing Grace” he began shouting, “I’m healed. I’m healed.” He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were “amens” from the folks around him.

Another of Willie’s friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie’s songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie’s “Half a Man” and soon had the jury weeping: “If I only had one arm to hold you . . . ”

Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes.

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

1. Willie sang “Whiskey River.”
2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke.
3. Willie: “Went over to Peckinpah’s house.”
4. Me: “You talk to Dylan?”
5. Willie: “No. Dylan don’t talk a lot.”
6. Me: “I know.”
7. Willie: “He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah’s house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin’ and runnin’on them horses down there and he ain’t no cowboy.”
8. Willie sang “Shotgun Willie.”
9. Me: “You write that?”
10. Willie: “Yeah.”
11. Me: “Good.”
12. Silence.
13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in.
14. Willie: “Go away. I’m busy.”
15. Paula: “Why can’t I stay?”
16. Willie: ‘Cause you’re a little ole girl.”
17. Paula: “Help me carry something.”
18. Willie: “I can’t. My legs are broke.”
19. A toke.
20. Silence.

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit.

“Wasn’t Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?” I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. “Yeah, it was,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how it’ll do, but so far it’s outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it’d either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.”

After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs?

“Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I’ll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me.” He chuckled. “I do have some new ones, ‘She’s Gone,’ ‘Is the Better Part Over,’ ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I don’t think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don’t write as much depressive music now because I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Do you feel any vindication now that you’ve succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn’t be a singer?

“I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don’t know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track.”

During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

“Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin’ out and quittin’ and never doin’ it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn’t because I didn’t think the music wasn’t good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me.”

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters?

“Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other’s houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin’ wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I’ll never write again, never sing again, don’t wanta see nobody again, don’t call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed ’em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin’ up and hog prices kept goin’ down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs.”

Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing?

“Yeah, I do. I’ve been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin’ up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don’t progress, they could very well pass me too.

“But I wasn’t considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in ’em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don’t know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn’t do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people’s ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance.”

But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson.

“Well, Kris has agreed with that. He’d been listenin’ to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I’d listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville.”

I’ll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn’t you listen to Sinatra and Crosby?

“Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin’ up. We didn’t have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I’d hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way.”

Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music?

“I think there’s a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it.”

Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else?

“Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I’d pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing.”

(Author’s Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.)

There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think?

He answered seriously. “I think I made it work for me. There’s no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I’d written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I’da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door.”

He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. “Willie,” I asked, “do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?”

He thought about that one for a long time: “The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they’re gonna try to figure out how that’s done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they’re firing at that market. Those guys just didn’t know that audience was there. That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin’ beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear.”

Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn’t particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he’s decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly.

After one run-through of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: “You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn’t have the nerve to pitch it to you.”

“Hell, Willie,” said Jones, “I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut ‘Crazy’ but I couldn’t find you.”

Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: “Okay, Willie’s stuff is good and we can overdub George later.”

They moved on to “Half a Man,” and Jones was still having trouble. “How the hell does Waylon sing with you,” he asked. “I’m used to singin’ right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses.” Willie laughed.

Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.

Willie Nelson on ESPN Sports Nation (June 16, 2014)

Monday, February 1st, 2016
Bristol, CT - June 16, 2014 - Digital Center 2 Plaza: Country singer Willie Nelson performs during an ESPN Newsmaker Luncheon (Photo by John Atashian / ESPN Images)

Bristol, CT – June 16, 2014 – Digital Center 2 Plaza: Country singer Willie Nelson performs during an ESPN Newsmaker Luncheon
(Photo by John Atashian / ESPN Images)

Nelson, 81, is in his sixth decade in the music industry that began when he started writing songs that included hits like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

“Band of Brothers” marks Nelson’s first album of mostly new, original content since 1996, whose single “Bring It On” can be heard here.

Send your questions now and join Nelson Monday at 1:45 p.m. ET!


Dan Rather interview with Willie Nelson (Jan 26, 2016) AXS TV

Monday, January 25th, 2016

“When it comes to country music, he’s about as big as it gets, but he’s also dedicated so much of his life advocating for causes he cares about. Willie Nelson has been connected to the fight to legalize marijuana for decades now. He even has his own brand of weed coming out in a couple of months. It’s called Willie’s Reserve.

Check out what Willie told me about this business venture that is rather “high” on his list of priorities.”

— Dan Rather

Check out our next Big Interview set to air this Tuesday, January 26th at 8 pm EST/7 pm CST on AXS TV.

Willie Nelson: There’s no stopping him

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

by:  Martin Chilton

Willie Nelson, who was born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, is one of the finest country music singers and songwriters of modern times. Nelson has won 11 Grammys and acted in more than 30 films. He has also campaigned for the legalisation of marijuana. This interview with Martin Chilton was originally published in December 2012.

If there’s one soothing voice you want talking to you about the end of the world, then I guess country singer Willie Nelson will do just fine. But it’s just one of the odd subjects of an enjoyably eccentric conversation with one of America’s finest musicians in the lead-up to when the Mayans predicted it would all be over.

Nelson is still touring with a prodigious schedule, and has just published a memoir with the witty title Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die. The book went straight into the New York Times bestsellers list.  The Texan, who was born on April 30, 1933, seems to be in remarkably good shape. Nelson says: “I have always been interested in keeping fit and doing boxing and wrestling. As a youngster, I loved Charles Atlas, Bruce Lee and Kung Fu. But when I lived in Nashville I switched to doing Taekwondo.

“Last year, at the age of 78, I got my second degree black belt [he went on to get a higher degree black belt]. And singing is the best exercise – two hours a day will keep you in pretty good shape. I think it’s very important to learn from your own body. It doesn’t lie to you. If it feels good, do it. If it don’t feel good, don’t do it.”

Nelson is asked ad nauseum about drugs, because he is co-chair of the advisory board of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and is in favour of marijuana legalisation. I’m more intrigued by the fact that he now supposedly uses a vapouriser for his recreational inhaling. “Yes,” he cackles, “I now have what they call a vapouriser apparatus. It means there is no heat and no smoke, which is better for the throat of an old singer. But every so often someone will pass me a joint, and it would be impolite to refuse.”

His brilliance as a singer and songwriter has been widely recognised. This is the man who wrote Crazy (such a massive hit for Patsy Cline) more than 50 years ago, and who has won 37 major music awards, including 11 Grammy trophies. Yet he still talks modestly and enthusiastically about other musicians. Of jazz maestro Django Reinhardt, he says: “There is no doubt that he is the best guitar player ever. I never saw him live but I have watched him on video and have hundreds of his songs. I play Nuages most every concert, and I especially love Vous & Moi.”

British music never made much of an impression on the man who was born in Abbott, Texas. He explains: “I didn’t hear a lot of UK music, although I did record a version of the Beatles song Yesterday. I was more interested in the European jazz players. I loved Americans such as Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck, who just died, of course. I would loved to have recorded with Brubeck. Good musicians can play and record jazz and country. I grew up with country music and can adapt to jazz but sometimes jazz musicians have more trouble the other way because country is just not something they have grown up with.

Ray Charles could do both but then he could do anything. I still do everything off the top of my head, and if I make a mistake then it’s like the old joke . . . make one mistake people notice, make three and it becomes a hot lick.”

Songwriting is a craft he has always admired. He talks admiringly of somewhat neglected lyricists such as Lefty Frizzell. “I love him still,” says Nelson, “but I guess it’s only really people my age who know his work well. But the younger generation should know his music, and I always sing If You’ve Got The Money.”

Before Nelson made it as a singer, he paid his way writing songs for established artists. Once he’d made the breakthrough, he was free to write hit compositions for himself. Is it true he scribbled down On The Road Again on an airline sick bag? “It was pretty much like that,” he laughs. “I was travelling on an aeroplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg and they said they needed a song for the film Honeysuckle Rose. So I just started singing, “I’m on the road again,” and I told them not to worry, the melody would come later. That was an easy song. My hardest song, I haven’t written it yet. I write less now than I ever did. I did a lot of writing when I was younger. I still write but don’t try to force a good idea. Once it starts coming you can’t put it off, anyway. It’s like labour pains.”

Love of music is in his bones. He spent a year teaching guitar in Houston and, like BB King, liked working as a radio disc jockey. Nelson says: “I enjoyed that and it was also a way to stay in music when I wasn’t playing regularly in clubs. I loved the fact that you could just go in an play a bunch of records that you liked. In those days, the DJ could just make his own show and play what he wanted, like Eddie Arnold, Django and Hank Williams. People used to love my programmes but in the end, and this is common now, programme directors always thought they knew best and there would be a falling out over what records should be played. I still do a bit for my XM Radio Channel 56 called Willie’s Roadshow.”

There really is no stopping him. Already set in motion for 2013, when he turns 80, are two new albums. Nelson says: “I have one coming out called Face The Music And Dance, with my band. I’ve always loved that Irving Berlin song. Then I have an album of duets with girls called To All The Girls. I sing with Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Barbra Streisand – that’s something I have long wanted to do. There will be 12 collaborations in all, with songs old and new. One song, brought by the producer Buddy Cannon, is a unknown song written by Waylon Jennings, one of the last he wrote, called She Was No Good To Me. And I get the chance to sing with Dolly Parton again, on a beautiful song she has written called From There To The Moon And Back.”

For good measure, he’s also just done a Christmas film called When Angels Sing with Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson, and Nelson is talking about a couple of western movies in 2013, too. Does he call on his close pal (an incongruous duo they must make) Woody Harrelson for advice? “Oh, Woody’s great fun. He stays all the time. We hang out and play dominoes, poker and chess. He usually beats me at chess and I win at dominoes.”

He says it was fun writing his new book (his favourite novel is Huckleberry Finn) which ranges across music, anecdotes and politics. He talks about the struggles of ordinary American and farmers, environmental problems and about President Barack Obama. Nelson says: “He has been good for America and I knew him from when he was a young politician in Chicago. But when you get elected President I think the first thing they do is take you in a room and say you know you’re not gonna do sh-t. Your hands are tied and Congress have the whole thing locked down and we all get screwed. But Obama will do better this time. There are so many things going on in the world that he will be kept real busy with some major decisions.”

The book has downbeat moments (“the world is a sinking ship,” he writes) but in conversation he seems an optimistic man. Is that right? Nelson says: “Well, I really do believe that you can’t worry about yesterday or dwell on mistakes. There is a lot to worry about if you choose to. The doom-and-gloom people are out there. Only this week I was reading about how many people believe the world’s coming to an end this December 21st. But I see reasons for optimism. It’s like my song, It’s Always Now. Look for the hope.”

It’s always now,
And nothing ever
Goes away.
Is here to stay.
And it’s always now.

Who’d have thought it? Hope in a country music song. That’s Willie Nelson for you.


Dan Rathers Interviews Willie Nelson (airs Tuesday, Jan. 26)

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016


“I’ve had the good fortune to sit down with country music legend Willie Nelson several times in my life, and every time, I’m happy to report I learn something new. Check out our next Big Interview set to air this Tuesday at 8 pm EST/7 pm CST on AXS TV.

Willie has been lauded time and time again for being a gifted writer, a trait he discovered about himself in his early years. He was just six years old when he wrote his first poem. Check it out here.” — Dan Rather



Chelsea Handler talks about Willie Nelson

Friday, January 22nd, 2016


Chelsea Handler is all smiles as she makes an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday (January 19) in New York City.

The 40-year-old comedian promoted her four-part Netflix documentary series Chelsea Does where she tackles topics including marriage, racism, Silicon Valley, and drugs.

Chelsea revealed to Jimmy that she got really stoned with Willie Nelson.

“I was high for two days, I literally couldn’t open one of my eyes,” Chelsea joked. “He has his own line of weed for those of you who like weed. You smoke weed with him and you’re just like, I honestly couldn’t open my eye the next day. He’s so stoned, he probably didn’t even know I was there.”

Chelsea Does will be released on Netflix on January 22.

Read article here.

Willie Nelson interviewed by Dan Rather on AXS TV (Tuesday, January 26, 2016)

Thursday, January 21st, 2016


GRAMMY®-winning country music icon Willie Nelson sits down with Dan Rather in an all-new episode of THE BIG INTERVIEW, premiering Tuesday, January 26, at 8pE/5pP. During the candid hour-long discussion, the beloved author, poet, actor, and activist talks about the history and impact of his agricultural benefit concert Farm Aid, as well as the rise in organic products, and the ever-changing state of marijuana in America.

In 1985, Nelson, along with friends and fellow music legends Neil Young and John Mellencamp, spearheaded the Farm Aid benefit concert—a special event designed to benefit farmers who were at risk of losing their property due to mortgage debt. Now in its 30th year, the organization has grown tremendously, raising over 48 million dollars and attracting some of the biggest names in music, as they come together to support and honor the American farmer.

Delving into the tremendous response he’s gotten from both the music community and the public, in regards to Farm Aid, Nelson says, “Musicians know more about what’s going on out there than anybody else. They realized the farmers were in trouble. Thousands of musicians and pickers over 30 years have played Farm Aid for not one red nickel. I thought that there was a whole lot of people that came out for that first one, which showed a lot of interest. So, I felt like all those smart guys in Washington could see what the public wants, and they would do something about it. Naturally, that didn’t happen, so we had Farm Aid 2, Farm Aid 20, Farm Aid 30. And we’ll have Farm Aid 50 until they decide to do something about it.”

On the slowly-improving state of the agricultural industry, thanks in large part to the rise in demand for organic products, Nelson says, “People are finding out that they don’t have to get their food from 1,500 miles away, they can have their farmers around them grow what they need, and they can buy it at the local farmers market. And the farmers are becoming more and more aware of organic farming, so things are looking up, after all this time.”

Offering his concerns about the corporatization of the marijuana business, in this new age that finds the drug more accepted, available, and legal than its ever been before, Nelson says, “There’s already big companies, you know, and a few states that are already promoting their own product. And that’s cool. I would hate to see them start growing marijuana, and putting a lot of chemicals and pesticides on it, so that they can grow more, and more, and more, and make more and more money. They probably will do that, but I hope they don’t. I never thought it would get this far.”

Weighing in on the commonly held belief that marijuana is a gateway drug to harder narcotics, Nelson says, “I think that’s just a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve heard that somewhere, so they repeat it. But, it’s not true. In fact, the opposite is true. I think more people are able to get off the strong, bad stuff by just smoking marijuana.”

Talking about his own brand of marijuana—Willie’s Reserve—which rolls out in March of 2016, Nelson says, “We were trying to grow the best… We want to regulate it, make it all worthwhile, on someone’s budget where they can afford it… [They’ve built a facility in Colorado] that’s bigger than a football field, where it showed marijuana being grown from the seeds, and it was quite amazing to watch all that, see how it progressed… I think Colorado probably has realized that there’s a lot of money there, and a lot of other states are lookin’ at the bottom line… and, ya know, those guys, they gotta see that. They gotta see what Colorado is doing, and how [many] taxes that’s bringing in to them.”

On why he’s decided to get into this booming business venture, Nelson freely admits, “To prove a point. When I got busted in El Paso a couple of years ago, I was reading about the Tea Party. So, I said, ‘Well, there’s a Tea Party, so why don’t I start a Tea Pot Party?’ And I did… I felt that if you really believe in something, why not promote it?”

To see more of this insightful episode, be sure to tune in to THE BIG INTERVIEW on Tuesday, January 26 at 8pE, only on AXS TV.

THE BIG INTERVIEW airs every Tuesday at 8pE, only on AXS TV.

Dan Rather interview with Willie Nelson to air on AXS-TV (Jan 26, 2016)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

by:  Chuck Dauphin

Dan Rather has been perfecting his craft since 1950 — when he first went to work for The Associated Press as a reporter in his home state of Texas. And even though he’s been on the job for an amazing 66 years, Rather still gets excited when he gets the story.

His latest venture, The Big Interview, began its’ fourth season on AXS-TV on Tuesday (Jan. 12) at 8 p.m EST. The series features in-depth discussions with some of entertainment’s most iconic stars and is something in which Rather told Billboard he takes a great deal of pride.

“It’s a privilege and doing The Big Interview is something that I enjoy doing. The challenge has been to adjust my interview style somewhat,” he said, admitting that it is a little different than much of the hard news he has covered in the past. “I see it more of a conversation, instead of a breaking news story. I’m trying to get down to the essence of the person — beyond the professional and celebrity side and really dig down deep — because we have enough time to have a meaningful conversation.”

With this in mind, he said, he wants his subjects to “open up in a way that people haven’t seen on television before.”

The first performer interview of the new season is legendary rockerJohn Fogerty. Rather said the conversation runs the gamut of amazing highs and perilous lows, which he admitted surprised even him.

“Of course, I knew John Fogerty and his work, but what I learned was the importance — as well as the difficulty — of resilience,” said Rather. “He was at the very heights of success and then went through a period that took him to the depths. That is among the things he talked about. I gained a new perspective on how difficult resilience can be. We often talk about comebacks and it’s sometimes easy to take them for granted. But, in Fogerty’s case, the comeback was long, arduous, difficult and maybe not even yet complete.”

The next week, the veteran newsman will sit down with Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro and will close out the month on Jan. 26 chatting with Country Music Hall of Fame member Willie Nelson. Interviewing “The Red Headed Stranger” posed somewhat of a challenge to Rather, due to the fact that Nelson has told so much of his story before in various books, but added the singer always brings something new to the table.

“He’s such a strong storyteller and with his experiences, he has so many stories,” Rather said. “As well as I know him — and I’m proud to say that he’s a friend of mine — he told stories that has never been told before of what it was like coming up in the music world. He never ceases to amaze me.”

Over the first three seasons of The Big Interview, Rather has spoken with some of the most legendary artists in country music, with one of his favorite conversations coming last year with Charley Pride.

“I loved doing Charley,” Rather said. “There are so many surprises in doing the show and one of them is when I proposed doing a show on him, someone said ‘Well, he was big in his day, but does anyone care anymore?’ So, we did the show and had almost as much reaction to the interview as most of the ones we’ve done. I was really pleased to see that. Charley Pride is someone I’ve admired greatly because — beyond music — he’s one of the people who has saved his money and made some good investments in real estate. I admire him for his accomplishments as an entertainer, but also for his smarts as a businessman.”

As someone who has been on the front seat of history over the years, where does Rather see the journalism world today? At its heart, he believes the basic parts of the vocation are still in play.

“I still think it’s very valuable to serve an apprenticeship in journalism,” he said. “There’s an importance of covering what is going on at the police station, the city council meetings, even the boring zoning meetings. I think that is important for a young journalist. These days, I think it’s probably easier to get that experience in some form of social media. However, whether there’s an appetite for that kind of reporting on social media remains to be seen.

“I think it’s tougher to start out in journalism today because the audiences are more fractured that the idea of three or four networks having big audiences has just about passed. I think it’s more difficult, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. To be successful, you have to be able to write clearly, directly and quickly. You also have to have sort of a backbone and be persistent, because reporting requires you to be. Those things haven’t changed.”


Dan Rather interviews Willie Nelson in Austin

Monday, January 4th, 2016


Dan Rather on Twitter

I got a chance to chat w/ yesterday about his life and career. Look for the interview in 2016.



Willie Nelson on Jay Leno Show (1995)

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Keith Richards talks about Willie Nelson

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Graeme Thomson
from 2005 interview with Keith Richards

KR: Hello Graeme

GT: Hello Keith. How are you?

KR: What are you doing up this time of night, old boy?

 GT: I’m writing my book on Willie Nelson.

KR: Yeah, that does take a lot of midnight oil!

GT: Hell, yeah, it takes a long time. What are you up to?

KR: I just got into Portland out of Seattle.. on the road, you know.

GT: How’s it all going?

KR: Yeah, going very well, man. I mean, brilliantly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

GT: In context of Willie, I’ve been thinking a lot about what …

KR: Yeah, you must be well embroiled in it by now!

GT:……I’m up to my neck in it, but it’s brilliant. I’ve been thinking a lot about what keeps people on the road. In your case what is it that keeps you out there?

KR: I dunno. You could ask Willie that one!

GT: I know. I have.

KR: One could say that it becomes like an addiction or… there’s loads of people out there who want to see what you do and you feel like doing it. It’s a simple as that. It’s probably somewhere between the two: white line fever.

GT: With him it seems to have just become his life almost…

KR: [Sings] On the Road Again…

GT: It’s his manifesto, isn’t it?

KR: He’s an amazing guy, Willie. I’ve never hung with Willie except when we’ve been working together, but Willie always makes a little space to hang. He’s an amazing guy. He’s your All American. He’s what I would call an American patriot, but not in the flag waving sense or that shallow sort of…. he loves the soil, man, he loves the… land itself, and he’s the right guy to put the case. I mean, he’s a real old regular American. There’s very few of them, really, at least that stand up and say so. Willie is just that way. He couldn’t be any different any other way I don’t think. Times that I’ve known him, I always have a great time with him. We’re guitar pickers and song writers and shit so we can just kinda kick shit around, you know. But as a man he’s a bit of a mystery, actually.

GT: I get the sense he’s pretty unknowable really.

KR: So you’ve got that feeling too, right?

GT: Totally, yeah.

KR: I don’t think he really knows all of himself, he’s just dedicated to his idea and after all, on top of that a brilliant musician and a songwriter par excellence – that’s your actual French, you know?

GT: Ha! When did you first become aware of him? His harmonica player Mickey Raphael told me that the Stones offered him a support slot in the 70s and he turned it down. Do you remember that?

KR: Well, I do believe so, it is very hard to recall that kind of thing. Maybe it was because he had a previous engagement, a lot of the times you want to work with people on the road and you find that they’re doing Australia while you’re trying to get a gig together in LA. It’s all that ships in the night passing away. But, em, Willie sort of cracked into my perception, I started to hear these songs first…. ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, and ‘Crazy’, and I started to see this name Nelson. When they were 45s it was easier to check out who wrote what. I knew nothing about his character, I just heard these very interesting songs coming out of this guy called Nelson.

Finally, when he burst through the bubble and actually became Willie Nelson in fact rather than just being a Nashville songwriter and whatever it was he was doing – I know what he was doing, actually, but I’m not going to tell! – but Willie sort of creeps up on you. Every time you heard a really interesting song, half the time you’d find Willie Nelson’s name attached to it. And then when he became a performer, because he’s such a recluse in a way. He’s the most unlikely star.

I’ve worked with him…. I think the first time I worked with him he asked me to come up to that casino somewhere in Connecticut, where the Indians are running the joint. About time they got their money back – Willie agreed with me I think. I was amazed at that country thing – there’s Willie, he finishes the show and then he spends like an hour or more and he just signs about every autograph in the audience, you know that country tradition of ‘you’re one of the folks.’ When you’re up there on the stage you’re that, but then afterwards you’ve got to mix, and I was amazed that that was still going on. And Willie, that great patience that he has, that sort of stoic…. meanwhile he’s going, ‘Where’s the joint,’ you know? I always judged Willie shows when I’ve worked with him by how many guys he’s got rolling behind him in the bus: ‘This is a three Frisbee show, pal!’

GT:  He smokes an unbelievable amount of dope, doesn’t he?

KR: Oh, absolutely – and always good stuff. Believe me, I’m a connoisseur. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work with him a lot! No, I’m attracted to the man just as a character and a player. His knowledge of the music… those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music.

GT: How do you rate him as a guitar player?

KR: Oh, he’s incredible man. Absolutely. He’s unique, can you get any better? I mean nobody else could play like that. I mean, look at the state of the guitar for Chrissakes! He’s punched holes through it, scraped it away, and it still sounds better than ever. It’s that weird mixture of stuff, and he doesn’t mind going off on a flight somewhere in the middle of a song. Just taking it and seeing where he ends up. He’s got a beautiful bravado. I admire that.

GT: Has he ever let you play that guitar?

KR: Oh, I’ve had a bash at it. I say, ‘I can’t play it, it’s got a hole in it Willie!’ Where’s there’s a Willie there’s a way.

GT: I’m surprised you’ve never done… because he’s done so many albums and duets and stuff, have you never discussed doing anything on record together as a piece?

KR: We kind of talk about it and look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, when and where?’ and then it becomes: Oh, later. It’s sort of in the air, I’d love to, but his schedule is…most of the difficult things about working with guys you really admire and would like to get together with is since everybody’s busy, they’re always on the other side of the planet when you’re doing things. It’s finding the time and stuff, and Willie’s a busy man. He has to save all those small farms.

GT: Last time I spoke to him he said he was making six albums – at the same time!

KR: Yeah, he’s been incredibly productive in the last few years, he’s really working hard, man. But then I don’t think he couldn’t. If he wasn’t working I can imagine him fading away.

GT: Do you know his band very well, have you met those guys?

KR: Yeah, the guys around him and everything, I always have a great time when I see Willie. I’m always waiting for the ‘I’m doing a TV show, do you want to come by?’ I say, ‘How many Frisbees involved, man?’ The last time, I met Merle Haggard via Willie. I’d never met Merle before, which was interesting. It ends up with Merle working with us in a few weeks time in Texas. I’m sitting rehearsing with Willie on the West coast somewhere, I think it was Parsons thing or whatever, and sitting there on the drum riser, and there’s this guy with a baseball cap on – the right way around – and a grey beard and he’s picking like a maniac, and he’s sitting next to me and suddenly I said, ‘Your name’s not Merle?’ Yup! Jesus Christ, what a way to meet.

Willie brings people together, that’s the other thing that I think is important to stress. Willie is a great magnet. All kinds of different music. He can pull people together that probably very rarely that somebody else could. They’d be staying in their own lanes, so to speak. But Willie can pull together like Norah Jones…. a diverse amount of people from every spectrum of music you can think of, Jesus Christ there’s enough spectrums to think!

I always admire him because…. when I work with him he’s doing these TV shows. And he’s on stage with absolutely everybody. All day. He’s got to rehearse with them and then he’s got to do the show. Me, I come there and I just do my bit with him, ‘You wanna join in on this?’ I can pick and choose. But I watch the man work, Graeme, and it’s amazing the heart and diplomacy of the man. He should be President, I think! We’d be a lot better off, or at least the Americans would. Possibly we would. But his dedication to what he does, amazing energy. A lot of guys say: how do we [the Stones] do it? How does Willie do it? I mean I’m watching him up there with 24 acts and he’s singing with every one of them. And he’s got it all together, very very smooth, beautiful, no sweat. He has that amazing effect on people, a sort of calmness, but there’s a certain ….under there there’s a hint of real danger if it blows up.

GT: Those eyes…those black eyes he’s got.

KR: Yeah, yeah, he’s one of your great Westerners. A real love for the soil of the land and a feel for it, more than waving stars and stripes and all that crap. A real concern for where it all comes from and what you live on, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really honest. Which is hard to find in this day and age and this world we live in.

GT: Pretty much unique, I’d say.

KR: How does he strike you, once you’ve taken this gig on? Same way?

GT: Pretty much the same way, yeah. I think….

KR: Oh, he’s a great singer man, Such a wry delivery. I mean, everybody has got a great voice, it’s just a matter of what to do with it. I mean, I get a lot of that flak too, you know. The Grizzle, and all that crap. Willie and I have been pretty well grizzled and we kind of find ourselves in a weird way – which is really amazing coming from where we come from, totally different places – I feel at home with Willie.

GT: Did you listen to that reggae album he made?

KR: Yes I did, yes, cos I live in Jamaica I know most of the cats that are on the session. I thought it was a very bold move, and then I found out that Johnny Cash has been living in Jamaica for years, and round the corner from me. But when you go to live in Jamaica you don’t advertise, I found out without me knowing it that Johnny Cash had been my neighbour, virtually, at 20 minutes away, for like 20 years, but probably never there at the same time because when you go to Jamaica you don’t want to be seen by white people! It’s one of those things.

GT: How much time do you spend there?

KR: As much as I can. I haven’t been there for about a year now, mainly because we’ve been making records and doing this. But as soon as these hurricanes stop I’m going to the bolt hole.

GT: Well listen, that’s fantastic.

KR: Ok, Graeme. All right.

GT: Can I use this as a little introduction to the book? Is that cool?

KR: You can use it in any way you like. Yes. And give my regards to Willie, all right?

GT: I shall, and thanks for your time Keith. Take care.

KR: Pleasure, Graeme. Later man

Willie Nelson on Fresh Air Radio

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

by: Dave Davies


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country singer and songwriter to receive the Library of Congress George Gershwin Prize for popular song. In his 60-year, Wilson has written 2,500 songs, won seven Grammy awards, been honored at the Kennedy Center and is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. At 82, he’s still recording and touring. He told an interviewer last week, I don’t do time off very well. Willie Nelson established himself as a songwriter in the ’60s with songs such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” He broke through as a performer in the ’70s, wearing blue jeans and long hair, defying the rhinestone-style of country performers of the day. Today, we’ll hear parts of two interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson, starting with one in 1996. Nelson brought his guitar for some music and conversation after he’d released a gospel album and a recording of original songs called “Spirit.” They began with a track from that album called “Your Memory Won’t Die In My Grave.”


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Been feeling kind of free, but I sure do feel lonesome. Baby’s takin’ a trip, but she ain’t taking me. I’ve been feeling kind of free, but I’d rather feel your arms around me ’cause you’re taking away everything that I wanted. There’s an old hollow tree…



Willie Nelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Now, one of the first songs that you wrote that got recorded was called the “Family Bible.”

NELSON: Right.

GROSS: And this was – what – in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I don’t remember which.

NELSON: This was in the ’60s. I was down in Houston writing and playing down there and run into (unintelligible) Claude Gray. He was looking for a song to record, so I sang him “Family Bible” and wound up selling it to him between – I sold it to him and two more guys for $50 I think. And it went on to be No. 1 record.

GROSS: Did you get any royalties since you’d already sold the song?

NELSON: (Laughter) Not really.


NELSON: Not really.

GROSS: Would you sing us a big of the “Family Bible” and tell us what went into the writing of it?

NELSON: Well, this is sort of autobiographical, or practically 100 percent autobiographical.

(Singing) There’s a family Bible on the table. Its pages worn and hard to read. But the family Bible on the table will ever be my key to memories. At the end of day when work was over and when the evening meal was done Dad would read to us from the family Bible, and we’d count our many blessings one by one. I can see us sitting ’round the table when from the family Bible Dad would read. And I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages, rock of ages cleft for me.

GROSS: Well, that’s nice. Willie Nelson, thank you for singing that.


GROSS: What did your family Bible look like?

NELSON: Oh, it was worn and hard to read (laughter). It was one of those typical old faded family Bibles where all the history was – the family was in there, you know? All the – where all the grandparents came from and the great-grandparents, and it was a wonderful – it was very interesting. A lot of the Sunday school lessons that we learned from the Bible and things that were taken from the Bible – very interesting. It must’ve been to keep a kid my age interested enough to, you know, want to sing it and want to get involved in it.

GROSS: Well, I think it’s very interesting that you could write compelling autobiographical songs about the family Bible and about the nightlife (laughter).

NELSON: Well, they’re very much involved. You know, they’re very much – they’re very close together (laughter). I mean, I would sing to the same people on Saturday nights in the clubs that I would sing to on Sunday mornings in church. I had to act like I didn’t see them the night before.


GROSS: Now, you made your very first record back in 1957 and Rhino Records put out a box set – a three-CD box set – of your recordings. And they reissued this first recording that you made called “No Place For Me,” one of your songs. Why don’t I play that very early recording?


GROSS: And we’ll see how it sounded.


NELSON: (Singing) Your love is as cold as a north wind blows and the river that runs to the sea. How can I go on when your only love is gone? I can see this is no place for me. The light in your eye is still shining. It shines, but it don’t shine for me. It’s a story so old, another love grown cold. I can see this is no place for me.

GROSS: That’s Willie Nelson, his very first recording made in 1957.

What were the circumstances under which this record was made?

NELSON: Well, I wanted to make a record. I wanted to sell it over my radio program. I was with KVAN in Vancouver, Wash., and thought it’d be a good idea if I, you know, pressed up a few records and sold them. And so I went over to this friend of mine’s house who had a tape recorder in his basement, and we sat there and recorded that one – “No Place For Me,” and the Leon Payne song called “Lumberjack.” And I pressed up 500 copies and sold them on my radio show.

GROSS: And the kind of echo effect, the reverb, was that intentional or was that just the sound of the room?

NELSON: Well, I think there was a little echo in the room, but the most of it was there was an echo attachment on the recorder that we may have overdone a little bit.

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: So then what happened with this record? You sold 500 copies on your radio show. Did you send it to a record company?

NELSON: Well, there was a company out of Texas that if you sent them the money they would press you up their copies, and they would sell them to you at their cost and you could sell them and make a little profit if you wanted to, or just sell them for the advertisement. And that’s basically what I did. I sold them over the air, sold them, a 8-by-10 picture and a record, I think both of them for a buck, which is about what it cost me to make it.

GROSS: You said when you were growing up all the music kind of blended together. You were a disc jockey for a while. Did you play a wide variety of music on the radio?

NELSON: Yeah, I played everything. I played everything from Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod” to Marty Robbins’s “White Sport Coat.” I played everything – anything I wanted to play. It was back in the good old days of radio when you could go in and grab your favorite records and play them.

GROSS: Right, before playlists told you what you were supposed to play (laughter).


GROSS: Did you have a persona on the air? Did you go by your own name? Did you have a different voice that you used?

NELSON: Not really. I didn’t have a different voice, but I used to open my show – when I first started out, I had some disc jockey heroes that I ripped off pretty thoroughly (laughter), and there was a guy named Eddie Hill out of Memphis that I stole a lot of his things from. But anyway, the way I would wind up opening my show, I’d say, this is your old cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, gravy soppin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.

GROSS: Whoa. (Laughter). And, did you write that yourself?

NELSON: Well, as I say, I wrote a lot of it myself and I ripped off Eddie and some of the other guys.


GROSS: Right.

NELSON: But it’s some of theirs and some of mine all put together.

GROSS: You must have said it a lot of times to remember that off the top of your head so well (laughter).

NELSON: Yeah, I must have. (Laughter).

GROSS: Now, how did you get to Nashville, where you started writing songs professionally?

NELSON: I was living in Houston, in Pasadena really, outside, working at another radio station there and playing at clubs at night and writing songs. And I’d written – one week, I’d written – let’s see, “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.”

GROSS: I’m sorry – did you say you wrote that in one week?

NELSON: Yeah, I was working…


GROSS: Oh, jeez, I wish I had a week like that.

NELSON: That was a great – well, that’s when I decided maybe I ought to go to Nashville. And so I took off to Nashville in my ’46 Buick that just barely made it – I think it died when it hit the city limits – and went immediately to a place called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where I had heard was the spot to be in Nashville if you want find some songwriters and hang out a little bit. So – and sure enough, it was the spot to be. I’d run into some friends of mine – Buddy Edmondson, Hank Cochran, Faron Young was there. And we all got in a jam session and started singing songs, and I sung some songs to Faron that he liked and wanted to record. So we recorded them the next week. He did two of my songs, one called “Congratulations,” and the other one was called “Hello Walls.”

GROSS: So just to make sure I’m hearing correctly, you wrote “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life” in one week?


GROSS: Did you say to yourself, wow, these are three great songs that will become classics?

NELSON: (Laughter). Well, I’m afraid I wasn’t that knowledgeable, but I wish I’d had known then what they were going to do. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. I made enough mistakes as it was. But, no, I had no idea that these songs would be as successful as they have been.

GROSS: Would you play one of those three for us now?


GROSS: Thank you.

NELSON: (Singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I’m crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew you loved me as long as you wanted and then some day you’d leave me for somebody new. Worry, why do I let myself worry? Wondering, what in the world did I do? And I’m crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Crazy for trying, crazy for crying and I’m crazy for loving you.

GROSS: That’s such a terrific song. What came first when you were writing it? Was it the hook of crazy?

NELSON: Yeah. And then it all – you know, everything sort of came from that. And I don’t know where that one came from. Maybe it was a self-analysis.


NELSON: It must’ve been.

GROSS: Now, how did Patsy Cline end up recording it?

NELSON: I went to Nashville and I had that song and – with some others. And I met Hank Cochran, who was with Pamper Music, which eventually wound up to be the publishing company that I signed with, thanks to Hank. And Hank knew Patsy. He knew her husband, Charlie Dick, and he took the song to Patsy and to Charlie. I think maybe Charlie heard it first and thought it would be a good song for Patsy. So that’s through Charlie, Patsy’s husband, and through Hank Cochran that she got the song. She wasn’t too sure about it, and it took her a little while to – I think the first day she went into the session, she spent about four hours trying to sing it the way I was singing it and it wasn’t working for her. And so the next day, the producer, Owen Bradley, said, why don’t you sing it like Patsy one time? And that’s what she did, and that song has gone on to be the top jukebox song of all time, Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy.”

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1996. We’ll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson. He’s now the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.


GROSS: Now, I think it was before you went to Nashville that you wanted to record your song “Night Life.” And one of the producers you were working with at the time, Pappy Daily, told you that you weren’t country enough. Do I have that right?

NELSON: Actually, I recorded in Houston for Pappy Daily. And I recorded “Family Bible,” a couple of other songs. But “Night Life” they wouldn’t record it because they said it was too bluesy. It wasn’t country. So I recorded “Night Life” under the name of Hugh Nelson on another label across town just to prove a point.

GROSS: And did you prove it?

NELSON: Yeah, that particular record of “Night Life” I think is still the best record of it. I did it with Paul Buskirk, Herb Remington, Dean Reynolds, some of the greatest jazz musicians around Houston.

GROSS: Would you sing the song for us now? And maybe tell us about writing it.

NELSON: Well, this is one of those songs that I wrote on the same week that I wrote “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It was driving back and forth from the Esquire Club to Pasadena every night. (Singing) When the evening sun goes down. You will find me hanging around. The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life. And many people just like me dream of old used to be’s. And the nightlife ain’t no good life, but it’s my life. Listen to the blues they’re playing. And listen to what the blues are saying. Mine is just another scene from the world of broken dreams. And the nightlife ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.

GROSS: What was your night life like when you wrote that?

NELSON: I don’t remember.


GROSS: As if to prove a point.



GROSS: Well, were you really cutting loose for a while? I mean, you were on your own, and you were starting to make money with your career as a songwriter.

NELSON: Well, yeah, I was, you know, throwing it away with both hands.


NELSON: The faster I make it, the faster I would spend it. Everybody else would travel on the bus and – I was still playing bass for Ray Price when “Hello Walls” made a hit and I got my first royalty check. So I, you know, started flying first class to all the dates as Ray’s bass player, right? I’m making $25 a day.


NELSON: And I get a suite at the hotel. Ray’s got a regular room at the Holiday Inn, you know, and I got the penthouse. So the checks came and went (Laughter.) But I had a lot of fun.

GROSS: Were you married at the time?

NELSON: Yeah, I was.

GROSS: And did that bother you?

NELSON: It bothered her.


GROSS: All right, now when you really started recording in Nashville, your own songs, did you feel you had any trouble fitting into country music as it was?

NELSON: At those – at that time?

GROSS: Yeah.

NELSON: Yeah, well, I didn’t. There was no slot that I fit in. I wouldn’t go in that one, or that one or that one. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t. I just didn’t fit.

GROSS: What were the available slots, and why weren’t you fitting in?

NELSON: Well, my chords – my songs had a few chords in them and the country songs weren’t supposed to have over three chords according to executive decisions (Laughter). And if it had more than three, then it wasn’t country, and it shouldn’t be recorded. And my voice wasn’t exactly – I was nowhere near Eddy Arnold. And I was not – I guess I was closer to Ernest Tubb than Eddy Arnold. But still, my phrasing was sort of funny. I didn’t sing on the beat. I had too many chords in my – I just didn’t fit the slots, you know? And I wouldn’t take orders (Laughter). I just – I couldn’t, you know, I didn’t know how to take direction that well. So I wouldn’t fit in any of these slots, and so I became one of those guys that, you know, they had to call something else. You have to have a label, you know.

GROSS: What were you called?

NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first and then they found the word outlaw and then decided that would smooth it out a little bit. So they started calling us that. I think the first time that term was used was in a column written by Hazel Smith, an old friend of ours from Nashville, and it took off I guess.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1996. After a break we’ll hear some of their 2006 conversation about Nelson’s book “The Tao Of Willie.” I’m Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


NELSON: (Singing) On the road again just can’t wait to get on the road again. Life I love is making music with my friends. And I can’t wait to get on the road again. On the road again going places that I’ve never been. Seeing things that I may never see again. I can’t wait to get on the road again. On the road again like a band of gypsies we go down the highway. We’re the best of friends insisting that the world be turning our way. And our way is on the road again. I just can’t wait to get on the road again. The life I love is making music with my friends. And I can’t wait to get on the road again.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for popular song. Terry last spoke to him in 2006 when he’d published his memoir, “The Tao of Willie.”


GROSS: You so have many great records. It was really hard to narrow down what songs I wanted to play during your FRESH AIR visit today. But here’s one I know I want to play. There’s a great album that came out about three years ago called, “Crazy: The Demo Sessions.” And it’s demo recordings that you made after you were a DJ (laughter) when you got to Nashville. And these are – some of them are from the early 1960s. This one is. It’s from 1961. It’s just voice and guitar. It’s a demo of the song “Opportunity To Cry.”


NELSON: (Singing) Just watched the sun rise on the other side of town. Once more I’ve waited, and once more you’ve let me down. This would be a perfect time for me to die. I’d like to take this opportunity to cry. You gave your word. Now I’ll return it to you with this suggestion as to what you can do. Just exchange the words I love you to goodbye while I take this opportunity to cry. I’d like to see you, but I’m afraid…

GROSS: That’s Willie Nelson and a demo recording he made of his own song in 1961 when he was trying to interest people in recording his songs. What was the fate of that song? Did anybody ever do it?

NELSON: I don’t think anybody had done it but me. I’ve recorded it maybe a couple of times since then. It was one of those really sad, almost pitiful…


NELSON: …songs.

GROSS: In your new book, you write, I’ve always had my own way of singing and it was nothing like the way other Nashville stars sang.

What did people think of your singing on the demos before you recorded yourself?

NELSON: I think a lot of the musicians understood what I was doing. And my phrasing was a little different, and my chords were a little strange too. They weren’t your normal three-chord country songs. And that was a little strange for a lot of the people in the industry at that time because country and pop hadn’t really melted together like they have today in some instances. So a song with a lot of chords in it wasn’t considered to be that commercial. So I had fun trying to get those songs done in that kind of atmosphere.

GROSS: When you said that your singing was different and your chords were different, do you think that the chords and the singing were more jazz inflected in some ways, and had you listened to a lot of jazz?

NELSON: Well, I have listened to a lot of different kinds of music, and I grew up listening to everything from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams. So I’m sure I picked up a lot from, you know, every one of those guys. I lived across the street from a whole gang of great Mexican friends of mine who played music all the time. So I was influenced by all that music. I worked in the fields with all kinds of people who sang and played in practically every language, from bohemian to Czech to Spanish. So I heard all kinds of music. It was like being in an opera out there in the cotton fields. And picking cotton wasn’t that fun, but the music out there was incredible.

GROSS: Did you sing when you were picking cotton?

NELSON: Oh, at the top of my voice.

GROSS: Yeah? (Laughter).

NELSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: What would you like to sing?

NELSON: I would sing what they were singing, you know? They would be singing over there, singing some blues and I would sing some blues with them. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was trying to sing. And I’d just sing songs that I knew back then. And I didn’t know many songs other than gospel songs back then. I’d sing, you know, “Amazing Grace” and songs like that.

GROSS: Now, in your new book, “The Tao Of Willie,” you say that you wrote your first cheating song when you were 7, long before you knew firsthand anything about broken hearts and cheating. When you started writing songs when you were older, (laughter), did you know anything about, like, the structure of a 32-bar song or how to write the bridge to a song? Did you think of the song in technical terms when you started seriously writing them?

NELSON: No, I never did and I still really don’t. I just kind of write and sing what I feel like writing. And my timing is pretty good so I, you know, I don’t break meter that much. And my ear is pretty good so I don’t play a lot of wrong chords. But, you know, as far as the lyrics and the singing itself, everybody has to judge that for themselves. But back in those days, I was writing about things I had – you know, like you say, at that age I couldn’t have possibly known what I was writing about. Unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, which I do, and…

GROSS: (Laughter).

NELSON: …Maybe I come here knowing some things that I wrote about before I knew I knew.

GROSS: You know, in talking about country songs, like, country songs have certain conventions in a way. You know, like, a lot of country songs are about cheating or drinking too much or falling in love. I guess you could say the same thing about rock songs. (Laughter). But there’s also, like, a subcategory of country songs, songs where, like, you’re feeling so bad, you’re just overwhelmed with self-pity. And one of the most self-pitying of the self-pitying songs is a song that you wrote that’s included on your “Demo Sessions” that I really want to play and hear the story behind. And so here it comes. This is Willie Nelson singing a very self-pitying song.


NELSON: (Singing) If I’d only had one arm to hold you – better yet, if I’d had none at all then I wouldn’t have two arms that ache for you and there’d be one less memory to recall. If I’d only…

GROSS: Then in the next verse, you imagine having only one eye so he’d have only one eye to cry. (Laughter). Did you think of…

NELSON: That’s pitiful.

GROSS: Yes, so self-pitying.


NELSON: Did you think, when you sat down to write this, that you would write the ultimate self-pitying song?

NELSON: Well, actually I didn’t sit down to write that one. The way that song happened, I was lying in bed with Shirley. And I woke up in the middle of the night wanting a cigarette, and her head was on my arm. So I had to reach over on the side of the bed and get a cigarette and put it in my mouth and then get a match with that one hand and then try to strike that one match. So it all started from that.

GROSS: Oh – because you only had one arm?


GROSS: Really? Is this really what happened?

NELSON: That’s true. That’s a true story. So from the one arm, I went into the one eye, one ear, one leg.

GROSS: (Laughter). That’s really funny.


GROSS: And what was the fate of this song?

NELSON: I recorded it a couple of times. Other people have recorded it. Merle Haggard recorded it, I think George Jones did. So it’s got a pretty good history.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We’ll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to an interview Terry recorded with Willie Nelson in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.


GROSS: Now, you have a very recent CD – I guess I could call it a new CD – of songs by Cindy Walker, who’s most famous for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Bubbles In My Beer.” Did you know her well? She died just at about the time your CD was released.

NELSON: Yeah. And at the time we started doing this album, I’d – you know, I had known her a long time. She was a very good friend. And I had talked to her, and we talked about doing an album of her songs for years. And she had sent me songs, and I had a quite an accumulation of Cindy’s songs and I knew a lot of them. But I just hadn’t gotten into the studio to do it, you know, for one reason or another. And I’m glad I did it when I did because Cindy’s health was deteriorating pretty well at that time. And I was just hoping that I could get the album completed and out while she was still here to listen to it. And as it happened she did get to hear it before she died.

GROSS: What did she have to say?

NELSON: Oh, she loved it. She called me up and told me, you know, a lot of great things about how she enjoyed it. And she really made me feel good about getting it done.

GROSS: I’d like to play a song from that CD. And I’m going to give you your choice of one of her two most famous songs, “You Don’t Know Me” or “Bubbles In My Beer.”

NELSON: Well, you know, “Bubbles In My Beer” is a great up-tempo song that I first learned from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I had no idea who wrote the song when I started singing it. But I was a huge Bob Wills fan, and I just tried to sing and play every song that they recorded. So when “Bubbles In My Beer” came out, it was a natural because I was, you know, a beer joint operator – I mean, beer joint club player. So naturally, it was a good song for where I was playing, and it still is. It’s a great piece of literature. And so let’s play “Bubbles In My Beer.”

GROSS: Good enough, and this is from Willie Nelson’s CD of songs by Cindy Walker.


NELSON: (Singing) Tonight in a bar alone I’m sitting apart from the laughter and the cheer, while scenes from the past rise before me just watching the bubbles in my beer. And I’m seeing the road that I’ve traveled, a road paved with heartaches and tears. And I’m seeing the past that I’ve wasted while watching the bubbles in my beer. A vision of someone who loved me brings a long silent tear to my eye as I think of the heart that I’ve broken and all the golden chances that have passed me by. I know that my life has been a failure, and I’ve lost everything that made life dear. And the dreams I once dreamed now are empty, as empty as the bubbles in my beer.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Now, the last couple of summers you’ve been touring minor league baseball parks with Bob Dylan. What do you feel you and Bob Dylan have most in common as friends or as songwriters or lovers of music?

NELSON: Well, I think all those things. He enjoys touring and playing probably as much as I do because he’s always out here somewhere. I enjoy his friendship because he’s a great guy. He’s a little shy and reserved but, you know, so am I in a lot of ways. And so I understand that. We’ve written a song together one time. We wrote a song called “The American Dream.” And it was written in sort of a different way I guess because he sent me the melody that – a track that he had already recorded where he just hummed a melody. So the whole thing was like (humming) so (laughter) it was kind of a strange demo. But the track was great, so I wrote lyrics to the – to his instrumental, and it turned out I thought pretty good. We recorded it here in New York, maybe just a month or so after we finished it.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Here he is with Bob Dylan singing “Heartland,” which they co-wrote.


WILLIE NELSON AND BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland, and the bankers are taking my home and my land from me. There’s a big gaping hole in my chest now where my heart was and a hole in the sky where God used to be. There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland with a well where the water’s so bitter nobody can drink. Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t drink. Don’t they know that I’m dying? Why ain’t nobody crying for me? My American dream fell apart at the scene. You tell me what it means. You tell me what it means.

GROSS: I want to ask you about somebody else who you were very close to, and that’s Johnny Cash. You knew him for years. You played together in The Highwaymen. How would you describe him as a friend?

NELSON: Well, a friend is a friend. You know, a friend is with you good or bad, any time. So John and I have always been friends. And whenever – you know, he’d call me up several times when he was having a bad day just to hear a joke. So I’d tell him my latest dirty joke (laughter). And I’d try to make it as dirty as possible so he would laugh louder.

GROSS: You actually must collect jokes or something because, like, your new book, for instance, is filled with jokes, literally jokes.

NELSON: Well, I believe in jokes. You know, I think jokes are important, a necessity. You need to laugh at yourself, other people, life, death. You need to figure out a way to laugh at everything.

GROSS: Do you tell a lot of jokes onstage?

NELSON: No, I don’t tell any jokes onstage.

GROSS: How come?

NELSON: I’m afraid that if I quit singing, people will leave.


NELSON: I don’t think they came to hear me tell jokes.

GROSS: That’s funny. Let me bring this back to your songwriting. When you write songs, are you sitting down and working in a craftsman-like way on the song, or are they just kind of coming to you while you’re doing things?

NELSON: I used to. When I was driving myself to different gigs around the country, I would do a lot of writing just driving down the highway. And I still think, you know, that’s the best way for me to write. I can get in the car, I believe, and take off driving, head anywhere and start thinking about something. And if I’m lucky, I’ll write a song. But I have to get somewhere by myself to do it. And there’s a lot of things going on, a lot of interruptions and things that makes it difficult to do and just, you know, riding the bus.

GROSS: And what about writing the music part, like the chords, for instance? Do you need a piano or a guitar when you do that?

NELSON: If there’s a guitar or piano around, I would use it. But I can usually write it all in my head. And then I’ll get a guitar when I find one and go over the lyrics and the melodies and probably wind up changing it several times before I finally decide this is the way I want it.

GROSS: But from what you said before, it sounds like – I mean, do you ever, like, actually write it down?

NELSON: I do now more than I used to. I used to have this theory that well, if you don’t remember it, it ain’t worth remembering. But later on in life, I’ve figured out well, maybe I should jot down this one because I don’t want to forget it.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

NELSON: Well, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you again.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He marked the occasion by performing at a concert with Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Neil Young and others. It’ll be broadcast on PBS stations January 15. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.” This is FRESH AIR.

Willie Nelson Keeps on Rolling (Washington Post Interview)

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

photo:  Gary Miller
by:  Joe Helm

Willie Nelson, 82, is a singer, songwriter and musician with few peers. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and is on Rolling Stone’s lists of 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists. On Nov. 18 he will receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for lifetime contributions to popular music.

Do you still recognize the Willie Nelson who wrote songs 50 or more years ago like “Funny How Time Slips Away” or “Crazy”? Or does that seem like a different you?

No, I sing those songs every night, so I can still relate to all of that. I think “Crazy” probably fits me more ways than one.

Is there a songwriter in American history whom you wished people knew more about?

Vern Gosdin. He’s a guy who kind of got lost along the way, but he’s one of my favorite all-time songwriters.

And why is that?

’Cause he’s a good f—— writer! [Laughs.]

You still tour pretty extensively and put out albums. Is resting not an option for you?

Well, I don’t do time off very well. But I’m really pissed that I’ve been laid up here the past couple of weeks with this operation, because I need to be working.

What was the operation for?

It was a stem-cell operation. It’s supposed to help the lungs. Over the years I’ve smoked a lotof cigarettes, and I’ve had emphysema and pneumonia four or five times, so my lungs were really screwed up, and I had heard that this stem-cell operation would be good for them. So I said, “Well, I’m gonna try it out.” But I’m still so sore that I can’t say that it was a success. I’ll have to wait until all the soreness goes away.

Does it hurt to sing?

I’ll let you know. [Laughs.] I think I’ll be able to sing. The only thing that worries me more than anything is carrying my guitar, because they did the operation right in my stomach. But I think I’ll be all right.

If you could receive a lifetime achievement award for something other than music, what would it be?

[Laughs.] That’s about all I know anything about.

Who is someone you never saw perform that you wish you’d had a chance to see?

You know, I’ve been pretty lucky. Even when I was a kid my heroes were people like Bob Wills, and I had the pleasure of getting to know him real well. I not only performed with him, but I booked some shows. When I was about 15 years old, I was about a half-a–ed promoter, I thought. I booked some shows with Bob Wills, and I got to get up and sing with him, so I thought that was a pretty good deal.

You’ve been a big proponent of legalizing marijuana, and as you probably know, D.C. legalized it last year.

You know, I was in Washington the day they legalized it. I happened to be playing at the White House, so I asked President Obama, “Did you hear they legalized pot here today?” and he said, “Yeah, I heard about that.” And I laughed. And he said, “Well, you know, I’m from Hawaii.” So we had a big laugh about it.

Did you light one up at the White House?

No. Well, I did, but not with him.

You could try at the Library of Congress.

Oh, I better be careful there.

Willie Nelson, Fit Magazine (November 2012)

Thursday, September 17th, 2015


The songs of John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and Neil Young have made their way from A-tracks to CD players to today’s iPhone. Most would be surprised to know that those same names that appear on your shuffle playlist appear on the list of names of board members for an organization that is fighting for the family farmer in America. The four renowned recording artists are leaders for Farm Aid, whose slogan reads “Keep America Growing!”

Farm Aid’s mission is simple: keep family farmers on their land. This nonprofit organization assists farmers struggling economically by connecting them to local and regional markets to get family food into the grocery stores and families’ cabinets in urban neighborhoods. Along with this focus on family farming is the Good Food Movement, which promotes the use of “direct sales” through farmers’ markets, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) and farm stands. Through it all is the common thread of making good choices — for farms, in our food and the country’s agriculture policies — that build a better, healthier future.

27 years ago, in 1985, Nelson, Mellencamp and Young organized the first Farm Aid concert to raise awareness about the danger family farms were facing at the hands of factory farms. Today, local farmers are feeling the danger even more, with upwards of 80 percent of farms in certain agricultural markets owned by private companies. “We all see what’s happening with agriculture, what’s happening to our small towns,” John Mellencamp stated for the organization. “They are going out of business, and that’s a direct result of the farm problem.”

According to the group’s website, the movement has gone so far as to provide workers from the organization to participate in protests outside of factory farms. In addition, the group provides a hotline for support services for farm families in times of crisis. More recently, the Farmer Resource Network has been developed for families in difficult financial situations across the country. Another stride taken towards factory farms and the privatization of the market is education in the area of hormones and genetically modified food more widely produced by the corporate sector of farming.

“If we lose the family farm, we lose the caretakers of our land,” Dave Matthews told his audience in a short clip about the company’s mission. “It’s something worth fighting for because I think we’ll lose a lot more than the family farmer if we lose the family farmer.”

Every year, thousands of farmers are pushed off their land by the growing economic pressures of an industry that has created too much competition for a family farmer to survive without help. Through market strengthening, education and personal assistance to thousands of Americans, Farm Aid is working alongside the good food movement to get high quality produce straight from local farmers to schools, local stores and into the pantries of a wider market.

“It’s not about how big the food is, or how shiny it is,” Neil Young said in a video made for the Farm Aid website. “It’s about where it came from, and how it was grown.”

Last year’s concert featured a variety of high caliber bands, such as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jamey Johnson, Kenny Chesney and Jack Johnson, alongside the veteran fundraisers and founding members. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews also graced the stage for Farm Aid’s Benefit Concert.

The appearance of such widely recognized performers speaks to the growing respect Farm Aid is gaining nationwide. Nelson, who has been a part of the company since its beginnings, describes his involvement simply: “There’s a new food movement sweeping across the country and Farm Aid is doing all we can to promote that movement.”

Read more about Willie Nelson’s views on fitness, food and fuel (among other topics), in Austin Fit Magazine’s November cover story, Willie Nelson Talks Food, Fuel, and, yes, Hemp by Melanie P. Moore, at

Willie Nelson CNN Interview with Miles O’Brien about Farm Aid (9/17/2000)

Saturday, September 12th, 2015


Sunday Morning News

Willie Nelson Discusses Farm Aid

Aired September 17, 2000 – 8:50 a.m. ET MILES O’BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It’s hard to believe but it was 15 years ago that Willie Nelson first helped bring the plight of family farmers to America’s consciousness, lending his voice and talent to the first Farm Aid concert.

Today, the plight continues and so does the Farm Aid concert.

Joining us this morning to talk about this year’s concert is, who else, Willie Nelson. He joins us from Washington.

Good to have you with us, Mr. Nelson.


O’BRIEN: First of all, just tell us what’s in store for this special anniversary concert.

NELSON: Well, first of all, it’ll be a great concert. There’s a whole lot of talent here and mainly we’re here, though, for the family farmer and rancher and we’re here to call attention to their problems and we’ll spend the day doing that.

O’BRIEN: Take us back to the early days, the inception of this idea and the origins of it. Did you suspect it would be as successful as it has? I read here that over the years you’ve raised more than $15 million to help organizations which help family farms.

NELSON: Well, in the beginning I first heard that there was a real problem in the farm communities several years ago when they were having a show called Live Aid and Bob Dylan had mentioned that wouldn’t it be nice if some of this money stayed here for our family farmers. And I started checking around with some of my friends and found out that there really was a serious problem.

So while we were working in Springfield for a state fair there, I ran into the Governor, who he and I usually have a bowl of chili and a beer every year on my bus, and we were talking about the farm problems and he said yes, there is a serious problem. So we started talking about the first Farm Aid in Champagne, Illinois.

O’BRIEN: So over the years, 15 years later, would you — how would you assess the overall plight of family farmers in this country?

NELSON: Well, first of all, I think it’s really a black eye on America to have to do a farm aid for our farmers and ranchers. They’re our, the backbone of our country. All this talk about including everyone in this new millennium government, I think it’s time that we start including our farmers and ranchers and family businessmen who we’ve been neglecting for the last several years.

There’s a new farm bill that we’re trying to put together so the purpose of all this is to draw attention to the farm problems and try to get this new farm bill introduced.

O’BRIEN: All right, let me just play devil’s advocate for a moment. There are a lot of small family businesses in this country in need of help. Why should farmers be given special federal subsidies, special help from the likes of you?

NELSON: Well, they don’t really want subsidies. They want enough money to make a living without subsidies. They enough money for their product. They don’t want giveaways. They don’t want welfare. Many years ago the farmers were — and the ranchers and all raw producers in America had what they call 100 percent parity. It was back during the war when we were trying to be strong and we had guaranteed our raw producers 100 percent production and labor costs and they were doing well. And we had six to eight million small family farmers on the land back during W.W.II.

After the war, they decided that there was too much, too much political power, for one thing, in the farm communities. So they decided to move two million farmers off the land into the big cities to make cheaper labor for the automobile factories and everything else. So what they did is they dropped the 100 percent parity to a 60 to 70 percent sliding parity, which immediately started taking farmers off the land.

So far, they’ve took off five or six million farmers. Right now we’re down to two million or less, losing 300 to 500 a week.

O’BRIEN: Willie Nelson, congratulations on your continued efforts on behalf of farmers on this, your 15th year of Farm Aid, and just so you know, folks, that begins at 2:00 P.M. Eastern Time on the Country Music Television Network.

Thanks again, Mr. Nelson. Good luck to you.

NELSON: Thank you.