Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson interview “Country Music” (February 1976)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Country Music Magazine
February 1976
by Patrick Carr

We begin with an ending of sorts. We are in Nashville on a drizzly night, packed into the Municipal Auditorium like so many high-rent sardines approaching the strung-out finale of the Disk Jockey Convenion 1975.

Taken together tonight, we are perhaps the most professional audience any of these Columbia/Epic acts are likely to play for at least another year: all of us are Somebodies in the country music business, and we’are all hip to the score. The Columbia/Epic actes bounce on stage and do whatever thing they do, three numbers each, one after the other. Tammy Wynette, Mac Davis, Barbara Fairchild, David Houston… it’s very democratic but pretty soon it becomes obvious which artists are getting corporate nod right now because all you really have to do is watch the company personnel pay or not pay attention. Nevertheless, it’s a subtle affair.

But when Willie Nelson and his band of gypsies make their entrance backstage, looking for all the world like some flying wedge of curiously benign Hells Angels, subtlety goes by the board and it’s plain that this year’s Most Likely To Succeed slot has just been taken with a vengeanance: a great shaking of hands begins.

The impression is confirmed when Willie proceeds to get up onstage with his full band (all the other acts were backed by the Columbia band) and play a 40-minute set that, except for a qute seemly absence of illegal drugs and teenage nudity among the audience, might just have well be happening in Texas on the 4th of July. This is the ending of sorts, and what it means is that after telling the Nashville powers-that-be to get lost and leaving town just three short years ago, Willie Nelson has become the country music wave of the future and is now accepting Nashville’s praise and promotional efforts on his own terms.

There is a postscript, though. Three or four hours later — after another couple of hundred handshakes, after attending a very high-rent Columbia party to which his band was not invited, and after behaving like a perfect gentleman through it all — Willie gets himself down to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store and plays for two hours while most every other star in town is out at Opryland all gussied up to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry amid great pomp and ceremony of the By Invitation Only Kind.

It isn’t that Willie couldn’t have shown up at the Opry — with his current Columbia-backed status, that’s a silly notion — and it isn’t that he’s trying a reverse-chic move like one of Nashville’s several dozen I’m-so-hip-isn’t-this-earthy tipes might attemps. It’s just that his old friend and musical hero Ernest was gracious enough to invite him, and that Ernest Tubb’s Record Store is still the best place in town to get down and play straight honky tonk music for the friends and neighbors.

Apart from being a rebel against Nashville’s creative restrictions, a culture hero, a real sweetheart, a person blessed with a highly sophisticated sense of humor, and the man who first made it possible for hippies and rednecks to co-exist under the protection of his music — all of which he is — Willie Nelson has always been one other thing. He has always been a wrtier and singer of the classic country honky tonk song, which is to say that he has always had a very precise, lonely, realistic understanding of the hard ways of this vale of tears in which we all live and suffer form time to time. This is the juke box Willie.

Historicallly, this music came out of more or less, his whol career up to today (which seems somewhat more optimistic when you consider the conclusions of the Red Headed Stranger album). It’s the kind of stuff — like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t It Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Pretty Paper,” “Touch Me” and all those other perfectly songs — that really say it to you when you’re down and getting kicked. Willie wrote most of it in Nashville when he was a highly-reputed songwriter trying to be a singing star, simultaneously going through the usual business of divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage and consequent craziness (or is that vice versa?) and running with the likes of Faron Young, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and other distinguished crazy people.

A segment of my Willie Nelson interview:

Willie (laughing): “I think a lot of people got to thinking that everybody had to do the same thing Hank Williams did, even die that way if necessary. And that got out of hand. I always used to think George Jones got drunk because Hank Williams did, like he really thought that was what he was uspposed to do.”

Me: “You ever do that?”

Willie: “‘Course I did. That’s the reason I know it’s done.”

Me: “You still do it?”

Willie: “I still get drunk, but I’m not really mimicking anybody now. I have my own drunken style.”

These days, see, Willie won’t talk about the personal agonies of those Nashville years without humor, but it’s all there in the songs which made him one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, and it came to a head during the years — his last year in Nashville — that gave rise to his Phases and Stages album. That year was a turning point, and it is chronicled in Phases and Stages. The album is an excruciatingly universal account of the way one man and one woman deal with their divorce (”That was the year I had four or five cars totalled out and the house burned down,” says Willie), but it ends with a very significant song called “Pick Up the Tempo.” It goes like so:

People are sayin’ that time will take
care of people like me
And that I’m livin’ too fast, and
they say I can’t last for much longer
But little they see that their
thoughts of me is my savior
And little they know that the beat
ought to go just a little faster,
So pick up the tempo just a little,
and take it on home….

For a man hitting the crucial age of forty, those are important lines. They speak of an affirmation of life and a determination to triumph over its emotional problems, and they represent Willie’s decison to leave Nashville, move back home to Texas, and finally realize his potential which is, in fact, exactly what he did. “I knew I only had a few years left to do what I was gong to do, and I had to make a move,” says Willie. “I wasn’t going down there to quit. I was going down there with a purpose.” the purpose, quite simply, was first to make himself a national recording star, and then to use that power base to make damn sure that people like him could be free to make their own music their own way without having to starve in the process.

Remember, Willie has a history in this department. It was he who first chaperoned Charley Pride into the country music concept scene, bringing him on stage in Louisiana — actually kissing him right there in the spotlights – and risking God only knows what kind of backlash in the process. The risk, once taken, paid off: Charley was accepted because Willie was behind him. Similarly, Willie, used his high prestige and general likeability in country music artist circles to ease Leon Russell into the Nashville scene by surrounding him with Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Jeanne Pruett and a whole galaxy of main-line performers when he was cutting the sequel to his “Hank Wilson” album.

Willie can get away with heresy because more than any other artist occupying the often-queasy ground between because more than any other artist occupying the often queasy ground between country and something else, his country credentials are in order — more to the point — he has never betrayed his roots.

So Willie arrived in Austin (where he was already a star), formed his present band around himself and his old compadre drummer Paul English (of “Me and Paul” fame), began booking his own dates and managing himself, set up that first media-shocking Picnic at Dripping Springs, connected with the local power elite in the person of Darrell Royal (coach of the University of Texas football team and a very influential citizen), and quickly assumed the role of main Godfather in the Austin scheme of things. That, incidentally, is some gig: you don’t know what a loyal crowd is until you’ve been to Austin and watched a whole clubful of liberated young things worship the ground good ol’ Willie walks on to quite embarrasing excess.

Along the way — just before that first Picnic, in fact — Ritchie Albright of the Waylors suggested that he get in touch with Neil Reshen, a New york manager and fixit person who at the time was looking to consolidate his country music holdings. Reshin already had Waylon as a client, and Willie followed suit. This action signified the arrive with the neccessary teeth for the coutlaw allliance Willie had been pondering for years, and it became a classic Beauty and the Beast operation that continues to this day.

An example of the dynamics of that Beauty and the Beast relationship:

Willie on Neil Reshen: “He’s probably the most hated and the most effective manager that I know of. He enjoys going up to those big corporations and going over their figures. He’s so sadistic, he loves to do it.”

And once again, Willie: “At least you know where you’re at with Neil. Nowhere.”

And again: “Anyone who can learn to like Neil can like anyone. It’s a challenge to like Neil.”

“Willie, how are you doing on that?”

“I’m coming along, I’m coming alone. I can stay around him a little while now.”

Althought the mere mention of Neil Reshen’s name has been known to send secretaries to the bathroom and turn grown executives into violent monsters (”He’s another of those guys I don’t understand how he lived so long with somebody really hurting him,” says Willie), you have to admit that while Willie and Waylon (”It’s like having a maddog on a leash,” says Waylon) may have been able to get out of Nashville’s grasp without him. It’s only through this man’s unspeakably vicious yet effective manner of dong business, that the outlaw bid for independent power on country music has avoided bankruptcy and actually shown a profit.

So, with the active assistance of New York Neil, Willie has established the power base he was after. It is now possible for Willie to record with Waylon or Kris or Leon (he’s planning a whole Willie/Waylon joint album), and what’s more, with the formation of Lone Star Records, he can get people like Jimmy Day, Johnny Darrell, Floyd Tillman, Billy C., Bucky Meadows, his sister Bobbie and other Texas worthies into the recording studio and, since Columbia Records pays for promotion and distribution under a joint Columbia/Lone Star deal, actually get the finished product before the public. Like Willie says, “We’re all togethe

hr, and we have the same idea about what we wnat to do, which is to do our thing our own way. I’m trying to get these guys to do for themselves what they’ve been bitching about people not doing for them.”

Willie’s long affair with the business of honky tonk music represents one considerable side of his character which may be traceable to the fact that he and his sister Bobbi (”it’s alwyas been me and her”) were raised without parents. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson divorced when Willie was a baby and Bobbi was there, and so for the first six eyars of his life Wilile was with his grandparents. For the next tne year, he was raised by his grandmoter alone, grandfather having passed away. That of coruse is a vast oversimplification, but the roots of his two divorces and highly creative loneliness must lie buried somewhere in there, just as the roots of his present, almost uncanny serenity must be located in the emotional steps he took to overcome his personal problems. Whatever, it is an absolute fact that the presnet-day Willie Nelson is most definitely not an individual still in conflict with himself.

In a sense, Willie Nelson now is in some sort of still-perceptive, still creative cruise-gear, moving through a world of incredibly high pressure with almost perfect equilibrium. You can hear this feeling on the Red Headed Stranger album (a concept suggested and assisted by his wife Connie, with whom he does in fact seem quite happy) and you can see it when, dead center in the eye of one of this nation’s strangest cultural hurricanes, he drifts through the absolute mayhem of his Picnic and somehow manages to be a rock-like source of calm and competence for (literally) thousands of the most outrageously uncalm, incompetent hustlers, freaks and assorted weirdos ever assembled under one patch of Texas sky.

It also shows when, in the middle of yet another night of pushing his ragged band through a set of half-tragic, half-boogie music and watching with a smile as his audience stumbles and whoops its way towards unconsciousness, it comes down to just him and his Spanish-style, gut-string amplified Martin, and for a while the most carefully emotional, beautifully balanced little collection of mood notes in the world go soaring through the rancid air.

This is the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt, Grady Martin and the other psychological gypsy guitar pickers from whom Willie developed his style; it is also the mark of a man who has really seen it all and can still look it straight in the eye.

Atlanta, Georgia: Willie is on a First Class trip. Laid out in the back of the limousine behind his big spade shades, he is relaxing into the ways of being a star with records on the charts. There’ll be no more no-money dives to play, and for a while there won’t even be any songwriting unless the fancy takes him. Willie explains that he’s not one of those poeple who get headaches when they’re not writing, and since his next two albums — a Gospel album and an album of Lefty Frizzel songs — are already in the can, all he really has to do is keep on showing up for Willie Nelson concerts.

There are also some interesting projects in the wind, and they might even get done. there’s the issue of a Red Headed Stranger movie, for instance (”If I had the money and any idea about how to do it, I’d be somewhere doin’ it right now”,) and the almost equally interesting notion of Willie, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush getting together to do a couple of original Cherokee Cowboy dates.

Tonight Willie’s nose will be back on the grindstone as once again he takes the stage with his gypsies and plays for the sticky young drunks and dopers of Atlanta. Tonight, once again, he’ll be up there doing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Eileen Goodnight” with whoever wants to join in (this time it’s Tracy Nelson and Linda Ronstadt and Mylon LeFevre), and tonight there’ll be another endless hillbilly amnesia session up in the hotel room.

Tomorrow there’ll be another bloody mary morning when Paul, bless him, has paid the bills and checked us all out and onto the road again. But now, just for a while, Willie is thinking about his Gospel album and remembering that he was asked to quit teaching in Sunday School when they found out that Little Willie played the local Texas beer joints at night.

“Were you a good preacher, Willie?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I really was.”

“Are you a religious man?”

“Yes,” he says, “Probably more than I ever was. Y’know?”

Somehow, when you really get serious about Willie Nelson, the answer is not at all surprising.

Willie Nelson’s First Grammy (February 28, 1976)

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

When Willie Nelson recorded his concept album Red Headed Stranger in Garland, Texas, in 1975, he insisted on simplicity for the tracks.  But according to the books Willie, by Michael Bane, that simplicity proved a bit too much for the studio musicians and his record label.

As Willie recorded the song, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he stopped the session, played through the tune with just guitar and vocal and asked the band to play only what was necessary.  Several of the musicians, realizing that they basically had nothing to do, voluntarily got up and left the session.

Willie remembers that his record label was also not exactly receptive to the bare-bones product.  “They expected more Shotgun Willie, something more tempo,” he says in the book. But the label released the album along with the sing, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which surprisingly started climbing the charts.  It became Willie’s first No. 1 hit in October of 1975.

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” was also responsible for another Willie milestone.  On Feb. 28, 1976, Willie picked up his first Grammy award, winning the honor for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male.

Willie Nelson & Waylan Jennings in Nashville’s City Beat

Monday, January 28th, 2019

Thanks, Phil Weisman.

This day in Willie Nelson History: “We Are the World” (January 28, 1985)

Monday, January 28th, 2019

On January 28, 1985, Willie Nelson joined 43 other artists to record “We Are The World” under the name U.S.A. For Africa.

world1

People Magazine
February 25, 1985

A sign outside Studio A bore a single admonition: “Please check your egos at the door.” Bold instructions, perhaps, since polished limousines were already nosing down La Brea Avenue toward these L.A. recording studios bearing 45 of the most luminous stars—and well-developed egos—in rock, pop and country music. Some, like Cyndi Lauper and Lionel Richie, were coming straight from the American Music Awards, an annual TV confection designed to pass out trophies and pull in Nielsens. Here at A & M’s studios, however, something far more substantial was about to take place. Before this glorious hard day’s night would end, the ego check-in counter would be the busiest spot in town.

Singers whose life-styles sometimes seem to celebrate excess were coming here to alleviate want. Their project: recording a song that could be used to raise funds for African famine relief. Their work would put a Yankee twist to a similar Band Aid project by British rockers that has raised nearly $9 million since December. But it would also make for one of the most moving nights in music history.

The progenitor of the project was singer Harry Belafonte who, impressed by the British famine effort and stunned by news accounts of the Ethiopian tragedy, had first conceived the American initiative last December.

people2

Several days before Christmas, Belafonte called pal Ken Kragen, a high-octane manager, with fund-raising ideas. “He figured, after all, the national song charts are dominated by black artists,” says Kragen. “If Jews were starving in Israel, American Jews would have raised millions.” Belafonte initially suggested staging a megastar-studded concert. Too difficult to pull off, said Kragen, recalling the money woes of the 1971 performance for Bangladesh (see page 33). “Why not a record?” asked Kragen, whose interest in world hunger had first been aroused by the late Harry Chapin, an earlier singer client. “After all, the Band Aid people didn’t copyright the idea.” Kragen then contacted Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie, both of whom he also manages. Having taken over Chapin’s antihunger crusade in 1981 when the latter died, Rogers readily agreed to participate. So did Richie, who had spent the past several days talking about just such a project with his wife, Brenda.

Kragen next tried to phone Stevie Wonder, but without success. Then, shortly before Christmas, Brenda Richie was shopping in Beverly Hills when Wonder walked into the store to buy some jewelry. She helped him select several items and asked him to return the favor by telephoning her husband about a special project. He did—and was quickly enlisted.

Lionel, meanwhile, was busy contacting Michael Jackson, whom he had been seeing socially for several weeks. Michael, too, agreed to join—provided he could help write the song that would be recorded. No problem, said Lionel happily. Needing a producer for the record, Kragen rang up Quincy Jones, who dropped his work on a new album to donate his services to the project.

At the Jackson home in Encino, Michael and Lionel set to work writing the anthemlike song We Are the World. Progress came in bits and pieces. “I’d go into the room while they were writing,” remembers Michael’s sister, LaToya, “and it would be very quiet, which is odd, since Michael’s usually cheery when he works. It was very emotional for them. Some nights they’d just talk until 2 in the morning.”

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Kragen expanded his search for stars. “Basically, I started at the top of the record charts and began making phone calls,” he says. Steve Perry, lead singer and creative heart of Journey, came home to a message on his telephone answering machine. Sign me up, he said. Then Bruce Springsteen, on tour, was called. “Do they really want me?” asked the Boss modestly. Assured that he was indeed wanted, Springsteen also came aboard. “That was something of a turning point,” concedes Kragen. “It gave the project a great deal more stature in the eyes of others.”

Kragen’s final lineup—all of whom performed for free—reads like a Who’s Who of gold record collectors. Among them: Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and Waylon Jennings. Jeffrey Osborne was approached by Richie just hours before the taping, while both were rehearsing for the American Music Awards. “Keep it silent,” cautioned Lionel. Kragen, who had first envisioned only 10 or 15 performers, eventually had trouble stopping the project’s momentum. “In the last week we went from 28 to more than 40 artists,” he says. “I had to turn down something like 50 or 60 performers who wanted to participate.”

Many of those who came did so with difficulty. Springsteen, because of his notoriously long concerts, never travels and seldom arises before 5 p.m. the day after a show. Yet the next afternoon, after finishing his American tour in Syracuse, N.Y., he boarded a plane and flew to L.A. Daryl Hall and John Oates were also in the East rehearsing for a tour that would start a week and a half after the taping. Stevie Wonder managed to get out of Philadelphia despite terrible weather. James Ingram flew in from London, and Paul Simon showed up despite having spent the entire previous night at work in a recording studio.

On the last Monday in January, as the American Music Awards were ending at the Shrine Auditorium across town, all was in readiness at A&M. Studio C had been set aside as a makeup room, Studio B stocked with fruit, cheese and juices for incoming singers. The building’s large Charlie Chaplin soundstage creaked under a $15,000 spread of roast beef, tortellini, imported cheese and other goodies for the performers’ guests—all provided gratis by Someone’s In The Kitchen catering. The onlookers and guests (each performer was allowed five) included Ali MacGraw, Jane Fonda, Dick Clark and many family members, and all watched the night’s proceedings through TV monitors and the lenses of five video cameras.

At 9 p.m. people began arriving in streams. “During the first hour it was impossible to get anything done,” says Osborne. “Everyone was congratulating each other, meeting people they hadn’t met before.” “Saying ‘hi;’ exchanging lies,” echoes Ray Charles. “It was just like Thanksgiving, all of us together.” Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters came with a camera and quickly shot some snaps of Michael Jackson (“I have two kids, and they would’ve killed me if I hadn’t”). Then sister June Pointer entered the studio with Bruce Springsteen, and the pair plopped down together on the only chair then available.

Bob Dylan showed typical reserve at first, sitting off by himself. But even the legendary loner couldn’t withstand the warmth. Hours later he could be found in a corner, rehearsing his solo lines as Stevie Wonder accompanied him on the piano, singing in Dylan’s own nasal style. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham found himself chatting with Harry Belafonte. When Buckingham mentioned how much he loved Belafonte’s Calypso classic, The Banana Boat Song, everyone nearby suddenly broke into a spontaneous chorus of day-o’s. Ray Charles asked for a drink of water, and another singer volunteered to lead him to the fountain. Stevie Wonder. And so it went. “For me, the first couple hours were highly charged,” says Kenny Loggins. “I’ve never before felt that strong a sense of community.”

Around 10 p.m. the sheet music was passed out, and several people stepped forth to address the group. Kragen talked of plans for the funds they hoped to raise. Mindful of the decade-long “Bangladesh situation, I assured the artists that if it came down to seeing that the money got to the right places, I would go over with the supplies personally.” Then Bob Geldof, leader of the Boomtown Rats and organizer of the British Band Aid singalong, offered a moving speech about his own travels in Ethiopia, telling of a “good day” in one village he had visited when only five people had died. “Geldof’s opening speech was pretty intense,” noted Loggins later. “You could hear the truth in his voice.”

After Michael Jackson shyly described the piece he and Richie had written—”a love song to inspire concern about a faraway place close to home”—the taping began. Quincy Jones sat on a stool directing his multi-million dollar chorus, Richie on a chair next to him, Michael with the others but off to one side. At one point during the long hours that followed, emotions swept up the 400 guests, who joined the singing from their soundproof stage. During a break, Brenda Richie took orders for Fat Burgers (from Springsteen, Dionne Warwick and others) and sent a chauffeur off to a nearby hamburger stand.

By 3 a.m. the choral section of the song was recorded, and only the solo sections remained. “Everybody was drained, but also hanging on to the thread of magic in the night,” says Ingram. “You could see the fatigue on people’s faces,” remembers Osborne. The group took another break and, prompted by Diana Ross, began autographing each other’s sheet music. Suddenly Wonder came into the room with two African women, representatives of the very people the performers were trying to help. The women, nervous and exhausted, spoke through trembling lips in their native Swahili, thanking the group for all they were doing. Says Ingram, “Everybody was humbled.”

Then Jones positioned the 21 soloists in a semicircle around him. Starting with Ritchie, they all sang their parts, and the singing moved round and round the semicircle until it was completed. Loggins was stationed between Springsteen and Steve Perry during the solos; Springsteen sang his part in a huge, booming voice. “I wanted to do my very best,” Loggins says, “and with Springsteen belting his line like a loud Joe Cocker, I wondered how I should do mine.” Just be yourself, Perry advised. “I think that pretty much sums up how everybody was acting,” says Loggins.

By dawn most of the performers had finished. Dylan and Springsteen, obviously drained by the marathon, remained until around 7:30. His own solo work long since completed, Perry also stuck around to witness the ending. Osborne, after trading a few ad lib vocal licks with Wonder, Richie and others, finally walked out the studio door with Michael Jackson sometime before 8. Off to one side an exhausted Diana Ross sat on the floor, tears filling her eyes. “I just don’t want this to end,” she said.

But end it did, for the moment. Kragen, predicting profits of $150 million from the undertaking, quickly went to work pulling together the fund-raising album that would follow and arranging the single’s release in mid-March. Linda Ronstadt, who had missed the taping because of flu, agreed early on to supply one of the LP’s solo tracks. Prince, recipient of three of the American Music Awards earlier in the night, had passed up the group sing and instead went to a West Hollywood nightspot; later that night his bodyguards were involved in a scuffle with photographers and were arrested by police. Finally, at 6 a.m., the diminutive rocker phoned Jones, offering to lay down a guitar track for the group’s single. Jones declined that contribution but agreed to accept a solo cut for the LP instead. Another track would be taped two weeks later in Toronto, where a group of Canadian artists—including Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young—gathered to create their own Band Aid-style recording for famine relief.

For the Americans who did take part in the all-night recording session, the rewards were greater than any royalties they might have sacrificed. They had come hoping to help a cause, and in the process discovered their own community. Afterward, most of the musicians quickly resumed the projects they had so suddenly interrupted. Tina Turner flew to New York the next day to start rehearsing for her Saturday Night Live performance later that week. Hall and Oates returned East to prepare for their own four-month road trip and Dionne Warwick jetted to Las Vegas where she performed that night at the Golden Nugget. For some, the sense of purpose felt at the all-night session wouldn’t fade with the dawn. Harry Belafonte, self-effacing initiator of the project, boarded a plane the following day for Washington, D.C. There, one day later, he was arrested while picketing outside the South African embassy.

  • Contributors: Jonathan Cooper, Lisa Russell, Mary Shaughnessy.

“A guitar solo from Willie Nelson is as pleasing as you’d ever want to hear” — Billy F. Gibbons

Monday, January 7th, 2019

aclnye8

www.TexasMonthly.com
by:  Andy Langer

ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons brought in 2019 onstage, playing guitar with his normal New Year’s Eve running buddies: Willie Nelson & Family. Gibbons has been a not-so-surprise special guest at a half-dozen of Nelson’s annual new year’s performances at Austin’s ACL Live. And while this year Gibbons unfurled a long solo on Nelson’s version of “Texas Flood,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says he’s generally just happy to have the best seat in the house to watch Willie play guitar.

“I think he’s underrated as a soloist,” Gibbons told us on the first National Podcast of Texas episode of 2019. “A guitar solo from Willie Nelson is as pleasing as you’d ever want to hear.”

A few days after New Year’s, Gibbons left Austin for Houston to join bandmates Duty Hill and Frank Beard to rehearse for the band’s first-ever residency in Las Vegas—an eight-show series at The Venetian that runs through early February. The Vegas gigs are the first real acknowledgment of the band’s 50th anniversary for 2019. Indeed, short of the first few singles and tours, it’s been what Gibbons describes as the “same three guys, same three chords” for a half-century.

“Someone asked recently, ‘How did you three guys manage to stay together for longer than most marriages?’” Gibbons says. “Two words come to mind: separate buses. It’s made it all go all right. It’s a good team.”

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

 

Willie Nelson Interview (Spinner, January 2008)

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

Willie Nelson is 74 years old and has absolutely no plans of slowing down. Lucky for us.‘Moment of Forever, ‘ a collection of songs that mirror his life: There’s a little bit of humor, a lot of love and a sound that stands the test of time.

I hear you’re talking to us in between golf games right now. What’s your handicap?

My driver and my putter! [laughs]

The music icon and all-around national treasure somehow found time between touring, his philanthropic endeavors and his golf game to record

Spinner caught up with the Redheaded Stranger to talk about his new project and his surprisingly simple explanation for his prevalence in modern music. And, of course, we couldn’t help but let the conversation drift back to his notoriously wilder days.

And you actually bought a golf course!

I’m across the street from it right now. It’s a little nine-hole golf course called Pedernales Country Club. We have a lot of fun over there.

So you’re a golf course owner, singer, songwriter, actor, philanthropist and father of ten. Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish that’s on your to-do list?

I don’t like to think too far ahead. I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot done and have a lot of success. I don’t want to be greedy. And when I’m happiest is when I’m out here playing music and staying out of trouble! [laughs] In the early days, we’d be out on the road and go out and play our concert, and then go back to the hotel and party till daylight. And then when it came time to leave, you couldn’t find anybody! [laughs] So I decided somewhere along the way that it’s better to leave town right after the show. And since we’ve started doing that, I’ve noticed that the marriages are actually staying together. [laughs]

You have certainly changed your ways; people may not realize that you’re actually somewhat of a health nut these days.

Well, I have started running. What I was trying to do was do at least as much good in the daytime as I was destroying in the nighttime. [laughs] But it got to the point where I was losing ground. I had to start trying to stay alive or I was going to die. So I’ve had to give up the smoking and drinking. And when I quit that and started running, I got a lot healthier.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

There probably aren’t any. [laughs] But if you think of all the people who don’t like me, just think of all the millions who’ve never heard of me!

I can’t imagine there are “millions” who haven’t heard of you. You’re Willie Nelson! You probably get recognized several times a day. Does your fame ever overwhelm you?

Honestly, no. I love it. I thrive on it. I enjoy people. And when I first started out watching Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the movie screen every Saturday, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to ride my horse, shoot my gun, sing my songs and be like Gene and Roy. And that’s what I’m doing, and I couldn’t be happier. And I’m making enough money to pay the bills and support my family, so I have no complaints.

Speaking of your family, your youngest sons Micah and Lukas are featured on your new album in the opening track, ‘Over You Again.’ And they’re actually musicians themselves, right?

They have a band called 40 Points and have toured with me over the last couple of years, but they’re back in school now. They’re just two really talented kids. I’m proud of them.

You also worked with Kenny Chesney on this CD. He acts as both duet partner on ‘Worry B Gone’ and as co-producer of the album. What did he bring to the table that was different from your past producers?

First of all, he’s a good musician and has a good ear in the studio. And his name certainly didn’t hurt at all, either! [laughs] He’s a big star, and after hanging out with him for a while you can see why. He’s got a lot of talent.

In addition to Chesney, are there any other artists these days who you think have a real shot at longevity?

There are a lot of guys who seem to have staying power … Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt. Those guys are going to be out there working for a long time. They’ve got talent.

As someone who’s certainly achieved it, what do you think is the secret to longtime success in the music industry?

I think you’ve just gotta keep living! Just look at Johnny Cash or Waylon [Jennings]. They kept going until they died. Ray Price is still doing great, and he’s 82 years old. We just celebrated his birthday over in Tyler, Texas. He and I and Merle [Haggard] are all touring again this year. So I think staying busy is important.

You’ve collaborated with so many different artists, from Waylon and Merle to Julio Iglesias to Dave Matthews. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?

Can you sing? [laughs]

You don’t want to hear me sing, at least not sober.

[laughs] Darn, then I’ll have to find somebody else.

How about all the different artists who’ve covered your songs. Is there one that stands out to you?

You’ve got to go back to ‘Crazy,’ Patsy Cline. How could you top that one? Also, Ray Price with ‘Night Life,’ Roy Orbison, ‘Pretty Paper’; Billy Walker, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’; Faron Young, ‘Hello Walls.’ Those performances … there’s just no way to beat ’em.I just heard a Hank Williams classic, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ That’s a piece of literature. I don’t wish I’d written it, but I am glad somebody did!

If you could change anything about the country music business, what would you change?

I would like to see more airplay for all artists, no matter what age. I think there’s a lot of money being spent toward the young guys, but a lot of the older guys are the ones who blazed the trail for those young guys. Plus, the old guys have kept those record companies in business for all these years. So I think there’s a certain amount of respect due. I’m not complaining … we’ve made some good records and have sold a lot. I’m talking mainly for the other artists coming along. They’ll have a better chance if they stay traditional and don’t try to get too far out one way or another. Like Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Ray Price … they’ve stayed traditional, and they’re gonna be around for forever.

You tend to be pretty vocal about your political beliefs. So, what do you think is the most important issue in the ’08 presidential election?

Stop the war. Stop the bleeding. That’s the first thing. Then the economy — we have all kind of problems, but the number-one priority is to stop this war. Once that happens, all the trillions of dollars that we’re spending over there can be spent here on our people, our poor people, for health insurance and all the things that evidently we don’t have the money to work with because it’s all over there fighting wars. And if it’s not that war, it’s another war. It’s just this series of one war after another.

Are you supporting any particular candidate?

I liked Dennis Kucinich, but he dropped out. I like Obama and Hillary, so I’ll wait to see which one of those folks come out on top. But they’ve both changed their positions on the war, I think, in the last several months. Dennis never did have to change his position, because he was always against it. But as for who I’ll support, I don’t really know yet.

Was it your stance on the war that drove you to start the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute?

I wanted to connect all people who are thinking about peace on Earth. When I was growing up, that was the theme that every Sunday morning, they yelled at us. [laughs] “Peace on Earth!” And then it looks like that somewhere along the way, people forgot that message. Now it’s war on Earth. So I want to connect all the people who think like I do, that there should be and hopefully will be peace on Earth.

If we were to ask you to write Willie’s Theme, a rule you live your daily life by, what would it say?

A couple of funny ones come to mind. My ex-wife Martha used to say, “Don’t worry about a thing, because there ain’t nothin’ that’s gonna be all right.” [laughs] And my father-in-law when I was married to Connie used to say, “Take my advice and do what you want to.” I thought that was funny.

I think the lyrics to your new song ‘Always Now’ are a good rule to live by.

I think you’re right. That’s an absolute truth.

Willie Nelson, on Guitar (Frets Magazine, Dec. 1984)

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

Frets Magazine
December 1984
by Jim Halo

Willie Nelson is a man of surprises. “Improbable” is the mildest word that describes the course of his career from sideman to superstar, a career marked by so many odd twists, turns and bumps that the story would be hard to pass off a convincing fiction. It isn’t out of character, then, that as an instrumentalist he plays a type of guitar that country bandleaders aren’t supposed to play, uses a technique usually reserved for another type of guitar altogether, and first chose to do so for one of the least likely reasons.

In place of the obligatory pear-monogrammed steel-string, Shotgun Wilie packs a Martin short-scale N-20 classical guitar, one of perhaps only 277 ever built. In country circles, let alone the string music world at large, Martin classicals are about as common as Porsche limosines. And while manicured fingers are considered de rigeur for the playing of classical guitars, Willie uses a flatpick — which accounts for one of his intrument’s trademarks. In the soundboard, a ragged gash extends from near the lower quadrant of the soundhole rosette down almost to the treble end of the bridge saddle. Classical guitars traditionally do not have pickguards. Wille’s instrument, after 15 years of flatpicking, provides an object lesson in while steel-string guitars usually do.

Even if the famous auxiliary soundhole, surrounded by pick-abraded bare wood, with skeletal brace ends and edges peeking through, never had formed on Willie’s N-20, there would have been no question of the guitar’s identity. Besides its battle scars, the soundboard bears the autographs of such artists as Roger Miller and Johnny Bush, along with other graffiti left — at the owner’s invitation — during Willie’s days as a Nashville songwriter who couldn’t quite go over the top as a performer.

Why did Willie Nelson start using a classical guitar in the first place? Test your musical intuition by choosing one of the following: Willie switched to a classical guitar because he wanted to (a) favor a weak left hand by changing to the lower tension of nylon strings; (b) inject an element of mariachi music into his Texas-based country stylings; (c) get a guitar that was strikingly different from those of his performing peers; (d) sound like France’s Gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso, Django Reinhardt.

The correct answer is (d).

Any similarities between the style of Nelson and the style of Reinhardt are purely intentional. “I wanted to look for a guitar that I could use to find that tone that Django was getting,” Willie says, referring to the sound of Django’s unusual Selmer-Maccaferri steel-string acoustics. “The guitar that I am using now is the closest that I could find to that.”

Most guitarists would figure that Willie was drawn to a nylon-string instrument because of it’s comparatively easygoing action. But he says that in fact, the opposite is true.

“The action is really a lot slower than what you’d get on a regular Fender electric or something, which I used to play all the time,” he explains. “I played a lot of Fenders and a lot of Gibsons — all electrics. I really didn’t play the acoustic guitar on stage then, for the simple reason that the fingering was more difficult. But finally I sort of settled for the harder action to get the tone I wanted.”

img271

As a performer, Willie also settled for harder action to get the kind of results he wanted. For years he channelled royalties from a successful songwriting career into a money-losing band, so that he could play his music the way he wanted with his “family” of loyal sidemen. He went against the Nashville grain in the early ’70s, switching to a non-country label, recording in New York, and moving his base of operations to Texas. That earned him the label “outlaw,” but it helped launch a new wave in country music that eventually overflowed into the rock and pop markets and carried Willie Nelson to megastar status. At present, his roll call of recording credits includes no less eight gold albums, six platinum albums, one double platinum album, and one triple platinum album.

Ironically — or perhaps, characteristically — the triple platinum album isn’t country at all. It is Stardust, Willie’s 1978 tribute to the standards (like “Stardust,” “Blue Skies,” “September Song,” and “All of Me”) that he heard and loved as a boy in the 1940s.

Born in the teeth of the Depression in April 1933, Willie grew up in Abbott, Texas, south of Fort Worth. His mother left home when eh was six months old, and he was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather, a blacksmith, gave Willie his first guitar lesson at age six. Willie’s grandmother, who wrote gospel songs, also played guitar. “I started out with a thumbpick,” Willie recalls, “Because that was what my grandparents used, so I was taught that way. But later on I began to hear players like Eldon Shamblin [of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys], and they used a straight pick. So I changed because that music was more what I wanted to play. When I was a kid I used to play the mandolin — fool with it a lot, and the banjo, and everything that had strings o it. I usually could get some sort of sound out of them. But I never really tried to get good on anything other than a guitar.”

His older sister, Bobbie (now the pianist in Willie’s band), was taking piano lessons, so the sheet music she brought home supplemented the songs he heard on the radio — World War II pop hits like “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Through radio he also drank in Grand Ole Opry country music, western swing, and jazz. As he grew bigger, Willie earned $3 a day picking cotton with black field hands. What made the work bearable for him was the blues and work songs they sang.

At age 10 Willie made his professional debut, playing in a Bohemian polka band for $8 a night. He began working in a small group with Bobbie on piano, their father on fiddle, Bobbie’s husband on bass, and the local football coach on trumpet. Gradually he evolved a guitar style influenced by such players as Johnny Smith, Hank Garland, George Barnes, Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt. “I liked those rhythms that Django’s band laid down, too,” says Willie, “the stuff his brother Joseph played on rhythm guitar.” Perennially electric, he also was drown to the music of flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya. “The Spanish flavor was something I always enjoyed anyway,” he says, “So Montoya was one of my favorites from the beginning.”

After high school he served a short stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, then spent the ’50s working as a door-to-door salesman (variously selling vacuum cleaners, Bibles, and encyclopedias), a plumber’s helper, a used-car salesman, a janitor, a Sunday School teacher, and a disc jockey, all the while playing in bars and honky tonks. And writing music. One of his first successful songs was “Family Bible.” He sold the rights to it for $50, so he could buy groceries for his family. In 1959 he wrote his classic “Light Life,” which would eventually be recorded by more than 70 different artists and sell over 30 million copies. But two years later he sold the rights to it for $150, which he used to buy a second-hand Buick. He used the Buick to move to Nashville.

Willie’s work won quick recognition in Music City. Songwriter Hank Cochran heard Willie one night in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the bar that served as the unofficial artists’ club room for the neighboring Grand Ole Opry, and signed him to a publishing contract. Singer Ray Price, who with Cochran was a part-owner in the publishing company, also was impressed. He made “Night Life’ his theme song, and hired its author as a bass player.

Soon vocalist Patsy Cline had a huge hit with Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Faron Young had another with Willie’s “Hello Walls.” Liberty signed Willie to a recording contract, and he scored his first Top Ten country hit in 1962 with the single “Touch Me.” He became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, and the following year he signed with RCA. But though he recorded more than a dozen albums for RCA between 1965 and 1971, Willie didn’t enjoy the kind of usccess that other artists were having with his material.

One reason was his phrasing. Intrigued by crooner Frank Sinatra’s knack for singing off, or against, the beat, Willie had adopted the technique in his own music. (That kind of phrasing often turns up in Willie’s guitar solos). But his producers saw Willie’s use of rhythmical license as a liability, not an asset — and often remixed his studio tapes to get his voice back on the beat.

The results weren’t impressive, commercially; and artistically they were frustrating for Willie. His substantial songwriting income allowed him to hold his road band together, however, and they kept the faith in live performances. “The music I played on a bandstand was better than the music I played in the studio,” he once told Al Reinert of New York Times Magazine. “For one thing, I’d be using my own band, and we’d have a better feel for it — be more relaxed. We’d have an audience to play for, and it was just a whole lot more fun.”

In 1969, in the middle of his second divorce, Willie’s Nashville house burned down. His guitar was one of the few things eh was able to save from the flames. While Willie’s home was being rebuilt, he moved back to Texas — and stayed. He made the relocation official in 1972. Meanwhile, Willie and his band began hitting the Southwest tour circuit again; and with the expiration of his RCA contract, he left the Nashville studios behind as well. In 1971 he signed with Atlantic, which was venturing into the country market. It was a good move for both parties.

Given a free hand, Wilie took his own band to New York to record Shotgun Willie. Finished in less than to days, the LP brought their “outlaw” sound out into the open. Within six months, sales of Shotgun Willie had surpassed the sales of all his Nashville albums combined.

From there, the successes began to snowball. Phases And Stages, completed in 1974 as Atlantic wound down its country operations, sold 400,000 copies. Meanwhile, the Nashville songwriting fraternity saluted his earlier contributions to country music by inducting him into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973.

Willie formed his own record company, signed a distribution agreement with Columbia, and in 1975 released Red-Headed Stranger. From that came the single, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain,” which gave him his first Top Ten country hit in 13 years and won him his first Grammy Awared. (It also documented a rare reversion to fingerstyle playing on the guitar solo. “I didn’t use a pick on that one,” Willie says. “Sometimes I use my thumb by itself, to get a softer sound. On ‘Blues yese,’ that was strictly thumb and fingers.”)

Red-Headed Stranger was certified gold in March 1976, and before the month was otu Willie shared in the plaudits as RCA’s The Outlaws — a compilation featuring the music of Willie, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser — also earned gold record status. Honors and hit records came almost predictably thereafter. Among his laurels to date are eight Country Music Association awards, including Best Album (twice), Best Single (twice), Best Vocal Duo (with Waylon Jennings in 1976, with Merle Haggard in 1983, and with Julio Iglesias in 1984), and Entertainer of the Year — a title conferred on him in 1979 by both the CMA and the Academy of Country Music.

Willie no longer has to worry about breaking even outside the studio. This summer, Willie Nelson & Family was No. 14 in Billboard Magazine’s list of top-grossing concert appearances (a roster on which the much-hyped Victory Tour by the Jacksons sewed up 6 of the top 12 spots). Willie also is listed as one of the top ten money-earners on the Las Vegas shworoom circuit (along with his old diol, Frank Sinatra).

But despite all the justifiable to-do about his gilt-edged performing status, Willie still prefers to think of himself first and foremost as a picker.

“What I always liked to do was be the guitar player,” he says. “Somewhere along the say, I started being the singer. I’m not sure how that happened. I think one night the front man didn’t show up, and I wound up fronting the band and doing the singing. And I don’t know if that was really the best day of my life! I really do like to be just the guitar player, sometimes. It’s very enjoyable when the only responsibility you have is playing the guitar.

Fret Magazine. When you are playing lead, what’s gong on in your mind? Are you thinking of right chord changes or melodic patterns on the fretboard, or modes related to the key of the tune, or positions you like to work from?

Willie Nelson. Not consciously. I think probably if somebody put a computer on me, they’d find I use a lot of things the same way. But consciously — I just play off the top of my head. On the songs that I do a lot, I guess I’m subconsciously aware of the chord structures and I just play whatever notes I hear that fall within those. I really don’t think about all that. I guess I’m playing from somewhere else.

Fret: Do you work out solos ahead of time? Often, when you’re fronting your band, your solos will restate the melody. But in some situations — on the Angel Eyes album, for example — you’ll take what sounds like a more spontaneous lead break.

WN: It’s all how I feel at the moment. I really am not confined to playing anything the same way. I don’t have any arrangements that I try to follow, other than the basic things that are always there in a tune — the stuff that you can’t get around. Whenever anyone in the band takes choruses, they just play what they want to play.

Fret: Back on 1976, when you were interviewed by our sister magazine Guitar Player, you said that in doing solos you didn’t get into a lot of minor scales, because you felt you were major-chord oriented. How that youre’ playing things closer to mainstream jazz, is that still true?

WN: I think so. I love minor chords, and I have written some songs with minors in them. But basically, the songs that I listened to and learned in the beginning were major-chord songs.

Fret: Is that when you developed yoru feeling for standares like “Stardust”? Would it be fair to say that your growing up with that kind of material helped you learn how to put together well-crafted melodies?

WN: I think it very well could have. I was always exposed to those songs through the radio and through music that came into the house — sheet music, and so forth. I love good melodies, so I’m sure that had a lot of influence on me.

Fret. Through albums like Stardust and Angel Eyes, you’ve probably influenced a lot of younger musicians yourself, giving them their first exposure to standards and jazz. Do you have any other styles of music up your sleeve — material you might record in the future?

WN: There are some of the older styles I still ahven’t done, like Stephen Foster songs and old Songs of the Pioneers things — the real cowboy songs like “Leaning On The Old Top Rail” and “Empty Cot In The Bunkhouse Tonight.” All of those classics are still tehre to do.

Fret: Often you’re functioning as a rhythm player. In your opinion, what goes into really playing rhythm as well as it can be played?

WN: I think you ahve to know the chord forms. I think guys like Paul Buskirk and Homer Haynes are two of my favorites because of their styles. [Ed note: Mandolinist Paul Buskirk and guitarist Henry “Homer” Haynes (half of the team of Homer & Jethro) had strong elements of swing in their music.] It’s 4/4 rhythm and it’s done without drums. Or it can be done with drums; but I really liket he sound of the kind of rhythm section where you just hvae an upright bass and the rhythm guitar.

Fret: Does a rhythm guitarist need a special sensitivity to where the lead player is going?

WN: Yes, I think that’s an innate thing that most good rhythm guitarists know, becasue most rhythm guitar players are also leadguitar players, to a certain degree. So you just have t have a feel of when to play and when not to play, or hwo loud to play.

Fret: When you’re chording, do you ever use your thumb to fret notes?

WN: Yeah, a lot of times. I do that especially in open-chord rhythms. For instance, on a first position D chord I’ll use the thumb on the low E string to play an F#.

Fret: You generally use Fender medium flatpicks on your nylon-string guitar, instead of fingerpicking it. How often do you change picks? Some steel-string players have told us they go through a half-dozen a night, because the picks get worn and start sounding scratchy. But it would seem that nylon strings would be easier on a flatpick.

WN: I guess a normal person probably would be able to make them last longer, but there’s one tune we do each night — “Bloody Mary Morning” — where I’ll go through a pick every time I play it.

Fret: You can hear the difference? The pick starts to sound rough?

WN: No — I just break it.

Fret: Do you play with the point of the pick, or do you turn it and use the rounded corner for a mellower sound, as some players do?

WN: I try to keep it on the point, but in the course of “Bloody Mary Morning” I play every side of it. I think! I use up a couple of picks a night, because “Bloody Mary Morning” will take care of one, and “Whiskey River” will eat up another, so I’ll go through at least two picks, maybe three, every show.

Fret: You used to use ball-end La Bella nylon strings. Are you still staying that that brand?

WN: As far as I know, I am. The strings are automatically changed on my guitar every few days by a guy in our crew, and I’n not sure if he is still using La Bellas or not. I can’t tell any difference.

Fret: Are the strings changed on a regular schedule, or does the frequency just depend on how often you are performing?

WN: I think probably every three or four days he’ll change the strings. And we keep another guitar handy, with the strings on it already stretched, so that we kind of rotate them. When you put new nylon strings on a guitar, you’re always retuning them as they stretch out. That happened to me a lot of times on stage. Boy, it was hard, especially under those hot lights. Finally, we got real brilliant here and figured out that if you stretch them a few days before you put them on, you wouldn’t have to do that. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it years before, but better late than never!

Fret: Are there certain strings you’re more likely to break than others? Some players find that the G string is the first to go, for example.

WN: I very rarely break strings. In fact, I don’t remember the last string I broke. The picks go before the strings do, because the nylon strings are more flexible.

Fret: The nylon strings are one of the things that set your sound apart; but the way you amplify your guitar has a lot to do with that, too, doesn’t it?

WN: I think so. It’s a Baldwin amp with a Martin classical guitar — which is kind of a bastard situation. I’ve tried other combinations, and I don’t get the same sound that I do with this one, which was really accidental.

Fret: Didn’t the pickup itself come from a Baldwin guitar that got broken?

WN: Yeah, I had it taken out of the Baldwin and put in this one years ago, by Shot Jackson’s place in Nashville [Ed note: In the late ’60s, after Baldwin acquired Gretsch and began marketing a line of guitar amplifiers, the company briefly offered a classical guitar model with a ceramic piezo-electric pick up, and a companion amplifier designed for a “natural” tone response.] I’ve never changed it. I’ve tried to keep everything exactly the same, and the amplifier is still the same one. They don’t make Baldwins any more, you know. Each time I come across a used Baldwin amp, I try to buy it so I can use the parts for replacements on this one. I’ve got a couple of them.

Fret: Youv’e had a lot of work done on your guitar to keep it in service through all yoru years of touring. Who handles the repairs?

WN: A guy named Newman, in Austin [Newman Guitars, 200 Academy, Austin, Texas]. He has a guitar shop in the Opera House in Austin, and he’s been fixing my guitar for years.

Fret: Does your road crew take special precautions with the guitar and amp, since those are really one-of-a-kind items?

WN: They have nice sturdy cases for both. Steel cases. They take real good care of them.

Fret: Do you carry any other acoustic guitars on the road with you, or keep some at home that you just use for recording?

WN: I have a couple of guitars around the house, and sometimes I have one on the bus just to fool around with, but my stage guitar is my main guitar. The others are a variety of things — just whatever is available. It varies from one day to the next, really.

Fret: How many days a year are you on the road?

WN: I think probably somewhere between 200 and 250. That’s this year. It’s been like that practically every year, and each year I say, “Next year I’m going to slow down.’ But I still like doing it. I just enjoy playing music a lot.

Willie Nelson Grand Old Opry Show Program (1965)

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly (December 2005)

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Willie Nelson
The 72-year-old singer on growing up in Abbott, playing in public for the first time, what he listens to on the bus, and why he doesn’t hate the music business

by Evan Smith
Texas Monthly
December 2005

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without an Abbott?

WN:  I doubt it.  I’ve always felt like Abbott was a special place.  It was the perfect place for me to grow up because it was a small town and because everybody knew everybody.  Everybody there was friends or family or worked together or went to school together.  There was something real positive about that.

ES:  In a lot of small towns, everybody gossips about everybody else; there’s nothing positive about that.  But not inAbbott?

WN:  If it’s gossip that bothers you, you’re in trouble, because there’s gossip everywhere, in little towns and big towns.  I was a elephone operator in Abbott back when they had telephone exchange operators.  My sister was really the one who had the job.  Whenever the oerpators would take a vacation, they would hire her to run the board, and I would ocme in and help her.  All the time I was sitting there, I’d be listening in to the conversations going on all over Abbott.  I tapped every phone in town!  I knew everything about the whole county.

ES:  What’s your earliest memory of Abbott?

WN:  Playing in the mud and the creeks and the water and the cotton patches.

ES:  Did you have any sense back then that there was a while other world out there, and were you intersted in seeing it?

WN:  No, I didn’t think there was a lot out there for me.  I was surprised when I left Abbott that there was another world out there, because I thought we had it all right here.  In a way, Abbott was a littlebitty picture of the whole world.  You had nice people, you had assholes, and you learned to live with them and like them and work with them.  I thought it wa a good education growing up there.

ES:  tell me about the house your family lived in.

WN:  the first one was down at the edge of town.  We had a house with a well where we got our water.  We had a garden we grew vegetables in. We had a hog pen where we raised hogs and cattle.  We had a barn where we fattened up calves.  I was with the Future Farmers of America, so every year I had a project.  I loved being outside.

ES:  Big house or small house?

WN:  Very small house.  My parents were divored when I was six monts old, so it was my sister and my grandparents who raised me.  My grandfather was a blackmith. I hung out with him every day in his shop.  After he died, we mvoed to another house just a couple of blocks to the north, and my grandmoterh started teaching school and cooking in the school lunchroom.  The house wa a little bigger and a little nicer.  It was right next to the church tabernacle, so we got religous services through the summer.  We were pretty well soaked in religion.

ES:  Did it take?

WN:  Yeah.  I realized there’s a highter power.  There’s somebody smarter than I am out there, and I’m not picky about who it is.  It’s like Kinky [Friedman] says:  “May the God of your choice bless you.”  If you’ve got one, you’re all right.

ES:  You’ve been back to Abbott a bunch of times over the course of your life, right?

WN:  I still go back a lot.  I just bought another house there — the doctor who delivered me used to own it — and we fixed it up a little bit.  That’s where I spend some time every now and then.

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without a Texas?

WN:  I don’t think so.  Texas suits me so well.  I love the freedom, the wide-opened spaces.  Now, a lot of people out there might say, “That’s a load of horseshit, because I live in Oklahoma, and we’re just as crowded as you are.”  I’m sure that’s true.

ES:  Is Texas a good place to make country music, or do you have to go to Nashville?

WN:  I went to Nashville becasue that’s where I thought you went to sell your product.  Maybe it still is.  Maybe you take care of your business in Nashville becuase that’s where the store is — that’s where they pay you off, that’s where your publisher and your record company are.  In my day, Nashville was were you needed to go to get some recognition, so I did.  And then, when my house burned up there in Ridgetop, Tennessee, I thought it was a good time to go back home.

ES:  Did it every occur to you while you were in Nashville that Tennessee had become your home, or was it always just another stop along the way?

WN:  Well, I have a lot of friends in Nashville and all over Tennessee, so it really was my home for a while.  But I always thought I’d probably go back to Texas one day.  I didn’t realize it would be sooner rather than later.

ES:  Do you respect the popular strain of country music that comes out of Nashville now?

WN:  I respect songwriters and musicians probably more than anybody.  It’s difficult dealing with the record company.  You’re supposed to be commercial today and tomorrow.  That was always one word I couldn’t get along with, “commercial.”  I never could fall into any of the categories that they would say were commercial.

ES:  Was there ever a point in your career when you thought, “I need to get with the program and figure out a way to be more radio friendly or album friendly or I’ll never be successful?

WN:  Never.  I always thought that If was having fun doing what I was doing and making a living doing it, then I was already successful.  I didn’t have any idea I’d be this successful, but the first night that I made money making music, I knew that I had succeeded.

ES:  Do you remember when that first night was?

WN:  I played rhythm guitar in a bohemian polka band in West, Texas.  It was John Rejcek’s band.  There’s no way he could have heard anything I did, but I would just sit there and play, make my mistakes ad move on.  I made $8, so I’ll never forget that.

ES:  How did you get the gig?

WN: He was from around Abbott, and he was a blacksmith, like my granddaddy.  We had a lot in common, I guess, and I think he just liked me.  I grew up playing with his kids.  He had sixteen kids, and they were all musicians.  Every one of them could play horns or drums or something.

ES:  Could you ever imagine having sixteen kids in your life, Willie.

WN:  There probably would have been sixteen wives and one Willie.

ES:  Who taught you to play the guitar the first time?

WN:  My grandfather taught me some open chords and taught me to play a couple of songs.  After that, I picked it up from various people listening to the radio and hanging out with other guitar players who happened to come by.

ES:  Do you remember the first song you learned?

WN:  The first song I learned was “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”  You ever hear that song?  [singing] “Show me the way to go home/I’m tired and I want to go to bbed.”  You remember a song called “Polly Wolly Doodle”?  That was another one I learned.

ES:  How old were you?

WN:  I was six when I started playing guitar, but I started writing songs when I was about five.

ES:  And your grandfather gave you your first guitar?

WN:  Yeah.  It was a Stella guitar, from Sears,Roebuck.

ES:  When was the first time you played by yourself?

WN:  I started a band when I got to high school.  It was me and my sister — she was a junior then — and a guy named Bud Fletcher, who she eventually wound up marrying.  I had my football coach in it; he played trombone.  My dad played fiddle, and we had a guy named Whistle Watson, out of Hillsboro, to play drums.  We were probably pretty bad.

ES:  And the name of the band was?

WN:  Bud Flether and the Texans.

ES:  Why not Willie Nelson and the Texans?

WN:  I was the guitar player and the singer, but I wasn’t really old enough to go out oand book the jobs. We but Bud’s name on it because we was the front man.

ES:  Was there ever a time when you thought you would end up dong anything other than this to make a living?

WN:  I always thought I would figure out a way to do it with music.  I knew I might have to do other things along the way.  Of course, I have had to do other things.  I was disc jockey, a vacuum salesman.  I got a pretty good education in that respect.

ES:  At what point did you no longer have to do those odd jobs to make enough money to live on?

WN:  When I started playing in clubs all the time.  It was harder to do a day job as well as play six nights.  So it kind of eliminated itself. I drifted over into the nighttime and got away from the salesman stuff that you have to get up early in the morning to do.  I couldn’t do them both for very long, so I finally gave up the salesman part.

ES:  What do you like about what you do?

WN:  I love to play.  I love to play to an audience. I love having good musicians around me.  I love the fact that we travel from one place to another.  That keeps it new and fresh every day.

ES:  You’re on the road an extraordinary amount of time.

WN:  Almost all the time.

ES:  What sort of music do you listen to on the bus?

WN:  I listen to XM satellite radio a lot because I can pick it up all the way across the country.  When you travel as much as I do, satellite is the most dependable thing.  You hear a song and think, “Wow, that takes me back.”  That’s the joy in listening to traditional music.  It’s like Trisha Yearwood said in her song:  “The Song Remembers When.”

ES:  Since you mention traditional music, there ought to be a Willie Nelson channel on satellite radio, if there isn’t one already.

WN:  Well, I do a radio show on XM channel 171 every Wednesday.  They call it Willie Wednesday.  I’m on with Bill Mack, my old disc jockey buddy from years and years ago.  When he was in Fort Worth, he was the Midnight Cowboy, but now that he’s on XM, he’s the Satellite Cowboy.  A guy named Eddie Kilroy also has a show on channel 13. I listen to that a lot, because you can hear Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and all that good stuff 24/7.

ES:  What happened to that kind of music?  Why has it been forgotten by so many people?

WN:  The bottom line is whatever’s commercial today, whatever’s selling.  And, you know, Hank Williams is dead, and Bob Wills is dead, and they can’t make any money off of them.  They move on to somebody else.

ES:  Do you have the bad feeling about the music business that a lot of people have?

WN:  No.  You might think, “Whoever is running this record coming is going to run it into the ground and ruin music” or “Whoever’s doing all these radio stations, they’re going to ruin music,” but I don’t think so.  I don’t see it.  I know a lot of guys who are doing it a different way.  In Austin there’s Sam and Bob.  They have a radio show in the morning over there on KVET, and they play great music.  And they’re at a Clear Channel station.  It just depends on the personalities.  Some stations will play good music and some won’t.

ES:  How hard must it be to play good music?

WN:  There are a lot of politics going on with a lot of those records you hear played.  The word “payola” has been around since I can remember.  I don’t remember anybody giving me any say, and I don’t remember paying anybody any, but I knwo it happens. Payola ain’t dead. It ain’t even sick.

ES:  Does it make a difference, really, if Willie Nelson moves product anymore?  Don’t they just want to have you on their label? You must get an exemption.

WN:  I don’t think anyone has an exemption.  I think maybe there might have been a time, years ago, when they carried you for a while even if you weren’t selling, but I don’t think that’s true today.  Even with the great guys, at some point the record companies say, “That’s it for you.”  They’re pretty cold-blooded; they’ll drop you in a second.

ES:  I bet you’ve probably been dropped at least once in your life.

WN:  Oh, I’ve been dropped and drop-kicked.  but I don’t mind it.  I’m just looking for a good label. I’m just looking for a fan.  If I can find somebody in the executive branch who’s a fan, then I don’t really are what label it is. I can figure out a way to make it happen.

ES:  Am I remembering correctly that you’re about to be 73?

WN:  Born in ’33.

ES:  A lot of people much younger than you would have already said to themselves, “You know something?  I’ve had a god career, I want to sit in a lawn chair and drink a beer.”

WN:  Well, I don’t like lawn chairs, and I don’t drink beer.

ES:  So you’re not tired of this life of yours?

WN:  I’ve been home [outside of Austin] now for a few days, and I’ve had a lot of fun.  I played some golf and rode my horse, but now I’m ready to go back out and play, ‘Whiskey River.’

ES:  How’s your golf game?

WN:  I lie so much that I don’t really know.

ES:  Can you get out there and beat the average person?

WN:  I really don’t like to play people I can’t beat.

ES:  Probably the same with chess.

WN:  The same with chess and dominoes. I love to play all those games.  I’m not a horrible golfer, but you know, the really good golfers can have their way with me.

ES:  Speaking of golf, you’re about to play in a tournament to raise money for Kinky’s campaign for governor.  Are you totally on board with his running as an independent?

WN:  I like what he says about himself.  He says, “I might not be worth a dam, but I’m better than what you got.”  I’m a farmer and a rancher, and I want to see agriculture do well.  I haven’t seen any help from either Democrats or Republicans on that front.  There’s plenty of blame all over the place.

ES:  Kinky has made so many joke about what your job will be in a Friedman administration that I can’t keep track of them.

WN:  The last offer I had was to be head of the DEA or the Texas Rangers. I’m not sure.

ES:  this is not the first time you’ve been involved in politics.  You campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during the last presidential race.

WN:  Right, I did back him.  I didn’t have any idea if he could win, but we felt the same about the war and oil.  I had to go with the guy I believed in.

ES:  You don’t cut George Bush any slack because he’s from Texas.

WN:  Hell no.  Being from somewhere doesn’t give you any rights.  I don’t have anything at all against the president personally.  In fact, I understand he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s said a couple nice things about me.  I’ve got nothing derogatory to say about him, but I do think he’s getting a lot of real bad advice.  The people around him who whisper in his ear all the time?  They’re not his friends.

ES:  I’m imagining what a kid — say, six years old or a little bit older — must think walking down the street in Abbott, and here comes Willie Nelson riding his bike.  It must be a total shock.

WN:  It’s not exactly like I sneak into town.  The last time I was there, we had two buses parked in the driveway with the generators going.  I’m sure everyone knew I was home.

Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly (December 2012)

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

texas

Grady Martin (January 17, 1929 – December 3, 2001

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

 

Session guitarist Grady Martin was born on January 17, 1929, was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Before he joined Willie Nelson & Family, Grady had played with Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley and Ray Price. He also wrote the song sung by Ronnie Milsap, “Snap Your Fingers.”

grady2

*Article originally printed in the August, 1984 edition of Country Song Roundup magazine.

Young country fans know Grady Martin as the lead guitarist in Willie Nelson’s band, but he is much, much more. His contributions to the development of the Nashville Sound as a studio musician in the 1950’s and 1960’s have been incalculable.

Put bluntly, there would be no Nashville music industry as we know it, were it not for Grady Martin. Country entrepreneur Tillman Franks thinks Grady belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame. “There are five great musical geniuses that made Nashville Music City U.S.A.,” he says. “They are: recording studio innovator Owen Bradley, music publisher Fred Rose, Grand Ole Opry superstar Roy Acuff, and musicians Chet Atkins and Grady Martin. Of these five, Grady MArtin is the only one not in the Country Music Hall of Fame. As a charter member of the Country Music Association, I hereby nominate Grady Martin for the Hall of Fame in 1984.”

Franks said that in December 1983, at a tribute dinner held in Martin’s honor by the Nashville Music Association On that occasion, Grady was lauded by his peers and given the first Master Tribute Award, designed to honor the unsung heroes of music: the backup instrumentalists. On hand were Brenda Lee, Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, The Jordonaires, and a ballroom of other celebrities. Willie Nelson hosted the tribute to his friend and bandmember.

Studio musicians got their due at long last that night. Finally it was stated publicly that Grady Martin was the session leader for the hundreds of hit productions that put Nashville on the map. He was a chief architect in the building of Music City.

Grady Martin was born 55 years ago, Jan. 17, 1929, 50 miles south of Nashville on a farm between Lewisburg and Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He grew into a strapping six-footer, but he always preferred making music to doing his farm chores. “My dad played the jug,” he chuckles, remembering his musical youth. “And my mother played the piano. My brother had bought a guitar for eight dollars and he wouldn’t let me fool with it much. I had to slip away to get it.” Maybe that’s why he took up the fiddle at age 13. “There was an old fella down the road named John Davis who played his fiddle at night on his porch. He went down to all the local dances and played.”

He inspired Grady so much that the youngster was soon one of the most accomplished fiddlers in the area. When Nashville radio star Big Jeff Bess came south for a show, Martin was played for him backstage. Impressed, Bess offered the 15 year-old a job.

“We had an early-morning radio show, and just played schoolhouses and anywhere we could. Four or five dollars a night was a good night’s pay. This was during World War II.” Bess was the husband of the legendary Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess, later immortalized as the owner of Nashville’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Bar, across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium downtown, mother church of the Grand Ole Opry.

“I went up to the Opry one Saturday night and met manager Jim Denny. I was just askin’ for a job with somebody on the show. And he turned me on to The Bailes Brothers. So I traveled and appeared with them for awhile.” At the time the group was riding the crest of a wave of hits that included Dust on the Bible, I Wanna Be Loved (But Only By You), and As Long As I Live.

Martin toured with such Opry headliners as Jamup & Honey and Uncle Dave Macon. When he began appearing with trick fiddler Curly Fox and “The Sophie Tucker of Cowgirl Singers,” Texas Ruby, he switched to guitar. Thus, on that instrument he made his recording debut when Fox took him into a studio in Chicago.

He joined the band of Red Foley then about to become the biggest star of his generation of country vocalists. [A] 1949 Nashville recording session produced Foley’s huge number-one hit Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy. It was the first of many million-sellers that were to feature Grady’s guitar. “We recorded that at the Old Castle Studio that was in the Tulane Hotel on Church Street in Nashville.”

Artists like Carl Smith, George Morgan, and Little Jimmy Dickens began using him on their sessions. Hall of Fame member credits Martin and guitarist Jabbo Arrington for developing his hit sounds= with their twin-guitar playing.

Martin even played (fiddle) on a Hank Williams session. He also accompanied Williams to “The Kate Smith Show” in New York in 1952, country music’s debut on prime-time, nationwide network TV.

As Red Foley’s airplane pilot and lead guitarist, Grady Martin accompanied Foley on his commutes to Springfield, Missouri. There he became the band leader on the Foley-hosted “Ozark Jubilee,” the first network TV country variety series.

He maintained his ties to the infant recording center in Nashville, however. Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, and dozens of other Nashville pioneers featured him on their hit records.

“I guess the person I played the most hit licks for was Marty Robbins,” says Martin wistfully of his old friend. That’s Grady’s Spanish-style picking embellishing El Paso, and on Don’t Worry he developed the electric fuzz-tone sound that was to influence an entire generation of psychedelic electric-guitar stylists.

He played vibes on Floyd Cramer’s timeless Last Date. He played dobro/guitar on Wilma Burgess’ lovely Tear Time. He banged tambourine and played the banjo lick on Wings Of A Dove by Ferlin Husky.

“On sessions that produced, like Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans or Jimmy Dean’s Big John, I just went ahead and started it up without the producer. He trusted me and I loved it. When he’d come in later, we’d have a hit arrangement worked out.”

Grady also arranged (and wrote) Joe Henderson’s Snap Your Fingers (1962), perhaps Nashville’s first black top pop hit. The following year, he arranged and published Our Winter Love, one of Music City’s biggest ever pop instrumentals.

He played on all the hits of Patsy Cline and on all the worldwide million-sellers of Brenda Lee. He’s on Elvis Presley’s movie soundtracks. He’s on Gone (Ferlin Husky), Saginaw Michigan (Lefty Frizzell), Waterloo (Stonewall Jackson), Uncle Pen (Porter Wagoner, Grady’s last major session as a fiddler), Devil in Disguise (Elvis), Oh Pretty Woman (Orbison), I’m Sorry (Brenda) and For the Good Times (Ray Price).

Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Dottie West , Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Larry Gatlin, and Kris Kristofferson records all feature Grady Martin. In fact, it would be easier to name the Nashville stars that he has not accompanied in the studios than it would be to list all he has.

“We worked round-the-clock back then. It was like being in a submarine. You’d ‘submerge’ and stay ‘down’ for hours, all night long and sometimes the next day, too. If you got tired you curled up under a piano for awhile and got up and played some more.”

Surrounded by such “A-Team” pickers as Bb Moore, Buddy Harman, Ray Edenton, Harold Bradley, Hank Garland, Pig Robbins, Pete Drake, Floyd Cramer, Tommy Jackson, The Anita Kerr Singers, The Jordonaires, and a handful of others, Grady Martin forged a sound and style. Never before or since in the annals of popular music have so few been so responsible for so many hits.

It was hard work, but what Grady remembers most are the good times the pickers shared in the good old days of Nashville recording. Today, he says those historic sessions are “all a blur to me. You can ask me anything except about dates and song titles.”

At his peak, his reputation spread to pop musicians like Perry Como, Al Hirt, Theresa Brewer, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Henry Mancini, Tab Hunter and Burl Ives, all of whom used his talent on records, Martin’s own recording group, The Slewfoot Five, was a pop/jazz act.

As the 1970’s dawned , Grady MArtin returned to playing live on the road. He served a stint in Jerry Reed’s band before Reed made so many movie-making commitments. Requested by Willie Nelson to play on the soundtrack of the film Honeysuckle Rose in 1979, Martin wound up serving as the model for the Slim Pickens character in the movie. He has remained with Nelson in the 1980’s, both touring and recording with the superstar. Nelson remembers Grady from when he played on a then-green songwriter’s first album. Now Martin plays guitar on such huge Nelson hits as the Merle Haggard duet, Pancho & Lefty.

That the spotlight is finally falling on him after years in the darkness of recording studios won’t change good ole Grady a bit. He remains a Buddah-like, lovable, modest country character without a trace of pretense. “Chet’s a star. I’m not a star,” he says. “Makin’ a good record and havin’ it accepted, just bein’ part of havin’ a hit record, that’s what mattered to me.”

Martin’s modesty might be one reason he has received so little recognition before now. “I really don’t do interviews. I never saw why anybody would want to write anything about me. I’m just a factory worker in the studio.”

He’s wrong. He’s much more than a “factory worker.” He’s 0ne of the creative geniuses in the history of country music.

Willie Nelson, Vanity Fair (November 2003)

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

leibowitz

Willie Nelson, by Annie Leibovitz, on the cover of Vanity Fair

www.VanityFair.com

Willie Nelson lives on the road. So it made perfect sense for him to just park the tour bus on the street outside Annie Leibowitz ‘s studio sometime in the middle of the night before the shoot. (We got the permit.) By his own account, the 70-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer is tough and stuborn and knows what he wants. When asked if he would like to put on one of the many cowboy hats that had been collected for him, he said, “You mean as opposed to the one I’m wearing?” leaving little room for discussion.

He’s also a charmer, an elequent poet, a songwriter, actor, Farm Aid Co-Founder, and golfer who, in his 40-year career has made records and performed in concerts with practically everyone — including Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Julio Iglesias. One of his favorite duet partners is Norah Jones, and at our shoot these two very private stars were clearly pleased to have some time to sit next to each other and catch up. Later, posing duties over, Willie got back on his bus to go to New Jersey for a show on the never ending tour that is his life.

by Lisa Robinson .

Annie Leibovitz: American Jewish Photographer, born October 2nd, 1949 in Westbury, Connecticut, She is the third of six children, her great grandparents were Russian Jews and her father’s parents emigrated from Romania. Her mother was a modern dance instructor and her father was a lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Air Force. They moved a lot because of her father’s work and took her first photographs in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. When she was in high school she became very artistic and interested in music and writing. She attended the San Francisco Art institute where she studied painting. Later. she kept developing her photography skills and soon learned to adapt Jewish concepts to her photographs in certain jobs.

When the Rolling Stone magazine was just launched in the 1970s, Leibovitz started her career as a staff photographer for them. In 1973, she was titled chief photographer for the Rolling Stone which she would continue on for 10 years. Most of her intimate photographs of celebrities is what helped define the Rolling Stone look; Photographers such as Robert One of Her first assignment was to shoot John Lennon.

The Coming of Redneck Hip (Texas Monthly, November 1973)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

img778 by you.

Texas Monthly
November 1973
by Don Roth and Jan Reid

Austin’s number one, long-hair, honkey-tonk, Armadillo World Headquarters, always draws a crowd Saturday night.  The Armadillo, an abandoned armory adjacent to a skating rink, has already atttracted its share of myth, mystique, and tall tales.  Its concrete floors temper the urge to dance with the fear of shin splints, its walls bear some artwork of modest inspiration, and there is apparently no way to air condition the damn thing.  However, the Armadillo has a license to sell beer, some pretty fair food for sale, suprisingly good acoustics, and for the heat-exhausted, an outdoor beer garden. And most important to the faithful who part with their money one Saturday night after another, Armadillo offers some of the best live music in the country.

Getting things started the night of April 7 was Whistler, Austin’s first country-rock band, together again for the first time in nearly two years.  They got a nostalgic reception.  Then came Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys, four converted San Antonio rock & rollers who offer originallyrics in the Nashville mode but can still bring the house down with a revival of the 1957 Cadillacs hit, “Speedo.”  The crowd got off to Man Mountain, bringing them back for an encore, a tribute which left the boys a little abashed, considering who was waiting in the wings.

Even before country music became fashionable, it was possible to appreciate the music of Willie Nelson:  His lyrics seemed to grasp the problems associated with coming of age in Texas, even as his voice rubbed them in.

Ten years ago Willie Nelson wore business suits for his national television appearances; for the Armadillo audience he was a little looser:  boots, beard, cowboy hat, and gold earring.  Nelson may look different, but except for the addition of some rock licks and lyrical references to Rita Coolidge’s cleavage,  his music hasn’t changed all that much.  His old songs — “Hello, Walls,” “The Party’s Over,” “Yesterday’s Wine” — still evoke memories of beery nights and jukeboxes, but they blend nicely with the newer, more upbeat numbers.  Onstage, Nelson accepts praise withan irresistible smile, yet never lets audience enthusiasm interfere with his standard act, a non-stop, carefully-rehearsed medley of his own tunes.

As remarkable as Nelson’s act that night, was his audience.  While freaks in gingham gowns and cowboy boots sashayed like they invented country music, remnants of Wille’s old audiences had themselves a time, too.  A prim little grandmother from Taylor sat at a table beaming with excitement.  “Oh lord, hon,” she said. “I got ever’ one of Wille’s records, but I never got to see him before.”  A booted, western dress beauty drove down from Waxahachie for the show, and she said, “I just love Willie Nelson and I’d drive anywhere to see him… but you know, he’s sure been doin’ some changin’ lately.”  She looked around.  “I have never seen so many hippies in all my life.”

The crowd kept pressing toward the stage, resulting in a bobbing, visually bizarre mix of beehive hairdos, naked midriffs and bare hippie feet.  An aging man in a sportcoat and turtleneck stubbed out his cigar and dragged his wife into the madness, where she received a jolt she probably did not deserve:  a marijuana cigarette passed in front of her face.  A young girl, noticing the woman’s discomfort, looked the woman in the eye and took another hit.

But Nelson’s music relieved any cultural strain that developed beneath him.  He played straight through for nearly two hours, singing all his recorded songs then starting over.   They handed him beer, threw bluebonnets onstage, yelled, “We love you, Willie!” — a sentiment he returned when he finally called it quits:  “I love you all.  Good night.”  A night that for many had been a sort of hillbilly heaven, though Tex Ritter would have undoubtedly taken issue with the form.

The April 7 Willie Nelson concert was not all that unusual.  Nelson is merely the most established of a gang of performers who have distilled a blend of music that reflects the background, outlook and needs of a unique Austin audience.  The audience is largely comprised of middle class youths who hail from Texas’ cities yet are rarely more than two or three genrations removed form them more rural times; they came to Austin becuase the feel of those rural  times still lingers there.  In a way, they are a new breed of conservative who despair over big-city hype and 20th century progress and romatanticizes “getting back to the land.”

However, they are inescapably children of the mid-20th century:  they grew up with their fingers on radio dials and headsets clapedover their ears.  Their need for music is insatiable.  Living in Texas they grew up with country and western, which in its whining way has stressed themes bewildered displacement for years.  The performers popular in Austin today also grew up with country music, and by sophisticating the lyrics and upbeating the tempo they have transformed country from a music of middle-class misery to one of down-home delight.

Austin musicians were nto the first to borrow form country music; indeeed, one of the Austin lyricists writes, “Them city-slicker pickers got a lot of slicker licks than you and me.”  But Los Angeles country rock is slick rather than soulful:  West Coast musicians are generally too citified to play country without a trace of put-down.  In Austin the roots are real.  the music rings tru and that ring could estabislh as Amera’s next curturla sub-capital

Austin’s easy-going mix of musical styles did not originate with Armadillo World Headquares, it dates back to 19933, when Kenneth Trheadgill purchased Travis County’s first beer license an turned a little filling station on North Lamar into a bar that reverberated one night a week with the liveliest music in Austin.  The house band was straight hillbilly.  Threadgill himself highlighted the jam sessions withhis Jimmie Rodgers yodeling, but he had an ear for almost any kind of music.  The mike was open to anybody with the nerve to stand up and sing.  Threadgill was also the first of Austin’s clubowners to realize there was gold in those university hills.  Anybody interested in a good time was welcome in his place.

Musically, the most exciting days at Threadgills were the early sixties, when the little bar became a haven for folk purists who were reaching deep into America’s music heritage of white country, black blues and backwoods ballads.  The most memorial of those performers was a young woman named Janis Joplin who wandered in one day carrying an autoharp.  Janis of course went on to a meteoric career, but she never forgot the cherubic old man in the gas station music hall.  Before she died she told a surfacing songwriter named Kris Kristofferson about her old patron.  In 1972 zealous fire marshals forced Threadgill to close his bar, but the same year Kristofferson looked him up at a party in Austin, listened to his music, and in three weeks had Threadgill in Nashville recording his first album. Thsu things have come full circle for Austin’s kindly 63-year-old patriarch.

At Threadgill’s one heard just about any kind of music that fingers could make, but the little bar couldn’t contain all the music alexcitement that seized the country during the sixties:  Rock ‘n Roll.  The bands that sprang up in Austin were hard up for somewhere to play until 1967 when a group of friends secured a location on south  Congress and built themselves a rock & roll joint, incurring the universal wrath of the Austin establishment.  the Vulcan Gas Company never had a beer license, which meant the only revenue came from the gate, but Lockett booked the best of Texas’ black blues singers, carefully spaced between Austin rock bands that kept the place jumpting.  Two of those house bands, Conqueroo and the Thirteenth Floor Elevator, attracted fanatical following who came out with ritualized regularity to watch their electric leaders perform.  The stoned crowds of teeny boppers, hippies an servicemen bore little resemblance to the beer-drinkers at Threadgills, but rock & roll had come to Austin.

Unfortunately, the Vulcan scene soured.  The club’s cult rockers quickly found the music business wasn’t all incense and acid:  The Elevator was the victim of an unfortunate recording contract, and the Conqueroo found that San Francisco’s rock gurus had no use for bands from Texas.  And at home, psychedelics had turned into speed and violence had spilled over into the Vulcan.  Tired of the hassle, Lockett looked for someone to tak over the Vulcan, but none of the new manager worked out, and the club died in 1970.

The Vulcan was ill-fated because it sought to import a California scene that was itself short-lived, but its owners had set a precedent that would make things much easier for future rock music entrepreneurs.  They had illustrated that a club could operate on a basis other than beer sales and broken down the Austin musician’s union opposition to freak pickers.  Additionally, they had provided a training ground for the manager, publicists, technicians and graphic artists who are as necessary to a music industry as the musicians themselves.

Eddie Wilson, who’s Armadillo World Headquarter rose from the ashes of the extinct Vulcan, got into the music business in a roundabout manner.  Wilson wound up at North Texas State in 1963, where he joined the campus folk music club.   After the Vulcan closed Wilson started looking for a suitable site for a new club, found the abandoned armory in southAustin, and with his friends, he turned the building into the “the archetype of the ugly, cold, uncomfortable rock and roll emporium.”

Armadillo opened in August 1970 to the anguish of establishment spokesmen who thought the flea-bitten menacehad died with the Vulcan.  Since then the Armadillo has grown, likes namesake, by rooting and foraging.  First came the beer license, then a new stage, tables an d chairs, heating, an improved sound system, and most recently, the beer garden that offers a measure of economic security.  But more important, word has spread among performser that Armadillo’s audiences are perhaps the most spontaneous and appreciative in the country.  The bellowing, stomping, cowboy-hatted mobs can scare a tough-assed lady like Bette Midler, but more often they win the affection of a John Prine, a Waylon Jennings, a Gram Parson.  As a result the national reputation makers have been very kind to Eddie Wilson and his Armadillo, and he is now booking acts that he once could barely afford to phone.

Willie Nelson: The Playboy Interview (November 2002)

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

The Playboy Interview:  Willie Nelson
November 2002
by David Sheff

Willie Nelson — looking exactly as we have come to expect him, with waist-long hair tied in braids, red bandanna,  jeans and sneakers — is in Honeysuckle Rose III, his tour bus, before a sold-out concert at Harrah’s Casino near Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  Nelson spends more time on the bus than he does at his 700-acre ranch near Austin, where he has a golf course and a recording studio.  He’s no homebody. After all, he’s the guy who wrote, ‘I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

The bus, outfitted with satellite TV and DVD, a 30-speaker stereo and a satellite-modem computer, is parked in the shadow of Harrah’s.  It’s smokey inside, the result of a cigar-size joint smoldering in an ashtray, another expected feature of Nelson’s traveling living room.  (Nelson is a famous dope smoker and proponent of legalized marijuana, who even rolled a big joint on the White House roof when he was a guest of President Jimmy Carter.)As comedian Robin Williams cracked during his recent tour, “When he looks at Willie, even Buddah’s going, ‘That guy’s mellow.’”

Carter isn’t the only president to have hosted Nelson.  Though Willie proudly inhales, his fans include President Clinton and both George Bushes.  In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Nelson.  His enormously broad audience is visible when he leaves the bus to duck into a back entrance to Harrah’s.  When he walks onstage, there’s deafening boot stomping and hooting. Nelson’s music crosses most genres and has near mystical appeal to all sorts of people, typified by tonight’s crowd:  20-year-olds in ripped clothes with pierced body parts, boozed-up cowboys, white-haired retirees, aging hippies, wild-haired Hell’s Angels and buzz-cut-and-goateed entertainment executives up from Hollywood.  “Anyone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is dead or may as well be,” according to Kris Kristofferson, a friend and frequent collaborator.

Born in 1933, Nelson grew up poor in Abbott, Texas, where he was raised in a family of musicians, including his grandparents and his piano-playing sister Bobbie (still a band member).  His window on the world was the crystal radio on which he first heard Jimmie Rodgers, Benny Goodman and gospel music.  “It was a hard life,” he says, “But we had music.”  After picking up the guitar at six, he accompanied Bobbie at church recitals and began writing poems and songs by the time he was seven years old.

As a teenager, he performed in Texas dancehalls and bars, covering songs by his heroes Hank Williams, ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizell.  Before he recorded his own songs, he began selling his compositions — for $10.00 and $25.00 – to music publishers and musicians.  His first hit was Crazy, recorded by Patsy Cline.  Next came hit songs for Ray Price (Night Life) and Faron Young (Hello Walls).  Other singers had hits with his songs, including The Party’s Over, Funny How Time Slips Away, Good Hearted Woman and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.

In the early Sixties, when he moved to Nashville, Nelson performed with such country stars as Mel Tillis and Roger Miller; and while playing bars and clubs most nights of the year, Nelson broke into the country top ten with Willingly and Touch Me.  In 1975 he released Red Headed Stranger, a masterful concept album that established him as a first-rate country artist.  The remainder of the century was Nelson’s with such hits as Georgia on My Mind, Whiskey River, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow UP to Be Cowboys, I Gotta Get Drunk and, of course, On the Road Again.

In 1978, Nelson released a record with 10 of his favorite songs, standards line Moonlight in Vermont, Someone to Watch Over Me and On the Sunny Side of the Street.  The record, Stardust, remained on the album charts for more than a decade, Nelson had become a symbol of and hero to – as he proudly put it — “cowboys, lowlifes rednecks, hippies, bikers — hell, all sorts of misfits like me.”

Nelson’s life has been as bittersweet as a country song.  He has been married four times.  In 1990, the government sued him for tax evasion (the final bill:  $16.7 million).  Nelson blamed his tax woes on some bad investment advice, but the IRS seized much of his property and sold it.  To help pay the bill, Nelson released a mail-order album titled Who’ll Buy My Memories?:  the IRS Tapes.  He suffered personal tragedy in 1991, when one of his seven children, Billy committed suicide.  But Nelson’s family — blood and extended (including may of his band members) — remains close-knot.  Willie’s sister Bobbie plays in his band, and two of his daughters and a granddaughter run his website (www.willienelson.com), where his fans congregate and DCs and other merchandise are sold.  Nelson was once well known for his heavy drinking as well as his marijuana use.  “I’ve toned down,” he says, “but toning down ain’t the same thing as quitting.”  His friends say he is healthier than ever running, playing golf and practicing martial arts and yoga.

In addition to his music, Nelson has established himself as a champion for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts.  With his friends Neil Young and John Mellencamp and other performers, nelson has raised millions of dollars for the cause.  Meanwhile, nelson has also found time to write for and act in films, including The Electric Horseman (with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson) and Wag the Dog (with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman).  This year he turned author, too, releasing the Facts of Life and Other Dirty jokes, which became a best-seller.

When we decided to sit Nelson down for an interview, we sent contributing editor David Sheff, whos last interview in these pages was with billionaire Larry Ellison.  Here’s Sheff’s report:  “Nelson is unique in the canon of American celebrities because he has crossed so many boundaries.  When I said as much to him, he wrinkled up his I’ve-seen-it-all eyes and smiled, ‘I’ve fooled lots of folk, haven’t I?’  Then he let out a laugh — one of many that punctuated the interviews.

“Much of the interview was conducted on the Honeysuckle Rose at a small dining table set with a bottle of Old Whiskey River, a family-size box of Zig-zag rolling papers and filled ashtrays.  The mood was generally light, but at moments Nelson became thoughtful and somber.  They didn’t last long, however, with a twinkle in his eyes, there would follow some wisecrack and another fit of laughter.

“Indeed, when we first sat down for the interview, Nelson rubbed his hands together, ‘Most times I can’t tell interviewers the good jokes — only the G-rated ones,’ he told me.  He grinned, ‘But this is PLAYBOY.  It’s going to be fun.’  It was an opening if I ever heard one.

PLAYBOY:  Well?  Do you have a joke you would like to tell us?

NELSON:  OK.  A lady went to a drugstore and asked if they had Viagra.  The guy behind the counter, the pharmacist said, “Yeah,” and she asks, ‘Have you tried it?”  He said he had and so she asked, “Can you get it over the counter?”  He thought about it awhile and then said, “I think I could if I took two.”  [laughter]

NELSON:  There’s one more thing about Viagra.

PLAYBOY:  What’s that?

NELSON:  They say it can make a lawyer taller.  [laughter]

PLAYBOY:  Where does all this joking come from?

NELSON:  Jokes help pass the time on the road and they help get though life.  You’ve got to laugh.  I always loved a good joke.”

PLAYBOY:  If you’re always laughing and joking, why are so many of the songs you’ve written sad?

NELSON:  Those are the three-in-the morning songs.  That’s when you may feel so much like a joke.  Also, as a songwriter I’m challenged by sad songs.  They’re harder to write.

PLAYBOY:  What makes them harder?

NELSON:  I don’t know, but I can knock off a happy ditty pretty easily.  Something real — something meaningful and deeper — is harder.  You may not be feeling all that happy when a song comes in the middle of the night.  You may not be feeling so good because you had too much to drink or stayed out too late.  So the feeling might be there, but crafting it into a song is the challenger.

And, of course, sometimes you’re fooling around on the guitar and suddenly you just played a pierce of a new song and it wakes you up.  You think, What was that?  I just wrote a song. Of course, when you can’t remember it [laugh].  All those lost songs.  So the sad song may come from sad experiences, but not necessarily.  You draw on your past — the stories that you’ve heard, your friends’ lives.  If I write a song about breaking up with my girlfriend, it doesn’t mean I’m breaking up with my girlfriend.    It means I thought it would make a good song.

PLAYBOY:  But to write or sing the blues don’t you have to have lived them?

NELSON:  If they’re real, yeah.  But at the same time I wrote songs about love affairs when I was five and six years old and I hadn’t had any.  I just listened to other songs and realized I could write ones, too.  I had no idea what i was talking about even though I thought I did.  But the truth is that you couldn’t sing songs and make them believable if you hadn’t experienced the blues.  If they come across as real maybe it’s because they are real.  It doesn’t mean I’m depressed when I’m writing, though I have been there.  It’s not like I started writing songs as a way to express how sad I was.  I wrote poems before I could pay the guitar, and after I learned a few chords and put melodies to the poems.  I knew I could make a rhyme and write songs, so I never really made the decision to start doing it.  I just did it.  I thought everybody could do it.  I make records when I have enough songs to go into the studio.  then I go out and play — play the songs every night.

PLAYBOY:  You’re smoking a joint as we talk.  Do you believe pot is harmless?

NELSON:  Too much of anything is no good.  Too much alcohol, too much sugar.  I think pot is a lot less harmful than alcohol for most people.  What happens to people on pot?  They get mellow.  People who are drinking can get dangerous, but not people on pot.  People I know have quit every drug and even drinking, but they may still smoke a little pot to take the edge off.  That doesn’t bother me.  I don’t drink as much as I used to.  I dont’ get drunk anymore.  If you take a couple of sips, there aint’ nothing wrong with that.

PLAYBOY:  Does marijuana affect your memory?

NELSON:  What was the question?  [laughs]  I don’t know if it does.  I remember an awful lot about an awful long life, and I don’t know if I would want to remember any more.  [laughs]

PLAYBOY:  Do you think that there’s any chance the pot laws will be changed?

NELSON:  They may be, someday. There is some momentum at least in terms of medical marijuana.  I love that they don’t want people who are dying to smoke pot because — why?  It will kill them?  People smoke marijuana and their brains don’t fall out.  It’s not a big deal and most people know that.  I have cut down [He smokes and laughs.]  I am healthier now than I have ever been.  I run almost every day, and if the weather’s good, I play golf.

PLAYBOY:  Do you ever worry that you romanticize pot and drinking?

NELSON:  I hope I don’t.  There’s a whole thing about romanticizing the lifestyle and I agree that it can be dangerous.  Many of my heroes when I was a kid were alcoholics, which I think is a bad thing.  What are you learning?  Somewhere along the way you think if I’m going to be like Hank Williams I got to get drunk like Hank Williams.  I sure tried it and I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore.  George Jones drank.  Bob Wills.  A lot of them.  I’m not blaming Hand or anyone.  I would have drunk anyway.  Most young people do at some point.  But I admired the people who pulled themselves out.  They are the real heroes. I admire the ones who survived and got sober.  It ain’t romantic to be a drunk.  Which leads to a joke Roger Miller told me about the guy kicking tires at a used car lot. The salesman came up and asked, “You thinking about buying a car?”  The guy said, “No, I’m gonna buy a car.  I was thinking about pussy.”  That’s in my book.

PLAYBOY:  Why did you write the book?

NELSON:  Just something I always wanted to do and there was a lot of interest.  thought it would be the best to do like a daily diary or journal. Whenever I got up in the morning I tried to remember where I was or guess where i was last night and write about all that and throw in a  joke every now and then. Whatever I thought about at the moment.

PLAYBOY:  Do you keep journals?

NELSON:  Never keep them, but if I did that’s what they would sound like.

PLAYBOY:  Was it similar to writing songs?

NELSON:  Completely different, a lot easier.  Songs have to have a form to rhyme, to follow a theme, but when I write this other stuff I can go all different directions.  When you run out of something smart to say it’s nice to be able to tell a joke, which is why I told all these stupid jokes in the book.

PLAYBOY:  Is it a struggle each time you write a song?

NELSON:  It gets easier over time.  You get better at it like anything else.  You get pretty good at it and instinctively know what you have to do. One of the hardest things is keeping it within limits.  It can’t be 20 minutes long — has to be two or three minutes.  That’s the challenge.

PLAYBOY:  When you play your songs, do they bring you back to the time you wrote them?

NELSON:  Depends on whether I want to go there or not.  Sometimes it’s not that pleasant to make all those trips; sometimes you don’t want to feel it.  But sometimes you do — the songs take you there.

PLAYBOY:  Do you know how people will like any given song?  Can you predict which songs will become hits?  Do you have a sense if a song has the potential in become a classic — an On the Road Again or Crazy?

NELSON: I wish I did, but you never know.  A lot of the songs I have written –  99 percent or more — have never been heard by anyone.  I think they are good songs, as good as any.  I have written more than 1,000 songs, most of them never recorded.  The timing wasn’t right or whatever.  The songs that became the hits don’t tell the whole story.  Most songs disappear without a trace.  You never know how people will take to them, what will strike a chord.  If you did, you’d always do it.  You’d record only hits.  No one can do that.

PLAYBOY:  Do you like to listen to your voice?

NELSON:  Sometimes.  I hear me a lot, so I can get sick of it.  I listen in a different way than most folks probably do.  I am critical, listening for when I’m on key and in tune and when I’m sounding like a hyena or something.  Other than that, I just do it and don’t ask too many questions.  It works best that way.  I’m just glad people like it when they do.  I am blessed they do.  I don’t have an act.  I’m like this all the time.  I’m just me. I’m lucky if I can remember the words  If I can, that’s really all I have to do on any given day.

PLAYBOY:  In your book you recount the night when you forgot the words to Crazy.

NELSON:  [laughs]  Yeah, I did.  Never had before.  the audience always likes it when I mess up.  They think I was ripped.  I wasn’t.  Just forgot.

PLAYBOY:  Your biggest hit song was On the Road Again.  What inspired it?

NELSON:  I was asked to write a song for the movie Honeysuckle Rose by the producer, Sydney Pollock.  I asked, “What do you want the song to say?”  Sydney said, ‘Something about being on the road again.”  So I said, “How about this:  ‘On the road again, 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 be on the road again.’  How’s that?”  He said, “Something like that, sure.”  He wasn’t that impressed.

PLAYBOYHoneysuckle Rose was one of the few major movies you’ve done.  How have you chosen them?

NELSON:  You can trap me with a guitar or a horse.  Write a story about those and I’ll jump it.  I’m doubtful about anything else.  Wait.  I have a little joke.  Did you hear about the duck that went into the bar and said, “You got any grapes?”  And the bartender says, “No.”  So the duck leaves, and then comes back the next day and says, “You got any grapes?”  The bartender said, “No.”  So the duck left, then came back the next day and said, “You got any grapes?”  The bartender said, “No.  I don’t have any grapes.  I didn’t have any yesterday, and I didn’t have any the day before.  And I won’t have none tomorrow.  If you ask me again, I’m going to nail your feet to the bar.”  The duck comes back the next day, and says, “You got any nails?”  The bartender says, “No.”  And the duck says, “Well, you got any grapes?”

Sorry.  What did you want to know again?

PLAYBOY:  Some musicians complain that they’re pigeonholed in one musical genre.  You record and sing everything.  How have you gotten away with this?

NELSON:  Fooled an awful lot of people an awful lot of the time.  [laughs].  I’m lucky, I know it.  I just play music I like.  Many people can’t do that.  People are always worrying about if I am country, rock and roll, blues or whatever.  They don’t know where to put the new Willie Nelson CD in the record stores.  When I came out with Milk Cow Blues, working with people like B.B. King, Dr. John and Susan Tedeschi, they were worried that it shouldn’t go in the Willie Nelson bin in country music because it didn’t fit.  It was blues, but what about the rest of the Willie Nelson records?  Where do you put Stardust?  That ain’t country or blues.  Where the hell does my new record, The Great Divide, go?  It’s one of the reasons I like the Internet.  People can listen in and see what they think and are more likely to try new things.  A kid into rock and roll ain’t going to go hanging out in the country section of a record store, but maybe he would like a song filled away over there.  gospel, reggae, classical — whatever.  It’s why a collaborate with everyone from B.B. to Merle Haggard to Sheryl Crow.  On the new record, I’m doing songs by Bernie Taupin and Matt Serletic and Lee Ann Womack sings with me.  So do Bonnie Raitt, Brian McKnight, the Jordanaires and Kid Rock.  It’s a hell of a good time.  But it’ll drive you crazy if you want to classify it.

PLAYBOY:  After all your collaborations, is there anyone left you haven’t worked with that you would like to?

NELSON:  I would like to sing with Barbra Streisand and I haven’t done that.  Maybe if I say it enough times it will happen.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired the collaboration with Paul Simon?

NELSON:  I’d cut Graceland with Paul.  I love that song.  I know that some people think it’s strange when they hear me playing with something with Paul Simon, but I don’t make those distinctions. To me, we’re all musicians.  What’s the difference between a rock musician and a country musician?  I can relate to reggae musicians or classical musicians.  We’re all just playing music.  I’ve done it with just about everybody.  Bob Wills, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Julio Iglesias.

PLAYBOY:  Including rapper Lil Black, who made a wild version of On the Road Again.

NELSON:  It just happened that we were all in the same place in Texas and they asked me to do a rap on On the Road Again with them.  It was fun.  I’m always interested in something new.

PLAYBOY:  Do you like rap?

NELSON:  I like some  of it, don’t like some.

PLAYBOY:  Some people criticize rap and hip-hop for violent and misogynistic lyrics.

NELSON:  I don’t like that shit and don’t necessarily want to encourage it.  But I understand it’s the way people are speaking.  Rather than worry about trying to put an end to Eminem or some other rapper, Lil Black or Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg, whatever or whoever, politicians should think about why they’re rapping.  If they are growing up in a violent ghetto, do people expect them to sing about flowers and — whatever the hell?  It’s a lot easier to try to censor some kid swearing about the poverty on the street in whatever it is than to sop the poverty on the street.  Solving problems in harder.

PLAYBOY:  Yet you try.  What brought you to the issue of the family farms and the founding of your charity, Farm Aid?

NELSON:  I started Farm Aid in 1985.  I worked on farms and ranches growing up, but I didn’t know there were any problems.  Neil Young and I were just talking.  After all those concerts, you’d think the farm situation might be better.

PLAYBOY:  It’s not?

NELSON:  It’s not.  It’s getting worse.  I always knew about farming — grew up on them.  Knew it was hard and knew that farmers didn’t always make ends meet.  Later I saw the Life Aid concert, Bob Geldof’ benefit held the same day in England and the U.S.  The money was for the famine in Ethiopia.  Everybody played — Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Madonna.  I was in a motel somewhere and was watching when Bob Dylan came out and played.  He said, “It would be nice if some of this money that’s going out all over the world could stay here at home.

Our family farmers are in trouble.”  I started checking around and learned more.  I discovered that it was a serious problem.  I was working in Springfield for the state fair and ran into the governor, who came by for a bowl of chili.  We were talking about the farm problems and he told me more.  We started talking about a concert.  The first Farm Aid show was in Champaign, Illinois.  I thought we’d do a show, raise some money and it would be solved.  I called up Neil Young and John Mellencamp and thought we would take care of the problem.  Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.  We once had 8 million family farm since the Fifties, and now we’re down to less than 2 million and we’re still losing them — losing 500 a week.

PLAYBOY:  Why are small farmers better?

NELSON:  The huge companies are destroying the environment.  We’ve seen what happens when you aren’t careful.  Look at the mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease.  Small farmers have to take better care of their land, have fewer animals grazing.  We also need to stop producing genetically engineered food, another fiasco introduced by agri-business.  They only care about volume, not health, and never mind taste.  I want a tomato that tastes like a tomato, not one that tastes like a piece of — I don’t know — cardboard.

PLAYBOY:  How would you help the farmers?

NELSON:  Farmers should get fair prices.

PLAYBOY:  Does that mean subsidies?  Why should farmers be given special federal subsidies and special help from the likes of you?

NELSON:  They don’t really want subsidies.  They want enough money to make a living without subsidies.  They want enough money for their product and don’t want giveaways or welfare, but they can’t compete with the corporations subsidized by the government.  America was founded as a place for everyone, where everyone has an opportunity.  Do we want it to be a  place only fit for the rich?  I don’t.  It’s worth fighting for and that’s the American way, too. After September 11, everyone forgot what it is we’re trying to protect.  It’s understandable that we want to be safe, but let’s not lose the America we love. After the terrorist attack we’re not supposed to criticize America.  It’s viewed as unpatriotic.  But true patriotism is wanting America to be the best place it can be.

PLAYBOY:  How did September 11 change your life.

NELSON:  Like everyone.  I watched it an at first thought it was a movie they were promoting.  I hear that kids saw that over and over again and didn’t understand that it was a single attack — they thought that it kept happening every time they showed it on TV.  I didn’t like the way the news media exploited it.  No wonder we’re toughened to things like that.  We see it and don’t  know it’s real because we are bombarded with images.  Every time you see it, it starts looking more unreal.  How long are we going to exploit it?  When are we going to let it become what it was?  Are we going to learn lessons from it or keep making the same mistakes?

PLAYBOY:  What lessons?

NELSON:  Are we going to look at poverty, disproportionate wealth and the horrors in the world or ignore them?  The poorest places are the ones where terrorism breeds.  If someone wants to kill me bad enough to kill himself at the same time, there has to be a reason.  People jump all over you if you ask the question, but if someone in America murdered 10 people or 3000, the first thing we would ask is Why?

Nothing can justify the attack, but there might have been something we could do to prevent an attack in the future.  I’m not talking about giving in or negotiating with terrorists, I’m talking about looking at the complaints of people in the world who hate us.  Is it because our troops are over there?  Are we afraid to say that?  Anything else?  Our policies regarding Israel?  I’m not saying we should stop doing anything they don’t like just because  they don’t like it, but we should understand why and try to acknowledge that people in other parts of the world have rights, too. That they matter. What arrogance to say it doesn’t matter what they think.  It’s not un-American to ask these questions.  It’s un-American not to ask them.  America really stands for human rights and freedom.  Let’s apply it everywhere.

PLAYBOY:  What led to your  performance at the benefit for September 11 victims at which you sang America the Beautiful?

NELSON:  Just got a call and they asked.  Of course I would do it.  Everybody at the show felt helpless and wanted to do something.  We are still frustrated.  We may have gotten a whole lot of people, but not the ones who actually did it.  Where is Osama bin Laden?  How do you stop terrorism when your enemy is scattered in 80 countries?  At least they stopped pretending that we have won any wars.  For a while they were saying it:  We won the war, blew Afghanistan sky-high.  Big deal.  Blew up a lot of dirt. I can’t see that we have own any wars.  The information you get from the people in charge is frustrating; they lead you to believe that they don’t know any more than you know.  All the alerts — trying to scare the hell out of us — don’t seem much good.  I’m not sure what good there is to try to scare the death out of us — don’t seem much good.  I’m not sure what good there is to try to scare the death out of every man, woman and child in the country saying the bogeyman is coming.  If they know for sure, that’s one thing.  But the more times you hear them say, “Be alert,” the less alert you get.  You can only stay so alert.  When you say something and it doesn’t happen, you’ve lost the crowd.

PLAYBOY:  After the concert, some people were saying that the money wasn’t reaching the victims of the attacks.  What was your view?

NELSON:  I hope the people who deserved the money got it.  After Farm Aid, I know the types of problems you can have with a charity.  You get a lot of calls and letters asking for money.  Most are legitimate requests but some are not.  I’m sure with the millions we took in at all the shows, there were criminals trying to figure out how to get the money.  I can understand why you would want to take your time.  Maybe they took more time than anyone thought it should.

PLAYBOY:  In our interview with Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, he was particularly incensed about this issue.

NELSON:  Bill O’Reilly screams because it gets more people watching him.  I used to pull tricks like that when I was in radio.  I used to read letters from the one listener who was saying what a horrible disc jockey I was and how did I ever get into this business.  I’d get 20 more letters from listeners telling me how good I was.  I know what O’Reilly is up to.  He’s building his ratings.  He ain’t bullshitting anybody.  He would build ratings any way he could — by putting down whoever on the way.

PLAYBOY:  He maintained that celebrities who asked the public to give had a responsibility to make sure the money got to the intended recipients.

NELSON:  We did, and as far as I know it did.

PLAYBOY:  He also complained that celebrities wouldn’t discuss it on his show.

NELSON:  And help him with his ratings?  Why?  That’s one show I won’t be doing.

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

NELSON:  I can’t remember.  You know, all that pot…. [laughing]

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

NELSON:  I was raised in the cotton fields around Abbott, Texas.  There were African Americans and Mexican Americans and we listened to their music all the time.  I also heard gospel music, Hank Williams and whatever else was on the radio — country or jazz or blues.  There was music in my family, too, since my grandparents, who raised me, played.  They took music courses by mail.  My older sister Bobbie played piano and I got a guitar when I was little.  She played and I’d play along.  Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  The first song I ever sang was Amazing Grace.  Since early childhood, we played together in church, sang in school and went around to talent contests.  Still playing together.

PLAYBOY:  After the concert, some people were saying that the money wasn’t reaching the victims of the attacks.  What was your view?

NELSON:  I hope the people who deserved the money got it.  After Farm Aid, I know the types of problems you can have with a charity.  You get a lot of calls and letters asking for money.  Most are legitimate requests but some are not.  I’m sure with the millions we took in at all the shows, there were criminals trying to figure out how to get the money.  I can understand why you would want to take your time.  Maybe they took more time than anyone thought it should.

PLAYBOY:  In our interview with Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, he was particularly incensed about this issue.

NELSON:  Bill O’Reilly screams because it gets more people watching him.  I used to pull tricks like that when I was in radio.  I used to read letters from the one listener who was saying what a horrible disc jockey I was and how did I ever get into this business.  I’d get 20 more letters from listeners telling me how good I was.  I know what O’Reilly is up to.  He’s building his ratings.  He ain’t bullshitting anybody.  He would build ratings any way he could — by putting down whoever on the way.

PLAYBOY:  He maintained that celebrities who asked the public to give had a responsibility to make sure the money got to the intended recipients.

NELSON:  We did, and as far as I know it did.

PLAYBOY:  He also complained that celebrities wouldn’t discuss it on hs show.

NELSON:  And help him with his ratings?  Why?  That’s one show I won’t be doing.

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

NELSON:  I can’t remember.  You know, all that pot…. [laughing]

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

NELSON:  I was raised in the cotton fields around Abbott, Texas.  There were African Americans and Mexican Americans and we listened to their music all the time.  I also heard gospel music, Hank Williams and whatever else was on the radio — country or jazz or blues.  There was music in my family, too, since my grandparents, who raised me, played.  They took music courses by mail.  My older sister Bobbie played piano and I got a guitar when I was little.  She played and I’d play along.  Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  The first song I ever sang was Amazing Grace.  Since early childhood, we played together in church, sang in school and went around to talent contests.  Still playing together.

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

NELSON:  I wrote poems before I wrote songs and then I put them to music.  My first guitar had strings so far off the fretts that they made my fingers bleed, but I played all the time.

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

NELSON:  I played around when I was pretty young, playing some of the roughest joints anywhere.  The best was the Bloody Bucket in West Texas when we carried pistols in our guitar cases.  I went from Texas to Tennessee, Nashville, to try to break into the business.  I was writing songs but it wasn’t until I went back to Texas that I found an audience for what I was doing.  Sold my first songs.  I got $50 for Family Bible and $100 for Night Life.  It was lie getting a million bucks.

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

NELSON:  It changed over time.  The audience for country music was changing, expanding.  I had grown my hair and was playing just when the hippie redneck thing was a big deal in Texas.  The long-haired hippies over here liked country music by Hank Williams and Waylon and other people, and the old redneck cowboys liked the same thing.  I sort of put them together with Red Headed Stranger, which was the first big success I ever had.  Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a single that did well, too.  The look I had until then was me trying to look like I was supposed to look:  putting on a suit and tie and short hair.  There was a show business look and I tried to do it, but I never felt comfortable.  It took a while for me to figure out exactly who I was.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

NELSON:  There were more pop songs being brought into country music and more strings and more arrangements.  It was just an idea.  I wanted to bring back Stardust, All of Me and those songs.  I played them in clubs and people liked them.  It didn’t matter that they weren’t so-called country music.  It’s just music and those are beautiful songs.

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

NELSON:  Of course.  All I ever wanted was to make a living playing music.  I did that pretty young.  I wanted to be like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, my heroes.  The rest is gravy.  Good gravy, I admit.

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

NELSON:  In Phoenix one night in a club.  He was at an all-night cafe.  He’d been playing over in another club, and we started talking and found out that we were both from Texas.  We became good friends. I miss him, but he’ll aways be around.  we wrote Good Hearted Woman together.  What a great man, a good friend.

PLAYBOY:  When you play his songs do you miss him?

NELSON:  Sure.  It takes some time when your friend dies.  You want to hear a joke?

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

NELSON:  Maybe.  Hell, I deal with them.  I been dealing with them all my life.  Do you want to hear a joke, or not?

PLAYBOY:  Why not.

NELSON:  A man and a woman who had been married forever were having breakfast and the wife said, “Honey, do you remember our wedding night when we were sitting here 50 years ago?  Afterward, we were sitting at this same breakfast table without any clothes on.”  He said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you think we could do that again?  Sit here without clothes on?  “I guess so,” he said.  So they took off their clothes and she said, “Honey, my nipples are just as hot for you today as they were 50 years agao,” and he said, “I don’t doubt it, since one’s hanging in the oatmeal and the other’s in the coffee.”

PLAYBOY:  Is it tough to be reaching an age when you’re friends pass away?

NELSON:  You got another choice?  Sign me up.  You just keep breathing and that is all you can do.  And there’s a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about.  I mean to see the changes in the world — not only the bad ones, but also the good ones.  Look at the Internet.  Now we’re communicating with people around the world without having to go through a record company or publicity machine.  We’re sending songs out in digital form.  Amazing sit.

PLAYBOY:  Part of sending songs out on the Net has raised controversy about copyrights.  Are you concerned?

NELSON:  I think it’s all good.  I’m for the people and this is giving them a new way to listen to music.  It’s good for artists, too, especially artists just breaking out because it’s a way to get heard even if they haven’t been signed by a big label.  This doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid for my work, but I do all right.  Things are shaking out and the internet may work like the radio or something so artists get their royalties.  I’m not worried.  I put samples of songs on the web all the time.  You ain’t gonna hear this stuff on the radio.  They’ll sort it all out — royalties, whether you’re gonna have to pay takes on the Internet, or not.

PLAYBOY:  Taxes must be a sore subject for you after your widely publicized IRS audit.

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

PLAYBOY:  Which in 1990 presented you with a bill for tens of million of dollars.

NELSON:  An impressive sum.  I got an official letter.  I owe what?  We knew it was coming, actually.  It was happening to other people who invested in the same things I invested in — these shelters we were sold on — and we were told to expect it.  They seized everything I had.  I was angry, of course.  Especially angry at the people who advised me and got me into the mess.

PLAYBOY:  Were you thumbing your note at the IRS by releasing The IRS Tapes?

NELSON:  I was just trying to test their sense o f humor.  I suppose I actually heard that they thought it was pretty funny.  The funniest part was that it was the best promotion of an album I ever had.  People heard about it every where.  The more people heard about my troubles, the more they came out to help.  I got phone calls and letters from people wanting to do everything you can think of.  At shows, people would try to give me money.  Friends bought my stuff so I could buy it back form them.

PLAYBOY:  What lessons did you learn from your IRS debacle?

NELSON:  A couple of things.  First, not to trust other people with things that are your responsibility.  I just didn’t want to know and I let people make decisions and nodded, thinking, I’m just playing music.  “You deal with this other shit.”  That was a mistake and I want to know what people are doing in my name and with my money or anything else.  Second, it made me think clearer about what I really want in my life, what I need.  You can caught up thinking you need a lot more than you do. Then it can be like a weight on you, keeping you down.  The IRS didn’t mean to do me a favor, but in a  way they did.  They helped me clean house.  I didn’t need all that stuff anyway.

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

NELSON:  Stuff like a jet.  That’s what can happen and then you have all this shit and think, Now I have to pay the bills.  I prefer the bus anyway.  Everybody thinks it was this hell in my life, but it wasn’t.  It was just something I had to get through.  There has been worse.

PLAYBOY:  Presumably the worst was when your son Billy passed away.

NELSON:  That was the worst.  Everything is insignificant when you have to face something like that.  Billy’s with us though.  That’s the way I feel about it.

PLAYBOY:  After four marriages, have you given any thought to a fifth?

NELSON:  My lifestyle isn’t conducive to marriage  It took four times because I guess I’m a slow learner.  Maybe they don’t like my sense of humor.  Still, every one I was married to was a wonderful woman.  My lifestyle’s a little hard.  I’m on the road so much.

PLAYBOY:  Did you miss anything because of all the miles you’ve logged?

NELSON:  Did I miss anything?  I’m sure I did.  But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.  Wrong or right, it’s my life.  Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

NELSON:  I wrote poems before I wrote songs and then I put them to music.  My first guitar had strings so far off the fretts that they made my fingers bleed, but I played all the time.

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

NELSON:  I played around when I was pretty young, playing some of the roughest joints anywhere.  The best was the Bloody Bucket in West Texas when we carried pistols in our guitar cases.  I went from Texas to Tennessee, Nashville, to try to break into the business.  I was writing songs but it wasn’t until I went back to Texas that I found an audience for what I was doing.  Sold my first songs.  I got $50 for Family Bible and $100 for Night Life.  It was lie getting a million bucks.

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

NELSON:  It changed over time.  The audience for country music was changing, expanding.  I had grown my hair and was playing just when the hippie redneck thing was a big deal in Texas.  The long-haired hippies over here liked country music by Hank Williams and Waylon and other people, and the old redneck cowboys liked the same thing.  I sort of put them together with Red Headed Stranger, which was the first big success I ever had.  Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a single that did well, too.  The look I had until then was me trying to look like I was supposed to look:  putting on a suit and tie and short hair.  There was a show business look and I tried to do it, but I never felt comfortable.  It took a while for me to figure out exactly who I was.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

NELSON:  There were more pop songs being brought into country music and more strings and more arrangements.  It was just an idea.  I wanted to bring back Stardust, All of Me and those songs.  I played them in clubs and people liked them.  It didn’t matter that they weren’t so-called country music.  It’s just music and those are beautiful songs.

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

NESLON:  Of course.  All I ever wanted was to make a living playing music.  I did that pretty young.  I wanted to be like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, my heroes.  The rest is gravy.  Good gravy, I admit.

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

NELSON:  In Phoenix one night in a club.  He was at an all-night cafe.  He’d been playing over in another club, and we started talking and found out that we were both from Texas.  We became good friends. I miss him, but he’ll always be around.  we wrote Good Hearted Woman together.  What a great man, a good friend.

PLAYBOY:  When you play his songs do you miss him?

NELSON:  Sure.  It takes some time when your friend dies.  You want to hear a joke?

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

NELSON:  Maybe.  Hell, I deal with them.  I been dealing with them all my life.  Do you want to hear a joke, or not?

PLAYBOY:  Why not?

NELSON:  A man and a woman who had been married forever were having breakfast and the wife said, “Honey, do you remember our wedding night when we were sitting here 50 years ago?  Afterward, we were sitting at this same breakfast table without any clothes on.”  He said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you think we could do that again?  Sit here without clothes on?  “I guess so,” he said.  So they took off their clothes and she said, “Honey, my nipples are just as hot for you today as they were 50 years ago,” and he said, “I don’t doubt it, since one’s hanging in the oatmeal and the other’s in the coffee.”

PLAYBOY:  Is it tough to be reaching an age when you’re friends pass away?

NELSON:  You got another choice?  Sign me up.  You just keep breathing and that is all you can do.  And there’s a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about.  I mean to see the changes in the world — not only the bad ones, but also the good ones.  Look at the Internet.  Now we’re communicating with people around the world without having to go through a record company or publicity machine.  We’re sending songs out in digital form.  Amazing shit.

PLAYBOY:  Part of sending songs out on the Net has raised controversy about copyrights.  Are you concerned?

NELSON:  I think it’s all good.  I’m for the people and this is giving them a new way to listen to music.  It’s good for artists, too, especially artists just breaking out because it’s a way to get heard even if they haven’t been signed by a big label.  This doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid for my work, but I do all right.  Things are shaking out and the internet may work like the radio or something so artists get their royalties.  I’m not worried.  I put samples of songs on the web all the time.  You ain’t gonna hear this stuff on the radio.  They’ll sort it all out — royalties, whether you’re gonna have to pay takes on the Internet, or not.

PLAYBOY:  Taxes must be a sore subject for you after your widely publicized IRS audit.

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

PLAYBOY:  Which in 1990 presented you with a bill for tens of million of dollars.

NELSON:  An impressive sum.  I got an official letter.  I owe what?  We knew it was coming, actually.  It was happening to other people who invested in the same things I invested in — these shelters we were sold on — and we were told to expect it.  They seized everything I had.  I was angry, of course.  Especially angry at the people who advised me and got me into the mess.

PLAYBOY:  Were you thumbing your nose at the IRS by releasing The IRS Tapes?

NELSON:  I was just trying to test their sense of humor.  I suppose I actually heard that they thought it was pretty funny.  The funniest part was that it was the best promotion of an album I ever had.  People heard about it everywhere.  The more people heard about my troubles, the more they came out to help.  I got phone calls and letters from people wanting to do everything you can think of.  At shows, people would try to give me money.  Friends bought my stuff so I could buy it back from them.

PLAYBOY:  What lessons did you learn from your IRS debacle?

NELSON:  A couple of things.  First, not to trust other people with things that are your responsibility.   I just didn’t want to know and I let people make decisions and nodded, thinking, I’m just playing music.  “You deal with this other shit.”  That was a mistake and I want to know what people are doing in my name and with my money or anything else.  Second, it made me think clearer about what I really want in my life, what I need.  You can caught up thinking you need a lot more than you do. Then it can be like a weight on you, keeping you down.  The IRS didn’t mean to do me a favor, but in a  way they did.  They helped me clean house.  I didn’t need all that stuff anyway.

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

NELSON:  Stuff like a jet.  That’s what can happen and then you have all this shit and think, Now I have to pay the bills.  I prefer the bus anyway.  Everybody thinks it was this hell in my life, but it wasn’t.  It was just something I had to get through.  There has been worse.

PLAYBOY:  Presumably the worst was when your son Billy passed away.

NELSON:  That was the worst.  Everything is insignificant when you have to face something like that.  Billy’s with us though.  That’s the way I feel about it.

PLAYBOY:  After four marriages, have you given any thought to a fifth?

NELSON:  My lifestyle isn’t conducive to marriage.  It took four times because I guess I’m a slow learner.  Maybe they don’t like my sense of humor.  Still, every one I was married to was a wonderful woman.  My lifestyle’s a little hard.  I’m on the road so much.

PLAYBOY:  Did you miss anything because of all the miles you’ve logged?

NELSON:  Did I miss anything?  I’m sure I did.  But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.  Wrong or right, it’s my life.  Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

Willie Nelson, making the most of it (Paste Magazine Nov. 2018)

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

photo:  Rick Diamond

www.pastemagazine.com
by:  Eric Danton

Willie Nelson  is old enough now that many of his friends are gone, which has given him something to consider. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” Nelson, 85, sings on the title track to Last Man Standing, one of two albums he has released this year. After a beat, he finishes the thought: “Wait a minute, maybe I do.”

If he is the last man standing, he’s making the most of it. Most musicians have long since slowed down by the time they reach Nelson’s age—if they get that far. Nelson, by contrast, has released 13 solo studio albums since 2008, plus a bunch of compilations, collaborations and live releases. They include tribute projects, new recordings of old classics and a collection of duets: pretty standard stuff for an artist of his vintage. Yet Nelson’s late-career output also features three albums of original material, much of which he wrote himself after a decade of working primarily as an interpreter.

Calling it a resurgence isn’t quite right, given the amount of music Nelson has made over the years. He’s been around long enough that Patsy Cline had a hit with his song “Crazy” in 1962. Nelson released his debut LP the same year, the first of 68 solo studio albums so far, including Last Man Standing in April and his most recent, the Frank Sinatra tribute My Way, in September. Still, his latter-day pace more closely resembles a garage-rocker who can’t sit still than an octogenarian with absolutely nothing to prove.

Nelson has for decades been among the most iconic voices in music. After making a name for himself as a songwriter in the early ’60s with tunes including “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nelson spent most of the decade bouncing among Nashville record labels as a performer and chipping away at the charts with middling success. By the early ’70s, following a brief, disillusioned retirement from music, Nelson moved to Austin and helped shape the outlaw country movement on a string of albums that ignored the slick, overly produced Nashville sound then dominating the genre. Shotgun Willie in 1973 owed at least as much to the Band as to Bob Wills, while Nelson’s minimalist 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger was his first to hit No. 1—but not the last. He’s released nine solo chart-toppers since then. Later came album-length collaborations with Merle Haggard (two No. 1 albums), Waylon Jennings (1978’s Waylon and Willie made it to No. 1) and, in the Highwaymen, Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson (whose first album album also reached No. 1). It’s been a long time now since Nelson was an outlaw, but he still

does what he wants without regard for expectations.

That accounts for My Way and at least a few more of Nelson’s recent albums, including the collection of standards American Classic in 2009, and Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin in 2013. Recording an album of tunes made famous by Sinatra, mining the American songbook and paying tribute to George Gershwin, a songwriter and composer who helped usher in the Jazz Age, might seem incongruous coming from Nelson, but don’t be fooled: a jazz musician’s heart beats within his hippie-cowboy exterior. It’s long been evident in his guitar playing, and you can hear it in his behind-the-beat vocal phrasing on “Fly Me to the Moon” from My Way, “Somebody Loves Me” from the Gershwin album, or “South of the Border,” from yet another album of standards, 2013’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. For that matter, Nelson was covering Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and, yes, Gershwin all the way back in 1978 on Stardust—his most commercially successful album, with sales of more than 5 million in the U.S.

None of them are groundbreaking in the way that, say, Red Headed Stranger was. Yet Nelson demonstrates throughout that he’s still a sharp songwriter with a gift for melody, a way with words and a dry sense of humor that has become a little more pronounced than it used to be. And apart from having lost a bit off the top end of his unmistakable voice, Nelson’s warm, nasal tenor has scarcely changed over the past 45 years—an amazing feat of durability, given the way singers’ voices tend to thicken with age, and how much time he spends surrounded by smoke. Nelson’s contemporary George Jones, for example, barely had any voice left on a concert tour the year before he died, at 81, and even the mighty Johnny Cash was reduced to a haunting croak on American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last album he released before his death in 2003.

As you might expect, Nelson’s recent material includes plenty of meditations on growing older, on songs like “Last Man Standing,” “Heaven Is Closed,” the aching “Old Timer” and, most directly, “Still Not Dead.” “I run up and down the road making music as I go/ They say my pace would kill a normal man,” he sings on the chorus of that one. “But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway/ And I woke up still not dead again today.” Talk about self-awareness.

There’s probably a stale joke to be made about how Nelson has to keep working to pay his taxes (Nelson settled his debts with the IRS in 1993), but the truth is surely simpler: There’s still a lot of music he wants to make, in a finite amount of time. Even in the last few weeks he’s remained busy: He played at a rally for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, and released the new song “Vote ’Em Out.”

At the risk of burying Nelson before he’s gone, he really is the last of a breed. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, the performer who united the hippies and the rednecks and the duet partner who has never sounded like anyone but himself, whether he was singing with Waylon Jennings, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg or Julio Iglesias. Nelson’s voice is in many ways synonymous with country music, or at least a certain kind of country music. It’s hard to imagine that an artist just starting out could have the longevity, to say nothing of the success, that Nelson has—40 million records sold, a dozen Grammys and the love and respect of his peers—while doing things his own way. In other words, keep those albums coming, Willie.