Harp Magazine Article on Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, “Songbird” (12/2006)

Harp Magazine
December 2006
Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams:  Holy Smoke!
By Wes Orshoski

It’s kind of a treat hearing Willie Nelson laugh. That is, really laugh. His laugh is one that’s sort of worn and weathered, like his scrapped-up acoustic guitar or faded jeans. It’s a haggard, whiskey-soaked laugh teetering on a cackle. From a hotel room in Laughlin, Nevada, Nelson’s having a good laugh over some good smoke. Over the phone, he recollects the day a documentary cameraman fell straight over from the potency of Willie’s weed—in mid-shot, no less.“Aw, he’s just a pussy,” Nelson says, igniting roars of laughter.

It’s no secret that Willie finds the primo stuff, or, rather, it finds him: “People give me stuff all the time, and the next thing you know I have the best around. Without really going around shopping, people bring me the latest good things to have,” he says. “Over the years, I think it’s gotten a little better, and some of the guys who aren’t up for smoking too much, well, they walk through the bus one way and walk out another,” he says, igniting more roaring laughter.

Just a couple weeks after chatting with Harp, Nelson, a longtime proponent of the legalization of marijuana, was carrying a little too much prime bud when state troopers stopped his tour bus outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, for what they called a “routine commercial inspection.” What they found: a heaping bag of weed (weighing in at a pound and a half) and two-tenths of a pound of mushrooms. So all this sort of raises the question, right? Just how much does Willie smoke? Before every show?

“Well, I don’t really say, ‘I’m gonna smoke before every show.’ But usually I’m smoking before a show. I don’t smoke during the shows, though,” he says, laughing. “There’s a couple hours a day that I’m not smoking.”—still more cackling ensues—“Occasionally, someone will come along with some serious smoke, and maybe I’ll forget the words to ‘Whiskey River,’ but that’s about as serious as it ever gets.”

And, to be sure, there was plenty of industrial-strength weed and a few bottles of Jack Daniels going around during the recording of Nelson’s latest disc, Songbird, a ragged and warm reinvention of Nelson heard through the ear of Ryan Adams, who produced the album. Says a still-chuckling Nelson, “He ain’t no lightweight.”

Featuring Nelson backed by a slightly modified version of Adams’ Cold Roses band, the Cardinals, Songbird finds Nelson putting his stamp on a heady and vaguely unusual mix (for him, at least) of songs by the Grateful Dead (“Stella Blue”), Fleetwood Mac, Harlan Howard (“Yours Love”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”) and Gram Parsons. A tussle between loud guitars and Nelson’s quavering voice, the raucous left-turn take on Parsons’ “$1,000 Wedding” recalls Adams’ Gold, while the shimmering resurrection of the Christine McVie-penned title cut (from the Mac’s Rumours) reimagines and outdoes the original with slackjawing ease and heart.

Captured in New York’s Lower East Side over two sessions, the first in December 2005 and the second the following February, the disc is bookended by Nelson’s “Rainy Day Blues” (one of four of his own songs on the album, including the new “Back to Earth”) and a spontaneously recorded “Amazing Grace,” featuring a somewhat radical new arrangement by Adams. The on-and-off-again alt-country star surrenders one of his own songs, an unreleased, gospel- and B-3-drenched jewel about his relationship with actress Parker Posey titled “Blue Hotel.” In its lonely verses, Nelson adds an element of almost ancient sadness—“I’ve been going from door to door, with nothing to sell/Wandering like a fool through the halls of the blue hotel”—before he leads a choir in the chorus: “Go on and rain down on us/Go on and rain/Go on and rain down on us/I give up.” For many, the disc will sound like the album Nelson has been destined to make for years, the kind with which a genuine Willie Nelson renaissance—on par with Rick Rubin’s early-’90s unearthing of Johnny Cash—could be launched. To be sure, there’s a feeling of rebirth pulsing through Songbird, and that’s the collective result of song choice (split between Adams and Nelson), Adams’ ear, and the fact that the disc takes Willie out of his comfy country-music environs.

“Ryan did a heck of a job,” says the 73-year-old star. “He worked hard day and night on that thing for months to get it right. And he deserves all the credit.”

Nelson says he signed up for Songbird pretty much right after Lost Highway label boss and “good friend” Luke Lewis came to him with the idea: “I had known Ryan, and I knew he was somebody with a lot of talent who sang well. I wasn’t that familiar with his type of music, but I thought, ‘Why not.’ How hard can it be?”

As it turns out, not hard at all, says Jamie Candiloro, who mixed the disc: “Occasionally, there might have been something like, ‘This is a little fast,’ but a lot of the stuff just fell into place, and when one of the band members started playing something, they all just started playing along and found their way on it, and one or two takes after that, we had it.”

With Adams adding acoustic, electric and bass guitars, the Cardinals—Jon Graboff (pedal steel), Brad Pemberton (drums), Neal Casal (piano, guitar) and Catherine Popper (bass)—asserted themselves and quite quickly congealed with Nelson, putting their own stamp on the tracks. (Mickey Raphael, a longtime member of Nelson’s band, also guests on harp; Glenn Patscha adds B-3). Smiles, says Nelson, abounded after the cutting of every track.

“When we cut “Stella Blue,”” says Candiloro, “that was a pretty great moment: Before my eyes, I saw how everyone kind of found places where they belonged in the production of it. The entire track pretty much went down without any overdubs, and sounded the way it does on the record, within two takes.”

Recorded live to tape, with few overdubs (truth be told, there was a tiny bit of digital polishing at the end), Songbird succeeds partly because it was made the old-fashioned way: on the fly. “There was a sense,” says Candiloro, “that Willie’s records in the recent past have been a little more put together. Ryan felt like the aesthetic for this needed to be a kind of a live, on-the-floor kind of thing. He felt like that that would really get to the root of what Willie was doing. Instead of saying, ‘We’ll change this later,’ or ‘We’ll fix that vocal later,’ we just kind of went for things, and got ’em the best we could.”

And for the handful of days that Nelson, Adams and company hunkered down at the Clinton Street studio, it definitely carried its own, original vibe. Says Candiloro, “It looks like Willie may be giving Puff Daddy a run for his money. He’s got himself a little entourage. At one point, there was a guy walking around with an ascot and a martini in one hand. I have no idea who he was. I assumed he might have been friends with Willie.”

If Songbird feels to outsiders like an important new addition to the Nelson canon—and it is—when Nelson himself looks back on it, he remembers… well, he doesn’t really remember that much about it. Sounding more matter-of-fact than macho musician, he says it was all sort of a blur.

“We had just came out of a tour, and we hit New York on a run, and we hit the studio on the run, we cut our stuff and then ran again,” he says. “We had a lot of fun, we shot pool, we drank a little, smoked a little, and we had a lot of fun in between takes. One of the things Ryan said that I thought was interesting is: ‘We’re making music for the video set.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ve never thought of it that way,’” Nelson chuckles. “I knew that he was coming from an entirely different situation than I was, because my background was country and western/western swing, ya know, the old traditional things, and this was not traditional.”

In the end, that divide didn’t prove to be much of a problem, Nelson says. “He might say, ‘What do you think about this or that,’ and I’d say ‘Yes, no, maybe.’ I didn’t agree with everything he wanted to do, because if it wasn’t natural and it wasn’t fun, I didn’t want to do it. But that was cool. I think one day he said, ‘Let’s sit down and write a song right now and record it,’ and I just didn’t feel like I wanted to do that, and I didn’t feel it was necessary: I thought we’d be better off doing a song that we already had and could teach to the band and save a lot of time that way.”

Says Candiloro, “There was a sense that Willie didn’t know what was going to happen sometimes, but he was willing to follow that and see where it goes.”

Case in point: the almost psychedelic version of “Amazing Grace.” Says Nelson, “When we started doing it, I’m not sure if Ryan or I once said, ‘Let’s do “Amazing Grace,”’ but then I think he already had in his mind a way that he wanted to do it, so he started doing it in the minor keys, and I said, ‘Well, ya know, why not? Let’s see what happens,’ and I thought it was incredible. And that’s one thing that I think stands out in the session.”

In the end, though, it’s the beautifully sung title track that soars above the rest, a perfect marriage of Adams’ sound, Nelson’s quavering voice and an exceptional lyric. Adams’ selection of the song again underscores just how big of an influence Rumours has been on him. During Whiskeytown’s heyday, he would utterly slay with his cover of “Dreams.” (If ever there was a reason to log onto a file-trading service and risk the wrath of the RIAA, it’s to find Adams and Caitlin Cary’s acoustic duet of the song, performed on the air for an Austin radio station.)

“He came in there knowing what he wanted to do with it,” Nelson says of “Songbird.” “And I just sung the song, and, really, truthfully, that’s about it. I thought it was a great arrangement on the song. I remember hearing the original when it came out [in 1977]. This is an entirely different take on that song, and I think it turned out really good.”

If anything, Songbird, for Nelson, is just the latest breadcrumb dropped on his meandering, criss-crossing, eco-bus-traveled trail to music immortality. If the recording of the disc is a blur to Nelson now, it’s not the diss that it could be misconstrued as: Like Adams, his mind is always focused firmly on the next record, the next tour stop, the next good smoke—or even the next round of golf.

“I don’t worry about the score, I just try to finish,” he says, laughing.

On the morning of the day he spoke with Harp, he was busy coordinating an album of cowboy songs from his hotel in Nevada.

“I’ve been listening to Sons of the Pioneers and Gene Autry, putting together lyrics and things, and I’m already talking to an old buddy who works in radio about helping me produce the album. I been thinking about it for a while, and a couple of other folks have brought up the idea of doing it, and one of the guys is in the record business, who thought he could sell ’em. So I said, ‘Heck, I’ll start thinking that way.’”

The album, he says, is likely to include such songs as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Back in the Saddle Again,” songs that Nelson “grew up singing. There are a whole lot of them. Plus, there’s some new things that have been written along the way.”

And that’s just what was on his mind that day. He has another album slated to be released in January—another collaborative disc, this time with fellow stalwarts Ray Price and Merle Haggard—and he recently cut some tracks with Shelby Lynne in another session, and Kenny Chesney in still another.

“I enjoy doing it,” he says of all the work. “That’s the thing: If I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t be here. In terms of the road, if I’m out here too long, I’m ready for that month off, but then after a couple of weeks, I’m ready to come back, and it’s been that way all along—I’ve grown to expect it.”

With the recent passing of fellow Highwaymen Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, America’s country icons are, like their bluesmen, fast becoming an endangered breed. And, just as Buddy Guy has inherited an extra sense of value and love in the wake of John Lee Hooker’s death, so has Nelson in the wake of Cash’s. So is it something he himself senses? Is there an extra sense of importance to playing the older songs?

“Oh, I’ve always felt like that,” he says. “The fact that I know these songs and I love these songs, I’m obligated to play ’em, regardless of whether they’re Lefty Frizzell or Eddy Arnold. If they’re good songs, I love to sing ’em. If I need an album, I do a Lefty Frizzell album, which I did. So all through the years, I’ve just kind of done it because I wanted to—there are so many great songs out there.”

So as long as there’s work to be done, you can expect Willie to be out there doing it, and as long as there’s shows to play, he’ll be there to play ’em. And, backstage, right there next to him (or maybe tucked away), you can expect to find that primo stuff, state troopers or no state troopers. “Don’t worry,” he cackles, “I’ll have it.”

They have some great photos of the recording session at their site at

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