by: Peter Cooper
Buddy Cannon, esteemed Nashville songwriter, musician and producer, got up one morning in 2011 and noticed he’d received a text message while slumbering.
The text said “Roll me up and smoke me when I die.”
Its sender was a fellow named Willie Nelson.
“I got out of bed, picked my phone up and that text was there, and I laughed my (posterior) off,” Cannon says. “Since then, we’ve written probably 25 songs together by texting back and forth.”
How do you write a song with 81-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson? It helps to have a good mobile plan. Cannon has never been in the same room with Nelson to write a song, but the two co-wrote nine of the 14 songs on the new, Cannon-produced “Band of Brothers” album. That album just made its debut atop the “Billboard” country albums chart.
“I’ll get up, look at my phone and there’ll be a text from him, with a verse or some lines,” Cannon says. “I’ll start tweaking and adding, and we’ll pass it back and forth. When it looks like it’s where we ought to be, we hum a melody to teach each other over the phone. Then he has me go in and cut a track, and he comes in and sings it and plays guitar.”
Easy enough, then. At least for Cannon. For the rest of us, it’s tougher to get Willie’s cell phone number than it would be to get a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your point-of-view) inhalation of Willie’s favorite herb. But Willie trusts Buddy, and has since 2007, when Nelson added a vocal to Kenny Chesney’s version of the Cannon-produced classic “Lucky Old Sun.”
“He came in and did his vocal, and I made a rough mix and sent it to him,” Cannon says. “A couple of days later, he called my cell and said, ‘Hey, Buddy, this is Willie. That’s the best version I’ve ever heard on that song. Let’s find some songs and go make a record.’ ”
And so Cannon and Chesney produced Nelson’s 2008 album “Moment of Forever,” which included gems from the pens of Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, Guy Clark, Gary Nicholson, Bob Dylan and Paul Craft, among others.
Cannon has been working with Nelson ever since, blending Nelson’s acoustic guitar and longtime Nelson cohort Mickey Raphael’s harmonica with session honchos including drummer Eddie Bayers, bass man Kevin “Swine” Grantt and steel guitarists Mike Johnson and Tommy White.
“Every time he sings a song, he does something spectacular,” Cannon says. “The magic of Willie is his phrasing and his choice of notes. Nobody else on the planet does what he does. But you have to let him do it. I’ve seen people start trying to give him direction, and he’s apt to walk out the door, get on his bus and leave.”
Nelson doesn’t skip out on Cannon-produced sessions. They’ve done five albums together, and Cannon recently accompanied Nelson on a northeast trip to do television appearances in support of “Band of Brothers.” Cannon has grown comfortable around his text-happy friend, but Nelson is also a hero to Cannon, who has worked with industry honchos including Chesney, Vern Gosdin, Mel Tillis and Jamey Johnson.
“Recording with him is the ultimate,” Cannon says. “The first memory I have of him was driving around in Chicago in the 1960s and hearing his versions of ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ and ‘Home in San Antone’ on the radio. The phrasing was so out there that it hooked me.”
These days, Cannon doesn’t have to check the radio to hear from Nelson. He can usually just check his text messages, and find lines such as “Bring it on,” “Wives and girlfriends” and “I thought I left you.” Lately, the texts are coming fast.
“We’ve got a record that just came out, and Willie’s head is already in the next album,” Cannon says. “Sometimes, he’ll send me a lyric where I can’t figure out what he’s talking about. One, he sent me a year ago, and I’m still trying to figure out what he’s saying. I dig it out and look at it a lot because I know there’s something there.”