Dan Rather, Willie Nelson, Andy Langer
photo: Gary Miller
by: Andy Langer
Shortly after the midterm elections, Willie Nelson confessed with characteristic humor that he was disappointed by the results.
“I’ve got a new song called ‘Y’all Got the Ball,’ ” he said, referring to the Republican takeover of the United States Senate.
Whether the song actually exists, Mr. Nelson won’t say. But he is working at a pace that belies his 81 years: Last week, he released “December Day”, an album of duets with his sister Bobbie. It follows “Band of Brothers”, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart in June. An album of duets with Merle Haggard is planned for release early next year.
Mr. Nelson’s longtime friend Dan Rather, 83, also isn’t slowing down. The journalist anchors two programs for AXS television — “Dan Rather Presents,” an investigative program, and “The Big Interview,” featuring celebrities. Last month, he interviewed Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard together for a new program, “Inside Arlyn,” that Mr. Nelson is hosting.
Still in the pilot stage, without an announced network or airdate, the program pairs Mr. Nelson with legends and newcomers for live performances recorded at Austin’s Arlyn Studios. Mr. Haggard was the guest for the first pilot episode, and the young Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. played with Mr. Nelson for the second.
Immediately following Mr. Rather’s interviews for “Inside Arlyn,” Mr. Rather and Mr. Nelson talked about music, politics and longevity.
QUESTION: You both got your starts in Texas radio.
RATHER: I didn’t know until recently that Willie was a disc jockey in Houston the same time I worked at KTRH. We were the “50,000-watt voice of the golden Gulf Coast. Tall tower, full power. We break in when news breaks out.” Where were you?
NELSON: KRCT in Pasadena. We played country music. I also got to promote the shows I was working in the clubs. I had a good thing going.
RATHER: I have fond memories of KTRH. We had a live program at noon, “Hillbilly Bandwagon” with Babe Fritsch. We’re talking in the mid-fifties. That’s where I met Elvis Presley. He was still truck driving some between shows when he came in for an interview. He was scruffy. I had a feeling he’d been up all night driving. He apologized and said indeed he had, but whether that’s true or not, I’ll never know.
Q: Dan, I’ve heard you talk about the role of music as solace and company when you’re reporting. I suspect you’ve listened to Willie in some faraway, dangerous places.
RATHER: Absolutely. I don’t want to be sophomoric about this, but I always felt a strong bond because he was the voice of the Texas I knew. I knew Willie’s music before “Red Headed Stranger.” “Hello Walls” was always one of my all-time favorites. But the first time I heard his version of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” I literally pulled the car off the road someplace in Alabama. I’d heard others sing the song, but Willie cut somewhere really deep within me. I remember thinking that if Willie doesn’t record another song the rest of his life, that song will still resonate through the ages.
Q: Willie, people must tell you those kinds of stories all day.
NELSON: And I can listen to ’em all day.
Q: But what’s that mean to you as a songwriter? You sit with pen and paper and later people have these deep, meaningful experiences.
NELSON: It’s easy for me to understand how someone can be a fan of someone. I have similar experiences with Hank Williams or Floyd Tillman. I was telling a friend the other day that people pay a lot of money to come to hear me or somebody sing and there’s an energy exchange that takes place out there that you can’t put a price on.
Q: Dan, you’ve got two shows. Willie, you tour nonstop. Is passion the key to longevity?
NELSON: Definitely. But also anybody that sings for two hours has to be in pretty good physical condition. You’re using your lungs — one of your largest muscles in your body. It’s a good workout. I ride my bike a little, but the real workout is the show.
RATHER: I do think passion is a key to longevity. Another is gratitude. God, thank you for giving me something I love to do and for letting me still do it. There’s nothing like feeling you’re out front of a big breaking story.
Q: Are we at the point where politics are simply too divisive to get anything done?
RATHER: The short answer is yes. And it’s something I worry about. And I’m not a worrier by nature. I’m an optimist by nature and experience. But none of us ask often enough, “What’s good for the country?” In elected politics they too often ask, “What’s good for me in the next race or for the party?” I’m a child of World War II, and I remember the time everybody pulled together.
NELSON: We have to start rebuilding our infrastructure, our highways and roads, and employ all those unemployed people building our country back. That’s where the money should go.
Q: There’s a Ratherism along the lines of, “The Michigan race is tighter than a Willie Nelson headband.” How tight is a Willie Nelson headband?
NELSON: Pretty tight indeed.