When artists do phone interviews, they’re typically scheduled at set times. But that just ain’t how Willie Nelson rolls. The procedure involves placing a call to his representatives, who then try to track Nelson down and get him on the phone when he’s got the time and inclination to talk.
It took a few calls, but we spoke to Nelson recently from some far-off location on his never-ending tour, which comes to Raleigh Saturday as part of the big Farm Aid shindig. The man turned 81 years old in April, and he’s bigger than ever – back at No. 1 on the country charts for the first time since the mid-1980s with his latest album, “Band of Brothers” (Legacy Records). And he’s still out there singing and playing with his trusty and well-worn guitar Trigger (one of the most distinctive-sounding instruments in all of popular music).
Once we got Willie on the line, here’s how it went:
Q: What memories stand out from the 29 years’ worth of Farm Aid concerts that you’ve played?
A: I guess the first one stands out because it seemed like a thing where it was time for it to happen, and a lot of people agreed. Out on the road, farmers still come to me to talk. Or they text, email, send letters. It’s still the same old thing after 30 years, the same problems. We need a farm bill that will take care of the small family farmer. Now it’s just the big corporations that get help, which seems to be accepted by everybody except me and the farmers and people concerned with where food comes from. I want organic food, and I want it for my kids and grandkids, too.
Q: The “Band of Brothers” title track has a chorus that says, “You can’t tell me what to do.” Who on earth tries to tell you what to do?
A: (laughing) Oh, I don’t think anybody seriously tries, at least not anymore. I probably need someone to tell me on occasion. But I don’t listen anyway, so it would be futile. Just as well nobody tries. I already know what I wanna do.
Q: You co-wrote nine of 14 songs on “Band of Brothers,” the most you’ve written on an album since the mid-1990s. What inspired this latest writing binge?
A: Buddy Cannon and I write well together, and that’s unusual – for me to write well with someone else. The last time was Hank Cochran 50 years ago. Buddy and I think along the same lines, and he’s a great musician and producer. We’ve had a lot of good luck together and we’re still writing a lot of songs. Got another album that’s supposed to come out later this year.
Q: The new album’s “I Thought I Left You,” which likens a former lover to measles and whooping cough, is pretty hilarious. How true-to-life is that one?
A: Pretty true. I think everybody who’s been through marriage, or more than one marriage, can relate to any of that stuff.
Q: Is it ever a burden being Willie, someone everybody thinks they know because of your music?
A: I think it’s what I started out to accomplish from the very first time I played guitar and a girl liked it. “Hell,” I thought, “this is what I wanna do.” It’s easy for me to play and sing and write, and I think it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Q: What do you think you’d have wound up doing if not for music?
A: Oh, I’d probably be a bank robber. Just kiddin’. I went to law school to be a lawyer, but I majored in dominoes. I think I was a better domino player than I would’ve been a lawyer.
Q: There was a need for lawyers when some of your entourage got arrested for marijuana possession in Duplin County in 2010.
A: That was a little bit of trouble. Nothing too serious. Through the years, things like that have happened quite a bit to me. But I’m a little bit more out there and more open about it than most people, I suppose.
Q: Patsy Cline made your career (and hers) when she covered “Crazy.” Did you two ever actually meet?
A: Oh yeah, her and I were great friends. We met in Nashville. I brought some songs from Texas that I’d written and one of them was “Crazy.” I was talking to Charlie Dick, her husband, and played that one. “That’s a great song and I’d love for her to do it,” he said. “Let’s go play it for her right now.” It was after 12 midnight and I didn’t want to go wake her up, but he made me do it. She loved it and recorded it the next week.
Q: So if anything ever happened to Trigger, what would you do?
A: After I finished killing somebody, whoever was responsible, I’d probably be in prison for a few years. Although most people would think I’d be justified, so I might get off. But Trigger’s doing good. Gets a little beat up now and then, and I have to have him fixed up. But he’s still barking pretty good.