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.”
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.