He just released the acclaimed “Band of Brothers,” but already Nelson is looking ahead to future projects — and to the next night’s gig.
by: Kurt Wolff
Talking to Willie Nelson is, on one hand, a straightforward experience. He speaks calmly and in small bites, with a gentle laugh and friendly smile always on hand to put you at ease. He’s quick with an answer but also patient, thoughtful and willing to go deep when it comes to speaking about his long life experience, the varied terrain of American music, and where the two have (frequently) intersected.
A Willie Nelson conversation can also go in any number of directions. When Radio.com sat down with Nelson for a chat on his bus last month, the conversation started on topic with his latest album Band of Brothers. Soon, though, it moved into text messaging, concept albums, the enduring influence of the Grand Ole Opry, old friends of his like Billy Joe Shaver and Chet Atkins, and why he loves performing and touring so much (six decades down the road and “it’s still fun”). It’s a meandering path, but it’s a hell of a fun journey — and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Two key building blocks of Nelson’s long career came up repeatedly: songwriting and performing. The latter has always been at the heart of Nelson’s musical world. Even now performing is his chief occupation; he spends more nights on his tour bus than he does at his ranch in Texas.
As for songwriting, that’s what jump-started his commercial career, thanks to songs he wrote like “Crazy,” “Family Bible” and “Night Life.” By his own estimation Nelson has written thousands, and this year he added even more to the roster. His latest album Band of Brothers, released this past June, includes nine newly written compositions that have no problem standing on their own as part of Nelson’s extensive catalog.
“It’s been a while since I wrote that much,” Nelson told Radio.com. We were speaking on his bus before a July 12 show with his band, the Family, at Ravinia, a lovely outdoor amphitheater just north of Chicago.
Curiously, Band of Brothers is the first Nelson album to focus on newly written material since his 1996 album Spirit. What took him so long?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nelson said. “Roger Miller said it pretty good, he said, ‘Sometimes the well runs dry. And you’ve got to wait till you live a while to let it fill up again.’ And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”
When pressed, Nelson admitted that it wasn’t just surge of personal inspiration that got him writing again. He had some outside motivation.
“The secret ingredient here is Buddy Cannon,” Nelson said. “He and I work well together. And it’s rare I find anyone I can really feel comfortable writing with. But he and I kinda hit a stride there and wrote some pretty good songs.”
Cannon is a veteran Nashville songwriter and producer best known for his work with Kenny Chesney (he’s produced the bulk of Chesney’s albums, including his upcoming collection The Big Revival). All nine of the Nelson-penned songs on Band of Brothers were cowritten with Cannon.
That, however, doesn’t mean Nelson and Cannon sat down in a room together to hash things out, as is typical among many Nashville songwriters. Instead, they wrote songs by passing ideas back and forth via text messages.
“It just happened to be the easiest way to do it,” Nelson said. “I’ll write a verse, he’ll write a verse. One of us will put a melody down. And he’s got all those great musicians there in Nashville and he can cut the track. And next thing you know we’ve got an album.”
Nelson said he’s never written that way before, but he emphasized that “it’s a lot easier. You’re free to think or say or write what you want to. And Buddy does the same thing. He’s got great instincts, and we seem to be fairly successful together.”
Band of Brothers isn’t the first time Cannon and Nelson have collaborated. “I had him do some producing for me on a couple albums I did,” including recent releases Moment of Forever, Heroes and Let’s Face the Music and Dance. “We just became good friends and started having a good time writing and making records.”
Collaborations are nothing new to Nelson, of course. He’s recorded countless duets and he was part of country supergroup the Highwaymen that included Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. And of course he was often paired with Jennings during the 1970s, when both were branded ‘outlaws.’
“I met him in Phoenix,” Nelson remembers of his first encounter with Jennings. “He was playing a club down there, before he ever went to Nashville. We were both from Texas, so we had a lot to talk about—sit there and lie to each other. But then I saw his show and said, ‘You know, you ought to go to Nashville.’ And he told me, ‘Aw, I’m doing alright here.’ And I said, ‘How much you making here?’ And he said, ‘400 dollars a night.’ And I said, ‘Well s–t, stay here!’ But he didn’t listen to me.”
The 1970s were one of the most fertile periods in modern country music, with artists like Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Tompall Glaser and Bobby Bare taking country in new directions. Leading the pack were Jennings and Nelson. Nelson’s albums from this period, including Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, The Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust, are among his most enduring.
Nelson was still signed to RCA and working with producer Chet Atkins (“we got along great together”) when he released Yesterday’s Wine. What helped that album stand apart, in addition to the fact that it contained such knockout songs as “December Day” and “Me and Paul,” was that the material was bound under a larger conceptual idea, in this case about the cradle-to-grave journey of an ‘imperfect’ man.
“There was, as far as I know, not that many concept albums in country music back then,” Nelson said, when asked how Yesterday’s Wine was received. “So I knew I was pushing a heavy wagon uphill trying to get that stuff out. Which is true. Commercially I don’t think it did that great. But I felt from a music standpoint it was pretty good.”
The album that made him a household name, though, was The Red-Headed Stranger. Released in 1975, it was his first for new label, Columbia.
Luckily for Nelson, his new contract allowed him full creative control of the release, because, as Nelson said, when the Columbia executives first heard the music, they weren’t sure what to make of it.
“I remember they didn’t think it was finished. They thought it was a demo. And I laughed, ’cause I’d kind of anticipated what they were going to think.”
The album, however, turned into a smash. “It restored my faith in the music fans and the people, because I had an instinct that they would like that,” he said of the album’s spare production and engaging storytelling. “I’d like to be able to do another one like that.”
It also earned Nelson his first-ever No. 1 single for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Nelson said earning that chart-topping spot was a thrill but also something he took in stride. “If you’re exceptionally overconfident like me, you kind of accept it and expect it to happen,” he said of hitting No. 1. “And when it does you say, ‘See there? I told you!’”