by Joe Breen
On his 77th birthday, with an acclaimed new album of classic country songs, and three Irish shows on the way, Willie Nelson is not letting the time slip away.
‘Yes, I’m easy to get on with – as long as I get my way.”
You could never accuse Willie Nelson of overselling himself. He doesn’t have to. It is 2pm US eastern time when we finally hook up. He is sitting in Morgantown, West Virginia, resting before a show in the university town. It is his 77th birthday, a fact that when reminded of it, he quietly acknowledges with a soft “thank you very much. I appreciate that.”
Nelson is basking in the glow of yet another spike in his long and colourful career. His current album, with the definitive title of Country Music , is his best stab at his core genre for some time and he knows it. “It’s the latest one, so I like it . . . I think it is one of the better ones we’ve done in a while.” Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the man responsible for the acclaimed Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album, Raising Sand (“he’s just a great producer”), Country Music revisits a rich selection of country classics from the music’s heyday in the 40s, 50s and 60s, while remaining faithful to the original sound. This was important for Nelson as the songs are “the kind of country music I grew up listening to”.
Born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933, Willie Nelson started playing guitar and writing songs at a young age. It was a hard time, growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression. “It’s always tough for the working man. It’s been tough ever since I can remember. When I grew up on a farm it was tough for the working man. The poor man does and the rich man gets the money. That’s about the way life is. And I don’t know whether that is ever going to change.”
After graduation from high school he flirted with various careers, from disc jockey to agriculture college, before eventually moving to Nashville. There he got a songwriting contract and wrote some of his most famous songs which became hits for, among others, Patsy Cline (Crazy) and Ray Price ( Nightlife ). This fertile period also produced other classics such as Funny How Time Slips Away . However, while his songs were helping others, Nelson’s own career was proving a hard struggle.
“Well, that’s exactly true. That’s because in the beginning my singing style didn’t catch on like the songs did. So I was successful at writing songs long before I was successful at singing and selling records. It had a lot to do with my phrasing and everything – it was a little bit different for the hardcore down-the-centre country music people. It took a while to catch on.” Indeed, it was not until the early 1970s, when Nelson landed back in Texas, this time in Austin, that his own career took off in earnest.
After a decade in straitlaced Nashville, Nelson literally let his hair down (and then tied it in braids) in his native state and started making the kind of music that would become known as “outlaw country”. He wasn’t alone. Waylon Jennings was there, as was Kris Kristofferson. Later, in the mid-1980s, these three, joined by Johnny Cash, would form country “supergroup” The Highwaymen.
Something strange had happened. From being a writer of other stars’ hits, he now became a hit singer of other people’s songs. Asked did he suffer from writer’s block, he replies: “I’m not that kind of writer. I usually have to have something to write about. It’s kind of like labour pains when I get an idea that’s so good I have to write about it. [But] I’m that critical of my own songs, I don’t write much and it doesn’t bother me much that I don’t.”
His writing took a back seat to his singing as the hits kept coming and his fame grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s with a series of albums, some of which surprised his loyal country following. “I like change, a challenge. I like to try different things like Stardust [his hit album of standards from the American songbook]. It’s easy to do San Antonio Rose but I always like to do different things. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t, but I always have fun trying . . .”
Asked to describe his favourite music, he replies: “Somewhere between Bob Wills [legendary Texas western swing star] and Frank Sinatra there is a music I really can get into and like.”
Today, he has no idea how many albums have been released under his name. “There’s a lot of it out there and there is no way to control what gets released. I’ve recorded so much in the past that I’m sure it is going to keep coming back at me. As long as I can come out with a CD like Country Music every once in a while, that’s OK.”
He is quite aware that the genre of country music has run into difficulty, into a kind of artistic stasis. “I think we’ve been guilty of trying to branch out a little, of trying to cross all boundaries and sell in all markets: to be all things to everybody, and I’m not sure we can be that.” However, he is cool to the suggestion that country has a right-wing inclination: “Well, I don’t really know what to say about that . . . it seems to me that country music originated with country people, mountain people, who sang their music. And I don’t think it was right-wing or any wing. It was just honesty, it was the way people thought and felt.”
Aside from his musical adventures, Willie Nelson has also made major public stands: in Democratic politics, as a supporter of the peace lobby, as a founder of FarmAid (concerts to help distressed farmers) and, famously, as a leading figure in the campaign to legalise cannabis. His PR assistant had warned that he was reluctant to speak of these issues, particularly the latter, and he proves true to her word. Asked how publicly engaged he is, he replies: “I really don’t know how to answer that.” Pressed about his public role as an American icon, he says: “I don’t know. I’m just an individual. I think about things I would like to happen and that’s about it. There’s been some great FarmAids over the years, and at least we have been able to bring attention to the plight of the small farmer. I feel that an entertainer or a celebrity who can do something should try to do it. It’s that simple.”
Asked about the impact of right fringe groups such as the so-called Tea Party movement on the Obama presidency, he opts instead to state that he thinks Obama is “doing all right . . . The economy is bad everywhere and the quicker the economy turns around . . . but we’ll be fine, we’ll pull through.” He also has a neat line in soft-spoken self-deprecation. Invited to describe his distinctive, character-filled voice, he whispers: “Old.”
As a dope-smoking, braid-wearing, peace-loving 77-year-old singer of country, reggae and whatever else takes his fancy, Nelson is predictably strong on the role of the American Individual. “One thing we’re proud of over here, and especially in Texas where I come from – we’ve always looked at Texas as being another nation anyway – I feel a lot of us are independent thinkers and we always have to fight our way through. If we didn’t have to fight for it, it probably isn’t worth it. But we always manage to keep our pride and fight for what we believe in. Americans and Texans will always do that.”
The clock is ticking over our time but he is happy, finally, to explain what keeps him going: “I think it’s the day-to-day challenge of getting up and seeing what you have to do each day. I don’t think I would be happy to wake up to nothing to do, to have nothing to look forward to. I still get a kick out of playing music, travelling, talking to people, debating this, arguing that – I just kinda like to get out there and mix it up with the folks.”
Country Music is available on Rounder Records. Willie Nelson and his band play three shows in Ireland in June: the O2, Dublin (3rd); Gleneagles Hotel, Killarney (4th) and the Royal Theatre, Castlebar (5th)
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