by: Ed Mesley
The man is a piece of American history — the writer of standards as timeless as “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” “Pretty Paper” and “Crazy,” blessed with one of country’s most distinctive voices.
And despite his reputation as an outlaw country artist, a movement based on a rejection of the Nashville way, Willie Nelson has taken 19 songs to No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart, from “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” to “Blue Skies,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
But his impact stretches well beyond the country border. Through the years, he’s been embraced by rock fans, Deadheads and bikers but also mainstream pop fans, thanks to such crossover hits as “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.” He even recorded a Top 5 duet, “To All the Girls I Loved Before,” with Latin pop star Julio Iglesias in 1984, a year before co-founding Farm Aid, a star-studded annual benefit show aimed at saving the family farmer, with John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Neil Young.
So how does Nelson see his place in music history?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never given that a lot of thought.”
He’d rather focus on the road ahead. That’s where the shows are.
Nelson’s latest efforts, “Heroes,” hit the streets in May, with guest appearances by Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, Sheryl Crow, Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, and smoking buddy Snoop Dogg. And he just recorded more than 20 standards in an Austin studio for an upcoming album in the style of “Stardust,” the acclaimed 1978 release that remains the most successful release of his storied career.
He’s on the road — again — to Corpus Christi, where he checked in from the Honeysuckle Rose, his bus, to talk about the state of all things Willie Nelson in 2012.
Question: So I’m really liking “Heroes.” I would guess you’re pretty happy with the way it turned out?
Answer: Oh, heck yeah. I was really happy with it.
Q: How did the idea of an album with so many other voices come together for you?
A: Well, you know, it’s not a new idea. Me and Waylon (Jennings) did it back 20, 30 years ago in Nashville, and it kind of started a trend. But really, even before us, Red Foley and Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn all used to sing together and make records together. I always thought it was a good idea to have different singers get together.
Q: How did you go about choosing the people you brought in?
A: Oh, it was just kind of off the top of my head. I wrote a song called “Hero,” and I wrote it about (outlaw country icon) Billy Joe Shaver because, you know, he’s one of my heroes. So is Kris Kristofferson. Ray Price. Sheryl Crow. All the guys on there are heroes of mine.
Q: Snoop Dogg sounds pretty good on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
A: (Laughs) That’s one of the more popular ones. I do it every night. I close the show with it.
Q: It’s cool to hear on there. How was that, working with them?
A: It’s great. There’s nothing better than that, to have your family on stage with you. My sister Bobbie and (sons) Lukas and Micah and (daughters) Amy and Paula. They’ve all been out there at one time, and that’s really good.
Q: Are either of your sons touring with you now?
A: Well, Lukas has his own band and bus and the whole thing. He’s in Canada doing a tour now. We just played the Fourth of July together. Micah, my other son, is traveling with me now. We’re going down to Corpus Christi tonight, and he’s playing with us.
Q: I really like what you did with the song “The Scientist” on this new album. What appeals to you about doing a Coldplay song or that Pearl Jam song you do on this album?
A: Well, the Pearl Jam song, Lukas brought it to me and said, “What do you think?” I said, “It’s great.” The other one was a commercial for Chipotle, that restaurant chain. I really wasn’t that familiar with the history of the song. It just seemed like a good song, and they wanted me to sing it for the commercial. Then, it caught on pretty good, and they decided to put it on the album.
Q: Some of my favorite songs on the album are the ones you wrote. Do you find that your approach to writing has changed much through the years?
A: I really don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t really have a formula.
Q: Do you often find yourself inspired to write new songs at this point?
A: I don’t know about that either. A good professional songwriter is like a script writer or a comic writer or whatever. I think if you’re a professional writer, you should be able to write a song about anything at any time. Now, whether it’s any good or not, that would remain to be seen (laughs).
Q: Do you have songs that you’ve written that you take particular pride in?
A: Well, yeah, there’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life” and “Crazy.” “On the Road Again.” Songs that I wrote back when I think I was writing at my best.
Q: You’ve always had my favorite voice in country music, but you broke into the business as a writer, and I was wondering if the plan was to be a singer or a songwriter?
A: It was to be a guitar player. I started out as a guitar player, then sort of evolved into a songwriter and a singer. I was playing guitar from when I was about 6 years old, and that’s what I wanted to be.
Q: How did you come to find yourself fronting your own band and singing?
A: Well, my sister and I played together all our lives. In high school, we had a band and we just always kind of kept one. I had my own fan club in high school as a senior (laughs). They were all there, around 15 or 20 of them from around Hillsboro and Waco and Abbott, (Texas), when I graduated. So I felt, you know, pretty cocky.
Q: That’s great. So how does the feeling you get from performing today compare with the earlier parts of your career?
A: Well, it’s a challenge every day, like every job. You get ready and you get up physically and mentally to do a show. We do an hour and a half show and it’s a physical workout, so you really have to be a professional athlete to do what we do every day 200 days a year or more.
Q: With all the songs you have to choose from, how do you go about putting together a show at this point?
A: Well, I’ve started out with “Whiskey River” for years. And then from there, it changes. I’m not really locked into a show that I have to do the same way every night. We put in songs and take out songs, change the sequence. But there are certain songs I know the people come to hear, and we’ll do those before the night it over.
Q: It seems as though you’ve made a lot of records in recent years that I think hold up to your best work. Is it ever frustrating for you when those records don’t get the kind of support from country radio that you got earlier in your career?
A: Honestly, it’s no reflection on radio of any kind, but I never really got a whole lot of play ever because I really didn’t fit the programming style. Even back then, I had my own different way. I was a little bit blues, a little country, a little rock and roll. And a lot of that didn’t fit the country-radio format.
But there were some country stations, and we had some luck with Waylon. We did some songs together that were played a lot on the radio. But it’s hard to depend on that for a livelihood. You kind of really need to build a base. And I think you do that better by touring. We started out working the clubs when there was one or two people out there. And then, the next time there would be 10. And the next thing you know, we’re playing to full houses in the club, and then, eventually, we got into the big arenas and things. But we kind of worked our way up to you.
Q: Right. But you also had chart-topping hits.
A: Yeah. “On the Road Again.” And “Always on My Mind.” But then you start running out of titles.
Q: Do you have a favorite approach to recording?
A: I’ve recorded probably every way in the world. I’ve recorded live with me and the band, and I’ve recorded with a Nashville band where they cut the tracks in Nashville and I put my voice on later. That’s a good way to do it, too. I like to record every way you can. I don’t want to confine myself to just one or two ways. I like to know what I’m going to do before I get in the studio, so one or two takes, three at the most, and we’ve got it. We went in the studio the other day in Austin and in two days, we cut 22 sides.
Q: What for?
A: It was just for whatever, you know?
Q: So it’s not that you have another album coming out or anything?
A: Yeah. We’re putting together an album. And I ran across some other tracks today of stuff that we can come out with, me and sister Bobbie and the band. “What’ll I Do?” You remember the old pop standard, “What’ll I Do?” That’ll be the title of the album. And we’ll have “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “The Anniversary Waltz,” “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”
Q: So a standards album.
Q: That’s great. You always do a great job with the standards.
A: Oh, I love doing them. A lot of the young people have never heard those songs. When I did “Stardust,” many years ago, a lot of the young people out there had never heard “Stardust” or “Moonlight in Vermont.” And now they have.
Q: I hear you have a memoir that you’re working on?
A: Oh, I completed it. It’s called “Just As I Am,” and it’ll be out sometime around Christmas, I think.
Q: What was that like for you, going back and reflecting on everything?
A: Oh, it was easy. It was kind of like a diary more than anything else. When I’m riding along here on the bus with nothing to do, I would write a few pages. And the next thing I know, I’ve got more pages than I need.