“Everyone loves Willie Nelson”

by:  Randy Lewis

Everyone — ‘underdogs, outliers, Republicans, rappers’ — loves Willie Nelson

Country-pop maverick Kacey Musgraves gave a warm testimonial to fellow Texan Willie Nelson on Wednesday as part of a Grammy-week salute to the veteran singer-songwriter by the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing.

Musgraves essentially described him as nation’s ultimate unifier.

“One of my favorite things that I’ve noticed about him after getting to know him and see him in many different environments,” Musgraves said in a packed room at the Village recording studio in West Los Angeles, “is he has this really unique ability to unite and really bring people together. I mean, it’s really kind of unlike any artist I can think of: underdogs, outliers, Republicans, rappers, presidents– everyone loves Willie.”

Everyone except, apparently, the fire marshal.

An overflow industry audience that tried to cram into the large room to see and hear Nelson prompted security personnel to turn dozens away at the door–on the fire marshal’s orders, they said — just as academy President Neil Portnow was about to offer his own salutary remarks about Nelson, the year’s P&E Wing honoree “for a career epitomizing artistic integrity and sonic excellence.”

A few minutes later, when Nelson ambled onstage to accept the award and offer a short performance accompanied by his musician sons Lukas and Micah as well as special guest Dave Matthews, he acknowledged the importance of those bestowing it on him.

“I’d like to thank the producers and engineers over the years for making me sound as good as I could,” Nelson, 85, said. “I’m glad they liked me because they could have really screwed me up.”

Aboard his celebrated tour bus earlier, Nelson elaborated, saying that he’s grateful for the often under-recognized work that allows him to focus on the uniqueness of his vocals and the emotions conveyed in the music and lyrics in his songs rather than simply fighting to be heard.

“I think it’s all important,” he said from his seat at small table designed as an eating or work space. It was a family affair as he was joined on board by his wife, Annie, sons Lukas and Micah, musician-friend Ziggy Marley and other friends and family members. “I think you have to have a good song, good musicians and everything will fall into place.”

For nearly a dozen years now he’s been making the most of a working collaboration with Nashville-based veteran songwriter, producer and publisher Buddy Cannon, who told the crowd during his time at the mike that they’ve, so far, recorded 207 songs together since they began working together in earnest after Cannon met Nelson in 2007 while producing an album for Kenny Chesney.

“Buddy Cannon and I work so well together because we write songs together and then he takes them into the studio, gets all musicians together and records it with him doing a scratch vocal,” Nelson said. “He records all of that and then when he gets through with it, we maybe bring it to my [Pedernales] studio there in Austin, and I go in and put my vocals on there. It’s the easiest way that I’ve ever recorded.”

Willie Nelson’s sons Micah, left, and Lukas, right, perform with Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael, second from left, and Dave Matthews, center, Wednesday at the Producers & Engineers Wing annual gathering. (Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

That’s a big part of Nelson’s prodigious output in recent years: He’s been releasing at least one, sometimes two and occasionally three new albums a year. Two of his most recent — “Last Man Standing” and “My Way,” both released last year, have earned him two more Grammy Award nominations, bringing his lifetime Grammy nomination count to 51.

He said he’ll be sticking around town to attend Sunday’s ceremony at Staples Center to find out if he collects either the traditional pop vocal performance award for “My Way” or American roots performance award for “Last Man Standing.”

And he’s letting no moss grow under his boots. He has another album in the pipeline targeted for early summer release, including at least one of several duets he recently recorded with Irish musical mystic Van Morrison.

And despite the evening’s accolades from the record industry’s tech community, which sweats daily over finding the right microphone, cables and sound editing software for each project, Nelson, unlike his audio-obsessed pal Neil Young, doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about that side of making music.

“I’m not that smart,” he said with an easy laugh. “If I like it, I figure, maybe that’s OK. I’m gonna have to go with my instincts again. We’re doing the same thing: He’s doing what he wants to do, and so am I. That’s the way to do it, if you’re lucky enough to do it.”

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