“Letters to America,” — by Willie Nelson

Photo: Janis Tillerson

by: Steve Baltin

Willie Nelson’s forthcoming book, Letters To America, with author Turk Pipkin, finds the musical icon sharing his views on America, religion, faith and much more. When I spoke with Nelson he admitted some hesitation about whether he is qualified to share such wisdom. This despite the fact there is a mural in Austin, Texas that says “Willie For President.” And so many people support the idea that the mural has been declared a historical landmark.

The best part about Nelson is his humility. Just like friend and fellow icon Dolly Parton, who made national headlines for turning down a proposed statue of herself in Nashville, Nelson is sheepish about his beloved place in the world.

When I point out to him his national treasure status, and how like Parton, who has been deservedly canonized in the last year, he holds the same elevated regard from millions of music fans, he just laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t know all about that.”

I do. Nelson is a unquestioned American icon, which makes his latest album, That’s Life, even more special. It is Nelson covering some of his favorite Frank Sinatra songs, one music legend saluting another as a friend and fan.

I had the absolute joy and honor of speaking to Nelson about his fandom and friendship with Sinatra, the new songs he has been writing in the COVID pandemic, his favorite artists, cannabis, of course, and more.

Steve Baltin: You’re still in Hawaii these days, correct?

Willie Nelson: Yes, in Maui.

Baltin: I got to interview you son Lukas in August and he was telling me that the first four and half months you guys had dinner together every night at 5:30 which he hadn’t done since he was ten years old. I have spoken to hundreds of artists during this time. Some have really enjoyed their time with family and others who have lost their mind. How have you managed the two?

Nelson: I’m doing alright. I can’t complain. I’m really lucky. I heard there was this sign out in front of a window that said Husband for Sale. So I imagine there’s a lot of that going on.

Baltin: What do you think your wife would ask for you if you were for sale?

Nelson: She would probably be very reasonable. [laughs]

Baltin:  Lukas and I were joking at the time how a song like “On the Road Again” takes on such new meaning. When you’re playing in front of thousands of people again, what’s that one song for you that you just can’t wait to do and see how everybody responds to it?

Nelson: Well of course, “On the Road Again,” “Whiskey River,” “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind.”

Baltin: When you get an opportunity as an artist to delve into somebody else’s songs, you hear these oftentimes in a new way. So were there Sinatra songs from this record that you particularly enjoyed doing, or that you got a new appreciation for?

Nelson: Oh yeah, it’s one thing to hear them and like them. Another to go into the studio and then turn on the mic and say, “You’re on.” It’s another deal entirely. I love all those songs and I felt like I could sing ‘em.

Baltin: Were there any songs in particular that really stood out to you?

Nelson: “Cottage For Sale.” If I had to pick a favorite, I think that would be it. It’s an incredible arrangement that Matt Rollings and Buddy Cannon and those guys came up with, all those fantastic musicians first of all. Just the arrangement itself knocks me out. And then the song is fantastic. We got a list, it’s checked out to see who all had recorded that song besides Frank. And I found out Jerry Jeff Walker had recorded it. And I listened to his record on it and it was pretty good. So a lot of us liked the song.

Baltin: I love that you refer to him as Frank. Did you guys ever meet? I’m sure you did at some point.

Nelson: Yeah. Oh yeah, we did. A couple of times, more than once. We did a commercial together, a hundred years ago, we did “A Foggy Day In (London Town).” It was on his album. And then more recently, we did some shows together in Palm Springs and in Vegas. And we got to be good friends. He’s always been my favorite singer. And I read somewhere that I was his favorite singer. So that knocked me out.

Baltin: When you go back into these songs do you feel like it brings you closer or it takes you back to even being that kid and hearing these songs?

Nelson: Absolutely. Every time I do it I think about it and I wish I could have spent more time with Frank.

Baltin: We’re getting to a point soon when you’re able to go back out on the road and do these songs. Are there any in particular that you’re really excited to do in front of an audience? You mentioned “Cottage For Sale” being the favorite of the record. Obviously too when you play a song live it changes. The audience brings their own feelings and interpretations to it.

Nelson: It’s true and you hope that they’re not too far apart [laughs]. But that’s an incredible song to start with. It’s got a lot of changes in it. I don’t know if you’re a musician or not but this song has some fantastic changes from A-Flat to D7 to A6 to E9, D minor, and it’s that way through the song. And all of those chords need to be there so it’s a big challenge to learn the song.

Baltin: You’ve done other Sinatra songs. Are you able to figure out what it is that makes Sinatra your favorite singer? Was there something about him in particular or was it just something that connects with you on a gut level?

Nelson: Well, first of all I love his voice. I love the way he phrased. I love the choice of songs. I love his acting. I thought he was a really great actor. I saw him and Dean Martin a few times together. They were incredible. I saw one time on a CBS show, Dean Martin said, “Frank, tell them about some of the good things the mafia does.” [laughs] So yeah, they were great folks.

Baltin: I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians about cannabis. If you ask any artist in the world who they most want to smoke with is, it’s always you. They all refer to you as the Godfather. So for you, given that everybody most wants to smoke with you, who is the artist you most want to smoke with?

Nelson: Well honestly, I have already had that dream come true with great friends of mine, like Snoop Dogg or Ray Price. There’s a long list of good buddies that I’ve had the pleasure of burning one down with, and I love ‘em all.

Baltin: Tell me about this book. I like the concept of it. Letters To America versus writing a traditional memoir. Was there one letter for you that really jumpstarted this idea of writing it in letter format?

Nelson: It started out another way. It started out to be called Yesterday’s Wine which is one of my albums And somewhere along the way it was decided to call it Letters To America. I feel like it might be a little presumptuous for me to go out there to write letters telling everybody what they ought to do. [laughs] But you know, Turk [Pipkin] is a great writer and I think he did himself well. And it may work. We’ll see how the people react to it.

Baltin: What were the things you noticed that could be improved and what is America to you at this point?

Nelson: Well America is, first of all, made up of a lot of different people. Every color, every denomination. And the big problem is trying to convince everybody that we’re all equal. There seems to be some idea out there that one is better than the other. And it’s an age old problem. It’s not something that we’re going to solve tomorrow. But as long as we know what the problem is, we’ve got a better chance of fixing it.

Baltin: As you started to do this book, what are the things that most bring you together with other people and make you enjoy stuff the most?

Nelson: I just wrote a song and in fact it’ll be on my next album, next year sometime. But it’s called “Energy Follows Thought.” It’s, “Imagine what you want, and get out of the way because energy follows thought. And be careful what you say.”

Baltin: How many songs have you written for the next album already?

Nelson: [laughs] About a dozen.

Baltin: I’ve joked with countless artists about COVID box sets because artists have had so much time to write. So have you been prolific during this time?

Nelson: Oh yeah, I have. I wrote one we can’t record but it was “The day the earth quit turning, the day the earth stood still and we all had to keep our distance and we all had more than time to kill. And God said, ‘Son go down there and help those people out.’ And Jesus said, ‘God, why don’t you come down here, I’m tired.’ And God said, ‘Are you out of your f**king mind?’”

Baltin: That sounds awesome. Why can’t you record that?

Nelson: [laughs] I don’t know. I can’t laugh about something so tragic.

Baltin: As we spent so much time talking about America, what are a couple of songs for you that would be on your America playlist? Those songs that when you think of America, really stand out or jump out to you?

Nelson: Bobby Bare has a good song out, I’m not sure whether he wrote it or not. I’ve been listening to it on the radio. “God Bless America, Again.” I feel that’s pretty much where we are.

Baltin: Is there one song you wish you had written. What is it and why?

Nelsom: [laughs] There’s a whole list of songs that I would have be glad to put my name on. Like “Stardust” and “Moonlight In Vermont” and all those great songs. But no, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Baltin: I was wondering as a fan if there’s that song and you think, “Ah, it’s just so perfect?”

Nelson: Well there’s a few. Ray Price had one, “It Will Always Be.” I thought he really did a great job. He was my favorite country singer. Well right along with George Jones and Vern Gosdin and some more folks. But there’s a lot of talent out there.

Baltin: What do you want people to take from this record when you hear it? What’s the one takeaway about Sinatra and the timelessness of these songs for you? Going back and listening to this as a whole work.

Nelson: Well I want them to want to hear it again and again. I want them to like it so much that they don’t get tired of listening to it. It’s like me listening to Frank and Ray Price. I never get tired of listening to them.

Baltin: You mentioned the Ray Price cover. Are there versions of songs of yours that when you go back and rehear them, that you’re like, oh that’s really cool because I never would have thought of doing that myself?

Nelson: Well Ray Price did “Night Life” like no one else could do it. Claude Grey did “Family Bible.” There’s just so many songs that people have already put their brand on that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Baltin: If you could match one song of yours to cover, what the one artist you would like to see cover that song. Is there a match of the one song and the one artist you would like to see?

Nelson: Unfortunately those people that I would like to see aren’t around. Like Nina Simone and Ray Charles. George Jones and Ray Price. All those folks are not with us. So it would be really difficult.

Baltin: Okay, I’m curious because Lukas and I talked about this. So when you guys were having dinner at home every night, what was the favorite quarantine meal?

Nelson: I’m a bacon and eggs guy and I don’t get much heavier than that.

Baltin: But there is such great food in Hawaii.

Nelson: Yeah, they have great bacon and eggs over here. [laughs]

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