Willie Nelson Interview (new book, new album) (2002)

by Robert Digiacomo
Atlantic City Press

Willie Nelson likes telling jokes.  He’s included plenty of them in his new book “The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes” (Random House), a sequel of sorts to his autobiography “Willie.”

“The Facts of Life” is a compilation of anectdotes from the road, song lyrics surveying Nelson’s career, and, of course, his jokes, which fall into basic categories:  dirty, as the book’s title suggests, and the dumb blond variety.

The bearded, ponytailed singer/songwriter — as well known in the last decade for his Farm Aid benefits and tax battles with the Internal Revenue Service as for his music — wasn’t worried about offending his readers, though.

“I was married to a blond for a long time and I have a blond daughter,” says Nelson, who is appearing at 7 p.m., Sunday, January 27 at the Tropicana.  “Most of the blond jokes I’ve heard from them.  I don’t think the blondes are offended.  I don’t think they get half of them.”

All joking aside, Nelson, who has written the lyrics to ‘Crazy,’ ‘Hellow Walls,’ ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘Always on My Mine,’ among hundreds of others, uses the book’s 202 pages most effectively as a showcase for his songwriting.

“I think songs on paper — words on paper without the melodies — have a different impact and a different impression,” says Nelson, who was recently inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “I wanted to see if mine came off just as well…. as they did with melodies.”

For his newly released album “The Great Divide” (Lost Highway) though, nelson took a different tack.  He wrote only the title cut, choosing instead to record a collection of songs by other writers.

The album has been likened to Santana’s ‘Supernatural’ in its multigenerational assemblage of behind-the-scenes talent.

Among its 12 cuts are three songs by matchbox twenty’s Rob Thomas, who co-wrote the hit ‘mooth’ for Santana, as well as tune by longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin and Cyndi Lauper (a cover of ‘Time After Time’).

Making guest appearances are Sheryl Crow, Lee Ann Womack, Kid Rock, Brian McKnight, Alison Krauss and Bonnie Raitt.

“It was all part of the information I had — it’s hard to disregard a guy who just sold 10 million albums,” Nelson says of his working with Rob Thomas.  “Naturally, that was there, but it wasn’t the main reason I did it.  I like the way he produced and what he did with matchbox twenty.  It wasn’t just for the Santana success, but that was in the corner of my mind.”

The Country Music Hall of Famer says he relied heavily on producer Matt Serletic to assemble the writers and material.

“I tried not to get in his way,” Nelson says.  “I believe if you have enough faith in a guy to say ‘produce me,’ you ought to let him do it.  I looked forward to seeing what those guys would come up with.”

Despite the mix of writers, the album manages to make a personal statement about reaching a certain stage in your life.

“I think a lot of the songs have to do with the more mature audience,” Nelson says.  “There’s a lot fo songs like ‘This Face’ and ‘Recollection Phoenix’ that are talking about everyone aging a little bit.”

‘This Face’ is especially poignant, opening with:  ‘This face is all I hav worn n and lived in/Lines beneath my eyes, they’re like old friends/ and this old heart’s been beaten up/ My ragged soul, it’s had things rough.  In fact, the emotions were so raw that Nelson wasn’t sure he wanted to record it. 

“I wasn’t sure it might be calling too much attention to something, or people might think I was going for sympathy or something,” he explains.

Given the tilt of some of the material, Nelson’s label has high expectations the album will reach beyond a country audience to achieve crossover success.

For his first collection of new material in five years, Nelson has switched labels within Universal, from Island Def Jam to Lost Highway.

The new label not too coincidentally also released the hugely successful soundtrack to the move “O Brother, Where Art Though.”

“I wasn’t sure about it,” Nelson says of the change.  “They convinced me Lost Highway was a good label.  I started hearing good things about them.  They had done the ‘O Brother Where Art Though’ record.  Well, I said, ‘nothing wrong with that’ — it was like the Santana thing.”

The new label’s enthusiastic backing has helped to gain crucial radio support for Nelson, who, along with Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, in the 1970s became known as one of country’s outlaws — traditional country artists who were ignored by the Nashville establishment.

“I think it’s a compliment to be called an outlaw, a guy trying to be independent and do his own thing,” says Nelson, whose first single is the duet ‘Mendocino County Line’ with Womack.  “I know there’s a lot of them out there trying to do it.  The opposition is probably as strong today or maybe stronger than when I first started singing.”

“I’ve been talking the last week to countles country music radio stations — they’re all waiting for The Great Divide, and I expect it will get more play.  This is one of those cases where the record company is really behind it.”

Having yet another new release makes choosing his set list for his live shows that much more difficult.

And there’s likely to be more Nelson music in the near future — the versatile performer has four other albums in the can:  reggae and jazz releases, as well as tribute albums to Hank Williams and Ray Price.

“Every night I do a lot of the older songs and a lot of newer song,” Nelson says.  “When I do an album, I add them to the show.  I have to figure out where to drop.  It’s always hard to decide.”

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