Willie Nelson is a true American original.
His compositions include "Crazy," "Night Life," "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time
Slips Away," "Me and Paul," "On The Road Again" and "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground."
His playlist also includes successful cover versions of
such songs as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,"
"Whiskey River," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,"
"Stay a Little Longer," "Always On My Mind" and "Pancho and Lefty."
Nelson is a musical "outlaw," delivering a repertoire that
exists outside of the traditional country mainstream. His
unique brand of risk-taking is evident on albums like
1993's Across The Borderline and 1998's Teatro.
Nelson is a enigma -- an established legend who continues to push the musical envelope.
Digital Interviews: How old were you when you first started getting interested in playing music?
Willie Nelson: It was really pretty early. I started writing poems at four or five years old. I learned to play guitar at six years old, then I started putting melodies to those poems.
DI: Were you listening to the radio at that age?
WN: I’d listen to the radio at night. I’d hear everything that was there. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, WSM. I listened to WLS in Chicago. I listened to all kinds of music growing up.
DI: When did you go from writing poems and having an interest in performing, to actually putting a band together?
WN: Well, my sister and I played together when we were growing up. She played piano and organ, and I played guitar. I’d sit on the piano stool and play along with her. We did that for years. Then we got in school, and we played the study hall periods, things like that. I put together a band a little later on -- I was in high school -- and I’ve had one ever since.
DI: You’ve played alongside your sister for decades now.
WN: We’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s really great to be still doing it.
DI: You also were a disc jockey in the late 50s?
WN: Over in Vancouver, Washington -- it was KVAN. I lived in Portland back then. I lived in Eugene a while; my mother lived [in Eugene].
DI: Was there a music scene in Vancouver?
WN: I don’t know if you could call it that or not. There were a few good bands around, that I used to go play, and book out on the weekends or nights -- whenever I could find a job somewhere around Portland [or] Vancouver.
DI: Was it about this time that you started recording music?
WN: Yeah. Actually, one of the first things I did was in a guy’s basement in Vancouver, “No Place For Me” and “Lumberjack.”
DI: The first “famous” song you recorded was “Family Bible.” How did the idea for that song come about?
WN: It was really sort of autobiographical; it wasn’t a difficult song to write at all.
DI: How much did you sell it for?
WN: Fifty dollars.
DI: So you moved to Nashville and said, “I’m going to be a songwriter”?
WN: I thought I would continue to be one. I thought I was one before I got there. But, I knew that I could do okay -- or thought I could -- as a songwriter. Especially after “Family Bible” did well. Even though I sold it for fifty dollars, I thought, “Well, if I can write one, I can write two. Maybe get sixty dollars for the next one.” [laughs]
DI: Once you first got to Nashville, you put out some all-time classics.
WN: I was working in Houston in fact, living over in Pasadena -- driving all the way from Hempstead Highway back over to Pasadena every night. I wrote songs on the way, back and forth. In one week over there, I wrote “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” So, when I went to Nashville, I had those ready to go. It was a good week. [laughs]
DI: What’s your songwriting process like, or is there even a process?
WN: There is no process -- all different ways. Some days I write, some days I don’t -- most days I don’t. [laughs]
DI: Why did you move back to Texas in the early 70s?
WN: Well, I felt like I had sort of reached some sort of turning point. I really wasn’t making it with me and my band, traveling all over the world. I thought I would make the circle a little bit smaller and go back to Texas, and work around Oklahoma and New Mexico and Texas -- try to sustain myself and the band that way. And we did, and it was a good idea. I knew a lot of places to work around there. We did okay. Then, all of a sudden, here comes the 4th of July picnics -- and the Red Headed Stranger album came along.
DI: You did three ground-breaking albums in the mid-70s. Shotgun Willie is very progressive, with a lot of performers that are not particularly “country.” You did the Phases and Stages album with an R&B producer. In 1975, you released Red Headed Stranger, truly a thematic classic. Where do such disparate ideas come from?
WN: I have no idea. I just do things off the top of my head -- trust my instincts, pretty much.
DI: Wasn’t CBS a little hesitant to release Red Headed Stranger when it came out?
WN: Well, yeah. They’d never heard anything, probably, that sparse [laughs] turned in as a session. They thought it needed a little…you know, maybe it sounded pretty good as a demo, but I couldn’t be serious about it being a finished product. I started out with the song “Red Headed Stranger” itself, a song that I didn’t write but I used to sing when I was a disc jockey many years ago. I would play it. I had a kiddie show at a station in Fort Worth. Each day, around one o’clock, I would play 15 minutes of children’s songs for the mothers out there who were trying to get their kids to take a nap or something. “Red Headed Stranger” was one of the regulars on the show; I’d get requests for it all the time. So, when I had the chance to do an album with CBS, what was almost unheard of in those days was artistic control, I had to stop and think of what I wanted to do. I took the “Red Headed Stranger” album and thought, “I’ll write a concept album about what happened up until that song started, and then what happened after the end of it.
DI: In 1978 you put out Stardust, a collection of pop standards that spent ten years on the country charts. What inspired you to put the album together?
WN: I was living in L.A., in an apartment, right underneath the apartment of Booker T. Jones. He was married to Rita Coolidge’s sister at the time -- Priscilla. He and I hung out together a lot, and the more I got to know him, the more I realized that this was the time to do the Stardust album. I’d wanted to do all those songs for a long time, but I just didn’t find the right producer and arranger. I knew that in order to do songs like that, I would need to have someone in there, who knew everything there was to know about writing and arranging. Booker T. was the guy that I felt could do it. Sure enough, he was the guy.
DI: You’re well known for your Farm Aid benefits. When did you get an interest in the cause of struggling family farmers?
WN: I was watching Live Aid, that Bob Geldof put on many, many years ago. I was at some Holiday Inn somewhere. Bob Dylan said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if some of this money stayed here for our family farmers?” I started checking around, and sure enough, there was a problem. So, I was having a beer and chili on the bus with Governor Jim Thompson of Illinois, in Springfield, and I was asking him about it. He said, “Yeah, it’s a real problem.” He helped me find the first venue, which was the University in Champaign, and we did our first Farm Aid there.
DI: How did the Highwaymen project come about?
WN: Johnny Cash and I, and Waylon [Jennings] and Kris [Kristofferson], were all doing Johnny’s Christmas special in Switzerland. John and I talked about going in the studio. The more we talked, and the more we toured over there, we thought it would be a great idea to get everybody in there. Not only us, but we got Johnny Rodriguez, who came in and did a song on the album. One thing led to another.
DI: In the ‘90s, you started to put out some very daring albums. Across The Borderline was produced with Don Was. What memories do you have of those sessions?
WN: Oh, a lot of good ones. We did that all over the country. A couple of tracks we did in Ireland. It was nice working with Don Was, who was a great producer.
DI: Another producer is Daniel Lanois. He took on the Teatro project, and that definitely sounded unlike anything you’d done. How did that collaboration work?
WN: When you have a producer, you’ve really got to trust him. You’ve got to say, “Okay, take it.” You’ve got to believe in the guy before you can do this. So, I believed in Don Was, I believe in Chet Atkins, and I believe in Daniel Lanois. Spirit, I produced that myself. But, Stardust was Booker. So, this was Daniel’s deal here, and [he] used his phone book and his arrangements.
DI: It sounds like it’s fun for you, to have different producers…
WN: Oh, yes.
DI: …and see where they want to take your music.
WN: That’s right. If you have a producer who’s anxious to take you somewhere, I think you ought to at least listen. If he has any kind of credentials, you might want to go there.
DI: Tell us a little bit about the recent Night and Day album -- your first all-instrumental collection.
WN: Well, I’ve been doing instrumentals ever since I can remember, but it’s not a very commercial idea, anymore, to have an instrumental album. The record companies wouldn’t jump up and down when you called them about it. [laughs] I had to wait until I had a way to get it out there. Fortunately, a couple of ways came by -- this small record label that a couple of guys were running, that was a way to get it out there.
DI: You have two new releases. One is Me and the Drummer.
WN: It’s on Luck Records. That’s another one of those small independent labels that I finally got involved in, to put out things like Night and Day, the Honky Tonk Heroes album and Me and the Drummer -- some songs that we did in the studio with my old band, the Offenders, with Jimmy Day and David Zetner and some of those guys.
DI: You’ve also got Milk Cow Blues coming out?
WN: Right. It was another one of those easy things to do. All these blues pickers live there in Austin. I knew them all, and had a studio that was available, so we went in and cut some tracks, not having any idea what I was going to do with them. At that point, it was before I went with Island. Right after that, I went to down to talk with Island -- Spirit came out, Teatro came out, and the reggae album that we talked about originally was put on the back burner. I talked them into putting out the blues album. When they heard it, they were more than willing to do it, especially since they have some blues artists that we were glad to get on there, like Susan Tedeschi and Johnny Lang. That’s how that got started.
DI: What projects are you thinking about for the future?
WN: Well, the reggae album’s still coming out. There’s a little work to do on it -- [I'm] planning on going back to Jamaica and maybe doing some work with Ziggy Marley, and the Wailers, down there.
DI: That’ll be a tough assignment, Jamaica.
WN: Boy, yeah, it’s rough. [laughs] Y’all wouldn’t want to come down there and cover that, would you?
DI: We may have to. [laughs] Last question -- what advice would you give to a young musician that might just be starting out?
WN: You know, one of my ex-father-in-laws, people would ask him for advice, and he’d say, “Take my advice -- and do what you want to.” We got a big laugh, but I think it’s pretty serious advice if you look at it from that angle. Do what you want to do. Just follow your heart. Listen to me, and then do what you want to do.
DI: Just follow your own dream?
WN: There you go.