Why Willie Nelson Has No Reason to Slow Down
And a few things only Texans understand.
The word “legend” gets overused a lot, especially when talk turns to musicians. But Willie Nelson is the true embodiment of the word. The writer of such country standards as “Crazy,” “Hello, Walls,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nelson long ago distinguished himself as one of America’s great stylists, his Texas baritone blending country, blues, jazz, rock, and Latin into a form that might easily just be called “Willie’s music.” Along the way, he’s became a cultural force, as well, as an activist, actor, and author.
Q: You have a new album, God’s Problem Child, coming out in the spring. Intriguing title.
A: That particular song was written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White. They sent it to me, and I loved it, and we decided that would be a great title for the album. I’m looking forward to getting it out there.
Q: You wrote a lot of this album. You’re considered one of America’s greatest songwriters. How does that feel?
A: I don’t know. I started to play guitar and write when I was really young. I didn’t think it was a big deal. And I don’t think anyone who can really do it thinks it’s a big deal. It’s just what we came here with a talent to do. I seem to have the ability to take a line and hear a melody and maybe a second line, and to make this rhyme with that. Whether it’s any good or not, who knows?
Q: Leon Russell, who died last year, played and sang on the title track. It was one of the last things he did.
A: Everybody adored Leon. He was just a great talent. He called me when he had his heart attack. I said, “C’mon, let’s go pick.” He said, “I’m tryin’.” But he didn’t make it. He was one of the greatest musicians ever. I went to see him one time in New Mexico. He was playing to about 20,000 people in a big auditorium there, and he had the audience way up [emotionally]. Everybody was so high that he stopped right in the middle of the song and said, “Remember who got you in this spot. Remember how vulnerable you could be in this spot, and be careful who you let put you in this spot.” I thought that was pretty good.
Q: Your 2016 Gershwin album, Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, debuted at the top of the charts and has been nominated for a Grammy. Why did you want to record that material?
A: The Library of Congress gave me their Gershwin Award [in 2015], and I said, “Well, the least I could do is a Gershwin album.” I wasn’t sure I knew that many songs. I found out that Frank Sinatra had done a whole album of Gershwin songs. So I went in there and kind of ripped him off. I said, “You did good, Frank. I’ll do those, too.” (Laugh)
Q: Your Ray Price album, For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price, is equally memorable. You knew him well, especially in the early part of your career. You were like brothers.
A: Yeah. He hired me to be a writer for his publishing company. Then he hired me to play bass. He called me and said, “Can you play bass?” I said, “Can’t everybody?” (Laugh) Of course, about a year later I asked him, “Did you know I couldn’t play bass?” He said, “Yeah.”
Q: You lived with him for a while.
A: We played on the road for a long time. I fronted his band, and I’d get up there and sing a lot of Hank Williams songs and tell Little Jimmy Dickens jokes, and the audience would say, “Where’s Ray?” (Laugh) I used to tell him, jokingly, “Ray, I’m watching you, and everything you do, I’m going to do the exact opposite.” Of course, he laughed.
Q: You just had a new Christmas book out, and you’ve written a couple of autobiographies and other books. What do you love most about the written word?
A: To me, it’s like what [songwriter] Harlan Howard said one time about country songs: “It’s three chords and the truth.” I seem to be able to put my feelings down in a song easier than I can talk about it. Writing books is a challenge. I didn’t volunteer to write any of those books. They just said, “Hey, you want to write a book? Here’s a lot of money.” I said, “Let me see. Small words, big letters.” (Laugh)
Q: You have two films coming out, one with the celebrated British actress Charlotte Rampling, called Waiting for the Miracle to Come.
A: Yeah. It’s a Bono-produced movie, and I had a lot of fun making it. It’s a good family story.
Q: What sort of character do you play?
A: I play a character who looks a lot like Willie Nelson.
Q: Your other film is with Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson, and it will be streamed live to theaters.
A: That’s right. I heard that Woody was crazy enough to try that.
Q: And you play Willie Nelson?
A: I play me better than anybody. But I’ll do a little singing, and we’ll try to get funny every now and then.
Q: You’re good friends with Woody. What’s at the center of that friendship?
A: Well, we’re both from Texas, so we’re both arrogant and full of bull. (Laugh) We play golf, and dominos, and chess, and poker, all those good games. He has a place over in Maui, and so do I.
Q: Most of who aren’t lucky enough to be from Texas don’t quite understand that planet of Texas.
A: (Laugh) I don’t, either. But I grew up there, especially up around Abbott, Hillsboro, and Waco. That’s all my territory. It’s the best place where I feel good, you know.
Q: Is there another part of the South that’s special to you?
A: All the South. I’ve worked through Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, for fifty years, I guess. Traveling all over the world and playing to a lot of different people, I found out one thing--when it comes to music, people are the same. The same music that they like in London, England, they like in Austin, Texas.
Q: Why is that?
A: I can’t explain it. Fortunately, I don’t have to. But whether it was Leon, or Merle Haggard, or who whoever, people come out to hear us sing and they applaud. I think there’s something therapeutic about just clapping your hands and singing along.
Q: You made two albums with Haggard, and you do a couple of those songs in your show. What do you miss most about him?
A: His friendship. He was there when I needed a friend, and I hope I was there when he needed one. And he and I loved singing together. He was such a funny guy. Had a great sense of humor.
Q: What was your least favorite job?
A: Pickin’ cotton. Pullin’ corn. Bailing hay. About the same three dislikes, I guess.
Q: Your life has certainly been unconventional. Do you hear crazy rumors about things you’ve done?
A: Oh, all the time. If I’d done all the things I was supposed to have done, I’d be really tired. (Laugh)