“We play a little of everything”: Willie Nelson in Conversation

The American icon on Sinatra, Django Reinhardt, the art of the duet, his Texas beginnings and more.  

by
Credit: Pamela Springsteen.

There is a story that Willie Nelson likes to tell about his first public performance, when he was 5 years old at an all-day festival of singing and eating in East Texas. “My grandmother and granddad, who raised me, taught me a little speech,” recalls the country singer, songwriter and American music institution, who was born in the small town of Abbott, not far from Waco, in 1933. “I had a little sailor’s suit, white with red trim. And before I could get up onstage, I started picking my nose and it bled all over my white sailor suit.

“There I was,” Nelson continues in his warm, raspy drawl, “standing in front of an audience with my finger on my nose, going, ‘What are you looking at me for/I ain’t got nothin’ to say/If you don’t like the looks of me/Look some other way.’” He laughs. “I still sort of live that way.”

Nelson, who turns 88 on April 29, keeps going his own way at a pace that defies even the pandemic. His latest book, Willie Nelson’s Letters to America, out in June, swiftly follows last fall’s Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, co-written with his older sister and pianist. Willie is surely the best-known country musician in the cannabis-brand business. And the music is always coming. His latest album, That’s Life, comprises 11 lavishly scored covers of songs associated with Frank Sinatra and was partly recorded at the latter’s old haunt, Capitol Studios in Hollywood. It’s Nelson’s second full-length since lockdown started and one of more than a dozen releases since 2010, including a previous Sinatra tribute, 2018’s My Way.

In this conversation, over the phone from Hawaii, Nelson reflects on his lifetime admiration of Sinatra, whom he also called a friend; the improvising art in his own singing; and Nashville’s initial resistance to his breakthrough LP of standards, 1978’s Stardust. The singer also reveals that he has another studio album on the way — his 96th. It started out as a gospel project, he says, “but we’re going to call it a Family album, because I’ve got all the boys and girls on there, singing.”

You have recorded songs associated with Sinatra for decades. What is it about that repertoire that feels so touchable for you?

I always admired Sinatra for his choice of material. I don’t think he ever recorded what I would consider a bad song. And he never did the same song the same way twice. He’d phrase differently here and there. Phrasing was one of the greatest things he had.

How do you prepare for a take, especially with material as iconic as “That’s Life”? Do you study the lyric? Or do you do what the song tells you in the moment?

Frank did those songs the way he felt them at the time. I try to do the same thing. I don’t ever try to do what I did 20 years ago, to get whatever vibe or feel was on that record. I play it by ear, going on the vibes that I have around me today. “That’s Life” is an upbeat, positive song, and you go into it with an upbeat, positive attitude. If you do that, you can’t miss.

“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is hardly as upbeat. It’s a painful reflection on the night before in this case, what didn’t happen on that night.

That song, also “Cottage for Sale” — those are incredible pieces of material. Jerry Jeff Walker sang “Cottage for Sale” [on his 2003 album, Jerry Jeff Jazz]. When I heard him do that song, it knocked me out. Then I heard the arrangement that [co-producer] Matt Rollings and the guys put on it [for That’s Life]. It knocked me out again. But I never think about it [before a take]. If it comes out fine, OK. If it doesn’t, I’ll do it again.

When you wrote “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” — which became country standards through the 1961 hit records by Patsy Cline and Faron Young — were you thinking of how other singers might treat them or how you thought they should be sung?

I wrote them the way I felt at the moment. Actually, the original title of “Crazy” was “Stupid” [laughs]. But when I listen to my take on it [on Nelson’s 1962 debut album, And Then I Wrote], I can see where I borrowed a melody from Floyd Tillman. He had a song that went [sings] “Baby, baby, I miss you so very much it hurts me” [“I Gotta Have My Baby Back,” released by Columbia in 1949]. Those first two notes [sings “Baby,” then “Crazy”], it was unintentional. But I did rip him off a little bit.

Diana Krall, who sings “I Won’t Dance” with you on the new album, is one in a long line of duet partners you’ve had on records and onstage. Where does that ease and comfort — making room for someone else in a song — come from?

I sang with anybody and everybody I could when I was growing up — in church, in beer joints, wherever they would let me sing. And I always sang the way I felt, with whoever was there. And there was nobody there to tell me, “You can’t do it that way.” My grandmother said the definition of music is anything that is pleasing to the ear.

You’ve talked about how, as a boy working in the Texas cotton fields, you heard a lot of the music that inspired your own songs and records.

I was picking cotton along with Mexicans, Black guys and the other poor white trash out there with us. I was listening to Mexican music, those guys singing on one end of the field. On the other end, the Black guys were singing blues. And you had the white guys singing Bob Wills. You had it all out there. I learned a lot about all kinds of people, all kinds of music, just by working in that damn cotton field.

You’ve also spoken about your love for the Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. How did you first hear Reinhardt?

Johnny Gimble, a great fiddle player [who worked with both Wills and Nelson before his death in 2015] — he turned me on to Django. He gave me an old tape or something. I realized immediately that this guy was incredible. He only played with two fingers [on his left, fretting hand] — the forefinger and middle finger. He had burned the other two in a fire. But he could play. The tone on that guitar was something that I wanted.

In 1969, my friend [steel guitarist] Shot Jackson called me and said, “I got you a guitar that you’re gonna like. It’ll cost you $750. But I guarantee you that you will like the tone on it.” Because he knew what I was looking for. I bought the guitar sight unseen. I had just spent $750 for a ropin’ horse, so I figured if I could spend it on that, I could spend it on this. [That guitar, a Martin N-20 nylon-string acoustic that Nelson named Trigger after Roy Rogers’ horse, remains his constant sidekick in the studio and on the road.]

In fact, Reinhardt had the European version of a country background — being of Romani descent, growing up in the encampments and learning to play guitar and violin there.

Absolutely. You could tell that in his music. He played his country music. Norah Jones told me one time that I played like Django with one finger [laughs]. I took that as a compliment.

What is your idea of the Great American Songbook? It is associated with Tin Pan Alley and the golden age of Broadway. But Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You,” which you recorded for 2019’s Ride Me Back Home, is a song Sinatra easily could have done.

Frank would have loved that song. You could consider Guy Clark a country artist. Anything he wrote would have that feel to it. But that [Songbook] — everything should be in there: jazz, country, blues. Because it’s all good.

Nelson in Baton Rouge in 1978, prior to a TV interview to promote Stardust.
Credit: Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Yet when you made Stardust, Columbia Records famously resisted putting it out.

“Ain’t no country singer can sell ‘Stardust’ or ‘Moonlight in Vermont’”: God bless ’em, but they were not the smartest people in the world [laughs]. I was coming out of Texas beer joints. I knew what the people liked. I went to Nashville and it was a different world. It wasn’t their fault. But the executives there at the time — they basically didn’t know what they were talking about.

There was a place called the Nite Owl in a town called West, Texas. It was between Waco and Hillsboro. I played there all the time — me and my sister and our band. We played “Stardust” there, and we played Hank Williams, and it didn’t matter. The people danced to our music. And we played to a lot of the same people on Sunday morning, out at the Abbott Methodist Church. It was all music. We still pride ourselves on that. We play a little of everything.

There is a tune on Ride Me Back Home that you co-wrote with your producer and collaborator Buddy Cannon, “One More Song to Write.” What is the latest song you’ve written? And what is it about?

There are a few of them. One of them goes, “Live every day like it’s your last/And one day you’ll be right” [laughs]. Another one, the lyric is “Imagine all you want/Then get out of the way/Because energy follows thought/Be careful what you say.”

Words to live by.

Absolutely.

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