By Richard Skanse
Willie Nelson is a man who needs less introduction than the Pope in Rome, but keeping track of the guy is no small task. Or rather, keeping track of the many projects he has up in the air at once is no small task, as keeping track of where Willie actually is physically on virtually any given day of the year is generally no more difficult than typing his name into the search engine of the Pollstar online touring database. Odds are, right now, as you read this, Willie is either playing a show somewhere in America or en-route to a show in his beloved tour bus. But try and keep tabs on how many albums he puts out a year — or at least how many he records and puts aside for release at a later date — and you’re grappling with a task that even Willie himself admits he has trouble with sometimes. Factor in all the appearances he makes on other people’s records — like his duet with Pat Green on the song “Threadbare Gypsy Soul” from Green’s major-label debut, Three Days — and your head really starts to hurt.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on the BIG Willie projects. Like The Great Divide, his just-released all-star album on Lost Highway Records featuring duets with everyone from Lee Ann Womack to Kid Rock to Sheryl Crow to R&B crooner Brian McKnight. Though some of those names might leave Willie’s staunch country fans puzzled or even worried, fact is, it’s an immensely listenable affair from start to finish. And odds are it will prove to be the Red-Headed Stranger’s biggest hit in years, thanks to the golden touch of radio wonderboy Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, the guy responsible for putting Carlos Santana back in the public’s consciousness via the smash hit “Smooth” a couple of years ago.
In addition to The Great Divide, Willie’s other recent achievements include writing and releasing a new book, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes, participating in the triumphant America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, and racking up two Grammy nominations, for Best Country Album (for last year’s sorta-children’s album, Rainbow Connection), and Best Male Country Vocal Performance (for “Marie,” his chilling contribution to Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt). He also recently earned his black belt in tae kwon do and filmed a martial arts flick. Oh, and he finished three, maybe four other albums, too. All of which amounts to a long-winded way of saying that Willie Nelson accomplished more in his 68th year alone than most mortals do in their 20s, 30s and 40s. For a recap/update, we caught up with Willie on the phone recently while he was holed up in New York City, preparing to tape a two-night stint on The Late Show with David Letterman.
First off, congrats on your two Grammy nominations. The last Grammy you won was way back in 1982, for “Always on My Mind.” Do you get your hopes up every time you¹re nominated?
Not really, no. I’ve always believed in the fact that when you’re nominated, you’ve won. As far as I’m concerned, everybody that’s nominated is a winner. And beyond that, it doesn’t really matter that much.
Will you be attending this year?
No, I won’t attend this one. I’m working in Houston the night before, so it’s a little stretch to get out there. I think my daughter, who helped produce the CD Rainbow Connection, is going out, to be there just in case, so at least we’ll be represented.
Let’s talk about your new album, The Great Divide. When did that project start to take shape?
Well it’s been a year since I first cut the tracks. I did my part in January of last year. Matt Serletic, who produced it, and Rob Thomas had worked together before, and I got to be friends with Rob Thomas and we started talking and decided we wanted to do something together, and one thing led to another …
Quite a few music legends have taken a shine to working with Rob Thomas over the last few years, from Carlos Santana to yourself to Mick Jagger. What is it about the guy that helps him click so well with so many different people?
Well he’s a good writer, and he’s a good singer. And he’s a good picker, and he’s a real nice guy, so he’s got all the qualifications.
I’ve really come to like The Great Divide quite a lot. What strikes me about it is that it’s really eclectic musically, but at the same time, it seems like your most accessible work in years. Was that the aim going into it?
Yeah. We kind of pointed it in every direction — there’s some song that can be played on practically any format really.
So who’s idea was it to have you work with all the different artists? Was that something you wanted to do, or an idea the label came to you with?
I think I’d had some success with that before, and it was a good time to do it. And Matt Serletic has a good phone book, so he knows who to call. He put together the artists other than Rob and I — he put together Kid Rock and Lee Ann, all those folks that were on there. I knew them all, except Brian McKnight, who I’d never met before. But Matt asked me about them, I said, “Sure, go for it,” and he called up everybody. I think there’s safety in numbers. [Laughs]
Didn’t a lot of the artists record their parts separately from you?
Yeah. I was there with Lee Ann, we did that one in Nashville. And Alison Krauss was with us there. And we did the rest of it in L.A. Brian McKnight was in the studio out there, but everybody else came in afterwards.
My favorite track is “The Great Divide,” the one song on the album that you wrote yourself. How long ago did you write that?
I’ve had it a couple of years. Jackie King, who plays guitar with me, came to me one day with some chord progressions and wanted me to help him write an instrumental. And I liked the progression so well that I decided to try and write some lyrics to it.
“This Face” is my other favorite song. It seems so autobiographical and obviously tailored for you that it’s hard to believe you didn’t write it. Were a lot of these songs written specifically with you in mind?
I think they were. As far as I know, every song on that album was written with me in mind, except for “Time After Time” and “Just Dropped In,” which were some old standards.
Was “Time After Time” a song you’d had on your radar for a while?
No, Rob Thomas suggested I do that. It would have not been one that I would have picked. Not that I didn’t like it, but it was so associated with Cyndi Lauper that I probably wouldn’t have done it. But since he asked me to think about it, I said, “Well maybe I’ll try it.”
You’re regarded as one of the century’s greatest songwriters, but you’ve always been very generous in recording just as many if not more songs by other people. Do you make a distinction between your own songs and those that come from others when you record?
Well, not really. The obvious reasons would be that I only write so many, and there is an unlimited amount of standards out there that a guy could sing. Honestly, I did most of my own songs until I started running out, and then I did the Stardust album. And after that I did the Lefty Frizzell album, and then Faron Young, and Webb Pierce and Roger Miller and Ray Price. In the meantime I was writing new stuff, so that gave me time to come up with “On the Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and things like that. But I was glad to know that there was some great standards out there to do until I could come up with some new ones of my own.
Where do you hear new songs these days when you look for material? Do you listen to the radio or watch much CMT?
Honestly I haven’t heard a lot on the radio these days that I felt like I wanted to go record, unless I was listening to one of the old traditional stations where one of the old hit songs from the ’40s or ’50s would come along and I’d go, “Oh yeah, there’s one that’s ready to come back.” Like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” for instance.
Do you listen much to your own recordings?
No, not really. I listen to them a lot as I’m doing them. And then once I get through with them, you get to the point where you don’t want to hear it again for a while, and then you start working on something else.
You mentioned once in an interview that songwriting for you is a matter of plucking melodies out of the air. Have they always come that naturally to you, or have you ever been blocked?
Usually if I can come up with a first line or an idea, the melodies are not that big a problem. But for me it’s finding that right punch line or the right idea to start out with.
How often are you in the right frame of mind to write?
It’s unpredictable. The last thing that I’ve written was the “The Great Divide,” and that was, well, no, that’s not true. I wrote a couple in Maui a few weeks ago. But the last thing anybody’s heard was “The Great Divide.” I’m not that much of a quantity writer. I don’t feel like I have to write something every day. I used to worry about it when I hadn’t written anything in a while, and Roger Miller used to tell me, “Don’t worry about it. When the well runs dry you have to wait for awhile for it fill up again.”
Have many of the new songs made it into your live set? Your shows are always very freeform and jam-driven, but you don’t often hear too many new songs working their way onto the set list.
Well we’re doing “The Great Divide” every night, and we’ve started doing “Just Dropped In.” So those two we’ll be doing every night. And when the Rainbow Connection album came out I started doing “Rainbow Connection” and “The Thirty-Third of August” and “We Don’t Run.” But every time I put something in you damn near have to take something out, so you’re right, it’s kind of hard to get new stuff in there.
When did you first start doing the medley?
“Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life”? Oh, a long, long, long time ago. I don’t even remember when I first started that.
What about “Whiskey River”? Since you started opening your shows with that, have you ever left it out?
Back before “Whiskey River” came along, I used to open with “Mr. Record Man.” And I would close with “The Party’s Over.” But when “Whiskey River” came along I started working up an arrangement on it, and I worked it into a sort of a rock ’n’ roll, up-tempo, good starting-type song. And I tried opening up with it a couple of times and it worked, so I never did really quit.
Considering how many shows you still do a year, do you and your band still rehearse on a regular basis?
Yeah. We try to do a soundcheck every day before the show if we can.
How do you stay inspired?
Well the soundchecks are really good for us, because we build up some confidence. We haven’t played together now in six weeks, so before we play our first gig I really want to get together for a good long rehearsal. It’s a lot of fun to play if you’re hot and the band is clicking and things are going well, but it’s really a bummer if you get out there and things don’t happen. So we do a lot of songs and a lot of different styles and keys, a lot of spontaneous stuff, because I like to make sure that me and the band are real sharp.
How often do you get the feeling that things aren’t happening?
[Laughs] Not that often, but they stand out.
For what seems like years now you’ve talked about releasing a reggae album. Is that ever going to see the light of day?
It’s still coming out. It’s all done, ready to go. And then I just did a Ray Price album. And then there’s another album I did over in Nacodogches with Paul Buskirk and the guys, and then an album I did with Larry Butler of all Hank Williams songs. So I’m thinking about just putting them all in a box set and putting them all out at once next year.
Do you ever forget how many albums you have in the can, or that you have going at once? Like, “What session are we doing?”
I’ve already forgotten how many I’ve done this year! What year is this? [Laughs]
Tell me a little bit about your new book, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes. How long had you been working on that?
It wasn’t that long. It took me about 45 days to finish it, and the rest of the time was just putting in the pictures and lyrics and everything. It’s just a little journal of a 30-day tour. I’d write a little bit each day, and tell a joke every now and then to break the monotony. It’s like the old saying, “If you’ve heard this, don’t stop me — I want to hear it again myself.”
I hear you recently did a kung-fu movie, Evidence.
Yeah, in Austin. It was a tae-kwon-do movie. It was a lot of fun, because I did it with a lot of my friends there. I go to that school there, the Master of Martial Arts School in Austin. So I was just playing and having fun with a lot of friends. I don’t know how the movie turned out, but I had fun.
You just got your black belt, didn’t you?
Fighting doesn’t really seem like the Willie-way. Were you in any memorable fights back in the day?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever been in one that I was happy that it happened. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter what end I came out on, it was always something that you wish you could have gotten around.
A lot of your old companions — Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash — have had some rough years recently health wise, but you seem to still be in great shape. Have your doctors ever told you to slow down?
Yeah. One thing that always used to upset me is to have a fat doctor sitting there with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other and tell me to quit smoking and running. There are some good doctors out there that tell you the right thing, but if they tell you not to exercise, boy I’d change doctors, because I know how important that is to get out and get a little exercise.
Do you feel a lot healthier now than you did, say, 30 years ago?
I think so, yeah. Because 30 years ago I wasn’t really trying that hard.
Do you keep in regular contact with the other Highwaymen — Waylon, Johnny, and Kris Kristofferson?
I talk to Kris probably more than I do anybody. I talked to Wayon’s wife a couple of days ago, and Johnny Cash’s wife maybe a month or so ago. Kris was telling them about my black belt, and John was saying, “Oh, that ain’t nothing — I know a 74 year-old woman with a black belt.” So I told ’em “Bring her on!” [Laughs]
Your performance of “America the Beautiful” on the America: A Tribute to Heroes was one the musical highlights of last year. What can you tell me about that night?
It was a highly emotional … well it had been a highly emotional several days since the 11th. And when they called me to come do it, naturally I was glad to go do it, but I wasn’t really sure about anything. I knew “America the Beautiful” was a great song and they requested that I do that, but I had no idea where I was going to be in the show or anything. And then I turned up at the end of the show, which in a way it was great to be in that spot, but on the other hand I was there for awhile and it was highly emotional just listening to everyone do what they did. It was such a spontaneous, no audience type show — it was unusual and highly effective, as far as I was concerned. So by the time I got around to doing my part I was really into it emotionally.
Have you noticed a change in the country during your shows since 9/11?
Well I get requests to do “America the Beautiful” now, and that gives you an indication of where the country is. I’ve never seen it more patriotic than it is today.
How do you think the Bush administration has handled the whole affair so far?
I think they’ve done as best as they could do. I think they were probably correct in not sending a bunch of ground troops over there, not because our guys aren’t good, but when you’re fighting somebody on their own turf on the ground and they know the terrain and you don’t … I just thought it was probably wise not to send 100,000 of our guys over there to try and find Bin Laden. I regret all the collateral damage as they call it I would have liked to have seen them maybe specialize a little bit more and go in there and look for Osama. But we haven’t found him yet. Maybe we will.
On a more positive note … with all the traveling you’ve done, have you found a favorite part of the country?
Well I love Austin. The crowds there are great, and they always have been as far as I can remember. So Texas, and from there, New York’s great. Colorado, California. I love to play in Europe. I love Amsterdam. There’s just a lot of good places to play.
Are there any places you really didn’t like, where you’ve said, “Never again!”?
I don’t like to say never, but there’s some that will be down on the list. [Laughs]
When you’re on the road, what do you miss most about home?
The family. The kids. Other than that, I enjoy playing the music and it doesn’t really matter to me to be out here a long time, except for the fact that I miss the family.
Do you have any career regrets?
I don’t think so. I can’t think of any. I might not have always done the right thing, but good things came from it. I’ve always been pretty much satisfied with the decisions that I’ve made.
What would you still like to do?
If you’d asked me that five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, I’d probably have the same answer. Things have all been pretty good for a long time. I wouldn’t want to ask for any more, except I’ll be glad to take it if it comes along. I’ve sung with a lot of the best singers in the world. Some of my greatest friends, some of my heroes. I got to do an album with Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Snow, Roger Miller, Ray Price . . . a lot of people can’t say that. So there’s nothing that I really have a burning desire to do because I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of things.
You’ve done so many things, Bruce Robison even wrote a song about you. What did you think the first time you heard “What Would Willie Do?”
Well I laughed a lot. It’s a great song, but there’s a couple of funny spots in there. Of course it’s a great compliment. I carry it around with me and I play it for people when they give me any shit! [Laughs]
Do you ever ask yourself, “What would Willie Do?”
All the time.