The Meaning Behind Willie Nelson’s Tribute to an Old Friend, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love”

In March 2023, at 90, Willie Nelson released his 73rd solo album. I Don’t Know a Thing About Love is a tribute to the late Harlan Howard, a monumental star in 20th century country music. Howard’s work came behind the scenes as a songwriter rather than a singer; consequently, not as many people outside Nashville know his name as they should. In the music industry, however, he’s famous. 

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Howard was the genius behind many country hits. During his six-decade career, he wrote for stars like Patty Loveless, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell. Howard also helped launch Nelson’s career. After meeting in the early 1960s, Howard put Nelson in contact with Pamper Music, leading to his first record deal. 

The album’s title comes from Howard’s hit “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song).” Read on to learn about the meaning of the song, and the significance of Nelson’s tribute.

The Original Song

Howard composed “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)” in 1984, when he had long been a titan of country songwriting. The track went to Conway Twitty, who recorded it as a duet with his daughter, Joni Lee. 

Twitty’s recording spent 14 weeks on the country charts. In typical 1980s fashion, the song was heavy on the glitz and twang. Nelson’s rendition, on the other hand, makes it gentler and more melancholy.

The Meaning Behind “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love

“I Don’t Know a Thing About Love” is about a man frustrated in a romantic relationship. He turns to “the man in the moon,” hoping to find some assurance about the future as the protagonists of so many love songs have done before him. To his shock, the man in the moon says he is just as clueless about the mysteries of love. 

It’s a clever subversion of old love song cliches. Humans turn to mythical creatures to learn about their fate. But some things, like love, are just too complex to understand fully. 

He smiled, and he stated, “Son, I’m over-rated
I’ve had too much credit in those old love tunes”

The singer insists that surely the man in the moon must have some wisdom to share—after all, he sees everything that happens on Earth. But no, some things are too great even for him to understand. 

And I don’t know a thing about love
I just kind of hang here above
I just watch from the sky, will love grow or will it die?
I don’t know a thing about love

Even though he can do great things, like moving mountains and oceans, love is beyond his control. Not even he knows how it will end. 

[RELATED: Willie Nelson to Release Harlan Howard Tribute Album]

There’s more than one way to interpret the song. At first, it seems like the point is that prayers are pointless in life without direction. But the final verse contradicts this. Life does have a purpose; it’s simply too big for anyone to understand. 

Willie’s Version

Nelson’s recording is just one track on his album, which is dedicated entirely to Harlan Howard. The singer hasn’t explained why he made a tribute album in 2023, 21 years after Howard’s death (Waylon Jennings notably released one back in 1967). Whatever the reason, Howard had an immense effect on the Red Headed Stranger that persists long after he left us.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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