WILLIE NELSON: Story of a Songbird

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The ultimate country outlaw, Willie Nelson doesn’t just break rules; he invents them. Other artists can criticize the Bush administration and watch their careers head south-not Willie. With nearly 50 years in the business, he can do or say pretty much whatever he pleases, and the music industry-both within Nashville and without-accepts it smilingly.The ultimate country outlaw, Willie Nelson doesn’t just break rules; he invents them. Other artists can criticize the Bush administration and watch their careers head south-not Willie. With nearly 50 years in the business, he can do or say pretty much whatever he pleases, and the music industry-both within Nashville and without-accepts it smilingly. In part this is because Nelson’s taste is so impeccable. Few musicians have been as prolific or have released work of such consistently high quality. 2006 alone saw the release of three Nelson albums, including You Don’t Know Me, a warm tribute to veteran songwriter Cindy Walker, and the newest, Songbird, an excellent collection of original material and covers produced by alt-country provocateur Ryan Adams-one of the few younger artists who can rival Nelson in productivity.

But despite this tried-and-true artistry, Nelson remains a paradox; he’s a household name more for his rebellious image (bandanas, smoking weed at the White House, et al) and a few ‘80s pop hits (“Always on My Mind” and the inextinguishable “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) than for the bulk of his music-which ranks as some of the most adventurous work in American music history. He’s a musician’s musician, and every fan has a favorite Nelson album: Stardust (1978), with its supple elegance; Phases and Stages (1974), perhaps the greatest country concept album of all time; or the recording that may be his finest achievement (and Nelson’s own favorite), 1996’s haunting, enigmatic Spirit.

Julio Iglesias duet aside, none of this is easy-listening music. Nelson’s tremulous voice, distinctive phrasing and jazz-oriented guitar playing (he’s always cited Django Reinhardt as an influence) demand multiple listens. Those who take the time will be rewarded. In Nelson’s hands, even something as wispy as “Rainbow Connection” (yes, Kermit the Frog’s) resonates with a childlike sense of wonder. Hearing it is like recapturing innocence we didn’t believe we still had.

General wisdom is that mainstream Nashville didn’t treat Nelson too well. It’s true that Music City did not always seem to know what to do with him, as evidenced by albums with titles like Make Way for Willie Nelson (1967) and Both Sides Now (1970). In fact, it was not until 1971 that he truly got to record an album his way, with the groundbreaking song cycle Yesterday’s Wine. On the other hand, his success as a writer was practically immediate. He hit town in 1960 and within a year scored a mega-hit with Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy.” Those were heady times for talented writers, and in his 1988 autobiography Nelson describes the informal “guitar pullings,” where country’s finest-Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Cochran and others-met to play their latest compositions and swap notes. Even then, Nelson’s songwriting was different, set apart through its dark humor and introspection. Pick any great Nelson composition and there are usually moments of self-realization, where we catch his characters in the act of truly seeing themselves for the first time. Phases and Stages‘ “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone,” written after the death of band member Paul English’s wife, is built upon this moving concept: “…but you’re gone/and I’m alone/but I’m still living/I don’t like it/
but I’ll take it ‘til I’m strong.”

Other titles continue the theme: “I’m Not Trying to Forget You Anymore,” “I’ve Just Destroyed the World (I’m Living In)” (Songbird‘s new classic) and “Back to Earth.” Each is informed by Nelson’s characteristic gentleness and restraint, qualities that also come through in conversation. In many ways he remains the Texas gentleman who once taught Sunday school and sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, listening to each question with genial composure. As an artist and man, he’s refreshingly devoid of pretense.

How did you come to work with Ryan Adams for Songbird?
It was Luke Lewis from Lost Highway Records that suggested we get together and do something, and I respect Luke a lot. I wasn’t that familiar with Ryan, to be honest with you. I saw him a time or two, but I figured that he was coming from one [musical] place, I was coming from another, and we could kind of meet in the middle and work it out-and it really seemed like we did. His sound was, as everybody knows, a little different from what mine is, but we managed to come together well.

What was Adams like to work with? He has a reputation for being kind of out there.
Well, we’re both kind of out there [laughs], so we kind of met on a different altitude somewhere. I love him to death. I think he’s a great artist. Naturally, he’s a little weird; we all gotta be a little weird to be in this kind of business anyway, but his weirdness is associated with a lot of ingenious things that he’s doing.

The CD has a great cross-section of songs, old and new, from different periods of your career. The opener, “Rainy Day Blues,” goes back to your early days doesn’t it?
All the way back to the ‘50s, when I was living in Houston…and the first time I recorded “Night Life.” I’ve always liked the song. I sing it occasionally, and the audience likes it. It’s a good blues song, and we like to include a couple of blues songs at least on our show. I do “Milk Cow Blues;” that’s another old standard that I just love to do, and “Rainy Day Blues” kind of falls in there.

“Songbird,” the disc’s first single, is one of its most beautiful moments.
Thank you. I really love the arrangement on it. Fleetwood Mac had a great record on that. I didn’t know how my version of it would sound, but Ryan’s band, The Cardinals, are really good. These guys could play anything. We were doing [Harlan Howard’s] “Yours Love,” and I don’t think the steel player had heard it before, so I said, “Well, just play, ‘Waltz Across Texas’…it’ll work fine [laughs].” So when you hear that song, if you hear “Waltz Across Texas,” that’s how I got there.

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