Did you ever have to plug your songs to the various record companies?
Well, we would do our demo sessions, and then those songs would be taken by the publishers and played for all those [record company] guys. The greatest songplugger in the world is Hank Cochran. He got me more recordings than anybody because he would take my songs and demos and play ‘em for all the artists…and then later, after he’d pitch my songs, he’d sit down and play ‘em some of his own songs, which he would also sell. He’d go home with you! He’d make sure you didn’t get away without at least listening to all the songs. Hank could really get your song heard.
Pamper Music was where you cut demos of “Crazy,” “Opportunity to Cry,” “Permanently Lonely” and many others.
Right. Those were the results of a lot of those morning sessions. I would play those songs, and when I would get a thumbs-up from the other writers, well, I’d put it down on the demo session. And they would do the same thing. Whenever we all liked the same thing, we’d get 20 or 30 songs together and then we could go to Pamper Music and say, “Hey, we’re ready for a demo session.”
“Crazy” was one of the songs that really built your reputation in Nashville. How did you feel when Patsy Cline cut it?
I knew it was great, ‘cause I loved her singing, but I had no idea that it would be as big a hit as it was…and still is. So, yeah, I was impressed with it way back then. A lot of other people have said, “Once Patsy Cline does it, nobody else can touch it,” and that’s pretty much how everybody felt about “Crazy.”
It’s interesting to hear the original Pamper demo that Patsy heard of you singing “Crazy.” In many ways, she didn’t deviate so much from your own phrasing.
Yeah, and you know, she tried that one whole session for four hours and really didn’t like it, and I think [producer] Owen Bradley said to her, finally, “Patsy, you should sing it like you, and quit trying to sing it like Willie.” So they called another session and she nailed it the first take…but I think she was really trying to do it so much like me, that there wasn’t enough Patsy in there.
People who don’t know your early work may be surprised to hear how great an interpreter you were, even then. Were you conscious of working to really interpret the lyrics?
I was always a huge Sinatra fan, and a [Texas Playboys’ leader] Tommy Duncan fan, and I was always interested in the phrasing. I watched how those folks went ahead and sang the song the way they wanted to sing it, as opposed to the way it had been recorded-or maybe the way they first heard it. I used to work in clubs four hours a night-six, seven nights a week there in Texas-and I sang the same song a lot. So I would do “San Antonio Rose” any way different that I could. I started singing it differently and phrasing it differently, along with other songs, because it was a lot of fun to play around with the phrasing. And I realized that it wasn’t that hard to do…then the people seemed to enjoy it. So, my phrasing, along with the lyrics and the melodies to the songs, were not entirely country; they had a little blues and jazz in there. In Nashville, it just wasn’t the right time to start mixing all that stuff up.
We’re talking about an era in which the “Nashville Sound” and countrypolitan era were taking hold.
Yeah. I love ‘em to death-the Anita Kerr Singers. They were so good that [Nashville producers] put ‘em on everything they recorded for about 12 years…and Grady Martin, a great guitar player. All those guys made a huge fortune just playing sessions there, and they were fantastic musicians, but the sound sort of sounded the same for a while.
In 1971, your Yesterday’s Wine album seemed like an attempt to break out of that mold, to go against the grain of what was happening in Nashville.
Well, it did give me a chance to go in there and do something different. Concept albums weren’t selling that great, back in those days. It was kind of hard to explain to a lot of people what a concept album was. But Yesterday’s Wine was accepted very well by [producer] Felton Jarvis and RCA Records, and I felt they did a great job recording it.