WILLIE NELSON: Story of a Songbird

At the time, so many country albums were based around a single hit. As soon as an artist had another hit, he or she would put out a new album, right?

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Right. This was different. When you have a concept you’re trying to sell, that means they’re gonna have to listen to the whole album. And that was a lot of work for some of those executives back in those days [laughs]!

Speaking of concept albums, one of your classics is Phases and Stages, recorded for Atlantic. Were you aware of how striking it was at the time, to have an album that detailed both sides of a relationship-from a man’s perspective and a woman’s perspective?

Yeah, I knew it was real different, especially for those times. I knew who was going to like it. I knew Kris and Harlan and Hank Cochran and all those guys were gonna love it. Unfortunately, they didn’t buy that many records!

I guess Atlantic Records got out of the country music business after that.

Yeah, and that didn’t help it either. Right after that, they decided that they’d close down their country department, and it was right when [producer] Jerry Wexler and I-I felt-were just right on the verge of doing something good.

We really get inside of your characters’ heads on that album, like in “Washing the Dishes”: “Learnin’ to hate all the things/that she once loved to do/Like washing his shirts/and never complaining/Except of red stains on the collar.” Are you conscious of putting yourself in your characters’ shoes when you write?

Yeah, I can definitely relate to all those things in that album. I’ve had that happen to me where, you know…I played enough places late at night, and I’d go home with lipstick on my collar. I’d have a lot of explaining to do the next day. So it wasn’t hard for me to put myself into that situation.

Do you think your early life in Texas influenced what we hear in your songs?

I’m sure it all had a lot to do with it, ‘cause I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I didn’t know I was a songwriter. I started out writing poems, and then I learned to play some chords on the guitar, and I started putting melodies to the poems. Who knows why? I didn’t know. How could a five-year-old boy know what the hell he’s talking about? I thought I did [laughs].

Your songs have been recorded by a vast array of artists, everyone from Doris Day to Al Green. What do you think makes them so adaptable?

I think I write and sing and play probably as much blues as I do country. I try to do some Django stuff in there, occasionally. So between Bob Wills and Hank Williams and Django and all that, there’s a lot of different kinds of music. The Stardust album had a lot of those pop standards, which I still sing every night. It’s just something about some music that hits everybody.

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