WILLIE NELSON: Story of a Songbird

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s remarkable to see how prolific you are. Is that something that’s easy for you-to record as much as you do?

I got a lot of energy, and it’s better that I get in the studio and get off the street [laughs]. It’s just safer in there. I’ve got a lot of studios, and the way you can record these days, you really don’t need a lot of great equipment. But I have this big studio in Austin, and across the street…another digital studio over there. And then there’s all the [producers], Fred Foster and James Stroud and all the guys that I’m working with in Nashville.

I know you recently recorded an album with James Stroud, It Always Will Be. Was that done in Nashville as well?

Yeah. The tracks were cut in Nashville and I did my vocals down in Austin at my studio. And there are pros and cons about [that process]. One obvious thing is that you’re not there with the guys, you don’t have the camaraderie and you don’t have that one instant where everything clicks. But on the other side of it, the musicians have a lot more time to learn the songs, come up with arrangements that they all agree on, then cut the track. And before [recording], I’d get with James Stroud and we’d decide on which songs we were gonna do, what key I’m gonna do ‘em in…and I’d play a little bit of ‘em so he could get the feel. In fact, we just did 32 sides two months ago. We’re doing the history of country music-the No. 1 songs. But James and I, we had this formula that kind of worked. I would sing the song three times in a row, never listening to any playbacks, and then go to the next song. The theory is that the track is good and I know the song, so there’s no need hanging around. We did 20 songs the first day and then played nine holes of golf!

Is it difficult to come up with so many great ideas?

No, not really. It seems like there are more ideas than there are places to go with them. I’m always putting out more albums than the record companies can sell. It’s a nice problem to have, in a way, but on the other hand, things don’t happen as quickly today as they used to-you know what I mean? I remember the days when we could write a song today, we could play it for an artist tonight-or else go in the studio and record it tonight-and then there was a record company that within a couple or three weeks could have it out to the disc jockeys. It really made it gratifying to be able to write a new song and see it come out and hit an audience, when you know…you believe…it’s a big hit.

Are there any versions of your songs that stick in your mind as favorites?

I loved Ray Price’s “Night Life.” I liked Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Those stand out. Faron Young’s “Hello Walls.”

On Songbird, there’s a haunting composition that Ryan Adams wrote for you, “Blue Hotel.”
It’s a great song, and the more you hear it, the more you like it. It really grows on you. He’s a good writer.

It also has a great line about “going from door to door…”

“…with nothing to sell.” I’ve been there!

Do you feel that when you’re working on a project, you’re in charge? Because that’s the way it sounds.

Yeah, and I think all the way back, as far as I can remember, I’ve always liked to hear a voice and a guitar out front. I love Eddy Arnold and his guitar. Ernest Tubb. I try to record sort of in that manner.

No matter the setting, it always feels like the focus is on Willie.
I’m a writer, so if they don’t understand or hear what I’m saying, I’m lost, and my voice will not carry it. I’ve got to have the words too.



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