In Willie Nelson’s recent memoir Letters to America, the country music icon bares his most personal epistles to the country he loves, his heroes and influences, stories behind the songs and the creative (and life) lessons he’s learned along the way.
“It’s one way of saying hello,” said Nelson from his home in Hawaii, reflecting on the collection of letters he wrote for the book in an interview with Hunter Kelly at the New York-based 92Y on June 29.
Exploring hardships, passions, humanitarian work and some of the stories behind some of his most famous songs, including “On the Road Again,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Crazy,” the interview marked the sole talk on Nelson’s book tour.
The 88-year-old Nelson also talked about his love of Nashville, working with Sinatra, his 22nd album Stardust, his famed guitar Trigger, and revealed a new song.
“Most people do, but I never do,” said Nelson when asked if he put much thought into the letters in the book, each as poetic as any of his songs, of the people, places, things, and memories he holds dear.
Devoting one of his letters to his most treasured instrument, Nelson penned a special message to Trigger the guitar. Named after Roy Rogers’ horse, Nelson bought the Martin N-20 guitar, sight unseen, for $750 in the late ’60s, and later salvaged it when his home caught fire in 1969.
“Trigger is doing great,” said Nelson of the guitar, worn over time with a visible hole in its center. “He’s tougher than all of us… Trigger is one of a kind. It’s the best guitar I’ve ever played. It’s got the best sound, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Influenced by Django Reinhardt, who continued to play guitar after losing several of his fingers in a fire when he was 18, Nelson remembers first hearing the jazz guitarist and composer on radio and the lasting impression it left on him.
“It was incredible the amount of music he got out of the guitar,” said Nelson of one of his musical heroes. “There’s no way I could play like Django, but I love trying. She [Nora Jones] would say I play like Django with one finger. That was the greatest compliment I ever got.”
Another hero of Nelson’s, was his sister Bobbie, now 90. “She could play any kind of music,” said Nelson. “I learned a lot when I was 8, 9, watching her play on the piano, ‘Stardust,’ ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’ and all those great classics I eventually learned and sang, but I never would have if it wasn’t for her.”
Another early musical moment were the summers Nelson spent picking cotton with his family in his hometown of Abbott, Texas, while listening to the Mexican workers’ mariachi music, or the blues and gospel coming from the black workers, as everyone worked out on the farm.
“It was the best music education that I could get,” said Nelson. “It was in a symphony out there.”
In the book, Nelson also addresses covering songs, including his 22nd album Stardust and his 2018 release My Way, a collection of songs by Frank Sinatra, who Nelson friended throughout the years.
“Everybodys’ gotta do what they feel,” said Nelson. “I don’t try to force my music on anybody. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. Doing the Stardust album was easy, because I knew the songs. Doing the Sinatra album was simple, because I knew all his songs. I knew all of the Stardust songs as well as I knew my own songs, because I did them every night.”
Nelson added, “There’s a reason they’re called standards. There’s a melody and lyric there that millions of people feel and hear.”
In retrospect, the magic of the Stardust standards is another reflection of Nelson’s contribution to music. “I feel like I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been able to write good songs… people liked them. It’s good for your ego to write a song people like. I stay pretty active writing all the time. I don’t try to not write. If I get an idea I don’t care how bad it is, I’ll finish it.”
My Way was another natural for Nelson, who shared the stage with Sinatra, even singing the classic hit with Ol’ Blue Eyes. “He was a great friend, but he was also my favorite singer,” said Nelson, who regrets not hanging out with Sinatra at his Palm Springs, California home after a show many years ago. “I loved his choice of songs. I loved his lifestyle. I loved his acting. He invited me to his house, and I had to get on a bus and go somewhere else, but I always regret not being able to spend that night hanging out with Frank.”
Getting ready to tour, along with his sons, musicians Lukas and Micah, and an all-star lineup of guests, including Lucinda William, Sturgilll Simpson, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton, Nelson also noted one of his favorite cities. “Nashville is one of my favorite places in the world,” he said. “I love the Grand Ole Opry, playing Tootsies. and all those places.”
In another letter, Nelson talks about writing his 1973 album Shotgun Willie by retreating back to the hotel and opening his mind to “let something good come in,” and is reminded of a song he just wrote called “Energy Follows Thought.”
“Imagine what you want and then get out of the way, because energy follows thought, so be careful what you say,” said Nelson reciting some of its verse. “It works. If you imagine what you want and get out of the damn way… that’s the line you gotta live for because most of us are in our own way.”
Remembering the old Readers Digest section “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” Nelson elaborated on how the mind can either play tricks, or guide us in the right direction. “I don’t care what the problem is,” he said. “If you can laugh about it, it’ll be better.”
Throughout Letters to America there’s plenty laughter threaded alongside the more sentimental captures of Nelson’s life. When asked how he hopes to get responses to some of the letters in his book, Nelson said, “I’ll know if anybody read them the next time I play.”