Willie Nelson Gets Down to Business

Icon Talks About His New Record Label and Working With Kenny Chesney

AUSTIN, Texas — Willie Nelson completed his 15-city tour with Merle Haggard and Ray Price with a Sunday night (March 26) performance near Chicago. Instead of enjoying an extended vacation, it should come as no surprise that he took Monday off and will resume his tour Tuesday in Wichita, Kan.

While getting rave reviews for Last of the Breed, his Lost Highway CD with Haggard and Price, Nelson stopped in Austin during the recent South by Southwest music conference to announce the launch of his own label, Pedernales Records, with producer James Stroud and manager Mark Rothbaum. The label’s first release will feature 40 Points, a band featuring sons Lukas and Micah Nelson.

During an interview in Austin with CMT Insider, Nelson talked about the label, his sons, working with Kenny Chesney and why Jessica Simpson and Mariah Carey are attracted to him.

There’s got to be some excitement in launching a new record label and some fatherly pride that your first act is going to be your sons’ band?

Oh, heck yeah, and they’re so good that it’s easy to be proud of them because once they get out there and start playing, everybody says, “I don’t know whose kids they are, but they’re good.” (laughs)

At first listen, you wouldn’t say, “Those are Willie Nelson’s kids.” They’ve got their own style, don’t they?

They have, and they’ve been listening to their own brand of music like you say Lukas went around with Stevie Ray [Vaughan] in his ear for years and years and years and a lot of blues and rock and roll guys … Pearl Jam and the different things. Who knows what all they have listened to, but they’ve come up with their own thing.

What will having this label allow you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to do?

Well, from a completely selfish standpoint I could say, “OK, put my kids’ music out. (laughs) But even if that were the selfish reason, I wouldn’t be ashamed to do it because these boys could pull it off. But mainly it will be an outlet for artists around that maybe need some help. James [Stroud] has a good ear for music — not only in finding it and producing it, but he knows how to market it because he’s headed some good companies. I feel lucky to have him doing the day-to-day stuff.

Since you have a huge backlog of music, will you be putting out a lot of product in a short time?

I think that will depend on a couple of things. Distribution has a lot to do with it. We’re talking about a couple of different people. If we get the right distribution thing, we can put out boxed sets. We can kind of catch up on … getting out a lot of the music’s that’s been lying around. There’s an album of me and Les Paul in there, and so there’s things in there I think ought to come out. And eventually we’ll get them out there.

Will this allow you any music freedom that you might not have had before to put out a different kind of album that you might not have done otherwise?

I was lucky enough to work with record companies who kind of let me do what I wanted to do for the last several years, and that’s been good. … Luke Lewis, who’s still at Lost Highway, has been great. … I did a blues album. There’s an album with Buddy Cannon and Kenny Chesney that we just did, and me and Ray and Merle have an album. … Luke was always open-minded and said, “Hey, if you want to put it out, we’ll put it out.” I’ve had that freedom all along, but this will give me a little extra maybe to put out some of the old stuff that I have and maybe find a new artist somewhere.

Were you influenced by Toby Keith’s decision to start his own label?

He and I talked a couple of times, and I wanted to make sure that he was real happy that that’s the direction that he took. And he is, and so I don’t know what the big deal is. We can try this for awhile. If it doesn’t work, we can go begging back to the record company.

Kenny Chesney produced some tracks for you. How was it working with him?

Oh, it’s great. He’s a good guy, a good artist, a good writer, good singer and good producer. He worked right along with Buddy Cannon, and every time Buddy was in the studio, Kenny Chesney was right in there, too, day or night. They’d call me here out on the road and say, “Did you get the new mix today?” He was great.

Let’s talk politics.

OK. Who are you for? (laughs)

Particularly with environmental issues, is there anything Americans should be paying more attention to now that we’re starting to look at candidates?

Oh, I think they ought to start listening to themselves and start asking themselves, “What kind of America do you want?” If they do that, then everything will be fine.

Have you made any picks yet yourself?

Not really, I’m waiting to see who all jumps in there. So far, it looks like a nice field building up out there. … I’ve always been for Dennis Kucinich. I thought he always spoke the truth, said what he meant, was against the war to begin with and still is. He keeps saying, “Get out of there.” So, I mean, that’s where I’m at, and whether he has a chance who knows? It’s early.

You are about to work with Jessica Simpson again and wrote a song with Mariah Carey. How do you keep hooking up with all these beautiful women?

You set a law of attraction. It’s still working. (laughs)

You don’t lose it ever?

Well, they didn’t lose it. (laughs)

What do you wake up in the morning the most excited about?

That I woke up. (laughs) That knocks me out every morning.

Editor’s note: Terry Bumgarner is a producer for CMT Insider.