Even when his albums centered around pop standards, blues, jazz and reggae, Willie Nelson has always put his unique country spin on the music. With his new album, Country Music, he chose to delve deep into the kind of music he grew up hearing and playing.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, Country Music was recorded in Nashville with a band of local musicians that included Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Ronnie McCoury. The song selection includes new arrangements of traditional material and covers of songs popularized by Porter Wagoner (“Satisfied Mind”), Hank Williams (“House of Gold”), Ernest Tubb (“Seaman’s Blues”), Merle Travis (“I Am a Pilgrim”) and Al Dexter (“Pistol Packin’ Mama”).
During a recent interview, CMT Insider talked to the Country Music Hall of Fame member about the album and if there was a reason it had a specific release date of April 20 — also referred to by some as 4/20 or “Pot Day.”
Where did the idea for this album country music come from?
Nelson: My idea of country music is basically what this album has on it. It’s fiddles, steels, mandolins, and it just seems like a natural title. And underneath Country Music, I was tempted to say, “Lest we forget this is country music.”
What was the criteria for this album?
Well, T Bone Burnett produced it, and if you’ve got a good producer like that, you kind of just let him have the ball and run with it. And that’s what I did. He brought all the songs to the session except for “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and all the musicians, he called them all together. He’s really the best at doing things like that.
I’ve read that you said three takes are enough if you’ve got the right people in the studio. Did you feel like you had that there?
Oh, yeah. And a lot of times, the first take is the best, so the second and third are just insurance.
A lot of people are saying Country Music is similar to your Stardust album because these songs are standards. Do you agree with that?
I do. It’s a Stardust in its own right. All of these songs are the same type of standard songs in the country music as the Stardust album were in pop. So, yeah, there is definitely a connection.
Is there a song on this album that means the most to you personally?
They’re all really good songs that I grew up singing — “Satisfied Mind,” “Dark as a Dungeon.” You know, these days the mining songs are very special to me because of all the tragedies with all these mines. But all of these songs are very good songs.
The traditional song, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” was one you hadn’t even heard before.
No, I hadn’t heard that. T Bone brought some good things to the session, but I had never heard that one. He brought a Bob Wills song I had never heard. I thought I’d heard all the Bob Wills songs, but “Gotta Walk Alone” is an obscure Bob Wills song that I had never heard.
You included Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” on the album and have said it helped get you through some hard times. What is it about his songs that have the power to heal?
Well, songs like “House of Gold” … it’s just pure Hank Williams. No one sings those like Hank did, but I sure love to try.
Is there a type of music that you wouldn’t touch these days?
Oh, I don’t know. There are probably lots of different things. … I’m just now aware yet.
You had carpal tunnel surgery a few years back. How is your hand doing?
The hand’s doing better. I’ve got a rotator cuff that’s torn, and it’s cutting down on my golf but … .
There was a lot of speculation about your reasons for releasing the album on 4/20. Is this a coincidence?
Well, you know, I wasn’t even aware of a 4/20 kind of the release date. I never put anything together — because I’m usually kind of slow on things like that — but I think it’s funny.
A district attorney in North Carolina is planning to prosecute some of your band members for possession of moonshine and marijuana. That’s kind of got to be disappointing.
Well, yeah it’s very disappointing. … To have a little moonshine, in North Carolina, I thought they put that in baby bottles. I didn’t know that was a problem.
We’ve been hearing rumors that you’re going to do a movie with Johnny Knoxville. Is that happening?
We’re certainly talking about one together. And that’d be great. I love Johnny. We’d have a lot of fun.
Anything new to report about your constant touring?
Not really. I’m having fun playing. We played … in Vegas for all the broadcast people, and we had the band from Nashville there. That’s happening a few more times. I think we’re doing it in L.A. and New York. I’m looking forward to it because these guys are very good.
And T Bone will be doing some performances with you, right?
He’s great musician, and any time he’s around, you feel a little better because you feel like he’s got your back. I’m glad to know he’s in the studio or on the stage or anything.