Willie Nelson arrived 37 minutes late for his scheduled question-and-answer session Tuesday (June 5) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville. But the crowd was patient and gave him a standing ovation when he finally walked onstage.
Nelson was in town to perform later that evening with the Nashville Symphony and Wednesday on the CMT Music Awards airing at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT and CMT.com.
Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans and with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, Nelson looked and sounded considerably younger than the 79 years the calendar has imposed upon him.
He sat in a chair opposite Billboard‘s Ray Waddell, who primed him with questions about his long and laurelled career as a singer, songwriter and political activist.
On the matter of performing with the Nashville Symphony, Nelson was modest.
“They’re really good,” he said of the orchestra members, “and I’m kind of faking it now and then.”
Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah, appear on his new album, Heroes, and sometimes perform during his concerts.
“Working with your kids — there’s nothing better than that,” he said. “All the kids really make you proud when you’re out there.”
Asked if he encouraged his children to get into music, Nelson responded, “I left a lot of instruments lying around and kind of waited to see what they would pick up. For a long time, they didn’t pick up anything. Then, after a while, I saw Luke pick up a guitar, and Micah jumped on some drums, and it kind of caught on from there.”
Waddell pointed out that Nelson has recorded songs from virtually every musical genre and asked what made him choose one song over another.
“It’s one of those instant things,” Nelson replied. “When you hear a song or a melody or something, it hits you. It’s really not anything you have control over. You hear a good song and you wonder where it’s been all these years.”
So what led him to cover Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on Heroes, Waddell wondered.
“Lukas brought that to the studio, and Micah brought ‘Come On Up to the House,’ the Tom Waits song [also on the album]. So the kids have kind of been supporting me.”
Flashing back to when he first knew he wanted to play music, Nelson said the first guitar he picked up was an old Stella with its strings sitting high off the neck.
“My fingers were almost bleeding, but I didn’t care. I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I was about 6 years old.”
Waddell asked if it had been difficult for him to leave his native Texas to try his hand at music in Nashville all those many years ago.
“I had been told all my life that this was the place to go,” he said. “This is where the music folks are, and if you had something to sell, the folks here might buy it. It sounds commercial, but that’s the way it was to me back in those days because I needed some help. I was doing pretty good in Texas, but I needed to branch out a little bit.”
It was in Nashville, Nelson acknowledged, that he established himself as a songwriter. Reciting his successes, he said, “Faron Young did ‘Hello Walls.’ Billy Walker did ‘Funny How Time Slips Away.’ Patsy Cline did ‘Crazy.’ Roy Orbison did ‘Pretty Paper.’ Ray Price did ‘Night Life.’”
While Nelson customarily wrote songs by himself, he said he did occasionally write with others.
“Hank Cochran and I used to write some together,” he said. “I remember one night in particular we were writing at my house out in Ridgetop [a community located north of Nashville], and we wrote seven songs that night. The last song that we wrote was ‘What Can You Do to Me Now,’ and the next day my house burned.”
In those early days, Nelson continued, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Nashville’s Lower Broadway was a songwriters’ haven, located as it was directly behind Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I met Charlie Dick there, who was Patsy Cline’s husband. I brought ‘Crazy’ with me on a 45 [rpm record]. I had it on Tootsie’s’ jukebox. He listened and said, ‘I bet Patsy would like that.’ It was about 12 at night, and we’d had a couple of beers. He said, ‘Let’s go play this for Patsy.’ I said, ‘No, let’s don’t. Let’s wait until tomorrow.’ But he said, ‘No. Come on.’
“So I wouldn’t get out of the car. He went in and told Patsy that he had a song for her. She came out and made me come into the house. I sang the song for her. She loved it and recorded it the next week.”
Nelson next reminisced about his stint as a bass player in Ray Price’s band.
“First of all, Donny Young — or Johnny Paycheck [as he'd later call himself] — was playing bass for Ray, and he left the band. I was writing songs for Pamper Music, Ray’s publishing company.
“Ray called me and asked me if I could play bass, and I said, ‘Well, can’t everybody?’ So on my way up there on the bus [to meet Price], [steel guitarist] Jimmy Day taught me a few things on the bass. I played guitar and knew the top four strings were very similar.
“So I had something to go on, and he knew the Ray Price show. By the time I got there, I thought I knew it. Of course, I didn’t. I asked Ray years later if he knew I couldn’t play bass, and he said, ‘Uh huh.’”
Waddell next wanted to know what caused Nelson to leave Nashville after he had become a recording artist and return to Texas.
“My demo sessions were better than my records,” he said, “because I had the greatest musicians in the world [playing on the demos]. So I really loved my demos, but a lot of the time when [the labels] got through adding everything to it, I felt like it kind of watered it down a little bit. That was one of the problems I had with that kind of recording.”
Also, he noted, he had a big fan base in Texas and played there a lot. Often, it made it difficult for him to get back to Nashville in time to play on the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed regularly.
In Texas, he noticed the audiences looked a little different from those in Tennessee.
“I played a lot of places where there were longhaired cowboys and shorthaired cowboys, and the air was kind of smelling different,” he said. “And I noticed a lot of the people were getting along pretty good out there. So I said we might ought to try something different.
“This was just after Woodstock. So I thought we might try something in Austin or Dripping Springs. So me and Leon Russell and a few more of us gathered up and had a little show down there [in 1973]. . . . We had about 50,000 people.”
Thus was born the first of a series of annual Willie Nelson Picnics.
On the recording side, Nelson had turned to making concept albums — including Shotgun Willie, Phases & Stages, Yesterday’s Wine and Red Headed Stranger — instead of the usual collections of unrelated songs.
“I don’t really know what made me think it would work,” Nelson reflected. But obviously it did.
Asked about the “outlaw” tag tacked to him after the release of Wanted! The Outlaws, the 1976 package of songs that also featured Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, Nelson said, “I loved it. I thought that was the best sales idea we came up with. . . . I thought it was ingenious.”
He noted that the term “outlaws” was coined by Hazel Smith, who now writes CMT.com’s Hot Dish column.
“Every night I got to hear my heroes sing,” he said. He added that there were 278 pieces of luggage they had to lug around on the Highwaymen tour.
Nelson said he didn’t realize in 1985, when he helped launch the first Farm Aid to call attention to America’s embattled family farmers, that it would develop into an annual event.
“I really thought that if we did one Farm Aid and all the smart guys in Washington saw what was going on, they would do something about it. But then I found out that they were part of the problem — that the big corporations had taken over the farms, and they were trying to squeeze out the family farmers. And they’re doing a damn good job of it.
“What’s really going to have to happen is we’re going to have to get our farmers back growing food and fuel and keep us from going around the world and starting wars over oil when we can have our own resources right here.”
This remark drew cheers from the crowd.
“One of our biggest problems,” he continued, “is that guns and drugs are going back and forth across our southern border. . . . It would save a lot of money and a lot of lives by decriminalizing some of the less harmful drugs.”
He later referred to marijuana, the drug with which he’s become associated and celebrated, as “the best stress medicine there is.”
Waddell asked Nelson why he is so open to meeting with and helping younger artists. That question took Nelson back to the days when he was a fan looking toward his own idols.
“I remember meeting [Western movies actor] Johnny Mack Brown when he came to Hillsboro [Texas]. I shook his hand and got an autograph. I realize how happy that made me. So if I can make somebody else that happy, that would be a good deal.”
Returning to his new record, Heroes, Nelson had nothing but praise for Snoop Dogg, who sings with him on the raucous “Roll Me Up (And Smoke Me When I Die).”
“He didn’t rap it. He really crooned it,” Nelson marveled.
He confirmed the rumor that in the hard times of his early career, he sold the rights to several songs that are now priceless, among them “Family Bible” (which went for $100) and “Night Life.” He said at the time it made sense and helped him pay his bills.
“I really don’t feel horrible about it, but I wish I hadn’t.”
Summarizing the way he looks at life now, Nelson concluded, “I’m just glad for the moment. That’s about all I can think about right now.”