“I’ve got a lot of friends,” laughed the 80-year-old Texan with characteristic charm.
Instead, Nelson and CMT came up with an all-star list of performers to take part in CMT Crossroads: Willie Nelson & Friends From Third Man Records .
His duet partners include Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones, Ashley Monroe, Leon Russell and Neil Young, while Jack White (musician and owner of Third Man Records) conducts an interview with the country legend.
“I enjoy singing with other singers and playing with other pickers,” Nelson explains about the large cast. “It’s just what I like doing. I’ve always enjoyed playing, back with Waylon and the Highwaymen and all those.”
CMT Hot 20 Countdown ’s Terry Bumgarner caught up with Nelson, Jones, Monroe and Crow during rehearsals for the special and got a sense of what makes Nelson so beloved by fans and fellow entertainers alike.
“Willie is so … ’Willie,'” says pop and jazz pianist-singer Norah Jones. “I guess what it is that makes him so unique is just that he’s always himself. He’s the best songwriter on the planet, but he’s always just honest, and he sounds like Willie.”
Rising country singer Ashley Monroe (“Weed Instead of Roses,” “Like a Rose” ) agreed.
“I think there are many things about Willie that make him special,” she said. “I think his spirit alone, even if he didn’t write songs or anything, I think the spirit of him is very strong, very powerful. And then you put the way he writes songs on top of that and … it’s a spiritual experience to be in his presence. It really is.”
When talking about his long career and how CMT Crossroads fits in, Nelson admitted he’s always willing to try out new genres and has no problem crossing musical boundaries.
“Anything that will increase our audience,” he said. “Because, you know, when Ray Charles did his great country album [1962’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music], a lot of people had never heard of Ray Charles, and a lot of Ray Charles fans had never heard of Don Gibson and all those great songs. It’s a way to bring two audiences together.”
The CMT Crossroads special will continue that tradition, only it’s more like bringing eight audiences together in this instance.
Jones explained what it’s like to be onstage with so much talent at once.
“I’m excited that it’s a lot of us involved,” she said. “I mean, it’s a party, too. We just ran ’Whiskey River.’ He looked at me, and I took a piano solo. And I looked up, and Neil Young was up there playing it, too, and it felt so great.”
Monroe couldn’t believe her good fortune, but her thoughts from the stage were more practical in nature, especially since Nelson is notorious for adjusting and revising his own songs during each performance.
“I don’t want to try to follow Willie because he does his own thing,” she said with a giggle. “I’m not even going to try to attempt that. So when we were rehearsing earlier, I was like, ’Uh, you take that line. OK, you take that one.’ We’ll just switch lines because I’m not confident enough to follow him. He’s got his own timing.”
Also on the minds of Nelson’s guests was his recent 80th birthday, which added even more meaning to the special Crossroads episode. His co-stars all looked with admiration at Nelson and his dedication and integrity.
“He is what we all hope to be — somebody who loves playing music forever and ever,” Crow said. “He plays, I’d say 300 days out of the year. As a musician, that’s sort of your dream. And he’s just a great man. He has a lot of causes that he shows up for, and he means it.”
“He’s still playing and singing so great,” agreed Jones. “It’s not like the age is slowing him down at all. He probably does more tour dates than I ever have and ever will in my life, so the man has a lot of energy.”
Nelson, on the other hand, seemed to take it all in stride. And he’s not the type to hold on to any regrets.
“Well, you know the old saying, ’If I knew I was gonna live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself?'” he asks. “I wouldn’t have!”