Q&A: Willie Nelson

He wrote his first song at seven, played chess with Ray Charles and told dirty jokes to Johnny Cash

Willie Nelson during Willie Nelson and Friends: 'Outlaws & Angels' at Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California on May 5th, 2004. Credit: M. Caulfield/WireImage for NBC Universal Photo Department/Getty

WHEN WILLIE NELSON stepped onstage this year at his annual Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth, Texas, it was the first time in more than thirty years that he'd left Trigger, his trusted acoustic guitar, on the bus. Surgery on his left hand to relieve a crippling case of carpal tunnel syndrome had forced him to sideline two of his favorite activities: strumming with his Family Band and golf, his on-tour time-killer of choice. With shorter sets and less guitar work, though, Nelson returned to the road, recently wrapping a twenty-two-date tour of minor-league ballparks with Bob Dylan. "It was his idea," says Nelson, who joined Dylan a few times on "I Shall Be Released" and "Milk Cow Blues," made famous by Robert Johnson. "We're both big baseball fans." Now Nelson is bracing for the upcoming release of his album It Will Always Be, featuring duets with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, as well as a heartbreaking cover of Toby Keith's lovesick ballad "Tired." "It should be the last song on the album," says Nelson, who ends most of his sentences with a big laugh. "By the time I'm through listening to it, I'm out."

What was the first album you bought with your own money?

Probably my first record. When I heard that it came out, I had someone go buy one just to make sure.

You wrote your first song at age seven. What was it about?

I do remember, but I'm not going to tell you.

Can you give me one rhyme?

Of course not! No, no, no! They're all too corny, but it was still pretty good for a seven-year-old.

C'mon! What about the title?

Ok, here it is. Back when we used to take music lessons from our grandmother, we'd go through lessons, and if we'd get the lesson right that day she'd take a gold star – a little star, about the size of your finger, with glue on one side – and she'd stick it on the sheet of music, which meant you'd done well. So I wrote this song with the line "They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago." I'd never been left by anybody, so it was kind of funny.

That's great! And you used to give guitar lessons. Do you remember the last one?

Yeah, I can barely see the face of the twelve-year-old kid down in Houston. I was taught by Paul Buskirk, and his approach was using the Mel Bay books. Guitar lessons like "Teaching Little Fingers to Play" - where you'd start out in Lesson One and go all the way through Seven. But I stayed a couple lessons ahead of my pupils [laughs], and now and then I'd play a hot lick of the blues just to impress them a little bit.

Can you remember your worst onstage experience?

I guess it was about thirty years ago, when I passed out and fell into the drums! Fortunately, that only happened once. The last thing I remember is that I took a swing at Poodie [James Locke, Nelson's stage manager] and fell right into the drums. I had a little too much to drink there in Dallas one night.

Why'd you swing at him?

I don't know! I was drunk! I guess I would've swung at you if you'd been there.

What's your favorite Dylan album?

I don't really look at it like albums. To me it's a little more personal than that. But there are a couple of songs that jump out: "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Forever Young."

What songs have gotten you through hard times?

Anything by Hank Williams, like "Your Cheatin' Heart"; Floyd Tillman's "I Love You So Much It Hurts"; Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You." All these songs were a part of my life, and they still stand up.

Johnny Cash and Ray Charles passed away in the last year. What are your fondest memories of them?

I grew up listening to both of them, so they were already heroes of mine before I met them. The fact that we ran around together and played music … [pause] Ray and I played chess together – I could tell that story the rest of my life. And whenever Johnny Cash wanted to hear a joke, he'd call me and say, "Hey, tell me something funny."

What was the last joke you told him?

"The doctor comes back to a guy and says, 'I got good news and bad news.' The guy says, 'Well, give me the bad news.' The doctor says, 'You got three or four months to live.' So the guy says, 'What's the good news?' The doctor says, 'You see that pretty, big-tittied blond secretary of mine over there? Well, I'm fuckin' her!' " [laughs] He got a kick out of that.

What are your favorite duets?

I like that Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton song, [sings] "It's a lesson too late for the learning." It's called "The Last Thing on My Mind." And the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming." And what was that song by the Wilburn Brothers? "Trouble's Back in Town."

What inspires you to write songs these days?

Nothing in particular. A problem that I run into is that I've written something similar. I'll come up with an idea, and then I say, "Well, you already wrote that!" So then I need to decide, "Do I want to write it again, better, or forget it?" Plus, I'm kind of lazy.

How many tunes do you think you can play on guitar?

All of 'em! I don't have to play 'em well, do I?