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Willie Nelson: Holy Man of the Honky Tonks

Page 4 of 5

Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes.

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

1. Willie sang "Whiskey River."
2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke.
3. Willie: "Went over to Peckinpah's house."
4. Me: "You talk to Dylan?"
5. Willie: "No. Dylan don't talk a lot."
6. Me: "I know."
7. Willie: "He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah's house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin' and runnin'on them horses down there and he ain't no cowboy."
8. Willie sang "Shotgun Willie."
9. Me: "You write that?"
10. Willie: "Yeah."
11. Me: "Good."
12. Silence.
13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in.
14. Willie: "Go away. I'm busy."
15. Paula: "Why can't I stay?"
16. Willie: 'Cause you're a little ole girl."
17. Paula: "Help me carry something."
18. Willie: "I can't. My legs are broke."
19. A toke.
20. Silence.

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit.

"Wasn't Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?" I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. "Yeah, it was," he said. "It's too early to tell how it'll do, but so far it's outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it'd either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn't really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album."

After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs?

"Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I'll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me." He chuckled. "I do have some new ones, 'She's Gone,' 'Is the Better Part Over,' 'Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.' I don't think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don't write as much depressive music now because I don't feel that way anymore."

Do you feel any vindication now that you've succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn't be a singer?

"I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don't know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track."

During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

"Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin' out and quittin' and never doin' it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn't because I didn't think the music wasn't good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me."

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters?

"Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other's houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin' wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I'll never write again, never sing again, don't wanta see nobody again, don't call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn't go anywhere. I didn't work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed 'em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin' up and hog prices kept goin' down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs."

Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing?

"Yeah, I do. I've been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin' up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don't progress, they could very well pass me too.

"But I wasn't considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in 'em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don't know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn't do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people's ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance."

But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson.

"Well, Kris has agreed with that. He'd been listenin' to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I'd listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville."

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