I'll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn't you listen to Sinatra and Crosby?
"Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin' up. We didn't have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I'd hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way."
Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music?
"I think there's a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it."
Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else?
"Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I'd pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing."
(Author's Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.)
There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think?
He answered seriously. "I think I made it work for me. There's no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I'd written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I'da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door."
He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. "Willie," I asked, "do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?"
He thought about that one for a long time: "The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they're gonna try to figure out how that's done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they're firing at that market. Those guys just didn't know that audience was there. That's what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don't get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin' beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear."
Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia's Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn't particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he's decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly.
After one run-through of "I Gotta Get Drunk," it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: "You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn't have the nerve to pitch it to you."
"Hell, Willie," said Jones, "I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut 'Crazy' but I couldn't find you."
Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: "Okay, Willie's stuff is good and we can overdub George later."
They moved on to "Half a Man," and Jones was still having trouble. "How the hell does Waylon sing with you," he asked. "I'm used to singin' right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses." Willie laughed.
Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.
This story is from the July 13th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.
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