Willie Nelson Dusts Off His Songwriting Chops

Jun 16, 2014
Originally published on June 15, 2014 5:38 pm

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Again thanks for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Crazy, I'm Crazy for feeling.


FARON YOUNG: (Singing) Hello walls.


ROY ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty paper, pretty ribbon.


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Night life, ain't no good life


NELSON: (Singing) Gee ain't it funny, how time slips away...

RATH: All those hit records you just heard were written by the same redheaded stranger from Texas. Long before he had his own hits.


NELSON: (Singing) On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again.

RATH: Willie Nelson proved his songwriting chops years ago, but over the past two decades he's peferred to record other people's writing, not his own. His new album comes out on Tuesday, It's called "Band of Brothers" and for the first time in almost 20 years he's given us a record packed with Willie Nelson originals.


NELSON: (Singing) We're a band of brother and sisters and whatever. On a mission break all the rules. And I know you love me, 'cause I love you too but you can't tell me what to do.

RATH: I spoke with Willie Nelson on Friday night. Not surprisingly on the road again. At the age of 81 he's currently on a grueling tour, more than two dozen shows this summer. He joined us where he seems the most comfortable, on his beloved tour bus.

NELSON: Yeah we're somewhere around Philadelphia I think getting ready to do a show tonight.

RATH: And here's how much of a road dog you are. I've read - tell me if this is true, that you even sleep on the bus when it's parked at your house?

NELSON: Well yeah I. Mean I have everything I need here. And it's a lot of hassle to get off and go into a room and come back. So I have a room available if I needed or wanted for anything.

RATH: Now you are such a great songwriter but it's been more than a few years since you released an album and one with so much new material on it. I'm curious have you been writing songs the whole time or are all these very recently written?

NELSON: I'm sort of a spasmodic writer I guess. Roger Miller said it pretty well. He said when a writer has to sometimes stop and let the well refill because you run out of things to write about or good things to say. So I think he's right. Also you have to have some kind of challenge or goal. And there was this new album that we wanted to do. And I needed some new songs. And I said well you know why don't I write something?


NELSON: (Singing) There's a guitar in the corner, that used to have a song. I would hold it while it played me and I would singing along.

RATH: You know when I think of my favorite Willie Nelson songs they have this quality of, you can be sentimental but with out being cheesy or cloying. And I feel like on the new album "The Wall" is one that kind of fits into that category.


NELSON: (Singing) I took on more than I could handle. I bit off more than I could chew. I hit the wall.

RATH: What inspired that?

NELSON: Well, actually it's a true story. I literally you know got so tired I overbooked myself and well of them have in some work done, some health work. And I went over to Germany to get that done. And while I was over there wrote this song, "The Wall."


NELSON: And the wall came down, crashing down. And there was not a sound.

RATH: You've got on this album - there's a great kind of combination - a couple of really funny songs - "Wives and Girlfriends."


NELSON: (Singing) Well, I love my wives and I love my girlfriends, but may they never meet. May they never know each other when they pass on the street.

RATH: And right after that you have a song that might be the wives and girlfriends response. I thought "I Thought I Left You."


NELSON: (Singing) What part of we can't make it don't you understand? It's no longer you and me there's another world you see. I thought I loved you so why will aren't you leaving me?

RATH: You know it - the two sides like that makes me think of "Phases and Stages" you know the album where you tell the story of both sides of a breakup. There's side A, is the woman's perspective, Side B is the man's. I'm wondering what you'd get out of changing perspectives as a songwriter writer. How do you write as a woman?


NELSON: Well I have had a little experience. I've been around a lot of women. So you'd think I would have learned more than I know. But I have learned enough to write a few stories and songs. You know I think are pretty truthful and not too bad.


NELSON: (Singing) After carefully considering the whole situation and I stand with my back to the wall.

RATH: Now when you're doing that, when you're changing perspectives are you - do you feel like you sort of become the person and the voice of the song you're writing? Or are you kind of like at a distance, you know, the creator?

NELSON: Well I think it depends on the situation. In that particular story in "Phases and Stages" it wasn't really that difficult to write both of the story because at that time I was going through both sides. And it was just a matter of writing what I thought might be going through a woman's mind and what was going through mine, and trying to tell both sides of the story because you know there always is.

RATH: Most of us though are so wrapped up in our own skins though I don't - I think it's hard for most people to kind of step outside in that way.

NELSON: Well I'm such a shameless songwriter that I'll write about anything.




NELSON: (Singing) Walking is better than running away. And crawling ain't no good at all.

RATH: A few months ago you made news when you earned your fifth degree black belt in the Korean martial art Gong Kwon Yu Sul. Am I saying that right?

NELSON: That was right, Yeah that's better than I can say.

RATH: What I know about it, I know it's one of the most demanding and comprehensive styles of martial arts. You must be an incredible shape.

NELSON: I'm really Healthy, And who know who knows why? I think a lot of it has to do with my doing shows lot. I think when you get out there and sing for an hour and a half and play the guitar and move around and wave and clap, that that's probably the best exercise - best workout that you can do. And you know I do 100 or 150 or so shows a year. And that's just really good exercise for me.

RATH: And when you're at that level - fifth degree black belt, I'm curious of the disciplines, the philosophy of the martial arts have had an effect on your performance an your songwriting even?

NELSON: Well I don't think you can separated at all. It's good for you spiritually, physically, mentally. There's a you know, a little air of confidence that you get. And I think it shows up in your performances, also in your songwriting. It's been good for me that's all I can say.

RATH: Your new album ends with a song called "I've Got a lot of Traveling to Do." Can I take that to mean that you have no plans to slow down anytime soon?

NELSON: You know, I was telling somebody the other day that I quit after every tour. But after a few days off I say, let's try it again. So you know I'm having fun, the audience is still there and seem to be enjoying the show. So I don't have any plans to quit right now.


NELSON: (Singing) I give traveling to do. A whole lot of traveling to do. Well the road is getting crowded. And they're shortening my fuse and there ain't nothing here I really care to lose. I've got a lot of traveling to do.

RATH: Willie Nelson thank you so much.

NELSON: All right. Thank you very much. Enjoyed talking to you.

RATH: Willie Nelson's new album comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Band of Brothers."


NELSON: (Singing) Of course I can't forgive you cause that's just what I do, but I've got a lot of traveling to do.

RATH: And for Sunday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast, look for weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app, and you can fallow us on twitter at (@npratc. I want to wish a happy fathers day to simply best man I've ever know. My dad, love you. We're back again next weekend, until then thanks for listening, and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.