An Audience With Willie Nelson

The formidable outlaw countryman on songwriting, ageing, marijuana, martial arts and meeting Muhammad Ali...

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To mark Willie Nelson’s birthday today [April 29], I thought I’d post my interview with him for our regular An Audience With… feature. This originally appeared in Uncut’s Take 208 [November 2014].

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

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A few days before Uncut speaks to Willie Nelson, his famous Luck Ranch outside Austin, Texas, is damaged by a tornado. “Some towns got a lot worse, so we aren’t complaining,” says Nelson pragmatically. “Luck is tough town. It can be rebuilt.” It seems there is little that can faze the 81-year-old musician, even the destruction of his beloved homestead. Nelson is currently on tour – he has two weeks on, followed by a week off – and our interview takes place on his tour bus as it makes his way into Boston for the evening show. Currently, Nelson is enjoying a writing roll – his recent album, Band Of Brothers, features nine new songs. “I don’t have a process,” he explains. “It’s more natural. I really don’t push it a lot. It helps if you have an incentive, and a reason to write or an album you’re working on.”

When asked how many songs he’s written in a career stretching back 60 years, he replies, “I’m not really sure. A couple of thousand, probably. The publishers would know, but I’ve never counted.” His creative streak, thankfully, shows no signs of abating: “Sister Bobbie and I have a new album called December Day coming in October,” he reveals. “It’s her and I and my band and there’s several original songs and more covers like ‘Alexander’s Rag Time Band’ and ‘What’ll I Do’.”

And with that, he’s ready to answer your questions on a wide range of subjects including his earliest attempts at songwriting, his formidable martial arts prowess and the best way for an octogenarian singer-songwriter to get stoned. Ever the gentleman, when our interview is concluded he signs off with, “Thanks for your time. See you down the road.”

Do you consider “Crazy” to be in the Top Five greatest songs you’ve written?
Loudon Wainwright III
I guess. But I think a lot of its success was to do with Patsy Cline, one of the greatest singers ever, recorded the song and just sang the heck out of it. No one has ever really come close to tying her rendition of “Crazy”, so she had a lot to do with making “Crazy” the hit it was.

You’re a big fan of Django Reinhardt. Why is his music so special to you?
Jim James
Well, he was the greatest guitar player ever. Period. I had been an admirer and fan of his since the first time I heard him. I used to play as much as I could some of Django’s songs, and never getting half way close to as good as he played them. Norah Jones has a band called the Little Willies, and one of the band was talking about me and Django. You know Django only had two fingers on his left hand that he played with, the rest of his hand had been hurt in a fire when he was around 16 or 17 years. Someone made a remark that said, “Willie sounds like Django with one finger.” I thought that was a great compliment.

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