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Outlaw Willie Nelson Opens Up In Two Classic 'Fresh Air' Interviews
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Outlaw Willie Nelson Opens Up In Two Classic 'Fresh Air' Interviews

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Outlaw Willie Nelson Opens Up In Two Classic 'Fresh Air' Interviews

Outlaw Willie Nelson Opens Up In Two Classic 'Fresh Air' Interviews
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The singer has written 2,500 songs and has won seven Grammys. He is now the recipient of the Gershwin Prize for American Popular Song. Originally broadcast on July 16, 1996 and May 25, 2006.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country singer and songwriter to receive the Library of Congress George Gershwin Prize for popular song. In his 60-year, Wilson has written 2,500 songs, won seven Grammy awards, been honored at the Kennedy Center and is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. At 82, he's still recording and touring. He told an interviewer last week, I don't do time off very well. Willie Nelson established himself as a songwriter in the '60s with songs such as "Hello Walls," "Crazy" and "Night Life." He broke through as a performer in the '70s, wearing blue jeans and long hair, defying the rhinestone-style of country performers of the day. Today, we'll hear parts of two interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson, starting with one in 1996. Nelson brought his guitar for some music and conversation after he'd released a gospel album and a recording of original songs called "Spirit." They began with a track from that album called "Your Memory Won't Die In My Grave."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR MEMORY WON'T DIE IN MY GRAVE")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Been feeling kind of free, but I sure do feel lonesome. Baby's takin' a trip, but she ain't taking me. I've been feeling kind of free, but I'd rather feel your arms around me 'cause you're taking away everything that I wanted. There's an old hollow tree...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Willie Nelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here. Now, one of the first songs that you wrote that got recorded was called the "Family Bible."

NELSON: Right.

GROSS: And this was - what - in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I don't remember which.

NELSON: This was in the '60s. I was down in Houston writing and playing down there and run into (unintelligible) Claude Gray. He was looking for a song to record, so I sang him "Family Bible" and wound up selling it to him between - I sold it to him and two more guys for $50 I think. And it went on to be No. 1 record.

GROSS: Did you get any royalties since you'd already sold the song?

NELSON: (Laughter) Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: Not really.

GROSS: Would you sing us a big of the "Family Bible" and tell us what went into the writing of it?

NELSON: Well, this is sort of autobiographical, or practically 100 percent autobiographical.

(Singing) There's a family Bible on the table. Its pages worn and hard to read. But the family Bible on the table will ever be my key to memories. At the end of day when work was over and when the evening meal was done Dad would read to us from the family Bible, and we'd count our many blessings one by one. I can see us sitting 'round the table when from the family Bible Dad would read. And I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages, rock of ages cleft for me.

GROSS: Well, that's nice. Willie Nelson, thank you for singing that.

NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: What did your family Bible look like?

NELSON: Oh, it was worn and hard to read (laughter). It was one of those typical old faded family Bibles where all the history was - the family was in there, you know? All the - where all the grandparents came from and the great-grandparents, and it was a wonderful - it was very interesting. A lot of the Sunday school lessons that we learned from the Bible and things that were taken from the Bible - very interesting. It must've been to keep a kid my age interested enough to, you know, want to sing it and want to get involved in it.

GROSS: Well, I think it's very interesting that you could write compelling autobiographical songs about the family Bible and about the nightlife (laughter).

NELSON: Well, they're very much involved. You know, they're very much - they're very close together (laughter). I mean, I would sing to the same people on Saturday nights in the clubs that I would sing to on Sunday mornings in church. I had to act like I didn't see them the night before.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, you made your very first record back in 1957 and Rhino Records put out a box set - a three-CD box set - of your recordings. And they reissued this first recording that you made called "No Place For Me," one of your songs. Why don't I play that very early recording?

NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: And we'll see how it sounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO PLACE FOR ME")

NELSON: (Singing) Your love is as cold as a north wind blows and the river that runs to the sea. How can I go on when your only love is gone? I can see this is no place for me. The light in your eye is still shining. It shines, but it don't shine for me. It's a story so old, another love grown cold. I can see this is no place for me.

GROSS: That's Willie Nelson, his very first recording made in 1957.

What were the circumstances under which this record was made?

NELSON: Well, I wanted to make a record. I wanted to sell it over my radio program. I was with KVAN in Vancouver, Wash., and thought it'd be a good idea if I, you know, pressed up a few records and sold them. And so I went over to this friend of mine's house who had a tape recorder in his basement, and we sat there and recorded that one - "No Place For Me," and the Leon Payne song called "Lumberjack." And I pressed up 500 copies and sold them on my radio show.

GROSS: And the kind of echo effect, the reverb, was that intentional or was that just the sound of the room?

NELSON: Well, I think there was a little echo in the room, but the most of it was there was an echo attachment on the recorder that we may have overdone a little bit.

GROSS: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So then what happened with this record? You sold 500 copies on your radio show. Did you send it to a record company?

NELSON: Well, there was a company out of Texas that if you sent them the money they would press you up their copies, and they would sell them to you at their cost and you could sell them and make a little profit if you wanted to, or just sell them for the advertisement. And that's basically what I did. I sold them over the air, sold them, a 8-by-10 picture and a record, I think both of them for a buck, which is about what it cost me to make it.

GROSS: You said when you were growing up all the music kind of blended together. You were a disc jockey for a while. Did you play a wide variety of music on the radio?

NELSON: Yeah, I played everything. I played everything from Patti Page's "Old Cape Cod" to Marty Robbins's "White Sport Coat." I played everything - anything I wanted to play. It was back in the good old days of radio when you could go in and grab your favorite records and play them.

GROSS: Right, before playlists told you what you were supposed to play (laughter).

NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you have a persona on the air? Did you go by your own name? Did you have a different voice that you used?

NELSON: Not really. I didn't have a different voice, but I used to open my show - when I first started out, I had some disc jockey heroes that I ripped off pretty thoroughly (laughter), and there was a guy named Eddie Hill out of Memphis that I stole a lot of his things from. But anyway, the way I would wind up opening my show, I'd say, this is your old cotton pickin', snuff dippin', tobacco chewin', stump jumpin', gravy soppin', coffee pot dodgin', dumplin' eatin', frog giggin' hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.

GROSS: Whoa. (Laughter). And, did you write that yourself?

NELSON: Well, as I say, I wrote a lot of it myself and I ripped off Eddie and some of the other guys.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

NELSON: But it's some of theirs and some of mine all put together.

GROSS: You must have said it a lot of times to remember that off the top of your head so well (laughter).

NELSON: Yeah, I must have. (Laughter).

GROSS: Now, how did you get to Nashville, where you started writing songs professionally?

NELSON: I was living in Houston, in Pasadena really, outside, working at another radio station there and playing at clubs at night and writing songs. And I'd written - one week, I'd written - let's see, "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life."

GROSS: I'm sorry - did you say you wrote that in one week?

NELSON: Yeah, I was working...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, jeez, I wish I had a week like that.

NELSON: That was a great - well, that's when I decided maybe I ought to go to Nashville. And so I took off to Nashville in my '46 Buick that just barely made it - I think it died when it hit the city limits - and went immediately to a place called Tootsie's Orchid Lounge where I had heard was the spot to be in Nashville if you want find some songwriters and hang out a little bit. So - and sure enough, it was the spot to be. I'd run into some friends of mine - Buddy Edmondson, Hank Cochran, Faron Young was there. And we all got in a jam session and started singing songs, and I sung some songs to Faron that he liked and wanted to record. So we recorded them the next week. He did two of my songs, one called "Congratulations," and the other one was called "Hello Walls."

GROSS: So just to make sure I'm hearing correctly, you wrote "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life" in one week?

NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you say to yourself, wow, these are three great songs that will become classics?

NELSON: (Laughter). Well, I'm afraid I wasn't that knowledgeable, but I wish I'd had known then what they were going to do. Maybe it's better that I didn't. I made enough mistakes as it was. But, no, I had no idea that these songs would be as successful as they have been.

GROSS: Would you play one of those three for us now?

NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: Thank you.

NELSON: (Singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew you loved me as long as you wanted and then some day you'd leave me for somebody new. Worry, why do I let myself worry? Wondering, what in the world did I do? And I'm crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Crazy for trying, crazy for crying and I'm crazy for loving you.

GROSS: That's such a terrific song. What came first when you were writing it? Was it the hook of crazy?

NELSON: Yeah. And then it all - you know, everything sort of came from that. And I don't know where that one came from. Maybe it was a self-analysis.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: It must've been.

GROSS: Now, how did Patsy Cline end up recording it?

NELSON: I went to Nashville and I had that song and - with some others. And I met Hank Cochran, who was with Pamper Music, which eventually wound up to be the publishing company that I signed with, thanks to Hank. And Hank knew Patsy. He knew her husband, Charlie Dick, and he took the song to Patsy and to Charlie. I think maybe Charlie heard it first and thought it would be a good song for Patsy. So that's through Charlie, Patsy's husband, and through Hank Cochran that she got the song. She wasn't too sure about it, and it took her a little while to - I think the first day she went into the session, she spent about four hours trying to sing it the way I was singing it and it wasn't working for her. And so the next day, the producer, Owen Bradley, said, why don't you sing it like Patsy one time? And that's what she did, and that song has gone on to be the top jukebox song of all time, Patsy Cline's recording of "Crazy."

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1996. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson. He's now the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, I think it was before you went to Nashville that you wanted to record your song "Night Life." And one of the producers you were working with at the time, Pappy Daily, told you that you weren't country enough. Do I have that right?

NELSON: Actually, I recorded in Houston for Pappy Daily. And I recorded "Family Bible," a couple of other songs. But "Night Life" they wouldn't record it because they said it was too bluesy. It wasn't country. So I recorded "Night Life" under the name of Hugh Nelson on another label across town just to prove a point.

GROSS: And did you prove it?

NELSON: Yeah, that particular record of "Night Life" I think is still the best record of it. I did it with Paul Buskirk, Herb Remington, Dean Reynolds, some of the greatest jazz musicians around Houston.

GROSS: Would you sing the song for us now? And maybe tell us about writing it.

NELSON: Well, this is one of those songs that I wrote on the same week that I wrote "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away." It was driving back and forth from the Esquire Club to Pasadena every night. (Singing) When the evening sun goes down. You will find me hanging around. The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life. And many people just like me dream of old used to be's. And the nightlife ain't no good life, but it's my life. Listen to the blues they're playing. And listen to what the blues are saying. Mine is just another scene from the world of broken dreams. And the nightlife ain't no good life, but it's my life.

GROSS: What was your night life like when you wrote that?

NELSON: I don't remember.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: As if to prove a point.

NELSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, were you really cutting loose for a while? I mean, you were on your own, and you were starting to make money with your career as a songwriter.

NELSON: Well, yeah, I was, you know, throwing it away with both hands.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: The faster I make it, the faster I would spend it. Everybody else would travel on the bus and - I was still playing bass for Ray Price when "Hello Walls" made a hit and I got my first royalty check. So I, you know, started flying first class to all the dates as Ray's bass player, right? I'm making $25 a day.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: And I get a suite at the hotel. Ray's got a regular room at the Holiday Inn, you know, and I got the penthouse. So the checks came and went (Laughter.) But I had a lot of fun.

GROSS: Were you married at the time?

NELSON: Yeah, I was.

GROSS: And did that bother you?

NELSON: It bothered her.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right, now when you really started recording in Nashville, your own songs, did you feel you had any trouble fitting into country music as it was?

NELSON: At those - at that time?

GROSS: Yeah.

NELSON: Yeah, well, I didn't. There was no slot that I fit in. I wouldn't go in that one, or that one or that one. It wasn't that I wouldn't. I just didn't fit.

GROSS: What were the available slots, and why weren't you fitting in?

NELSON: Well, my chords - my songs had a few chords in them and the country songs weren't supposed to have over three chords according to executive decisions (Laughter). And if it had more than three, then it wasn't country, and it shouldn't be recorded. And my voice wasn't exactly - I was nowhere near Eddy Arnold. And I was not - I guess I was closer to Ernest Tubb than Eddy Arnold. But still, my phrasing was sort of funny. I didn't sing on the beat. I had too many chords in my - I just didn't fit the slots, you know? And I wouldn't take orders (Laughter). I just - I couldn't, you know, I didn't know how to take direction that well. So I wouldn't fit in any of these slots, and so I became one of those guys that, you know, they had to call something else. You have to have a label, you know.

GROSS: What were you called?

NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first and then they found the word outlaw and then decided that would smooth it out a little bit. So they started calling us that. I think the first time that term was used was in a column written by Hazel Smith, an old friend of ours from Nashville, and it took off I guess.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1996. After a break we'll hear some of their 2006 conversation about Nelson's book "The Tao Of Willie." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ROAD AGAIN")

NELSON: (Singing) On the road again just can't wait to get on the road again. Life I love is making music with my friends. And I can't wait to get on the road again. On the road again going places that I've never been. Seeing things that I may never see again. I can't wait to get on the road again. On the road again like a band of gypsies we go down the highway. We're the best of friends insisting that the world be turning our way. And our way is on the road again. I just can't wait to get on the road again. The life I love is making music with my friends. And I can't wait to get on the road again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for popular song. Terry last spoke to him in 2006 when he'd published his memoir, "The Tao of Willie."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You so have many great records. It was really hard to narrow down what songs I wanted to play during your FRESH AIR visit today. But here's one I know I want to play. There's a great album that came out about three years ago called, "Crazy: The Demo Sessions." And it's demo recordings that you made after you were a DJ (laughter) when you got to Nashville. And these are - some of them are from the early 1960s. This one is. It's from 1961. It's just voice and guitar. It's a demo of the song "Opportunity To Cry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPPORTUNITY TO CRY")

NELSON: (Singing) Just watched the sun rise on the other side of town. Once more I've waited, and once more you've let me down. This would be a perfect time for me to die. I'd like to take this opportunity to cry. You gave your word. Now I'll return it to you with this suggestion as to what you can do. Just exchange the words I love you to goodbye while I take this opportunity to cry. I'd like to see you, but I'm afraid...

GROSS: That's Willie Nelson and a demo recording he made of his own song in 1961 when he was trying to interest people in recording his songs. What was the fate of that song? Did anybody ever do it?

NELSON: I don't think anybody had done it but me. I've recorded it maybe a couple of times since then. It was one of those really sad, almost pitiful...

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: ...songs.

GROSS: In your new book, you write, I've always had my own way of singing and it was nothing like the way other Nashville stars sang.

What did people think of your singing on the demos before you recorded yourself?

NELSON: I think a lot of the musicians understood what I was doing. And my phrasing was a little different, and my chords were a little strange too. They weren't your normal three-chord country songs. And that was a little strange for a lot of the people in the industry at that time because country and pop hadn't really melted together like they have today in some instances. So a song with a lot of chords in it wasn't considered to be that commercial. So I had fun trying to get those songs done in that kind of atmosphere.

GROSS: When you said that your singing was different and your chords were different, do you think that the chords and the singing were more jazz inflected in some ways, and had you listened to a lot of jazz?

NELSON: Well, I have listened to a lot of different kinds of music, and I grew up listening to everything from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams. So I'm sure I picked up a lot from, you know, every one of those guys. I lived across the street from a whole gang of great Mexican friends of mine who played music all the time. So I was influenced by all that music. I worked in the fields with all kinds of people who sang and played in practically every language, from bohemian to Czech to Spanish. So I heard all kinds of music. It was like being in an opera out there in the cotton fields. And picking cotton wasn't that fun, but the music out there was incredible.

GROSS: Did you sing when you were picking cotton?

NELSON: Oh, at the top of my voice.

GROSS: Yeah? (Laughter).

NELSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: What would you like to sing?

NELSON: I would sing what they were singing, you know? They would be singing over there, singing some blues and I would sing some blues with them. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was trying to sing. And I'd just sing songs that I knew back then. And I didn't know many songs other than gospel songs back then. I'd sing, you know, "Amazing Grace" and songs like that.

GROSS: Now, in your new book, "The Tao Of Willie," you say that you wrote your first cheating song when you were 7, long before you knew firsthand anything about broken hearts and cheating. When you started writing songs when you were older, (laughter), did you know anything about, like, the structure of a 32-bar song or how to write the bridge to a song? Did you think of the song in technical terms when you started seriously writing them?

NELSON: No, I never did and I still really don't. I just kind of write and sing what I feel like writing. And my timing is pretty good so I, you know, I don't break meter that much. And my ear is pretty good so I don't play a lot of wrong chords. But, you know, as far as the lyrics and the singing itself, everybody has to judge that for themselves. But back in those days, I was writing about things I had - you know, like you say, at that age I couldn't have possibly known what I was writing about. Unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, which I do, and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NELSON: ...Maybe I come here knowing some things that I wrote about before I knew I knew.

GROSS: You know, in talking about country songs, like, country songs have certain conventions in a way. You know, like, a lot of country songs are about cheating or drinking too much or falling in love. I guess you could say the same thing about rock songs. (Laughter). But there's also, like, a subcategory of country songs, songs where, like, you're feeling so bad, you're just overwhelmed with self-pity. And one of the most self-pitying of the self-pitying songs is a song that you wrote that's included on your "Demo Sessions" that I really want to play and hear the story behind. And so here it comes. This is Willie Nelson singing a very self-pitying song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF A MAN")

NELSON: (Singing) If I'd only had one arm to hold you - better yet, if I'd had none at all then I wouldn't have two arms that ache for you and there'd be one less memory to recall. If I'd only...

GROSS: Then in the next verse, you imagine having only one eye so he'd have only one eye to cry. (Laughter). Did you think of...

NELSON: That's pitiful.

GROSS: Yes, so self-pitying.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: Did you think, when you sat down to write this, that you would write the ultimate self-pitying song?

NELSON: Well, actually I didn't sit down to write that one. The way that song happened, I was lying in bed with Shirley. And I woke up in the middle of the night wanting a cigarette, and her head was on my arm. So I had to reach over on the side of the bed and get a cigarette and put it in my mouth and then get a match with that one hand and then try to strike that one match. So it all started from that.

GROSS: Oh - because you only had one arm?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Really? Is this really what happened?

NELSON: That's true. That's a true story. So from the one arm, I went into the one eye, one ear, one leg.

GROSS: (Laughter). That's really funny.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And what was the fate of this song?

NELSON: I recorded it a couple of times. Other people have recorded it. Merle Haggard recorded it, I think George Jones did. So it's got a pretty good history.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to an interview Terry recorded with Willie Nelson in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, you have a very recent CD - I guess I could call it a new CD - of songs by Cindy Walker, who's most famous for "You Don't Know Me" and "Bubbles In My Beer." Did you know her well? She died just at about the time your CD was released.

NELSON: Yeah. And at the time we started doing this album, I'd - you know, I had known her a long time. She was a very good friend. And I had talked to her, and we talked about doing an album of her songs for years. And she had sent me songs, and I had a quite an accumulation of Cindy's songs and I knew a lot of them. But I just hadn't gotten into the studio to do it, you know, for one reason or another. And I'm glad I did it when I did because Cindy's health was deteriorating pretty well at that time. And I was just hoping that I could get the album completed and out while she was still here to listen to it. And as it happened she did get to hear it before she died.

GROSS: What did she have to say?

NELSON: Oh, she loved it. She called me up and told me, you know, a lot of great things about how she enjoyed it. And she really made me feel good about getting it done.

GROSS: I'd like to play a song from that CD. And I'm going to give you your choice of one of her two most famous songs, "You Don't Know Me" or "Bubbles In My Beer."

NELSON: Well, you know, "Bubbles In My Beer" is a great up-tempo song that I first learned from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I had no idea who wrote the song when I started singing it. But I was a huge Bob Wills fan, and I just tried to sing and play every song that they recorded. So when "Bubbles In My Beer" came out, it was a natural because I was, you know, a beer joint operator - I mean, beer joint club player. So naturally, it was a good song for where I was playing, and it still is. It's a great piece of literature. And so let's play "Bubbles In My Beer."

GROSS: Good enough, and this is from Willie Nelson's CD of songs by Cindy Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUBBLES IN MY BEER")

NELSON: (Singing) Tonight in a bar alone I'm sitting apart from the laughter and the cheer, while scenes from the past rise before me just watching the bubbles in my beer. And I'm seeing the road that I've traveled, a road paved with heartaches and tears. And I'm seeing the past that I've wasted while watching the bubbles in my beer. A vision of someone who loved me brings a long silent tear to my eye as I think of the heart that I've broken and all the golden chances that have passed me by. I know that my life has been a failure, and I've lost everything that made life dear. And the dreams I once dreamed now are empty, as empty as the bubbles in my beer.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Now, the last couple of summers you've been touring minor league baseball parks with Bob Dylan. What do you feel you and Bob Dylan have most in common as friends or as songwriters or lovers of music?

NELSON: Well, I think all those things. He enjoys touring and playing probably as much as I do because he's always out here somewhere. I enjoy his friendship because he's a great guy. He's a little shy and reserved but, you know, so am I in a lot of ways. And so I understand that. We've written a song together one time. We wrote a song called "The American Dream." And it was written in sort of a different way I guess because he sent me the melody that - a track that he had already recorded where he just hummed a melody. So the whole thing was like (humming) so (laughter) it was kind of a strange demo. But the track was great, so I wrote lyrics to the - to his instrumental, and it turned out I thought pretty good. We recorded it here in New York, maybe just a month or so after we finished it.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Here he is with Bob Dylan singing "Heartland," which they co-wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTLAND")

WILLIE NELSON AND BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There's a home place under fire tonight in the heartland, and the bankers are taking my home and my land from me. There's a big gaping hole in my chest now where my heart was and a hole in the sky where God used to be. There's a home place under fire tonight in the heartland with a well where the water's so bitter nobody can drink. Ain't no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can't drink. Don't they know that I'm dying? Why ain't nobody crying for me? My American dream fell apart at the scene. You tell me what it means. You tell me what it means.

GROSS: I want to ask you about somebody else who you were very close to, and that's Johnny Cash. You knew him for years. You played together in The Highwaymen. How would you describe him as a friend?

NELSON: Well, a friend is a friend. You know, a friend is with you good or bad, any time. So John and I have always been friends. And whenever - you know, he'd call me up several times when he was having a bad day just to hear a joke. So I'd tell him my latest dirty joke (laughter). And I'd try to make it as dirty as possible so he would laugh louder.

GROSS: You actually must collect jokes or something because, like, your new book, for instance, is filled with jokes, literally jokes.

NELSON: Well, I believe in jokes. You know, I think jokes are important, a necessity. You need to laugh at yourself, other people, life, death. You need to figure out a way to laugh at everything.

GROSS: Do you tell a lot of jokes onstage?

NELSON: No, I don't tell any jokes onstage.

GROSS: How come?

NELSON: I'm afraid that if I quit singing, people will leave.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: I don't think they came to hear me tell jokes.

GROSS: That's funny. Let me bring this back to your songwriting. When you write songs, are you sitting down and working in a craftsman-like way on the song, or are they just kind of coming to you while you're doing things?

NELSON: I used to. When I was driving myself to different gigs around the country, I would do a lot of writing just driving down the highway. And I still think, you know, that's the best way for me to write. I can get in the car, I believe, and take off driving, head anywhere and start thinking about something. And if I'm lucky, I'll write a song. But I have to get somewhere by myself to do it. And there's a lot of things going on, a lot of interruptions and things that makes it difficult to do and just, you know, riding the bus.

GROSS: And what about writing the music part, like the chords, for instance? Do you need a piano or a guitar when you do that?

NELSON: If there's a guitar or piano around, I would use it. But I can usually write it all in my head. And then I'll get a guitar when I find one and go over the lyrics and the melodies and probably wind up changing it several times before I finally decide this is the way I want it.

GROSS: But from what you said before, it sounds like - I mean, do you ever, like, actually write it down?

NELSON: I do now more than I used to. I used to have this theory that well, if you don't remember it, it ain't worth remembering. But later on in life, I've figured out well, maybe I should jot down this one because I don't want to forget it.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

NELSON: Well, thank you. It's nice to talk to you again.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He marked the occasion by performing at a concert with Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Neil Young and others. It'll be broadcast on PBS stations January 15. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2." This is FRESH AIR.

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