Willie Nelson: The 'Fresh Air' Interviews Nelson, now 86, spoke to Fresh Air in 1996 and again in 2006 about music and why he never quite fit in as a country star. Plus, Ken Tucker reviews Nelson's new album, Ride Me Back Home.
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Willie Nelson: The 'Fresh Air' Interviews

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Willie Nelson: The 'Fresh Air' Interviews

Willie Nelson: The 'Fresh Air' Interviews

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest is Willie Nelson, who at age 86, has a summer tour and a new album. We'll listen back to two of Terry's conversations with Willie Nelson, but let's start with our rock critic Ken Tucker and his review of Willie Nelson's new album. It's called "Ride Me Back Home," and Ken says Nelson sounds vigorous and upbeat on an album about aging and the passage of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON TIME")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Time is my friend, my friend. The more I reject it, the more that it kicks in just enough to keep me on toes. I say, come on, time. I've beat you before. Come on, time. What have you got for me this time? I'll take your words of wisdom. I'll try to make them rhyme. Hey, it's just me and you again. Come on, time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEN TUCKER: Time is my friend, Willie Nelson sings on his new album "Ride Me Back Home." The notion that time is a friend to an 86-year-old man is more than a bit surprising, but Nelson seems to have come to terms with what it means to get old. Deep into the song, he sings, time, as you pass me by, why did you leave these lines on my face? You sure have put me in my place.

Anyone else would have set such sentiments to a melancholy tune or a grimly contemplative one. Willie, however, sings his words over a giddy-up, prancing beat. He rides both the melody and the lyrics on other songs here, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE ME BACK HOME")

NELSON: (Singing) We rode into battle, barebacked and saddled. You took the wound in your side. You pulled the sleds, and you pulled the wagons. You gave them somewhere to hide. Now they don't need you, and there's no one to feed you. And there's fences where you used to roam. I wish I could gather up all of your brothers, and you would just ride me back home.

TUCKER: That's "Ride Me Back Home," the title song. Nelson makes it another metaphor for a more permanent kind of resting place. You can hear this album as the completion of a trilogy of albums about aging, begun in 2017's "God's Problem Child" and continued in 2018's "Last Man Standing." I think it's the best of the three, as well as the most idiosyncratic.

Only Willie Nelson, master interpreter, could coax me into listening to a cover of Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are," a song I would otherwise happily go to my own grave never hearing again. Nelson's other covers include this gorgeous version of a Guy Clark song, "My Favorite Picture Of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

NELSON: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is the one where you're staring straight into the lens. It's just a Polaroid shot someone took on the spot - no beginning, no end, just a moment in time that you can't have back. You never left, but your bags were packed just in case. My favorite picture of you is bent, and it's faded. And it's pinned to my wall. Oh, and you were so angry that it's hard to believe that we were lovers at all.

TUCKER: "My Favorite Picture Of You" very much fits into this album's recurring theme, as Nelson comes down hard on the line, just a moment in time that you can't have back. Willie is thinking these days about all the moments he's experienced, the pleasures he's had, the work he's done. And he's savoring the labor he still can do, addressing all this directly on "One More Song To Write."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE SONG TO WRITE")

NELSON: (Singing) I got one more song to write. I've got one more bridge to burn. I've got one more endless night, one more lesson to be learned. One more hill to climb, and it's somewhere in my mind. I'll know it when it's right. I've got one more song to write.

TUCKER: This album, "Ride Me Back Home," certainly doesn't sound like Willie Nelson's final statement about anything. It's a lively, restless collection that contains solid new material and a keen sense of self-scholarship. Perhaps only Willie himself remembered "Stay Away From Lonely Places," a song tucked deep into a 1972 album. But he breathes new life into it here.

His voice and his spirit remain strong and supple. Interested in mortality but never its slave, Willie Nelson may be preparing to greet death. But if so, he's doing it in the most jaunty way possible.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker reviewed "Ride Me Back Home," the new studio album by Willie Nelson. Nelson's first album, called "...And Then I Wrote," was released in 1962, when he was primarily a songwriter, and featured him singing his own compositions, which included the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy." Since then, Willie Nelson has established himself not only as a recording artist and performer, but as a movie star, a self-described country outlaw and one of country music's biggest living icons.

When Willie Nelson spoke with Terry Gross in 1996, he brought his guitar along. She asked him about the first time he stepped into a recording studio to record one of his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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 the 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 eyes 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 and wanted to sell it over my radio program. I was with KVAN in Vancouver, Wash. 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's a - there was an echo attachment on the recorder that we may have overdone a little bit.

GROSS: Right. So then what would happen 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 and - for the advertisement. And that's basically what I did. I sold them over the air, sold them a 8x10 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. So 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. 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-picking, snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, stump-jumping, gravy-sopping, coffee-pot-dodging, dumpling-eating, frog-gigging hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.

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

NELSON: Well, as I said, 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: 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 clubs at night and writing songs. And I had written - one week I'd written "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: Geez. I wish I had a week like that.

NELSON: That was a great - 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. I went immediately to a place called Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where I had heard was the spot to be in Nashville if you want to find some songwriters and hang out a little bit. So - and sure enough it was the spot to be.

GROSS: So just to make sure I'm hearing correctly, you wrote "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Nightlife" 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. I wish I 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: (Playing guitar, singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew that you'd love me as long as you wanted. And then someday you'd leave me for somebody new. Worry, why do I let myself worry, wondering, what in the world did I do? I'm crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. I'm crazy for trying and 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. 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 have been.

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

NELSON: I went to Nashville and had that song and - with some others. And I met Hank Cochran, who was with Pamper Music. 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. She wasn't too sure about it. 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. 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's - and that song has gone on to be the top jukebox song of all times with Patsy Cline's recording of "Crazy."

BIANCULLI: Willie Nelson speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Willie Nelson, who has a new album called "Ride Me Back Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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 Nightlife 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, "Night Life" - I think it's 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 I wrote "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," 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 nightlife ain't no good life, but it's my life. And many people just like me dreaming 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 nightlife like when you wrote that?

NELSON: I don't remember (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, as if to prove a point (laughter).

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NELSON: The faster I'd 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 - Ray's bass player, right? I'm making $25 a day. And I'd 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. No, 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. 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. My phrasing was sort of funny. I didn't sing on the beat. I had too many chords, and 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.

GROSS: What were you called?

NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first. And then they found the word outlaw, and they decided that smoothed it out a little bit. So they started calling us that.

BIANCULLI: Willie Nelson interviewed by Terry Gross in 1996. He has a new album called "Ride Me Back Home" and resumes his current summer tour in August. After a break, we'll listen to a more recent conversation featuring Willie Nelson, this one a decade later, from 2006. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY AWAY FROM LONELY PLACES")

NELSON: (Singing) Stay away from lonely places. Just follow the crowd. And stay around familiar faces. Play the music loud. Be seen at all the parties, and dress yourself in style. And stay away from lonely places for a while. Stay away from lonely places until you learn to live alone and someone's outstretched arms are waiting...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with another of Terry's conversations with country music singer and songwriter Willie Nelson. He has a new album out called "Ride Me Back Home." Willie Nelson was born in Texas during the Depression in 1933, and at this point, is famous not only for his songs, from "Crazy" to "On The Road Again," but for organizing his Farm Aid benefit concerts, starring in such films as "The Electric Horseman" and "Barbarossa" and touring in a bus powered by biofuels. He's written more than 2,500 songs. Terry Gross spoke with Willie Nelson again in 2006 and asked him about some of his earliest compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's a great album that came out, oh, 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 his song "Opportunity To Cry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPPORTUNITY TO CRY")

NELSON: (Singing) Just watched the sunrise 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 in 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'd done it but me. I'd recorded it maybe a couple of times since then. It was one of those really sad, almost pitiful 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: Oh, 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.

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 had 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.

NELSON: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: What would you like to sing?

NELSON: Oh, I would sing what they were singing, you know? I would - 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 would just sing songs that I knew back then. I didn't know many songs other than gospel songs back then. I sang, 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, 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, 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 I firmly believe...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NELSON: 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 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. 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: (Laughter) Yes, so self-pitying.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you think that 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.

NELSON: (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.

BIANCULLI: Willie Nelson speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with Willie Nelson. He has a new album called "Ride Me Back Home," and he's on tour this summer, with some dates featuring such other country stars as Alison Krauss and Bonnie Raitt.

Through the years, Willie Nelson shared the stage with lots of other musicians on tour, including Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and, on several, separate, memorable concert dates through the years, Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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. 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, 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'd already recorded where he just hummed a melody. And so the whole thing was like (humming).

So 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")

NELSON: (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.

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There's a home place under fire tonight in the heartland. There's 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 speak. Don't they know that I'm dying? Why ain't nobody crying for me?

WILLIE NELSON AND BOB DYLAN: (Singing) My American dream fell apart at the seams. You tell me what it means. You tell me what it means.

GROSS: Now, you have a very recent 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 - yeah, 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 quite an accumulation of Cindy's songs, and I knew a lot of them. But I just hadn't got 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, beer joint operator - I mean, beer joint club player. So naturally, it was a good song for where I was play it, 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 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 lone, silent tear to my eye. As I think of a heart that I've broken, and of the golden chances that have passed me by, oh, I know that my life's 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 bear.

BIANCULLI: That's Willie Nelson singing the Cindy Walker song "Bubbles In My Beer." We'll hear more of Willie Nelson's conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN'S "WIGWAM")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview from 2006 with country singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, who's been recording albums for more than 55 years. His latest, called "Ride Me Back Home," was released last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know, there's a couple of people who have been on FRESH AIR in the past year who've talked about how you changed their lives. And one of them was the songwriter and singer Billy Joe Shaver, who talked about how you helped him the day his son died. And what he said was he was told that his son died in a heroin overdose. But Shaver says that his son had fallen in with some bad companions, and he wasn't sure what really happened.

And I want to play an excerpt of the tape here. I'd like you to hear this. And in this part, Shaver told me that the police took him to the hospital where his son was. And I'll let Billy Joe Shaver take the story from here. It's the story of the day of his son's death and how you helped him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I don't know what happened. I really - it's still - to this day, I don't know what happened. And I tried to stay in there with him while they were checking to see if he's braindead. And the police ran me off and wouldn't let me back in, told me they're going to arrest me. Oh, my God.

And Willie Nelson, I got to give him credit. He's the one that talked me back out into the world. He said, come on, Billy. He said, you're supposed to play tonight. It's New Year's night. He said, I'll throw something together. And Willie sat up there and played all night long. And I'd go up and sing every once in a while. I owe Willie a lot. He's been such a good friend.

And he took me down to his house. And we spent a night there, and hadn't talked in quite a long time. And he told me a lot of things because he knew a lot - he's a wise man. And he gave me some money. And, you know, it's hard being broke when you're in a situation like that. And then he paid for my son's burial. I didn't have any money at the time. I later got some money from Sony. And I tried to pay him back, and he wouldn't take it.

GROSS: That was Billy Joe Shaver on FRESH AIR, the songwriter and singer. And my guest is Willie Nelson. And, Willie Nelson, when Billy Joe Shaver told that story, and he talked about how on the day his son died, you got together a band and basically forced him to perform that night.

It made me wonder if part of the reason that you did that was because you thought that the stage was the only safe place for him that night. Because it sounds like he was so upset about his son's death that he might have, like, drunk himself into a bad place or done something, taken some action that he might have lived to regret.

NELSON: Well, I always find that on the stage is the safest place for me, no matter what I've been into. If I get up there for a couple hours, I can sometimes work it out. Most of the time, during the show, I can sort of clear my mind of whatever. So I knew that at this particular time, Billy Joe needed to be working.

We were at this club. And we were trying to make the best of a really bad situation. And I figured that that was the best way that I could help Billy Joe was just to get him back on the stage singing and playing and sort of living in the moment again and forgetting about what just happened if he could.

GROSS: Did the audience know what had happened?

NELSON: I think most everyone there knew what had happened. And they were all happy to see Billy Joe there because they also knew that this was where he needed to be - out with friends, fans, rather than trying to hole up somewhere.

GROSS: I figure you must have known something about what Billy Joe Shaver was going through because you lost a son, too. Did you perform after that? Did the stage seem like the best place for you?

NELSON: Yeah. Right after my son died, I had a gig booked in Branson, Mo. And it was on New Year's Eve, and he died on Christmas, so it would have been real easy for me to cancel and go off somewhere and, you know, grieve alone somewhere for months or a long time. I could have done it. It was - it would have been the easiest thing to do, but I didn't.

I just knew instinctively that my best place to be was somewhere on the stage. And it just so happened that I had a six-month gig there in Branson, Mo. So I had six months, and I think it was the best place for me, especially at that time.

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, and I tried to make it as dirty as possible so he would laugh louder.

GROSS: You actually must collect jokes or something, 'cause, 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 and 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 on stage?

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

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: (Laughter) 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 that's the best way for me to write. I can get in the car, I believe, and take off driving and hit 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 it 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: 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 figured out, well, maybe I...

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: 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.

BIANCULLI: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. His new album is called "Ride Me Back Home," and his summer concert tour resumes next month with stops in Green Bay, Wis., Toledo, Ohio, Philadelphia and elsewhere. In September, you can see him on your TV. He's a featured artist in the PBS series "Country Music," the newest documentary from Ken Burns.

On the next FRESH AIR, we'll hear about a bioethicist's struggle with opioids. Terry Gross speaks with Travis Rieder. After shattering his foot, followed by six surgeries, he became dependent on opioids. With difficulty, he was able to wean himself off. Now he's an advocate for opioid use reform. His book "In Pain" is part memoir and part history of pain management. Join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

NELSON: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is the one where you're staring straight into the lens. It's just a Polaroid shot someone took on the spot - no beginning, no end, just a moment in time that you can't have back. You never left, but your bags were packed just in case. My favorite picture of you is bent, and it's faded, and it's pinned to my wall. Oh, and you were so angry that it's hard to believe that we were lovers at all. There's a fire in your eyes. Your heart's on your sleeve, a curse on your lips, but all I can see is beautiful.

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