Willie Nelson: The Songwriter Reflects On His Hits Before he became a leader of the outlaw country movement, Nelson worked for decades as a songwriter. In 1996, he joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his most famous songs.

Willie Nelson: The Songwriter Reflects On His Hits

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our Country Music Week continues today with interviews from our archive featuring two songwriters and singers who were at the forefront of the country outlaw movement: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

In 1996, Willie Nelson brought his guitar to FRESH AIR. He performed and talked about some of his most famous songs. He first established himself as a songwriter in the '60s, with songs like "Hello Walls," "Crazy" and "Night Life." In the '70s, he broke through as a performer. He earned the country outlaw image through his music, stripping away the slick surface of commercial country, and with his long hair and blue jeans that defied the rhinestone style of the period's country performers.

I spoke with Willie Nelson after the release of his album of gospel songs, "How Great Thou Art." I asked him about the role gospel music played in his life as a child.

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician): Well, my sister and I both were raised around gospel music and owned gospel music, literally. Every Sunday we went to Sunday school and church, and we played. We were the -basically the only musicians in the church.

So other than there was one piano player, but sister Bobbie(ph) learned to play like her pretty quick. And pretty soon we were the musicians of the church.

So we played every song every Sunday, and we had booster bands that we when I was young, we sung in those, and all through Monday night was choir practice. Wednesday night was prayer meetings. And Thursday night was singing conventions in Hillsborough. So all week long, we were involved in gospel music.

GROSS: Would you sing for us one of the gospel songs that you loved to sing as a child?

Mr. NELSON: Sure, let me see.

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. I was blind, but now I see.

GROSS: Now, I think your grandparents sang gospel, too. Is that right?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, my grandparents were music teachers and both vocal, voice coaches and teachers, and they taught piano.

GROSS: Now, one of the first songs that you wrote that got recorded was called "The Family Bible."

Mr. NELSON: Right.

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

Mr. NELSON: This was in the '60s. I was down in Houston, writing and playing down there, and ran into a guy named Claude Gray(ph). And 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 a number one record.

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

Mr. NELSON: Not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Not really.

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

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

(Soundbite of song, "The Family Bible")

Mr. NELSON: (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 sittin' round the table when from the family Bible Dad would read. I can hear my mother softly singing: Rock of ages, rock of ages, cleft for me.

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

Mr. NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: What did your family Bible look like?

Mr. NELSON: Oh, it was worn and hard to read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: It was one of those typical, old, faded family Bibles where all the history was - the family history was in there, you know, where all the grandparents came from and the great-grandparents. It was a wonderful it was the library or - to the family, all sort of sit around and read.

And 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 have been to keep the kids 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Well, they're very much involved. You know, they're very close together. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Many people have pointed out that you have the kind of behind-the-beat phrasing that's really more associated with jazz than with country music - although I think some of the great country singers also had a wonderful, behind-the-beat kind of sound. Was Sinatra a big influence on your phrasing?

Mr. NELSON: Yes, he well, I don't know about phrasing. He was a big influence on my singing. There's a whole lot of the guys that I really, I felt like I picked up some things from: Bing Crosby and Perry Como and Ray Charles, George Jones - all the great singers.

GROSS: Now, what did people like Sinatra, who were, you know, Northern, singing with big bands, represent to you as a kid in Texas? Was it like, a different part of American life, in addition to being a different kind of singing?

Mr. NELSON: Well, not really, because all the songs that I was hearing on radio, my sister and I played them, and we sung them, and we played them in the clubs where we were playing. We danced to them.

And it was all kind of music. It was pop music, country music. It was all mixed together. There weren't that many labels in those days. It was just music. People would request "Stardust," and then they would request "San Antonio Rose."

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?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I played everything. I played everything from Patti Page's "Old Cape Cod" to Marty Robbins' "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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: 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?

Mr. 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 Heel(ph) 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-giggin' hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And did you write that yourself?

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I must have.

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

Mr. NELSON: I was living in Houston - in Pasadena, really, outside of working at another radio station there and playing at clubs at night, and writing songs. And I had written one week I had 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?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I was working...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. 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 Tutu'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 great - it was the spot to be. I'd run into some friends of mine, Buddy Emerson(ph), 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 record - you wrote "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life" in one week?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Well, I'm afraid I wasn't that knowledgeable. But I wish I'd have 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?

Mr. NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew 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? 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?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, and then it sort of - you know, everything sort of came from that. I don't know where that one came from. Maybe it was a self-analysis. It must have been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. NELSON: I went to Nashville, and I had that song, 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, she got the song. 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.

And so the next day, the producer, Owen Bradley(ph), 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."

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Willie Nelson. We'll hear more of it after a break, as our Country Music Week continues. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: As part of our Country Music Week series, we're listening back to Willie Nelson's 1996 FRESH AIR interview and performance.

So you started to work for a music publishing company in Nashville. Did that mean you had to go to work every day, and sit at a desk and write songs?

Mr. NELSON: No. I had to go in every day, and me and the other songwriter would sit around and sing the songs that we had written the night before, and that was really all we did.

Being with a publishing company, the good thing about it was having other writers around, your peers, that you could play your new songs for and get feedbacks, and they'd play yours.

And you could find out, really, how you're doing. When you're just writing by yourself, you really, you're in the dark a lot, and it helps to be around other writers, I believe.

GROSS: Who were some of the other writers with you at the time? Anyone we'd know?

Mr. NELSON: Oh, yeah, sure. You know all - Hank Cochran and Roger Miller, Harlan Howard(ph) - some of the greatest writers -Wayne Walker(ph), Mel Tillis, Ray Pennington, just - all these guys were around in those days.

GROSS: This must have been quite an interesting environment to be working in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: It really was. It was great.

GROSS: Did you ever start feeling frustrated that other people were having hits with your songs and you weren't recording yourself? I mean, did you want to be the performer having the hits?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I did - and yes, I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Faron Young, who is a good friend of mine, used to tell me when I was in Nashville just writing songs - and I was raising hogs and cattle and writing the songs, and he was singing them. He said, now, you should never go out on the road. What you should do is stay here and write the songs, and let me sing them.

And I said, Faron, but I want to go, I want to - you know, I just - I used to have a band. I want another band, I want to go sing. He said no, no, no, you stay here.

So I'm glad I didn't listen to him, but I really couldn't because I enjoy performing - more, really, than I enjoy writing. So I had to get back out.

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?

Mr. NELSON: Actually, I recorded in Houston for Pappy Daily, who had a company called - it was Glad Publishing Company, D Records for Daily. And I recorded "Family Bible" on that label, and I recorded 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?

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

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

Mr. NELSON: Well, this is one of those songs that I wrote the same week I wrote "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," driving back and forth from the Esquire Club to Pasadena every night.

(Soundbite of song, "Night Life")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hanging 'round. The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life. Many people just like me dreaming of old used to be's. And the night life 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 night life ain't no good life, but it's my life.

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

Mr. NELSON: I don't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: As if to prove a point.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

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.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: The faster I'd make it, the faster I would spend it. Everybody else would travel in 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, 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. And so the checks came and went. But I had a lot of fun.

GROSS: Were you married at the time?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I was.

GROSS: And did that bother you...

Mr. NELSON: It bothered her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Oh, right.

Willie Nelson, recorded in 1996. We'll hear more of that interview and performance in the second half of the show, as our Country Music Week continues. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's Country Music Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Willie Nelson's 1996 FRESH AIR interview and performance.

In the '70s, he was at the forefront of the country outlaw movement, which brought a stripped-down style and rock rhythms to country.

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

Mr. NELSON: At those at that time?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: 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 Tubbs 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: I just - I couldn't, you know. I didn't know how to take direction that well, so I wouldn't fit into any of these slots. And so I became one of those guys that, you know, they had to call something else.

GROSS: And what were you called?

Mr. NELSON: You have to have a label, you know.

GROSS: What were you called?

Mr. NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first. And then they found the word outlaw, and they 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 I say -it took off, I guess.

GROSS: You have written over 2,000 songs. Many of those songs have become hits. Many of those songs, most of us have never heard - I mean, that's a lot of songs.

I would love for you to sing one of the songs that you've written, that you love, that you wish was better known.

Mr. NELSON: Hmm. Let me think about that.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

Mr. NELSON: Have you ever heard of a song called "I Never Cared For You"?

GROSS: I don't think I know that.

(Soundbite of song, "I Never Cared For You")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all, and the sky was never blue. The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall, and I never cared for you. I know you won't believe these things I tell you. No, you won't believe. Your heart has been forewarned all men will lie to you, and your mind cannot conceive. Now all depends on what I say to you and on your doubting me. So I've prepared these statements far from true, pay heed and disbelieve. The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all, and the sky was never blue. The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall, and I never cared for you. I never cared for you. I never cared for you.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and for playing and singing for us. It's just been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. NELSON: My pleasure.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, recorded in 1996. His latest album is called "Country Music."

Coming up: an interview from our archive with Nelson's friend and fellow country outlaw, the late Waylon Jennings.

This is FRESH AIR.

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