Willie Nelsonís first album, . . . And Then I Wrote, was a collection of songs heíd penned that were hits for others. It included the country and pop classics "Crazy," "Hello Walls," and "Funny How Time Slips Away," and it showcased the now-trademark dusty, laconic voice of the young songwriter whoíd stormed Nashvilleís competitive music scene just a year earlier. Since then Nelson has continued to write and record enduring numbers: "Always on My Mind," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "On the Road Again," "Night Life," and albums-full more, most describing the landscape of the human heart ó and of America ó with a literate passion second only, perhaps, to that of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
So itís surprising that 40 years after . . . And Then I Wrote Nelson, who plays the Orpheum this Friday, would author just one tune for his new album, the title track of The Great Divide (Lost Highway). Whatís not surprising is that itís the best of the lot: a typical Nelson tale that uses the mountain range as a metaphor for a wistful break-up, and thatís sung with his mesmeric behind-the-beat phrasing.
Whatís even less surprising is that the absence of new Nelson tunes was his record companyís idea. In an attempt to set the 68-year-old troubadour up with a smash like Carlos Santanaís 1999 Supernatural (Arista), Island Recordsí Lost Highway imprint paired him with Supernaturalís main architects, producer Matt Serletic and Matchbox 20ís Rob Thomas. The result features duets with Sheryl Crow, Lee Ann Womack, Brian McKnight, Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, and Thomas, who penned the Santana breakthrough single "Smooth" and wrote three tunes for The Great Divide.
One more surprise: the album is good. The songs all fit Nelsonís persona like a pair of broken-in boots, or, in Willieís case, old sneakers, with the possible exception of Cyndi Lauperís "Time After Time." The most noticeable difference is the layer of rock-and-roll drive the studio band put under many of the songs, though ó again, no surprise ó the most poignant arrangements are those spare enough to present Nelson nearly alone.
Like all great American icons from Thomas Jefferson ó who seems to have shared Willieís interest in marijuana ó to John Wayne, Nelson stands best by himself, fulfilling the mythic image of the lone individual pursuing his own destiny with character and determination, yet with a generosity that benefits the common good. Which is what heís done ó though the IRS, which belted him with a $16.7 million bill for back taxes that he settled with $9 million in 1993, might disagree. Not only has Nelsonís catalogue brought him success, itís brought joy to millions of listeners. And for more than a decade now heís done his best to bring that joy to them personally, playing more than 200 concerts a year. Among those dates is Farm Aid, the sprawling annual benefit for financially strapped farmers that heís organized each September since 1985. Over the years the Farm Aid office has granted more than $15 million to farmer-assistance organizations in 44 states.
Recently Nelson also started putting joy in a bottle. Heís introduced a new brand of six-year-old small-batch bourbon called Old Whiskey River, and the company, which he started with an old friend in the heart of Kentuckyís bourbon country, is sponsoring his current tour. Heís also just published his fourth book, a light volume called The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes (Random House). Itís a blend of autobiography, humor, lyric sheet, and photo album.
Nelson telephoned for this interview from Islandís offices in New York City, where he was playing three nights at the hip Irving Plaza performance space. He was good-humored and as relaxed, focused, and concise as the lines he chisels in his songs.
Q: Thereís something very warm and reflective about your voice and the slow, measured way you play guitar. To what extent is making music a spiritual experience for you?
A: I think all music is gospel music. Iím not sure being soulful is something you can try for. You either are or youíre not, and at some times what we do is more soulful than others, but certainly I think our music is spiritual.
Q: Who do you listen to for inspiration?
A: Django Reinhardt, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra ó thatís my favorite stuff, the era from the í30s through í60s. Iím so involved in all of that music, it makes sense that it seems to come out in what I do.
Q: You came up as a songwriter in Nashville during the golden age of country music.
A: It was a time with Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Roger Miller . . . It was the kind of Tin Pan Alley thing where everybody got together every morning and weíd play the songs weíd written the night before. Or weíd go to somebodyís house at night and pass the guitar around. Thereís not that kind of camaraderie going on these days in my life. I miss it a lot. There were a lot of great writers all around me.
Q: I was surprised Rob Thomas wrote so well in your voice.
A: Heís a fan of my writing, so he says it wasnít hard for him to write for me. "Maria," "Wonít Catch Me Cryiní," and "Recollection Phoenix" ó thereís a lot of good road material in that one ó they all sound like Willie Nelson songs.
Q: Youíre 68 and a legend. Why do an album with guest stars and the like now?
A: It was a combined effort of the record company and the fact that [producer] Matt Serletic was interested in doing something with me. Heís really good. Unlike the last few records, except for the song I wrote ["The Great Divide"] and "I Just Dropped In" and "Time After Time," these were all new songs that required some effort to learn. And Rob Thomas worked a lot with me on this album. He suggested "Time After Time." I recorded my parts live last January, and since then the producer spent another two or three months finishing it up, getting some of the other artists in there. My duets with Lee Ann Womack and Brian McKnight were live. The rest were done after I left.
Q: Kid Rock sings surprisingly like Rod Stewart.
A: Yeah, he does have that quality.
Q: Was it difficult working on a book at the same time?
A: No. It probably took a little over 30 days. I wrote a little bit every day on tour and a little bit at night and threw a few jokes and lyrics and pictures in there, and there you have it. I figured it couldnít be that hard.
Q: Speaking of tours: you seem to be on the "Never-Ending Tour," like Dylan.
A: I donít have any plans to quit. I enjoy it too much. As long as weíre drawing crowds and everybodyís healthy.
Q: Youíve got a vast song catalogue. How do you choose what youíll play in concert?
A: We do two to three hours a night, so I pretty much play everything I know. Or at least everything I remember. There are the songs I should do every night because I know folks come to hear them ó like "Always on My Mind," "On the Road Again," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." And then I fill it in with the things I like to play.
Q: What do you do when youíre not on tour?
A: Being on the road is like vacation, sort of. I do a lot of the same things. I play some golf when I get a chance; I ride a bike or swim. When Iím in Maui with friends we play poker and chess. I play a lot of games.
Q: And do you drink bourbon? Youíre now in the liquor business.
A: I sip along. I have a new bourbon out called Old Whiskey River. My partnerís an old friend out of Kentucky. Nelson County ó no relation. It has a little Jim BeamĖish type flavor.
Q: What are you planning next?
A: I want to just keep doing what Iím doing ó tour and make records ó although every now and then a movie comes along that will be fun to do. Thereís a Disney movie coming out in July that I did. I think itís titled The Country Bears. Itís the old Disney Country Bears supposedly getting their band back together.
Q: And are you a bear?
A: No, but Iím acting with those bears. They are people in bear uniforms but have computerized heads, so their expressions and emotions are manipulated by an operator across the room. Itís funny.
Q: Youíre also a pot smoker and passionate about legalization.
A: I always have been. Itís ridiculous that potís not legal. Itís so much more political than whether itís good for you or not. They use that issue to put it down. A lot of politicians I know smoke pot but are afraid to come out of the closet. Very few pot smokers I know get out and vote, so the conservatives who do vote always win the election against legalization or decriminalization. Until some of those politicians come out of the closet, itís going to be that situation. In order to get any kind of reasonable success with decriminalization or legalization, there has to be somebody in Washington that doesnít look like a pot smoker [he laughs] whoís advocating.
The governor of New Mexico is a good example. His name is Gary Johnson and he is for it 100 percent. And heís a great advocate, because he is a straight guy who doesnít smoke, but he realizes itís not a horrible thing. It would help the tax base and help out the farmers. It would help practically everything!
Q: It sure wouldnít hurt! Say, were you actually standing in Monument Valley for the CDís centerspread photo?
A: Iím where?
Q: In Monument Valley, to the right of the Mittens and the left of John Ford Point.
A: Heh-heh! Uh, I think I was superimposed . . . But thatís where I need to be!
Willie Nelson plays the Orpheum Theatre this Friday, January 25. Call (617) 228-6000.