First off, here’s a link to today’s review on The Arts Desk of Willie Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child. It’s got some crackers on it, and Leon Russell’s last recorded vocals on the title track. To go with this, below is the text of a feature published in The Independent, written overnight back in March 2005, after joining Willie on his bus to talk to him en route between Kay West Hotel and Shepherds Bush Empire, where he played a great set. The paper needed it the next morning, and I remember sitting up till the early hours with the poet Gordon Wardman, who’d joined me on Willie’s bus and asked the best question – “Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?”. [No].
“God may have a problem, but Willie’s cool”
On the bus with Willie Nelson, West London, March 2005
Written overnight, published the next day, and Willie was playing a second date at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Mid morning, The Independent calls to say someone called
David Soul wants to speak to me. Turns out he used to hang with Willie on his bus
in the 1970s, and wanted to reconnect. I did the connecting, and there he was,
sat on a chair at the side of the stage that night.
Willie Nelson’s bus is something of an American legend, one you can walk all the way around and still see nothing but that legend staring you in the face, albeit with darkened windows and all the mod-cons money can buy.
Willie probably spends more time on the bus – he plays over 100 dates a year – than anywhere else on earth. When you climb up the steps behind him, you find yourself in Willie’s world; there’s the faint aroma of grass, the windows are completely opaque, and the mirrored doors create a sense of unreal space – you could be anywhere on earth, or suspended above it.
Right now, we’re travelling from the band’s hotel to the artist’s entrance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the only indication of where we are in the world from a distant siren, and the occasional judder of the brakes. Willie is dressed casually in a grey tracksuit top with IRISH PUB BOXING down the sleeve. There is absolutely no indication from his relaxed, casual manner that in twenty minutes or so, he will be leading his band onstage to play a two-hour set before a packed house. He does look older than when he last played here –his hair is perhaps thinner, but still hangs down to his waist, and the beard is pure white. He is big on eye contact, and though he’s hard to get to, once you’re there he completely accommodating. There is no one who wears their ‘legend’ status as casually or gracefully as he does. He and the likes of Merle Haggard – yes, he’s still alive and touring America with Bob Dylan – are among the few surviving elders from Country’s rebellious pantheon, the ones who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the prototype spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt-Country/Americana revival of the last decade.
‘They had their own individual style,’ he says of a generation of which he is one of the few survivors. ‘When you heard Johnny Cash, you knew it was Johnny Cash. Same with Hank Williams, or Waylon [Jennings]. The guys who have their own sound are the ones who’ll always be hanging around, and we’ll always like their music.’
With his headband and long, tied-back hair, he still looks like the original Cosmic Cowboy, a left-field, sometimes outspoken figure in a deeply conservative industry – witness the fate of the Dixie Chicks after daring to criticise Bush – and whose music and aura hits you like direct eye contact in a world of mirror shades. And he is as busy as ever – there is a new album being released on I-Tunes, a batch of gospels songs with his sister Bobbie, and he scoffs at suggestions that this may be his last international tour; the idea of last anything doesn’t really figure on Willie’s internal route map.
There will also be a chance to hear a reggae album recorded in the mid-90s for Island, but never released. ‘Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals) and his engineers did some tuning up on the album,’ he explains, ‘they added some great rhythms and took off some things and stripped it down. I’ve been listening to it, and it sounds really different, but it sounds good.’
Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching – virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre of more than 100 albums and countless concerts over five decades. ‘When you hear a great song you know it,’ he says. ‘You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them.’
The same song-catching spirit applies to his own compositions. The ambivalent romance of the title track from 2004’s It Will Always Be, shows how, with a few words, he can speak volumes, and say different things at the same time, for beside the song’s affirmative chorus are verses of doubt and profound isolation. ‘That song came all at one time,’ he says of its composition; it’s as if he’s talking about a flower coming into bloom. The elongated, conversational phrasing and half-rhyme of the opening verse tells you a lot about his famously around-the-beat vocal style. It’s so simple it’s almost see-through, but the more you listen, the thicker it gets; and it’s not half as sentimental as it first sounds. The lines and delivery are loaded with feeling and executed with a masterly minimalism learnt on Nashville’s front lines.
‘The shorter that you could make it and still get your point across, the better the chances of airplay,’ he remarks of those early songwriting years, ‘so we writers were sort of taught to see what you could say in nine lines of verse or whatever, and that makes you concentrate on the lines you wanna use and put more thought into them. I’d sooner lose thirty mediocre verses and come up with three good ones. Good songs are timeless, you can do em today or a hundred years from now, they’re still good.’
Born in Abbott, a small town on the plains of central Texas, in the depths of the great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, his life journey is the archetypal Country ride through lucky stars, ill omens, and fortunate catastrophes. His mother, who left when he was six months old, was part Cherokee, a singer in her own right, while his father was also a player – he would later do stints in Willie’s family band decades later, when Nelson had finally made it through.
‘I have Indian blood and I’m proud of it,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Irish ancestry in there… Native Americans have a lot to teach us, their attitudes and way of life, the way they love and protect the earth.’ And perhaps the roving mother who left him soon after he was born – though she became a part of his life in adulthood – is the absent figure to whom so many of his songs launch their appeal. The likes of Everywhere I Go and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground aim straight for the heart, and they rarely miss.
It’s been said that Willie Nelson wears the world like a loose garment, but finding that loose fit was some way up the line, and the distinctive voice and phrasing, his easy, elastic turning of a line, was way out of step with the times. By the end of the Sixties, with his songs finding success only in other people’s hands, he had semi-detached himself from the music business to run a hog farm just outside Nashville before a fire sent his home, his business, and most of his belongings up in smoke, and he returned to Texas, took his band on the road, and found that the music Nashville had dismissed, Texans loved.
He bought some land outside Austin, and hit the local music scene, which included the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes van Zandt. ‘There was a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,’ he says, ‘and I was playing the real cowboy redneck places down there, and I started hanging out at Armadillo; there was a lot of young people around, and I knew some people who owned the place. They had a beer garden there, and I thought, listen, we can try out some Hank Williams here. So I started playing there, and sure enough, they were big Country fans. There were guys doing it already,’ he adds, ‘like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody, but the traditional guys like me, hadn’t started to hang out with that crowd yet.’
He teamed up with the likes of rocker Leon Russell. ‘We started realising these things can mix up good,’ he says, ‘and we really mixed it up, and proved that it can be done.’ With 1975’s Country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, he had his first million-selling LP, and by the end of the Seventies, he had been elevated to iconographic status, a national monument etched into the American fabric as firmly as the heads on Mount Rushmore.
There were numerous crossover hits through the 80s but by the decade’s end Country radio was tuning out the old guard for a shiny new breed. There were further severe setbacks in 1990, when the IRS raided his compound in Luck, Texas, and took everything that could be taken, down to the glass between the control room and recording booth. Willie picked himself up, dusted himself down and released the IRS Tapes, went on the road and by 1993 had paid off his debts, moved back into Luck, and resumed an itinerary of touring, recording and golf that continues more or less unbroken to this day.
As he is often wont to say when asked about retiring, ‘All I do is play music and golf; which one do you want me to give up?’ His genius may be casually worn, but there’s a powerful sense of continuity about his music that ensures it never strays far from its sources. He has played the same guitar, and led the same band for decades, and on stage at Shepherd’s Bush, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica blowing like tumbleweed across Willie’s guitar runs and sister Bobbie’s bone-dry gospel piano, the Family band – including guitarist Jody Payne, drummer Paul English, the Gothic cowboy looming darkly over his one snare drum, and Bee Spears on bass – are one of the longest-serving and sweetly-seasoned bands in the business.
Their subtle, mercurial sound summons up the spirit of classic songs with uncluttered playing that leaves plenty of room for Willie’s incredible guitar playing and vocal phrasing. They may have been playing more or less the same set for decades but there’s room enough for Willie, the band and the whole audience to move about in those songs, and it seems that Willie is never going to get tired of reconstructing and rephrasing his work in new and refreshing ways.
‘It’s something that you wanna do it bad enough that you just go ahead and do it,’ he says, when asked about his career’s legacy. ‘It’s not ever easy. There’s always someone saying you can’t. But you can. If you think it’s the right thing you can do it’
And what is the most important lesson a life in the music business has taught him? He considers for a moment. ‘Patience,’ he says, and laughs. He tries to think of something else, but that’s about all there is. ‘Mainly patience,’ he says, and laughs again.