Published Apr 22, 2013Willie Nelson is 80 years old this year. While it's a significant milestone for one of the true legends of American music, it's just a number for the Red Headed Stranger, who continues to record and tour as prodigiously as he always has. Nelson's latest album, Let's Face the Music and Dance, is a wonderfully intimate collection of standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, Moon Mullican and Spade Cooley that showcases the current incarnation of his band, especially his sister and long-time pianist Bobbie. Exclaim! spoke with Nelson prior to a show in Cedar Falls, Iowa, an early date on his current tour that brings him to the Toronto and Ottawa Jazz Festivals in June, along with appearances in Windsor and Parry Sound, ON.
Did the idea for this album come from a desire to pay tribute to the musical bond you and your sister Bobbie have shared your whole lives?
Well yeah that, and the fact that we wanted to put out an album with the band. We lost [bassist] Bee Spears a while back, and Kevin Smith came in and is doing a great job playing bass. We just wanted to do an album together and record our sound as it is now. It turned out really good.
This is the second record in a row you've done with producer Buddy Cannon, the other being last year's Heroes. You've worked with a lot of different producers over the past ten years. What is it about Buddy that made you come back to him?
He's just real easy to work with, and he's really good at getting good musicians together. He's a good musician himself, a good singer. We're working on another album now of duets with different girl singers. I'm trying to finish that up in the next few days and I'm looking forward to having you hear that one.
This isn't the first time you've recorded some of these songs on Let's Face the Music and Dance. Can you describe what it is about them that mean so much to you?
Well, they are songs that Bobbie and I grew up playing and we've kept playing our whole lives — "South Of The Border," "Walking My Baby Back Home," "Face the Music." Actually, "Face the Music" was one we had to learn for this session. We knew a lot of other Irving Berlin songs, like "What'll I Do," and "Marie," which we recorded, but "Face the Music" is an incredible piece of music. You just can't jump out there and play it without working on it. We worked on it a long time.
Having that as the opening track definitely sets the tone for the entire album. And as a listener, it feels almost like you're sitting in the room with all of you as you're recording.
That's basically what we did. We didn't do a lot of enhancement on it. That's pretty much the way we played those songs in the studio in Austin. It was easy to do. The biggest problem was deciding when to quit recording, because there was easily 20 or 30 other songs we could have done.
It's also great to hear you playing so much guitar on this album, you sound as good as you ever have.
Well thank you, first of all. I think my style has always been just playing what I feel I want to play. Guys like Django Reinhardt and Grady Martin and Hank Garland, to me those were the guitar players. I managed to get by.
I guess as long as [your guitar] Trigger is holding up, you'll be alright.
Yeah, Trigger's healthy.
I really enjoyed your book that was published last year, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. Was that a good experience for you, putting all of those stories together?
Well, it wasn't really something I was jumping up and down to do. The folks from the book company made a nice offer, and I said, well heck, it wouldn't require a lot of brains to write what I know. So, I just started writing in a journal on the bus as we were riding down the highway, writing whatever I was thinking at the moment. It's not heavy.
You've known so many incredible people. Is there one piece of advice you've gotten from somebody that's helped you keep going?
One did, yeah. An ex-father-in-law of mine who's passed on now, his name was George Koepke, he was a really funny guy. Someone asked him his advice on something one day, and he said, "Take my advice, and do what you want to." That was the best advice I could ever get.
That's certainly been the hallmark of your success, especially from the moment you decided to leave Nashville. Working with Buddy has brought you back there in a small way. How does it feel to work in Nashville these days?
Well, these two albums with Buddy, we did them combining Nashville and Austin, really. We cut a lot of the tracks in Austin and did some overdubbing in Nashville, and on this new duets album we cut most of the tracks in Nashville with people like Barbra Streisand, Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, and Norah Jones.
There is certainly a new generation of artists doing great work in Nashville. That must be heartening for you.
Yeah, it sure is. Miranda Lambert and I just did one of the last songs that Waylon [Jennings] wrote, and I did one of my songs with Norah. I'm looking forward to singing with all the girls in Nashville if I get a chance. Connie Smith, I'd love to do some kind of duet with her.
When you mention Norah Jones, it reminds me of how your styles just seem a perfect fit for each other. Is that a collaboration you're hoping will continue?
Yeah, in fact we'll be in Nashville together in a couple of days to do a few things. I always enjoy the chance to sing with her.
You're about to turn 80. Tell me about being on the road now. As you mentioned, Bee is no longer there, but the Family is still together. Does it feel the same as always, or is every year a new challenge?
Well, yes to both of those. Every day is a new challenge. But I think we're playing as good as we've ever played, maybe even better. I think this new album, Face the Music, is good, and it's something we can do on the show. We can reproduce it live, and that's always good. It's great to have an album made with all the great musicians in Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, but it's also great to have an album made with your band that you can reproduce every night.
I have to ask your view on the last U.S. election when the recreational marijuana legislation was passed in Washington and Colorado. Are you encouraged by that?
Yes I am. I think it's a matter of time when the whole country will have to eventually head that way. If nothing else, it would be a positive step for the economy. Anybody with a mind for the bottom line can see where it's better to have pot legalized and taxed and regulated, rather than let all the criminals make the money. I think a lot of the smart thinking people out there are beginning to put it together and are saying, wait a minute, Colorado and Washington are a little more progressive thinking than we are, so we better catch up.
You've also been a great spokesman for bio-fuels, and a pioneer in that area, with many other musicians have followed your lead. How is that work progressing?
Well, I think the bio-fuels, solar, wind, and all of these alternative energies are, just by necessity alone, getting more popular as time goes by. We're better off going the way of bio-fuels and alternative energies, so we don't have all the problems that we have with oil.
Are you still using your same biodiesel bus?
Yeah. We're talking about maybe getting a new one, but this one's still getting us where we need to go.
Well, thank you Willie, and have a great show tonight.
Thank you as well, and I look forward to coming back to Canada in June.