Willie Nelson is a superstar of country music (“Red Headed Stranger,” “Shotgun Willie,” “Stardust”). He reinvented the genre as one of the founding fathers of outlaw country, forging a style of music that went against the convention of its time. Filmmaker Steven Cantor sat down with Willie to talk about how he got his start in this 2002 interview. [“American Masters – Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving” (2002)].
Ray Charles: When you find people who have their own true identity, they’re gonna survive. If they ever make it, they’re gonna survive. Because they’re the one and only. There ain’t but one Willie Nelson, I mean let’s be honest about it. Ain’t nobody else like him. Period. It’s not two Willie Nelsons it’s just one.
Anna Drezen: That was Ray Charles sending praise from one American Master to another as he saluted singer-songwriter Willie Nelson. As everyone who’s ever listened to the radio or seen a television or touched a poster, if you’ve ever interacted with pop culture, you know that he is a music icon, a staunch anti-war activist, a supporter of environmental rights, and of course, a leader in the fight for the legalization of marijuana. With landmark albums like Shotgun Willie and Redheaded Stranger, Willie Nelson has sold more than 40 million records and is almost always on the road, feverishly touring the United States to this day. Growing up during the Great Depression, Willie Nelson pursued music from a very young age. We’ll hear Willie Talk about these early years navigating the music industry in Nashville, Tennessee, leading up to his notoriety as an outlaw of country music. He sat down with filmmaker Steven Cantor for the 2002 documentary, American Masters – Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving.
Willie Nelson: I was born in Abbott, Texas on April 29, 1933 and my grandparents raised me and they were wonderful people. My granddad was a blacksmith and he died when I was 6 years old. From there my grandmother raised me and my sister by cooking in school lunchrooms. And that took us through school.
Steven Cantor: There were cotton fields all around you right?
Willie Nelson: Yeah well Abbott is right middle of a whole lot of farms and ranches.
Steven Cantor: Did you help out around the house?
Willie Nelson: Well that was where we made our school money was working in the fields and mowing yards whatever there was to do. There wasn’t that much to do we could bail hay or plow or do something for the farmers that was a pretty good way to pick up a couple of bucks, pick cotton pull corn. There was a lot of music out there on some days and sometimes when, in the cotton picking season there was a lot of different pickers out there. There was us and then there was the Mexican cotton pickers some who lived there, some who come in. There was the Black cotton pickers and so there’s a whole lot of a, a culture in the cotton patch. During those days and even earlier my grandparents were music teachers so they were always either singing or playing or writing music.
Steven Cantor: Do you remember when you got your first instrument?
Willie Nelson: I was 6 years old my granddad gave me a guitar.
Steven Cantor: Were your grandparents very musical?
Willie Nelson: Well they were knowledgeable as far as music theory and they taught that and they taught voice and so yeah they were very good music teachers.
Steven Cantor: Can you tell that story of your first public performance?
Willie Nelson: Oh yeah I was, about 5 years old I guess and my grandmother had written a poem and I was supposed to recite it at the Brooking homecoming, which Brooking was a little country town - a small school and a church and a tabernacle and that’s about it. And we were having an all-day singing dinner on the ground there at the Brooking homecoming, it was an annual thing. And I was supposed to get up and say this poem and I had on a little white sailor’s suit with red trim around it. I started picking my nose and my nose started bleeding all over me, then it was time for me to do my poem. So I went up there and held one side of nose it was bleeding and I said, “what are you looking at me for I ain't got nothing to say if you don’t like the looks of me you can look some other way.” And that was my first outing. So I’ve never been scared, have never had stage fright since.
Steven Cantor: Do you think performing was in your blood early on?
Willie Nelson: Oh it was yeah, I think so, something that I always wanted to do. I started writing poems when I was about 5 years old and started putting melodies to them when I was about 6 years old. As soon as I learned a few chords on the guitar.
Steven Cantor: Now when you left Abbott you made a few stops before you ended up in Nashville can you talk a little about those?
Willie Nelson: Oh I went to the Air Force, I went to Baylor University after the Air Force but I went to the Air Force first when I was barely 17 years old just out of high school and stayed in there awhile and then I got out and started working clubs again went to Baylor University on a G.I. Bill for the money they were paying mainly. I was majoring in whatever and trying to find places to play music on the weekends. Did that for a while, played around Waco and West and towns around that area. Fort Worth, San Antonio started doing radio shows out in San Antonio and Houston and then from Houston working clubs down there and doing more radio shows. Disc jockey in the daytime and a musician at night. Yeah I was living in Pasadena and working in the Esquire Club, which is all the way across Houston so driving back and forth I had a lot of time, so going over and coming back so I wrote a lot of songs. “Crazy”, “Nightlife”, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away”. And from there I decided I’d go on to Nashville and give Nashville a shot. I had pretty much realized that the business in the music business was either in Nashville, New York, L.A., Chicago. And for what I was trying to do I felt like Nashville was the place to go and give it a shot and see what happened and either stay or come back. I didn’t have a lot of money I had just enough to get there and I hung out with Billy Walker until I could get a job making money. I started out selling encyclopedias, which I had done before so I just sort of picked up a set of encyclopedias and started knocking doors and selling those. And that lasted me until I signed up with Pamper Music as a songwriter. Hank Cochran heard some of my songs and he liked the way I wrote and he was writing for Pamper Music at that time and he was supposed to be getting a 50 dollar a week raise and Hal Smith had said that they couldn’t afford to hire another writer right now so Hank said, “well give Willie my 50 dollar a week raise.” So that was the first time that I’d ever been signed you know to write professionally, for 50 dollars a week for Pamper Music thanks to Hank Cochran. Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Ray Pennington would hang out in the mornings and we’d play the songs for each other that we’d written the night before and just to pass them around to see what everybody thought about them because we were all on a weekly draw against our royalties you know. So we were trying to earn our money. So every day we would try to have a new song when we came in.
Steven Cantor: Was the encyclopedia salesman training helpful in kind of peddling your music around?
Willie Nelson: Well Patsy’s husband a guy named Charlie Dick I ran into him at Tootsie’s and we were having a beer having a few beers really and Hank Cochran was there and they had heard “Crazy,” they’d heard my version of it and so they wanted it for Patsy and they wanted to go over and play it for Patsy and it was after midnight so I wasn’t really sure if Patsy was ready for a bunch of drunks over at her house, you know, pitching songs. So I wouldn’t get out of the car. I let Hank and Charlie go in and they talked, well Patsy came out to the car and talked me into coming in. heard the song and ah liked it recorded it the next day. To have gotten “Crazy” recorded by her at that period was, was quite a thing. It was a homerun. But it was really hard for a guy with a strange way of singing and phrasing and writing and everything to be in Nashville at that time because there were just ways that things were done. And they didn’t like change that much and they didn’t like difference that much either. And it wasn’t really their fault because I didn’t know what to tell them what I was you know I wasn’t really country I wasn't really rock and roll but I could play a little bit of all those things. I felt like country was my strongest suit but at that particular time my kind of country which was fiddles, guitars and Ray Price country was kind of on the way out and they were going to more voices and other directions and I kind of hid it in the crack there. I played bass for Ray at time when things were really good and country music sounded like Ray Price and Hank Williams and then about that time was when it sort it moved around a little bit and the next thing you know instead of singing with a dance band you’re singing with a smooth you know strings and voices it’s a little different.
Steven Cantor: How did you come to be in Ray Price’s band?
Willie Nelson: Donny Young who later became Johnny Paycheck was working in Ray’s band playing bass and left somewhere in Nebraska or somewhere. At that time I was writing songs for Ray Price’s publishing company. He was part owner of Pamper Music. So he called and asked me if I could play bass and I said, “sure can’t everybody?” Of course I never played bass in my life but on the way to the gig Jimmy Day taught me the Ray Price Show and how to play the bass and fortunately playing the bass is similar to a guitar so I picked it up pretty quick. I wasn’t really a bass player but I got by.
Steven Cantor: I guess Ray was impressed enough to keep you in the band for a while?
Willie Nelson: Well I’m not sure, I was writing for him so he couldn’t very well fire me, right away. Maybe he started looking for another bass player pretty quick, but I stayed with him about a year.
Steven Cantor: Did Ray play any of your songs?
Willie Nelson: Well yeah he did “Nightlife”, he did two or three more songs and albums after that. I killed one of his roosters one time and that pissed him off for a couple years he wouldn’t record any of my songs. But he got so much mileage out of the rooster story that I think he wanted me to shoot another one so he could tell about it. I was real wise in those days. When Ray was riding in the front of the bus with the driver and I was in the back playing poker with Jimmy Day and Shorty Lavender and Pete Wade and Ray called back and said, “hey come up here and help me write this song,” ‘cause we wrote together back then and I said, “*bleep* you I can make more money up here playing poker.” So he went on and wrote the song “Soft Rain,” which turned out to be a number one song and I wound up losing a couple hundred dollars in the poker game. We had a lot of fun. Everyone was drinking pretty much back in those days or you know whatever pill was going around and had a lot of long nights and Ray was as bad as we were you know he had as much fun as we did.
Steven Cantor: I have a lot of friends who are songwriters and I know there’s a big lag time between when they sold a song and actually got paid for it. Was that the same thing back then?
Willie Nelson: Oh yeah there still is. Ah yeah it was you know several months really before you started, so I had money coming eventually I just hadn’t started getting it yet and I was, but I was making you know fairly good money playing bass with Ray.
Steven Cantor: You were living in a trailer park right?
Willie Nelson: Yeah I lived in the same trailer, in the same trailer park and in the same trailer house as Hank Cochran did and Roger Miller before me and it was just coincidental.
Steven Cantor: I can imagine, getting to know you that you probably might have had a tendency to live beyond your means.
Willie Nelson: I always felt like if I could go out 50,000 dollars in debt I would have been successful. My kids would have to pay it back and I wouldn’t have to worry about it and it’d be good education for them.
Steven Cantor: So I’m curious, if you’re approaching writing, writing was your primary source of making money, did you write better out of need of your family? Did you sit down and feel like you had to write?
Willie Nelson: Oh I think so back in the early days of writing you was writing for a lot of reasons. To prove you could write and to also to get the money and to feel like you were earning the money you were getting. Yeah it was a lot of reasons to write.
Steven Cantor: What was it like to see these obvious lesser guys in Nashville becoming huge country stars and climbing the charts and you not getting recording contracts?
Willie Nelson: Oh that’s not anything new. I mean that’s, I turn on the TV now and I see movies that are being made I wonder how in the hell did they get the money to make that movie when I have this great script here and I can’t anybody to read it. So it’s the same way in the music business you know I can’t understand it.
Steven Cantor: Was it frustrating to be writing something that was so meaningful to you and not have them be, you not being the person recording them and not have Nashville really-
Willie Nelson: Not really ah, knowing them and writing them and singing them is you know if somebody else does that too that’s fine but if they don’t that’s fine also. It’s hard to pick out your favorite song it’s like trying to pick out like your favorite kids or something and you like them all for different reasons and you like to see other people sing them and you know and have fun with them.
Steven Cantor: In Nashville you hit a point where it seems to me you kind of hung it up and became a hog farmer.
Willie Nelson: I was waiting really. I really wasn't frustrated. I wasn’t impatient. I knew that I had first of all agreed to stay here in this spot and do this until the end of my term with the record company that I was with and it just was not happening with that record company. And I felt like that once I got with a new one maybe I’d have a better shot, maybe not, but either way I could at least try another route you know. So in the meantime I was just biding my time and taking some time off and I was earning money as a songwriter so I was lucky enough to be able to sit still for a year or two and just write songs and raise hogs. A lot of other people upset over Nashville more then I was. I left because I wanted to go back to Texas you know I wanted to come back here nothing against Nashville. Back down here I was a little frustrated at the, at the record company people who didn’t really understand the music business or the music fans like I did especially mine. So I came back down here where I knew my fans and my fans knew me. I was sort of an outsider in Nashville anyway. I found a scene going on down here in Austin that I really liked. I saw a bunch of young people letting their hair down and grow and going back to blue jeans and tee shirts and enjoying music and people and having a good time. So I wanted to return to that. I remember that as a part of my youth and it was like coming back home literally for me. It wasn’t a big stretch for me to wear blue jeans and tee shirts and tennis shoes. I grew up in them. It wasn’t a big stretch to let my hair grow. So it was really a lot easier for me to come back and I wasn’t, I had just gotten tired of trying to fit into that mode, which I really didn’t fit into. You’re supposed to do one thing this way and one thing that way. You know the show must go on type thing and you wear this you look this way you look that way and there’s people telling you what to do and I never did really prosper listening to a lot of those people.
Steven Cantor: What do you think is important in life what are your golden rules?
Willie Nelson: Well after everything that I’ve read has proven to me that the most important thing in life is what’s going on right this minute because that’s the only thing that we’re sure of. And it sounds like an oversimplification but it’s not.
Steven Cantor: Does that work for you?
Willie Nelson: It seems to be doing ok. It’s good for me is it good for you?
Steven Cantor: Do you believe in reincarnation?
Willie Nelson: Yeah I do.
Steven Cantor: What do you believe?
Willie Nelson: Well I believe that it’s more likely that we’ve been here many times before and we’ll be back many times. I don’t think anybody could be expected to get it right in one time through.
Steven Cantor: Do you come back in different life forms or?
Willie Nelson: I think you come back in different grades you know you’re a senior, junior, freshman, whatever. You fail, you got to come back and take those tests again.
Steven Cantor: So what grade are you in?
Willie Nelson: Just coming out of grammar school now I think.
Steven Cantor: So does that mean you’re a new soul?
Willie Nelson: I didn’t say that just stubborn. A hard head makes a sore ass I think is what my old mother use to say.
Steven Cantor: New soul or old soul?
Willie Nelson: Old soul. There’s dumb souls and smart souls and I’m you know I’m one of the dumber ones. I know some smart ones you’re pretty smart one. You’re not that smart you’d be eating good Mexican food right now.
Unidentified Person: How would you like people to remember you?
Willie Nelson: Yeah, it’s to put a sign on the tombstone that says, “What the *bleep* was that?”