The Brownsville-born Rhodes scholar and son of an Air Force general left his Oxford education and military career behind in 1965 to try his hand as a Nashville songwriter. He succeeded at that and more, becoming a star performer and a film actor. At 73, he’s had a recording renaissance with a couple of bare-bones sessions: This Old Road , from 2006, and Closer to the Bone (New West), out September 29.
You had a nomadic existence as a military brat, but what do you remember about Texas? I remember that Brownsville was my favorite place on the planet. We moved around, but we always moved back to Brownsville, until we left when I was eleven. Brownsville is at least as Mexican as it is Texan. They tell me I spoke Spanish before I spoke English.
You’ve had your share of classic hits—“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee”—but many of them were songs performed by others. That’s what I was trying to get to happen. I could cut any of mine, but to have Janis or Johnny Cash or Willie or Jerry Lee Lewis cutting—that was the greatest satisfaction, to see how different people would transform what I wrote.
Did you ever feel when you heard them doing your songs that you could do better? [ Laughs] I have rarely heard something I didn’t think was done in the right direction. In general, I like other people’s versions of my songs better than my own.
Why’s that? They’re better singers. I love being able to perform my own songs and earn a living at it. But if I were going to choose to listen to somebody, it would be somebody like Hank Williams or Ray Charles.