Willie Nelson isn’t known for sitting still, and as he nears birthday number 86 on April 29, he seems as creatively and commercially active as ever. Over the weekend, Nelson hosted a listening party for his forthcoming album Ride Me Back Home (his sixty-ninth studio effort) for a few dozen radio contest winners at his Luck Ranch, in Spicewood. The album is due in June, and Nelson will promote its release with two dozen tour dates in May and June, which culminates Independence Day weekend with the Outlaw Festival in Dallas and his annual July Fourth Picnic in Austin, both featuring high-caliber support acts like Nathaniel Rateliff, Alison Krauss, and Steve Earle. And if that wasn’t enough, Nelson also launched Willie’s Remedy in February, a high-end Colombian coffee infused with CBD oil from Colorado.
Seated in the charming and rickety sixty-seat chapel on his ranch, Nelson fielded questions on the album’s songs and stories from daughter Paula Nelson, who frequently deejays on SiriusXM’s “Willie’s Roadhouse” channel. In the midst of a two-night run at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheater, Willie seemed like a man conserving his energy for the stage: his answers were soft-spoken, pithy, and likely not as expansive as the radio station would have hoped. As one would expect, Willie, knowing the church audience was in his corner, would sprinkle in a funny story or sing a few lines when the energy waned. In the process, he revealed a lot about both the album and his modern-day creative process. Some highlights:
Willie Covers Two Guy Clark Songs on His New LP
While Texas songwriter fans will appreciate the inclusion of “My Favorite Picture of You,” the Clark song everyone will notice on the album is “Immigrant Eyes.” (Sample lyrics: “They were standing in lines just like cattle / Poked and prodded and shoved / Some were one desk away from sweet freedom / Some were torn from someone they love.”) Nelson said he recorded the song “because it seems appropriate for these times” and mentioned that daughter Amy Nelson is at work on an accompanying promo video.
Willie and Family Aren’t Afraid of the iPhone Age
Longtime producer Buddy Cannon detailed his current songwriting process with Nelson, noting that they usually email, text, and voice-memo lyrics and ideas to each other to move the creative process along since they’re often in different locations. At least three Nelson/Cannon cowrites are featured on the new LP.
A Songwriting Legend Pays Tribute to Willie’s Good Deeds
Legendary songwriter Sonny Throckmorton, known best for Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am” and George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away,” wrote the title track as a tribute to Willie’s recent adoption of several dozen rescue horses via Habitat for Horses. Throckmorton attended the listening party, and Cannon joked: “Now when I’m out here, Willie tells me I can pick out a horse if I can fit it in my car.”
Nelson Is Covering Billy Joel and Mac Davis
Cannon and Nelson reworked a cover of “Just The Way You Are” that they had done for an all-star Billy Joel tribute album that was never completed. Willie remarked that he’s never crossed paths with Joel in person, while Cannon said he’d received a complimentary note from the Piano Man himself after hearing the recording. There’s also a winking cover of the early eighties Mac Davis classic “Hard to Be Humble” done in collaboration with sons Lukas and Micah Nelson. When asked about the choice, Willie was succinct: “I’ve just always loved that one.” He then led the chapel crowd through an impromptu singalong of the chorus.
There’s Always a Pot Story
Cannon brought the house down when asked how he met Willie. “Well, I used to play for Mel Tillis, and Willie appeared on Mel’s radio show in Amarillo, so I first met him in the radio station’s broom closet where we smoked a joint together.” Nelson insisted that he didn’t recall this at all.
Willie and Family Have Seen It All
While discussing a Bee Spears track he’d recorded for the album, Willie was prompted by Paula Nelson to tell the story of Bee’s best onstage prank. He explained that the late bassist had once borrowed a flight harness left in a theater after a touring production of Mary Poppins, then used it to fly in behind Nelson just as the chorus of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” kicked in. Said Nelson, “He told my wife ahead of time and asked her to make sure I didn’t fire him.”
Time Is on Willie’s Mind
Many of the songs on the album deal with familiar themes from Nelson’s oeuvre, including aging, the passage of time, and restlessness. The new tracks include titles like “One More Song to Write” and “Come on Time.” Each sounds like the work of an artist grateful to be where he is but hopeful that luck—be it the town or the idea—remains on his side for more adventure to come.