Buddy Cannon was a Nashville giant well before he started working on the regular with Willie in the 2010s. In the late eighties and early nineties, he established himself as a reliable hitmaker, a cowriter on number one country songs like Vern Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up Joe” and George Strait’s “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” going on from there to produce the records that made Kenny Chesney one of country’s biggest stars. But despite all those accomplishments, he considers his close collaboration with Willie—since 2012, Buddy has produced fifteen of Willie’s seventeen albums—the most important work of his career.
(Read a transcript of this episode below.)
On this week’s One by Willie, Buddy will talk about one of their most iconic songs, “Something You Get Through.” It was a cornerstone of the so-called mortality trilogy, three albums—God’s Problem Child (2017), Last Man Standing (2018), and Ride Me Back Home (2019)—that found Willie in the role of Aging Wise Man, relating what he’s learned in his long life, celebrating old friends who’ve passed on, and thinking aloud about what might come next. Buddy will describe the emotional moment on Willie’s bus that provided the song’s inspiration, before getting into the distinctly modern way the two write and record together, as well as his own evolution from hardcore Willie nerd in the sixties to invaluable friend and collaborator in the 2010s.
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One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with production by Patrick Michels. The show is produced by Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.
John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by White Claw Hard Seltzer.
This week, we wrap up season three with Willie’s longtime producer and writing partner, Buddy Cannon, who’s going to talk about one of Willie’s most iconic songs of recent vintage, “Something You Get Through.” Buddy was, of course, a huge figure in Nashville well before he started working with Willie in 2011 . . . known at that point chiefly as Kenny Chesney’s record producer . . . but also for having written huge hits himself . . . like Vern Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up, Joe” and George Strait’s “Give It Away.”
But Willie fans will know him best for the way he combined those talents when he got with Willie, cowriting dozens of new songs with him . . . and producing just about everything he’s done for the past decade. Among those efforts is, of course, the so-called mortality trilogy—which was made up of God’s Problem Child, Last Man Standing, and Ride Me Back Home—three records that showcase Willie in the role of Aging Wise Man, contemplating his advancing years . . . looking back at what he’s learned in life and wondering what might come next. “Something You Get Through” is, of course, one of the linchpin recordings of that project . . . and it gets Buddy talking about the unique way they work together, how he first became a huge Willie fan (hint: it involves a shortsighted radio DJ and a near-car crash) and how Buddy—despite all his other accomplishments—considers the collaboration with Willie to be the most fulfilling work he’s ever done. So let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Something You Get Through”]
John Spong: Normally I start by saying what’s so cool about the song somebody has picked to talk about. Since you cowrote “Something You Get Through” with Willie, that seems like a goofy question. So maybe I’ll just ask, how did you come to write this song?
Buddy Cannon: It was, I don’t know, four or five years ago now.
John Spong: In Austin?
Buddy Cannon: Yeah. In Austin, at the Austin City Limits theater. We were on the bus. You know how it is on Willie’s bus. People come and go. But we were sitting there, and this lady, one of the bus drivers brought this lady onto the bus. Willie immediately stood up, and Annie was there. She showed much respect for—I don’t know who the lady was.
I could tell by the way Willie and Annie responded that she was someone very close to them. A very good friend. I was sitting at the table across from Willie, and I got up, sat over on the couch, and let her have the chair where I’d been sitting.
She started spilling her heart out to Willie. It became apparent that she had lost somebody. I figured it was her husband, from the conversation. But Willie was listening very closely to her, that steel eye-contact that he does. She said, “I just don’t know how I’m ever going to get over this.” And Willie never looked away from her. He just kept looking at her, and he said, “It’s not something you get over . . . but it’s something you’ll get through.”
When he said that, the light came on in my brain. So I carried that idea around in my head for a couple of years. It just wouldn’t go away. So I finally wrote a few lines down, and sent it to Willie, and reminded him where that came from in my brain.
We started writing the lyric. We wrote a verse and a chorus, and that’s the song. It’s, I don’t know . . . it seemed like, judging from the number of views on the video that they made of Willie singing that after he cut it, the last time I looked it was 38.4 million people on Facebook had viewed that. Everybody—I’ve had so many people, singers, artists, approach me about that song. You would think with the absence of radio airplay that Willie obviously doesn’t get that much anymore. But people have seen that song, and it’s managed to jump the hurdle.
I’m real proud of it. If it’s brought comfort to somebody, then it’s a success. That song has apparently brought a lot of comfort to a lot of people.
[Willie Nelson singing “Something You Get Through”]
Buddy Cannon: There you have it.
John Spong: Wow. Wow, that’s just so beautiful.
Buddy Cannon: Thank you. It was a gift. It wasn’t work. Writing that song was not work.
John Spong: Well, maybe that’s the perfect segue then to how y’all write together. I know people talk about it a lot. Y’all aren’t kids, but you’ve come up with a new way to collaborate. Technology-based.
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, back before the pandemic hit, nobody was writing on a Zoom call or something. So when Willie and I started this method of writing, of doing it over text messaging, I didn’t know of anybody else who was doing it. It just worked. We didn’t have to go anywhere. We didn’t have to sit there and stare at each other and wonder if what I’m getting ready to say is the dumbest thing in the world. None of that.
There’s a bit of freedom in being able to, for Willie, just to throw out what’s on the edge of his mind, on whatever he might be working on. Then it comes to me, and without any discussion I write whatever comes to my mind, that I think fits with that. It’s like bouncing a ball back and forth, but you can’t see who’s throwing the ball at you.
It just works. We’ve been doing this writing thing now for about, probably eleven years, ten years. The last count I had was fifty-five songs. I think, fifty-five that we’ve recorded. I don’t know man, it’s a way of doing things that works perfect for us.
John Spong: Not one of those fifty-five songs was written with y’all in the same room?
Buddy Cannon: No, we haven’t sat across from each other at a table, or on . . . We haven’t looked at each other face to face while we’re writing. We haven’t even really talked about it.
John Spong: How often do his lines make you laugh out loud?
Buddy Cannon: Oh, frequently. Like, “I woke up still not dead today.” That song, we wrote that at a period when, about every three months, the internet would have a breaking news story that “Willie Nelson Was Found Deceased.” I’d laugh about it to him, in text messaging. We’d just make fun of it.
John Spong: Who came up with the melody on this? Or was it shared? Because the melody, for me that’s the first thing that really grabs me. It’s such a beautiful, wonderful melody.
Buddy Cannon: To be honest, I probably started the melody, and just hummed what was coming out. With him, on these things we write, a lot of the time I will sketch out a melody. And put it down. But the melody is never final until Willie is behind the mic. He basically writes the final melody while he’s doing his vocal.
John Spong: Oh, interesting. What you will have sent him, you’ll send him a voice memo or something of you humming—
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, or playing along with my guitar. On this one, I think I had the whole thing sketched out. But when Willie got ahold of it, he made it a Willie melody.
John Spong: One of the things that I really love in there is, it’s in the chorus, the way y’all have it structured, the choices you made. “It’s not something you get over.” Where “over” ends, where that note is, it almost is like a question. It’s begging an answer, and that’s the point. This song is an answer for difficult experiences. “It’s not something you get over, it’s something you get through” is the way that goes. That’s subtle and powerful.
Buddy Cannon: I probably had at least a half dozen recording artists come up to me and tell me what that song means to them. I tell them all, “Well go record it.” They all tell me how great it is, but so far nobody else has recorded it yet.
John Spong: Yeah, it’s weird too. It’s the kind of thing, when we were listening just now, it occurred to me. It’s the kind of song, in relating to what you just said about “new Willie” not getting played on the radio, if that song had come out in 1985, or ’88 or whatever, that would have been one of those Song of the Year, phenomenon songs, like “I Hope You Dance” or something like that, which just lights the entire world on fire. It’s that strong. The message is that good. The performance is that great. It’s just a great recording.
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, I think you’re right on that. It’s a little bit out of sync with what’s going on right now. But I’m a firm believer that if we can hang on long enough, the good is going to come back and overpower the bad, or the mediocre. The good is going to come back and overpower the mediocre, when it comes to songs. People can only think they like something for so long. There’s got to be a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to songs you can feel.
[Willie Nelson singing “Something You Get Through”]
John Spong: To back up a little, when did you become a Willie fan?
Buddy Cannon: Oh gosh, the first time I ever heard him. I don’t remember the first time I heard him, but early sixties . . . I don’t remember what song. The first time I heard him I went and bought an album. The first album I bought by Willie, I think is Country Willie: His Own Songs.
John Spong: That first RCA record. But I also read somewhere that one of the earliest Willie experiences for you was, I think the next album he did with RCA, which was Country Favorites: Willie Nelson Style. You mentioned “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and “Home in San Antone,” and how crazy Willie’s phrasing was on those cuts.
Buddy Cannon: Yeah. By the time that came out, I was a dyed-in-the-wool fan. I loved everything about what I was hearing Willie do. I was living in Chicago, playing up there in the honky-tonks. And I remember one day I was driving on the toll road out west of Chicago, and I had the radio on WJJD, which was a huge country station at the time.
The guy came on. He said, “We’re going to play a new record from Willie Nelson here. See what you think about it.” He puts on “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and I about ran my car off the road. I thought it was the coolest thing I ever heard. When the record finished, the disc jockey said, “Folks, I don’t know if y’all like that or not. But that guy has just ruined that song.” I thought that was funny as hell, myself. The guy had no idea how good it was.
John Spong: Well, and it’s funny. If I understand the history right, it sounds like Chet Atkins at RCA loved Willie. So they make that first record of just Willie songs, and it doesn’t quite take. It doesn’t hit. So the next one, it’s like, “Well he’s big in Texas. Let’s hook him up with Ernest Tubb’s band. Because they can play hot, and they can play great for him, behind him. We’ll just do traditional country songs, to have that be the icebreaker with radio listeners.”
They do that, and for all of Willie’s phrasing, and as difficult as it can be, if you’re not a musician, to understand what people are talking about. Because we’re all just used to hearing the way Willie sings now, right? If you put this record on, you can hear what people are talking about. Because it is insane what he does. He sounds like a jazz singer in the fifties or something.
Buddy Cannon: The Ernest Tubb band, the Troubadours, was the perfect band for him to do those songs with. Because the level of musicianship in that band was amazing.
[Willie Nelson and the Troubadours singing “Columbus Stockade Blues”]
John Spong: You get to Nashville, and then I think in ’76 or so, you signed a publishing deal with Mel Tillis’s publishing company. One of the things that I wondered about there is, Mel is of that generation of writers that came up with Willie. Gets there late fifties, and then all through the sixties. Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard and Roger Miller and Mel Tillis and all those guys, and Willie. That’s that great generation. Do you know much about those guys? Did you talk to Mel about that? All you Nashville guys seem to know the history so well. Do you have a feeling for what that time was like, and that group of guys?
Buddy Cannon: I was such a fan of country music, I knew who was doing what before I ever moved to town. I didn’t study ’em with books, but I studied ’em with headphones on, and listening loud. Yeah, Mel was a hoot to work with. He wanted you to do your job, but he was funny as crap. He knew all these guys, like Willie and Hank and Harlan. All these great songwriters, because he was one of them.
John Spong: How would you describe that era of country music? What was special about those songs? What did they do? Different eras have different trademarks or characteristics. What was special about what they were doing in those years?
Buddy Cannon: I think it was just almost a divine kind of thing. Those guys were put here, I think. Because the kind of songs they were writing, nobody had dug that deep into people’s hearts with a song, other than, a lot of the stuff was silly. The old folkie stuff. But I don’t know, I just think it was a thing that had to happen, and those guys were the ones that were picked to get it off the ground.
And then, when Willie came, he upped the game. Because of his progressive jazz influence. I guess when you listen to Django Reinhardt for thirty or forty years, it’s going to affect your songwriting. Nobody was doing what Willie did, and everybody loved it. Especially all the writers in town.
John Spong: That’s interesting, because yeah, the subject matter got a little more sophisticated, for lack of a better term. But then with Willie, the music itself does too.
Buddy Cannon: Got an upgrade.
John Spong: That’s how he moves the ball forward. That’s an interesting thought.
Buddy Cannon: That’s right, yeah.
John Spong: Tell me a little about Willie’s relationship with Nashville, because the way the Willie story usually gets told, the hero is Austin, and people talk about Nashville like it’s kind of the villain.
Buddy Cannon: Hey man, Nashville loves Willie Nelson. It don’t matter if he didn’t find what he was looking for and he left. It don’t matter, because he found it. Now, after all this time, people still listen when he puts out a record. It’s hard to explain. But people here in Nashville, all the songwriters, everybody wants to get a song recorded by Willie.
John Spong: Right, but like go back to the sixties, there’s that idea that Nashville wouldn’t let Willie be Willie. And I wonder about that, I mean was Chet making Willie do stuff he didn’t want to do, or was that just the way the industry worked and Willie wanted to be a star so he did it?
Buddy Cannon: I wasn’t there, so it’s hard for me to know how that all came down. But I can’t see anybody making Willie do anything, ever. I asked him one time if he and Chet had a good relationship. He said, “Oh yeah.” He said, “I loved him.” So I don’t think they had problems. I think Willie said to himself, “Hey, this guy’s Chet Atkins.” Chet was already a legend, you know? But I think Willie probably had the final say on anything that he recorded. Maybe he didn’t, I don’t know. But when he went to Texas, he did.
John Spong: Yeah.
Buddy Cannon: The first time I saw Willie in the studio was with Mel. Mel had cut a song called “Texas on a Saturday Night.” Mundo Earwood wrote it. He called Willie up and asked him if he would come in and sing on that song with him. Willie said, “Sure.” I hadn’t really met him at the time. But Willie, they set a date and a time for Willie to come sing on it.
Mel, we were hanging out at the office for a while before time for Willie to get there. Mel said, “I’m going to get a limousine.” I said, “Hey, that’s cool.” So Mel calls and gets the limo, has the limo parked out back of the office. When time for Willie to come in, Willie pulls up in the back of a pickup truck with, it looked like it had been hit by a bulldozer on both sides. It was a wreck, the truck was. But he gets out and he comes in the office. He fires up a bunch of joints and we sit there, and everybody gets stoned out of their gourd.
Then we decided to go to the studio and work on the song. We walk out the back door, and that limo’s sitting there. Mel says, “Come on, Willie.” Willie says, “No, y’all go ahead in that car. I’m going to ride with my buddy back here.” So Mel got the limo, and it ends up being me and him and another guy, Jimmy Darrell. Willie followed us in that pickup truck. I thought it was funny.
John Spong: Here you go.
[Willie Nelson and Mel Tillis singing “Texas on a Saturday Night”]
John Spong: Well, then you become a great big deal in the late eighties and the nineties. You wrote great songs. “Set ’Em Up, Joe” was one of my favorites at the time. “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” which I absolutely love. You’re in charge of A&R at Mercury when Shania Twain is signed. I mean you’re producer on all those albums that made Kenny Chesney one of the biggest stars in country music. But how does that lead to this collaboration with Willie?
Buddy Cannon: I was working with Kenny Chesney on an album, and we cut a track on a song called “Lucky Old Sun,” an old pop song. He said, “Man, it would be cool if we could get Willie to sing on this.” I said, “Well, I’ll try.” So I got in touch, and he said, “Yeah man, I’ll come in and sing on that.” He came in one day, and put his vocal on “Lucky Old Sun.” It really, really came out good. It was something.
[Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney singing “Lucky Old Sun”]
Buddy Cannon: I sent him a rough mix, and I left town to go on vacation. I was sitting there looking at the ocean, and my phone rung. It was an unknown number. I answered it, and he said, “Hey Buddy, this is Willie.” I almost dropped my phone. But he said, “I’ve been listening to this rough mix you sent me. I love that. That’s the best I’ve ever heard that song recorded.” He said, “Let’s find some songs, and go make a record.”
I actually called Kenny, and told him, and he said, “Oh man, I’d love to be in on making that record.” So I called Mark Rothbaum, and told him Kenny wanted to help. He said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think it would be a damn good idea.” So Kenny and I did this album called A Moment of Forever. It was just awesome. We had the best time.
Two or three years later, Willie called. He says, “Hey Buddy, bring some guys, some musicians down to my studio, and let’s see what happens.” So I got the guys I thought would be right for that project, and we all flew down. We got together with Willie for three days, and we had the best time. We did 26 songs, I think. It was all cover stuff . . .
John Spong: Well so . . . then you became his go-to guy—
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, he started calling me, and said, “Let’s do this again.” I’ve done most of the records that he’s put out since 2011, I think. He did one—
John Spong: It’s fifteen of seventeen.
John Spong: Well, so if y’all write in text, but not together, talk about the way you actually record.
Buddy Cannon: We get our lyric the way we want it. Then I’ll usually have some sort of a melody that we’ve talked about, or he’s hummed me a line or something. I put that down on an MP3 and send it to him. We get it to where he says, “Yeah, that works.” Then I cut a track.
He’s usually not in the studio when I cut the track. I just get a good Willie track, send it down to him, and if he likes what we’ve done, he’ll either go in with his engineer down there, Steve Chadie, or he’ll come to town. Or I’ve flown all over the country, doing Willie Nelson vocals.
John Spong: What’s a quote, ”good Willie track”?
Buddy Cannon: For me, I try to not change it to something else. It’s Willie, and over this ten years, eleven years that I’ve been working with him so much, I had a nucleus of the band when we started doing this. I thought those guys were the best I could find, to do what I wanted, what needed to be done.
John Spong: The way you described it to me, because the new record, I’ve Had a Beautiful Time, you said that one of the things you try to do is get guys that can play loose. So that it’ll be closer to Willie’s catalog. That’s how it sounds like a Willie track.
Buddy Cannon: That’s the only way I knew to do it, to make it sound super-connected to his past music. Because when this is over, I want it to sound like a great addition to the Willie Nelson song career. Whether he wrote it. That’s another thing I love about working with him. If I bring him a good song, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. He loves a good song, still.
John Spong: Well yeah, y’all covered Leonard Cohen on the last record, and the Beatles as well.
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, I tried to find some nobodies.
John Spong: Then you get the tracks to Willie, and then you find him wherever he might be, and, “Come cut?”
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, come do vocals. Sometimes he likes to sing, like, if we’re working on an album and I don’t have any Willie vocals yet and I go to Austin, in his studio, he’s likely to sing all ten or twelve songs without stopping, and play guitar.
John Spong: So what’s the routine? What’s a day in the recording studio like? Who’s there when Willie rolls in? Or who all’s been there?
Buddy Cannon: These days, I would say probably not many people are there.
John Spong: Oh, right.
Buddy Cannon: But before the pandemic, you never knew, man.
One of the last times I was down at his place, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were there. They’d been up all night at Willie’s house playing poker. So Willie played poker until three or four in the morning, and then came and sang for three hours.
John Spong: So he just walks in, and says hi to everybody, and goes and sits down?
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, he has his place, his little spot, where he has sung some incredible records. He’ll walk in. Whoever’s in there, he’ll walk around and say hello to them, shake hands. If it’s somebody he don’t know, he’ll meet them. Then he goes and sits in his chair. Got Trigger right beside him on the guitar stand. You’ve got to be ready for anything that might happen.
John Spong: I’ve been in the studio, and if that sounds grandiose or fancy at all, it’s not. It’s just a folding chair from a card table, and it’s over in a corner, kind of by itself, but looking out a window. What’s the view out that window? Because Willie’s there for long stretches, right?
Buddy Cannon:I think Willie’s view out that window probably changes every time he looks out. In the distance, you can see that lake. What is it, Lake Travis?
John Spong: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Buddy Cannon: Out that window. It’s kinda far in the distance. But the view isn’t very much. The action is much better inside.
John Spong: He’ll sit in that chair for hours.
Buddy Cannon: Oh yeah.
John Spong: How does it work? Vocal passes and then guitar?
Buddy Cannon: Usually. Sometimes he’ll just pick the guitar up, and start playing along while he’s singing. That’s what I meant when I said you’ve got to be ready for anything. The engineers do.
John Spong: I’m guessing lots of little moments of surprise. Of, “oh wow,” right?
Buddy Cannon: Every time he plays a guitar lick it’s a surprise, you know. I mean, he surprises himself. It’s like he doesn’t really know what he’s getting ready to play. If he plays a line on Trigger, if he plays it ten times, it’s going to be extremely different every time.
John Spong: But he doesn’t want to play anything ten times in a row.
Buddy Cannon: He’s not interested in what he just did.
John Spong: That’s wild.
Buddy Cannon: It’s about now. It’s all about right now. It’s not two minutes ago or two minutes after now. It’s now.
John Spong: So your job is to capture now.
Buddy Cannon: Capture now. Try to get the best out of him, for right now, that I can get.
[Willie Nelson playing “Something You Get Through”]
John Spong: To wrap up, and to get it back to the song, “Something You Get Through,” one of the lines in there that really gets me is when he sings about life itself, “It’s not ours to be taken. It’s just a thing we get to do.” That for me, life doesn’t belong to us. It’s not ours to control, is what I read into that. It’s a gift, is the main thing. Life is a gift. It’s something we get to do.
That really feels like a wonderful summation of Willie’s worldview. People talk about, y’all did the mortality trilogy, as it was called. Although now it’s more of a mortality quintet, because there’s more albums dealing with that subject matter. Sure, he’s doing a lot of thinking in there, about friends who have gone, and moved on and all.
But to call it mortality, there’s an implication there that you’re contemplating death, and that’s glass half empty. But “Life is a gift. It’s something we get to do,” that’s half full. These aren’t songs lamenting getting older, or the people who have died. It’s celebrating their lives, and it’s celebrating them. Does that sound right?
Buddy Cannon: Yeah—
John Spong: Does that sound like an accurate description of Willie? Is that how he feels?
Buddy Cannon: Yeah, I think so. That song “Something You Get Through,” I think it should be clear that in order to write that song, Willie and I have had to experience what that song’s about. It’s a firsthand accounting of an event, to me. Hearing that lady say those words on his bus that night was just a delivery of the words, the idea. “Here it is, y’all fix it.” I really believe that songs come from another place, and certain people are chosen to put those songs into a song form and help the world.
[Willie Nelson singing “Something You Get Through”]
John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Buddy Cannon . . . talking about “Something You Get Through.” A huge thanks to him for coming on the show . . . a big thanks also to our sponsor, White Claw Hard Seltzer . . . and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe . . . maybe tell a couple friends . . . and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. And please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music. And so, like I said at the top of the show . . . that closes out season three of the podcast. But fear not, Willie fans, because we will be back in early August with four new episodes that we are billing as One by Willie: Live from Luck! That’s right . . . four more Willie deep dives . . . all taped this past March with artists who were playing Willie’s annual Luck Reunion . . . in an airstream trailer parked essentially in Willie’s backyard. It was a pretty special afternoon, and I feel confident that you guys are going to dig these episodes. See y’all in a few weeks.