For as long as Lana Nelson can remember, “Red Headed Stranger” was one of her favorite songs. When she was a little girl in the late fifties, and her dad a radio DJ, she’d call the stations where he worked to request its original 1954 recording by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and his Cracker-Jacks—provided, that is, it happened to be a period in which the family could afford a phone. Then, when her dad got home each night, she’d beg him to play her to sleep with it on his guitar. And then, of course, some twenty years later, it became a song the whole world wanted to hear Willie Nelson to sing, when he grew it into a concept album that changed American music and made him a star. Lana’s earliest memory of that phenomenon was of her dad playing the recording for her just after leaving the studio. She calls it one of the first times a record of his sounded the way he did singing in her room, and she remembers him being rightly proud.

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

On this week’s One by Willie, Lana describes all of that, plus the way her dad took a great old song, mixed it with the old cowboy movies he loved as a kid, and turned it into a classic album. Then she’ll walk us through some wonderful family history—like dodging rent-hungry landlords in the lean years, hog farming outside Nashville through the RCA years, the early-eighties session with Merle Haggard at her dad’s Pedernales studio that produced “Pancho and Lefty,” and why the phrase “The life I love is making music with my friends” is so much more than a line in a song.

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with audio editing by Aisling Ayers and production by Patrick Michels. Our executive producer is 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 Still Austin craft whiskey.

This week, we talk to Willie’s first-born daughter Lana Nelson about the song “Red Headed Stranger.” Now, of course, the world knows that as the title track to her dad’s landmark album from 1975; Lana’s going to talk about how its original version, by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and His Cracker-Jacks, became one of her favorite songs as a little girl in the late fifties, when her dad would play it on the radio as a DJ. And then she’ll get into how, when he finally got around to cutting it later, it finally sounded just like the way he’d played it on his guitar for her at bedtime.

From there she’ll get into the way the family had to dodge rent-hungry landlords during the lean years, her dad’s, uh, hog farm outside Nashville during the RCA years, the session with Merle Haggard that produced “Pancho and Lefty,” and how the phrase “The life I love is making music with my friends” is so much more than just a line in a song. So let’s do it.

John Spong: So we’re talking about “Red Headed Stranger,” and can you start by telling a little of your history with the song?

Lana Nelson: Oh. Well, I guess I was probably about three when I first heard the song, and dad was a disc jockey in Portland, Oregon, and actually the radio station was KVAN, so it was across the river, in Vancouver. So he had the noon show, and that was back when, if we had a phone we could call in, and the secretary would answer, and you’d make a request. So I would call in and request “Red Headed Stranger,” because of all the songs he played, that was my favorite one. And so, it was . . . told a story, and it just seemed more interesting to me than those other songs that I was hearing, and so that was my favorite. And I’d almost every day call and he would say, “We have a request, ladies and gentlemen, from a young lady named Lana, and she wants to hear ‘Red Headed Stranger,’ and we’re going to play it, by ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith.”

John Spong: That’s awesome. Well, I should add in here that Lana’s friend, Anita, is here and she keeps grabbing her nose, it looks like, to keep from giggling audibly.

Anita: I’ll go in the other room.

John Spong: No, absolutely not. We got to be straight with the people.

Lana Nelson: That’s right.

John Spong: But well, I love that. And it’s weird too because I don’t think kids today have no idea how great it felt when you were little to be able to call a DJ and get them to play what you wanted.

Lana Nelson: Yes, it was wonderful. Yeah. I remember as I got older, in the early teens, calling in “As Tears Go By,” the Rolling Stones—“Will you please play ‘As Tears Go By?’ ” I don’t know why, it just made me cry and cry, and, “Oh, my God. That’s so beautiful.”

John Spong: And if your dad’s the DJ, you’re probably not even old enough to have a realization of this, but I mean . . . So was he “famous,” in your mind when you . . . I mean, you’re three or four. What is this, is this ’56, ’57?

Lana Nelson: No, that was just his job. That was just his job at that point. At that point, yeah. Just what he did. Because he wasn’t famous.

John Spong: But I mean, if you’re a little kid and your dad’s on the radio and people and your family are listening.

Lana Nelson: But when you’re three, that’s just what he did. He’s a voice that comes out on the radio at noon, and I know how to call him and get him to play what I want.

John Spong: There you go. And there’s this legend that he would play songs that were supposed to help kids get to sleep, like as a lullaby thing for nap time, or something like that.

Lana Nelson: Well, it was nap time. It was noon. He had that noon show. It was nap time. I would have him sing that song for me, personally, when he’d get home, and so he would sing it to us at night, and, “Oh, sing ‘Red Headed Stranger.’ ” So that would be what he would put us to sleep, or me, actually, at the time, it was just me.

John Spong: Yes, just you. Cool. Well, it’s such a different version than the one everybody’s familiar with. Can I play it?

Lana Nelson: Sure.

[Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith sings “Red Headed Stranger”]

John Spon: Nap time.

Lana Nelson: Isn’t that great? Yeah. “Now, you kids get to sleep now.”

John Spong: That’s so different. We were saying you can see the bouncing ball, because it’s all on the beat, and also it’s kind of a long story, but for the size of a 78, I guess, back then, or 45, [you gotta] go kind of fast to sneak it all in. Does it take you back hearing that?

Lana Nelson: Yeah. Yeah, it’s great. I really love that version. I do, because I love that sound. It reminds me of the old Westerns back in the day, which is kind of what Dad thought also, how . . . forever it was in the back of his mind that it would make a good movie, because it would, and it would’ve made . . . And then eventually it did make a wonderful album. He did the album before the movie, and the album was basically the premise of the movie and the story in the movie. But the album really expanded on the song because in the song, he’s not a preacher. It’s a totally different direction Dad took it.

John Spong: I thought about it, because when you sent me this original song, which I’d always known was out there, but somehow hadn’t ever heard it before, I realized . . . Well, I just started thinking of it as the germ of the whole thing. And so what I did then, and this will sound goofy, but I reverse-engineered it. And so I listened to this song first, and then back through the songs, in back order, to see how this story got built, and it occurred to me, it’s like . . . So in this one, you got a stranger who looks like your dad, rides into town on a mean-looking horse, pulling a gentler bay pony. And then in the second verse, it’s revealed that he’s heartbroken because his wife has died. In the fourth verse, it’s revealed that that was her horse. And then in the sixth, the blond woman touches the horse and he kills her. That’s a self-contained narrative, already. Like you said, it’s a story.

So go back to the next song, or the previous song, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” kind of explains the heartbreak and how painful it is, and I’ve always pictured him at the graveside in that song, at the funeral of her, but you still don’t know how she died. Then you go back to the previous song, it’s like, “Whoops. He killed her,” and then the previous song is . . . “Caught her cheating, look out.” Just to think about it that way, to have a record this familiar and think about it in a new way like that, I almost . . . I don’t know if that’s the order he constructed it in, and this should be a question for you rather than a story I’m telling.

Lana Nelson: Well, I think he took a trip with Connie, driving to Colorado.

John Spong: Your stepmom. Your second stepmom?

Lana Nelson: Yes.

John Spong: His third wife?

Lana Nelson: Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. Who’s a wonderful person. And she was with him when, I guess . . . and she was maybe driving. He was writing and singing and playing, and they came up over a ridge or something and saw the bright lights of Denver, and so he started that song, and then I guess it just made him start to think about that it was time to write something around “Red Headed Stranger.” It was just sitting there. Why not? Why not make that the base of this concept album? And I’m not sure exactly how he decided what order in the record it would go. I guess that just they listened to it and figured it out.

John Spong: Yeah. I love it too because it’s like . . . The song where he kills her is the quietest song on the record. I mean, “Blue Dot [Rock] Montana” is . . . As quiet as his version of “Red Headed Stranger” is, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is, that’s the absolute quietest one. Oh, and then like you said, he decided to make the protagonist a preacher to just complicate everything that much further. It’s some pretty sophisticated storytelling. It’s awesome.

Lana Nelson: I know. I know.

John Spong: Do you remember when you first heard this record? The album?

Lana Nelson: He played it for me.

John Spong: Yeah?

Lana Nelson: He played it for me. He played a demo for me. He came in and played the demo basically, and the demo became the record, because I don’t think they put anything else on it. And I think that was controversial too, because they wanted more stuff on it, but he didn’t want to put more stuff on it. Anyway. And he got his way, and it turned out perfect, like it turned out.

John Spong: Yeah, there’s a happy ending.

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: Well, is that the way he would do it when he finished something, he’d, “Lana, you got to hear it?”

Lana Nelson: He does, yeah. All his family, friends—

John Spong: Still?

Lana Nelson: Yeah. You hear it right away because he really wants somebody else to listen to it. It’s important to him.

John Spong: Yeah. No, you’re not connecting until somebody hears it.

Lana Nelson: That’s probably right. Yeah, you don’t know if it’s right or not. And then you get their feedback, and once somebody’s crying, or they’re just in the floor doing something, like, “Oh, yeah. That’s probably a good song.”

John Spong: Well, I was wondering, the version of “Red Headed Stranger” on here probably sounded . . . Did it sound closer to what you were used to hearing in the house than what you’d heard on the radio all those years?

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: That’s pretty cool. Could you tell he was proud of it, when he was done?

Lana Nelson: The whole album?

John Spong: Yeah.

Lana Nelson: Oh, yeah.

John Spong: Yeah? Did he say that? What did he say? What did he . . .

Lana Nelson: Well, I don’t remember his exact words, but you know he was proud because it was really good.

John Spong: That’s pretty plain. On that note, let’s spin your dad’s version of “Red Headed Stranger.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Red Headed Stranger”]

Lana Nelson: Yay.

John Spong: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. 

I checked in with Paula, your sister, before we talked, and she’s like, “Oh, this is going to be great ’cause Lana’s the historian for the family,” which everybody knows, but I was like, “Yeah, this is going to be cool.” And so, a thing I wanted to ask about, because I haven’t read that much about it, is when the family was in Ridgetop, Tennessee. What’s Ridgetop? And what was that period? This is the RCA years, right? This is the sixties. What was Ridgetop? It’s your childhood, right?

Lana Nelson: Yeah, it was beautiful. We had this long ranch house, red brick ranch house on a large piece of property, set on the edge of a ridge. So if you walk too far in the backyard, it would go straight down in this ridge. Well, you don’t fall, but you have access to a very long drop. And it was beautiful. It was really beautiful. Dad—we had pigs and cows and horses and chickens, and it was a very nice time. It was a good time in our life, because it had been so turbulent and so much turmoil and moving from place to place to place to place, and it was great. It was really beautiful.

John Spong: Yeah, because like you were saying, DJ . . . no, family in Portland, DJ in Vancouver, there was a period when it was living in Pasadena, but driving to the other side . . . I mean, y’all lived all over the place in short stints, right?

Lana Nelson: Well, whenever the rent came due.

John Spong: Let it out, Anita! I see. Yeah, and then when the rent comes do, what happens? Would those be those times when he would drive to a club?

Lana Nelson: It’s when you move.

John Spong: [But] there’s the story about being outside the . . . Was it the Esquire Ballroom? Would you have been in the car when he went in to talk to Larry Butler and said, “You want to buy some songs?”

Lana Nelson: Oh, I probably wasn’t in the car when he did that, but I remember those times. I remember Pat and Larry Butler from those years, definitely. For sure.

John Spong: Wow. And so then if I read, I think he . . . Was he already with your stepmom, Shirley, then? That’s ’63.

Lana Nelson: In Ridgetop? Yes.

John Spong: Well, when they bought it, I think he bought it . . . Yeah, that’s what I read, because he bought it on the day of the JFK assassination, I think I read? In ’63?

Lana Nelson: That sounds about right.

John Spong: The legend persists. Yeah, I think it’s seventeen acres and grows to four hundred. But becomes a full-on farm, but then also this huge group of people living there, or around it.

Lana Nelson: Yes and no. Because the house was just a ranch house. And there was that seventeen, twenty acres, whatever that was. Then down the street about . . . this was on Greer Road, in Ridgetop. And down the street, about two miles maybe, he bought the big piece of property that had the huge amount of . . . Yes! That’s it right there, that picture.

John Spong: That picture.

Lana Nelson: Uh-huh. But he had . . . that bigger piece of property was down the road, and that was more like the farm part of it. Although we didn’t raise much. It wasn’t like a working farm, or anything. But we did have animals. You have a lot of animals.

John Spong: Okay. Well, what did I read? A couple? Was it four hundred pigs?

Lana Nelson: It was tobacco.

John Spong: Oh, tobacco.

Lana Nelson: Oh, it was never four hundred pigs!

John Spong: That may have been an RCA press release.

Lana Nelson: What would Dad have done with four hundred pigs?

John Spong: No, I looked it up. It said eight hundred hogs, hundreds of chickens, two hundred cows.

Lana Nelson: Oh, God. I’m going to crack up.

John Spong: Didn’t happen that way?

Lana Nelson: No.

John Spong: Well, Lana, what did happen?

Lana Nelson: Well, there probably . . . I would say at the max, there may have been fifty, because those sows would have a whole bunch at once, granted. There were not eight hundred. It was not that kind of deal. He didn’t know how to be a farmer either, really. He hired this guy, Mr. Hughes, and he did know things about farming, and he did know ranching, and he did know tobacco patch, because on that piece of property that we bought, or Dad bought, the big piece of property, when he moved his mom, and his stepmom and his dad in there, Pop and Lorraine, they put in a tobacco patch. And so they were the ones that were actually raising anything on that farm, other than just big fields of grass that you would mow and make into . . . bale into hay for the rest of the animals.

John Spong: At least all the photos I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quotes where your dad . . . he said he gained like 35 pounds.

Lana Nelson: He did, because he wasn’t working. And I mean, he just, on purpose, stayed off the road for a while and just became a homebody kind of a guy. Like every other guy, kind of thing. And he enjoyed that time, I know, and he did gain weight. Shirley was a good cook.

John Spong: Which makes a difference.

Lana Nelson: Yeah. Mom was a good cook too, but she said . . . I said, “He didn’t say much about your cooking,” and she said, “We never had a damn thing to cook.” So I guess that does make a big difference. Shirley had access to a grocery store.

John Spong: And mailbox money to fund it.

Lana Nelson: Because she had some mailbox money, yeah.

John Spong: All the pictures I’ve seen, and maybe they were actually press photos, but it’s all overalls and—

Lana Nelson: No, that’s not press. That would’ve been him just every day. Because that’s a very comfortable . . . I don’t know if you ever wore overalls. They are very comfortable.

John Spong: Absolutely. And he, it sounds like it was like, “I don’t want a tour, but I should” . . . and maybe Hank Cochran and Ray Price and some of those guys were like, “Just write. Just go out there and write.” And so, why not?

Lana Nelson: And he would have his buddies come out there all the time. But as far as in that house, living in that house and on that property, was just Dad and the kids. I mean, him and Shirley and us, and that was it. Aunt Bobbie was in town. She had a different place. His parents had the other place. Eventually my mom came to town.

John Spong: That’s what I thought.

Lana Nelson: Yeah, eventually my mom came town, but she lived in Nashville. In town, in Nashville.

John Spong: Oh, okay. But didn’t—did Johnny Bush live there? Didn’t the band members, and Paul and Carlene move out there eventually?

Lana Nelson: Paul lived there, and I mean, Jimmy Day, he lived down the street, but they did not all live on that property, but they did all nearby. So if you could call in your resources pretty quickly, you could . . .

John Spong: There’s the famous album cover that we’ve talked about on probably half the episodes of Willie and Family out at Ridge[top]. Oh, s—. I didn’t know that was you.

Lana Nelson: Well, who’d you think it was?

John Spong: I knew you were in it, but I didn’t know which. I had a pretty good idea of who Bobbie was and a pretty good idea of who Bee was, and Paul, but you don’t have your Lana costume on. But yeah, I assumed all those people were living around that campfire.

Lana Nelson: Yeah, my son, Nelson, was three weeks old there.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: That’s crazy. That’s wonderful.

Lana Nelson: That was not too far from Thanksgiving.

John Spong: Okay. And that would be the Thanksgiving before the house fire?

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: Okay. People always talk about the house fire. Tell me about the house fire.

Lana Nelson: Well, I was in town at Mama’s house, because at the time I was married and lived over on the farm, on the big five hundred acres or whatever it was. I lived over there in a trailer, and Pop and Lorraine lived there, and they had their tobacco patch and all that. So I was over there. But that particular night, I had gone into town to spend the night with Mom. And we heard it on the news, actually. And so then I called and . . . called my friend who lived down the street, Elaine, and Elaine said, “Yeah, it burned.” Then I started calling around and talked to Dad and . . .

John Spong: So I guess you were there the next day? Or pretty quick?

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a house fire. It’s terrible feeling the next day . . . but then, so then how long until you leave for Austin . . . because did you jump . . .

Lana Nelson: He left first because he didn’t have a house. And they went to Bandera, I guess, and that’s where they wound up. But I was married, so I stayed back on that little piece of property . . . Not that little piece of property, back in that little trailer on that piece of property.

John Spong: Okay. Your cousin Freddy had said your dad got most of, well, the family that needed to go with him and the band, and they just kind of got in the van real fast, like within days, and just drove to Texas. And then actually, we had Bruce Robison on it recently who grew up in Bandera. We had a long talk, and Freddy had talked about this too. He said, yeah, they weren’t that well-received in Bandera. It was Austin before the hippies and the rednecks started to get along together.

Lana Nelson: I wasn’t in Bandera. I had never even visited that area, because I didn’t escape until later.

John Spong: Your own escape came later? Why . . . everybody who leaves Nashville calls it an “escape?”

Lana Nelson: Well, it can be a depressing town. It really, really, really can, because you feel all those broken dreams and things that never happened, and unfulfilled whatever. And oh my God, it lingers and it just kind of hovers over that town.

John Spong: Wow.

Lana Nelson: Other people may not feel that way when they drive in, but I feel it. And when I drive in, it’s like, “Ugh.” And people say, “Well, that’s just because you were a kid there and it wasn’t happy, and you were this and that,” and I was like, “I don’t know. I think this is a sad town.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Red Headed Stranger”]

John Spong: When we first talked about doing this, you said maybe “Red Headed Stranger,” or maybe “Pancho and Lefty,” and so we’ll focus on “Red Headed Stranger,” but I know there’s a great “Pancho and Lefty” story.

Lana Nelson: Yeah. Do you want it?

John Spong: In fact.

Lana Nelson: Well, they had come to the end of their session, Dad and Merle, when they were recording and they didn’t have the song that they felt was the song that would be . . . the one that would be the runaway hit or something. Yeah, you always want that song.

John Spong: And in Pedernales? They’re in his studio by the golf course.

Lana Nelson: Yeah, and I was married to George, and he and I . . . we came home from the session, and we were just putting our heads together, trying to figure out, “We know there’s a good song. We know. I can’t believe they didn’t . . .” Blah, blah, blah. And we put on the Emmylou Harris album, and on there she did “Pancho and Lefty,” and said, “This is it. This is the one right here.” So, I guess they woke Merle up.

John Spong: Well, did you just call your dad or . . . You lived by there, right? Didn’t you live near?

Lana Nelson: I lived like 25 minutes away. And I stayed with the kids and sent George over. So George did the midnight run.

John Spong: That’s right, because it was like one or two in the morning, wasn’t it?

Lana Nelson: Yeah, it was in the middle of the night. And so then he took the record over, and they listened and got Merle up, and I wasn’t there, but they said it was in one take. He did it in one take.

John Spong: Oh, wow. And by “got Merle up,” he’s in the bus in the parking lot?

Lana Nelson: No. Well, I don’t know if he was in the bus, because I always thought he stayed in one of those condos that night.

John Spong: That makes sense.

Lana Nelson: Yeah, there were condos that you could be in. I don’t remember his bus being there.

John Spong: That makes sense.

Lana Nelson: And then I did the video. Yeah, when it came time and music videos were big—or getting big; there wasn’t any country music videos. And so I said, “Dad, you need to do a video on that,” [he] said, “Well, why don’t you do it?” Well, okay. And so we tried to get the money from CBS, and I’ll never forget, the guy said, “Little lady, you’re just ahead of your time. We can’t do that.” So Dad funded . . . it was $45,000, and Dad funded every penny of it. I think they paid him back eventually. And, of course, he made his money back many ways, many times. But it was so early on that you couldn’t talk a label into really doing something like that. Later on, I got flowers, I got all that stuff, and they realized that it was a good idea. And I was ahead of my time, I guess. I mean, he was right.

John Spong: There’s little that’s more patronizing or condescending than to premise it with “Little lady,” but in fact, you were ahead of your time. Because videos were everywhere except country music. I had CMT, I was finally in college, and so I finally had cable television, and I was so thrilled to have country music videos . . . and then there weren’t any. There was this one really bad Mel Tillis video called “Cowgirls . . .” “Cowboy’s Dream.” That and Austin City Limits clips was kind of all they had.

Lana Nelson: Right. They just cut ’em up.

John Spong: Yep, until that. And it’s also great too, because when you mentioned Emmylou first doing “Pancho and Lefty,” it’s such a familiar song now, and it’s your dad and Merle that made it what everybody knows. But before that, when Emmylou did it, cool kids—people with taste, like you and George knew, but that’s how the world found out there was a Townes Van Zandt. And so then you get Townes to be in the video, which is the coolest thing.

Lana Nelson: Yes, I did. He was a federale.

John Spong: Which is nice. No typecasting, for sure. That’s kind of against the grain for that dude. How was he? Did you know him well?

Lana Nelson: Oh, yeah. I knew him. He was great. He was really nice. Yeah, he was really, really a good guy. And such a wordsmith. I mean, what he puts together, nobody puts together that way. He was just fantastic.

John Spong: Nobody. Yeah. For as clear-cut as the storytelling is in “Pancho and Lefty,” there’s still so much mystery about what the hell’s going on in it.

Lana Nelson: Yeah. He told me he didn’t really know about what it meant until he saw the video. And so I was like, “Well, there you go.” I was like, “Oh, thank you.”

John Spong: I had a feeling you’d make me cry, but I didn’t think it would be this.

Lana Nelson: Thank you, Townes. I love you.

[Merle Haggard singing “Pancho and Lefty”]

John Spong: This one other thing that I was curious about, but I’ll save the reason why for a second. There’s so many great artists that, for somebody like me, are kind of historical figures, but for you are family. And just . . . can I throw out a couple names and just . . . Like, if you were talking to somebody that didn’t know who the hell they were, who were they, what did they mean to y’all and you? So: Ray Price.

Lana Nelson: Oh, Ray Price was wonderful. All right, he was Dad’s boss. Yeah, and that’s how I first knew him, as Dad’s boss, because Dad was on the road with him. Dad was a Cherokee Cowboy, and he wore those sparkly suits, and my mom would help keep the sequins on them. And had embroidered a big old Indian chief on the back, and everything. They were beautiful suits that now all those guys would just love to be wearing. But that was his uniform, and Ray Price was Dad’s boss. And through the years, he always recognized me. He’d always . . . Because we never lived with Ray Price, but he always knew me as Willie’s daughter, Willie’s oldest daughter. But his voice. My God, his voice. And even when he passed away, he could hit every note and hold it. Man, he was good.

John Spong: I noticed that if you listen to his records, if you want to figure out what era it’s from, you kind of got to go by the instrumentation. Because somehow his voice didn’t really age that much. It stayed so beautiful his entire life.

Lana Nelson: It really, really did.

John Spong: Yeah, yeah.

Lana Nelson: And he was great. He gave Dad a chance. He knew Dad didn’t know how to play bass. Dad told him he did, but he knew he didn’t. He knew he was out back there learning as he went.

John Spong: But giving him a job was a nice step up too, for the publishing house was great, but also getting “Nightlife” in front of people was a pretty big deal. All that stuff is cool.

Lana Nelson: Well, that’s true. Yeah.

John Spong: Roger Miller.

Lana Nelson: Oh, Roger was the funniest human being that God ever put on this planet. He was hysterical. He was hysterical. I loved Roger. He was wonderful.

John Spong: Tell me a favorite Roger Miller story.

Lana Nelson: Well, I can’t.

John Spong: I’ve repeated a couple Roger Miller jokes that your dad told me on the podcast. Nobody’s heard him on the air. But there’s that famous one where, what, he got pulled over driving smashed. Would it have been in Nashville or L.A.? I don’t remember. But the cop came up and said, “Could I see your driver’s license?” And he said, “I don’t know. Can I shoot your gun?” I like that one.

Lana Nelson: That was a good one. He probably thought of that driving one night and then said, “I’m going to save that for the next time I get pulled over.”

John Spong: Well, yeah, those guys . . . they sat on lines like that, didn’t they?

Lana Nelson: Yeah.

John Spong: I remember watching Roger on the Ralph Emery show once, and he was talking about . . . And Ralph Emery, I don’t know, I wasn’t his biggest fan, but he was talking about how simple Roger’s songs seemed and stuff like that, and Roger’s like, “It takes me months, if not years, to write something like ‘Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.’ ” Who knows which of them was telling the truth, but there was real craft in the funniest things he ever did.

Lana Nelson: Yes. Yes. That was a funny song, by the way. I love that song. 

John Spong: One of the reasons I think about this kind of thing is because when I did do . . . I had to do this thing where we found every Willie record we could and researched the whole catalog, and it’s at 151 records now, and one of the things that really struck me is that there’s acknowledged masterpieces, and then there’s other things that fans love, but maybe not everybody knows, then there’s other stuff that just about everybody has forgotten. And what really got me is that every one of those records had a story of some kind behind it . . . and almost always, it was about a relationship. And I don’t mean in a generic sense. It was almost always about doing a couple records with Larry Butler because he had helped him out once upon a time. Or there’s those four duet records that came out about the same time in the eighties with Ray Price, and is it Hank Snow and Ferlin Husky and Roger Miller.

Lana Nelson: Hank Thompson. He did one with Hank Thompson.

John Spong: And there was a Johnny Bush record in there too, when Johnny Bush’s voice was shot. And so the way people would always write about it and think about it was, “Oh well, these are people who did Willie a good turn once upon a time, and so now that he’s a star and their careers are in decline, he’s helping them out” . . . and I guess there’s an element of that. And Roger Miller, by having the songwriting credits on every song on that record they did together, did make real money for Roger, but I don’t—

Lana Nelson: That wasn’t what was behind it.

John Spong: Exactly. What was behind it?

Lana Nelson: I think their friendship was behind it. And they always wanted to work together, and they always wanted to record together, and circumstances don’t always allow for that. But when they do, you got to take advantage of it, and they did. And I’m glad they did, because there’s a lot of material that’s wonderful that they cut. And they didn’t have to cut. Nobody made a bunch of money when they cut. They weren’t paid to cut it. They just cut it because they loved it, and they wanted to do it, and they wanted to hang out, and they cut it and go play golf all day or something, then come back and do the mixing or something. They figured it out.

John Spong: And so that’s the thing, the line, the great line is, “The life I love is making music with my friends.”

Lana Nelson: Yes.

John Spong: Okay. That’s not just a line in a song . . . that’s the truth.

Lana Nelson: That’s exactly what he loved to do. He loves it every second.

John Spong: That’s awesome. And so to know that back story, there’s so many songs. Well, I got one in particular: the song “Old Friends” is one that I’ve always loved, and it’s your dad and Roger and Ray. It’s just a beautiful song. But now that I . . . once I learned about how much those relationships meant, this song, I started enjoying it on a deeper level. And on the one hand, I think if there’s that kind of affection in what you’re doing, that’s going to infuse the music and that’s going to make it better anyhow. But then, when I listen to it . . . And let me play that one, because God, I love this. I mean, I’ll start crying again. I’ll try not to.

[Roger Miller singing “Old Friends”]

Lana Nelson: I love his voice.

John Spong: Isn’t it great?

Lana Nelson: Isn’t that beautiful?

John Spong: Yeah. Yeah. What goes through your heart and mind when you hear the old songs, especially the important ones, or the ones that are important to you, or that have the relationships in them like that?

Lana Nelson: It’s just a warm feeling, I think, that you get. I don’t think your brain really thinks of much, it’s just a overall feeling. It takes over. And music is wonderful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s can just . . . it’s just fabulous. Music is fabulous. It’s healing. It’s really healing.

John Spong: Yeah. We’ve tried so hard not to repeat songs through the course of the episodes, but then for instance, when Whoopi Goldberg says, “Will you please do ‘Stardust’?” it kind of doesn’t matter that we already have. So we’ve gotten past that rule. But it would occur to me during this, it’s like maybe we should repeat guests at some point? Because I would love to do this with you anytime you’ve got some free time, because I probably talked too much.

Lana Nelson: No, that’s all right. That’s all right. I like listening to what you had to say.

John Spong: Give me a couple things, even if it’s just that great joke you had about just when you sat down. Give me a little more. Give me a couple jokes or something, or a great anecdote that I didn’t get anywhere near. Tell me something.

Lana Nelson: I don’t know.

John Spong: Well then tell the hormone joke.

Lana Nelson: Oh. Okay, my girlfriends and I, we . . . when I got to Austin, my friend, Nita, who is here right now, she was the very first friend that I made, and it was 51 years ago or something. And her little boy and my two boys, they were friends and still are. And so we decided that we needed a name for our group because we just kept growing and growing, our girlfriends . . . and there was a joke, and the joke is, “Do you know the difference in a hormone and an enzyme?” And you cannot hear an enzyme.

John Spong: The key difference.

Lana Nelson: The key difference. So we became the Hormones and we’ve been the Hormones for all these years.

John Spong: I am so grateful to both Hormones for coming in today. Y’all are awesome.

Lana Nelson: Thank you. And we are worldwide. I just want to set that straight.

John Spong: We win. That’s it. That’s it. That’s so good. That’s so good.

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Lana Nelson, talking about “Red Headed Stranger.” A monster thanks to her for coming on the show, plus a big thanks to our sponsor, Still Austin craft whiskey, 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. Please also check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music.

Be sure to tune in next week to hear one of the great American poets, Lucinda Williams, talk about one of her many favorite Willie songs: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

We’ll see you guys next week.