Like Willie, Vince Gill is a living legend, a heavily lauded singer-songwriter, guitarist, and Country Music Hall of Famer—and something of a honky-tonk preservationist. In addition to fourteen albums that largely comprise his own compositions, in 2013 he released a tribute to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, Bakersfield, which he recorded with steel-guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin. Three years later, he and Franklin teamed up with Gill’s old all-star side-gig band, country traditionalists the Time Jumpers, to back Willie on his record For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. Currently, Gill and Franklin are finishing up their own Ray Price album. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it does feature a Willie tune, “Healing Hands of Time,” and that’s the focus song on this week’s One By Willie.
(Read a transcript of this episode below.)
It’s one of those numbers Willie has recorded several times in his career, most notably on 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind, but it was also cut by Price back in 1966. And though Willie originally wrote it about getting over a busted relationship, it’s come to mean something much more.
Repeatedly in his life, when Willie has tried to tend to friends dealing with tragedy and found that mere words were not enough, he’s pulled out Trigger and played “Healing Hands.” At this point, it’s essentially regarded as a gospel hymn, occupying a place in fans’ hearts and minds much like Vince’s own “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” and it prompts Vince to reflect on the singular ability of a great song to help people who are grieving—before going on to talk about Willie’s and Price’s monumental roles in country music history and how trying to harmonize with Willie is like working hard math.
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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. This show is brought to you by White Claw Hard Seltzer.
This week, we talk with -time Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill about “Healing Hands of Time.” It’s one of those songs that Willie has recorded repeatedly through his career, most notably on the 1976 follow-up to Red Headed Stranger, The Sound in Your Mind. But it was also covered in  by Ray Price, and Vince himself also recently recorded it for a Ray Price tribute record he’s working on with steel-guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin. It’s a deeply spiritual song, almost hymnal, and it gets Vince talking about the singular ability of a great song to help people who are grieving. But he’ll also get into Ray Price’s contributions, not just to Willie’s career, but to country music history. And then he’ll talk about how trying to harmonize with Willie in the recording studio is a lot like working hard math. So let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
John Spong: So, let’s kick it off with “Healing Hands of Time.” Do you know which version is the one you came to first, or the one that we ought to at least start on?
Vince Gill: Well, I would probably venture to say the Ray Price version, in that . . . in the process of making a tribute record to Ray, of sort, with my longtime friend Paul Franklin, we did a Bakersfield record together where we did half Merle Haggard and half Buck Owens. We just both have a deep, deep love for all that music from that great stretch of time. And as I was going through songs of Ray’s, I didn’t go for the obvious Ray Price songs, the ones that were the most popular. And I wouldn’t say “Healing Hands of Time” is one of the more popular Ray Price songs. But knowing Willie wrote it, I just loved it. The steel guitar gets featured very prominently in it, and he just had a great way of writing lyrics, you know, that was just a little bit deeper thinking than the majority of people that wrote songs, to me. I picked that one because I did a version of it with Paul, and so now I’m going to have a version of one of my favorite Willie songs; that will be fun to do that. Willie recorded one of my songs years ago, “Whenever You Come Around,” and that meant the world to me, that someone of that stature as a songwriter would choose one of your songs, deem it good enough to record—that meant everything to me.
John Spong: I can see that it would. But on the one that you’ve picked, what do you love about it? What’s so great about “Healing Hands of Time”?
Vince Gill: Well, I mean just the title, in itself, is already intriguing. You know? A lot of times the very first line of a great song just completely takes your attention, and just goes, “What was that?” It’s usually a great line. A great song has a pretty great opening line. Think of George Jones’s hit, “He [Stopped] Loving Her Today,” and the first line is, “He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die,’ ” and you just go, “Okay, I’m in.” And “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”; “Hello darkness, my old friend.” You just could go on and on and on and on with all these iconic songs that the first line does that to you.
And the way that Ray Price sings this song, it’s so reserved. He’s not in a hurry to impress you. And I think that’s why those two guys were such great, kindred spirits, is they’re two of the most unique phrasers of singing I’ve ever heard. And I can see why they each loved what each other did. They’re not similar in sound, but they’re similar in spirit, and similar in kind of how they’re not the norm. Most singers are beat singers. They just sing on the beat, and they sing great, and that’s great. But you get folks like Willie and Ray, and Ray Charles, and people like that, it’s the way they . . . I’ll tell you who’s one of the best phrasers in the whole world is Jerry Lee Lewis, when he did some of those country records. You listen to those now and just go . . . the phrasing of that is so danceable, so everything great that I love. That’s what I’ve always admired about Willie. You knew exactly who it was when he played a note on the guitar or sang the first note of a song.
John Spong: It’s danceable, but it also brings emotion to it that maybe isn’t in the lyric by itself. When Willie is slow to get to the point with some of these lines, anticipation builds, and you feel him maybe struggling a little bit while you wait for him to hit the note.
Vince Gill: Yeah, and I’ve always felt like the reason Willie phrases and sings the way he does is because he wants to play guitar, too. He plays his own fills, and he gives himself room in both instances to do both of those things. He’s famous for the way he phrases. He’ll—ah ba da da da da—then he’ll play—da da da, da da da. It’s a call-and-response within yourself, which is kind of the whole point of it.
John Spong: Well, let me spin it then.
Vince Gill: Okay.
John Spong: I’ll spin the . . . especially since you’re talking about Willie’s guitar playing, I’ll do the 1976 version, off of The Sound in Your Mind, because that’s Trigger time.
Vince Gill: Okay.
John Spong: When he first did it with Chet back in ’65, there’s no Trigger yet. This requires me being technologically adept, so we will see. Do you hear that?
Vince Gill: Yes, sir.
[Willie Nelson singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
Vince Gill: Yeah. Sister Bobbie.
John Spong: Sister Bobbie. What leaps out at you? Are there lines in there that leap out at you when you hear that?
Vince Gill: Golly. All of them. Is that fair? I mean, really, it just seems so more poetic, not like “poetry” poetic, but just deeper thought of hurting. I mean, it’s still the blues. It’s still a sad song in a way, but “I’ll get over you by clinging to . . .” You can’t get any better than that. Truthfully. In so many ways, I think Willie was way ahead of his time. There was an element of him . . . I know he is a big Django fan and a jazz fan and all those things, but that’s as simple as you can do it. Three chords, it’s very reminiscent of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” It’s just so simple, and there’s nothing complex, musically, but when you can take something simple and make it genius, then that’s really the best of the best.
John Spong: It’s interesting, because if I’ve read right, he wrote that in the early ’60s. His first wife was Martha, and they were on the outs, and he had taken up with his second wife, Shirley, already. And so I read somewhere that that song was almost, not quite an apology, but he was kind of trying to let Martha know, “Oh, you’ll be okay. The healing hands of time . . .”—which is actually kind of a rotten sentiment. But, that aside, it evolved so much over the years. And I don’t know if you know this story—did you ever meet Coach Royal from UT, Willie’s friend? Okay, of course you did.
Vince Gill: Yeah. We were good friends as well. I got to go to a . . . I’m from Oklahoma, and I went to an OU-Texas game with Darrell, with Coach, and sat in his box. I had to sit on my hands the whole game. I couldn’t root for Oklahoma out loud. But, man, he loved music. Coach Royal and Edith, they just loved music. I’ve done several things for them over the years down there and adored him.
John Spong: He had a daughter die young in 1973, I think in a bus accident. Marian was her name. And Willie is his best friend. And so Willie goes to the house to be a friend, but there’s nothing to say. And Willie kind of, if I’ve read right, struggled, and then played “Healing Hands of Time.” [Nine] years later, Coach Royal lost another child, and Willie did it again. And this was one of Coach Royal’s favorite songs, but it suddenly becomes this thing that is helping people through a real—the worst thing that could ever happen.
Vince Gill: Exactly. I mean, I can feel that from my experience with writing “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” When people hurt the very most that they’ll ever hurt, and when they lean on you for something, it’s the greatest feeling, and the sweetest feeling, that you could ever hope to feel. That’s a testament to not only the friendship, but the right song at the right time. That doesn’t surprise me. It sounds spiritual in nature, you know, in the way that that comes out. I know he had several songs—“Family Bible,” things like that—that were steeped in a spiritual place.
John Spong: Well, it’s like the “Go Rest High on That Mountain” is more overtly dealing with something like that, and using faith. But this one, the second verse: “They’ll lead me safely through the night / And I’ll follow as though blind / My future tightly clutched within / Those healing hands of time.” That is faith. The word faith doesn’t appear there, but that’s an explanation of it.
Vince Gill: Sure.
John Spong: And then there’s something about both melodies, yours and Willie’s, in this song—it’s straightforward, and it’s simple. Like you were saying earlier, there’s—especially if it’s got Bobbie’s piano on it, it’s going to have a church feel.
Vince Gill: Sure.
John Spong: But, it really—without saying any of that stuff, it announces itself as something you may already be familiar with, and something that’s going to help you during this difficult moment. I don’t know. It’s pretty powerful that y’all have done that.
Vince Gill: That’s always been the point of music for me, was the emotion of it. Not the impression of it. I’m more taken with how melancholy music will make me feel, and that’s what I want from music. I want to feel something. I want to be moved, more so than I want to be impressed and have a “wow” factor of how much you can play or how much you can sing, or how many licks, or whatever. I love the beauty and simplicity, especially when it has real emotion in it. Willie has that as good as anybody’s ever done it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
John Spong: We talked a little bit about Ray Price earlier. What does Ray Price mean to country history? I came up listening to country radio in the eighties. And by that point, Ray Price was like classic gold country, whatever one would call it. I knew mostly the countrypolitan ballad stuff, which is monstrous, but before that, there was the shuffle and the honky-tonk stuff. What does Ray Price mean to country music history?
Vince Gill: Well, I think he has a long legacy of the . . . especially the earliest stuff. I was more drawn to the shuffles and the real honky-tonk stuff with the Cherokee Cowboys than I was the string-laden, kind of big, grandiose ballads and stuff like that. I like that honky-tonk—I like feeling like you’re in a beer joint when you listen to those records, and they take you there. And everybody had their take on those shuffles, those great country shuffles, but Ray had a way of just making them feel like Texas, you know, and different than [how] the Nashville guys played a shuffle—the Texas guys played it different. And they really knew how to do that.
And I’ve been in a band for the last ten years and just recently stepped away, called the Time Jumpers, and Willie was doing . . . right after Ray had passed, he wanted to do a tribute–to–Ray Price record. And he asked us to come and do about half the record with him, because we’re triple fiddles, and that really old-school kind of thing that would really suit itself to a lot of those songs. We had a great time making that record with Willie, and then Fred Foster, the late Fred Foster, was producing it, and we were great friends for many, many years.
We finished everything we were doing, and Fred called, and he said, “I want you to do one more thing for me,” and I said, “Well, what’s that?” He said, “Well, I want you to sing the harmony on a bunch of these things with Willie.” I said, “That can’t be done. You can’t do that.” He said, “You’re the only guy I know that could.” He said, “Would you please try?” So I got to sing harmony with Willie on a whole bunch of those Ray Price, great songs, and some of Willie’s songs, but so many great records that Ray made. We were really proud to be a part of that tribute to Ray with Willie.
John Spong: If I remember, I think Emmylou Harris has referred to trying to harmonize with Willie as being a lot like fly-fishing. It’s a moving target.
Vince Gill: [Laughs] Yeah, it is. And that’s what makes it great, you know. But then, it’s pretty out there. It’s got that feeling, and it’s cool. But then when you add a third part above it, it’s twice as weird. It’s a trip, man. And I loved it. But I had to do it just a few words at a time, and then a few words at a time. We worked really, really hard on it, and I did the best I could. It was a treat to try to sing with him, I’ll tell you that.
John Spong: It sounds like that’s not the two of you on either side of a microphone, because that would be impossible, right? This is listening over and over to a track he did and finally getting it.
Vince Gill: Yeah, it was like trigonometry to me. It was like bad math. It was hard to figure out. And it was a great challenge. And I’ve always been the harmony singer, for some reason. I’ve worked on about a thousand artists’ records now to this point, and I love doing it. I like the challenge of it. I like how it makes you figure out how to complement somebody else. That’s a great way to go if you’re not always the lead dog—you learn a little bit more just by having to play well with others.
John Spong: The album is For the Good Times. I think it came out in 2016, and I love that record. It’s one of my favorite recent-period Willie records—in part because of the way you guys do what you do. It’s kind of like you said, in two halves. There’s the countrypolitan ballad side, with the big strings, and Fred Foster did that with a different set of musicians. But then he brings you guys in for the shuffle stuff, and I swear to God, when I hear y’all doing that, I can hear the smiles on your faces, getting to play this music and celebrate like the real thing, and celebrate Ray Price. I can hear how much fun you guys are having in the way those tracks rollick, for lack of a better term.
Vince Gill: I mean, that’s kind of the whole reason that band formed. It’s really a Western swing band that’s probably more in line with Bob Wills and that stuff. And that band, we got to get together to get to play music we missed, and that we really adored, and so those nights were fun. We’d play every Monday night, or we did—I kind of let it go. I did it for ten years, which was a long time, and it was great fun for me.
[Willie Nelson and Vince Gill sing “Heartaches by the Number”]
John Spong: When we talked about Ray Price, we talked about what he meant to country music. And, I mean, if I remember, the idea that Elvis and rockabilly and all that stuff was happening. And so Ray—somebody, I read somewhere, credited him with single-handedly keeping the fiddle in country music by doubling down on what a honky-tonk sound sounded like in 1958 or ’59.
Vince Gill: Yeah, I would agree with that. And that boom that happened in rock and roll, with Elvis and all that, it did a good job of wounding country music pretty severely. Nobody was interested in it in a big way, and that just happens throughout time. Something gets to be the hot thing, and everybody else struggles. But the funny thing about country—that’s what I respect about those kinds of folks, is they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. I think country music has a long history of trying to be something that it wasn’t. You know, trying to be more pop, trying to be more . . . In that era, the same time that Ray was doing the shuffles, you had Eddy Arnold doing the big pop ballads, and Jim Reeves and those kinds of folks, and even Patsy . . . she was cutting those great records. They were still pretty poppy sounding, for the time. And I don’t know—we’ve always kind of . . . there’s always been a period of time, no matter which one you go to. The seventies, we were all trying to emulate R&B music to some degree. But what we would wind up doing, in my view, was emulating popular music that had been sometime earlier, and it never felt as original. You know, and then the sixties come along, the early sixties come along, and you got Ray doing those shuffles. You got Buck Owens doing those shuffles. You got Merle Haggard doing those songs, and all of a sudden, country’s cool again.
Man, there’s nothing like a four- or five-piece band playing a country song with a little bit of swagger to it. And it’s awesome when it’s done right. So, every now and then, there are periods where a traditional element of some sort kind of rises up. In the eighties it might have been Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis, and some of those guys. In the nineties, it might have been me and Alan Jackson and some of those guys. But every now and then, everybody goes back to where they come from, to some degree.
John Spong: A market correction.
Vince Gill: Yeah. “Wait, we were way off!”
John Spong: [Laughs] That’s what’s great, too, because with Ray Price, he’s the guy “correcting the market,” but he also identifies Willie as this absolutely, once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation songwriting talent who’s writing songs that are going to fit exactly what Ray Price is doing. So “Night Life” is a hit for Ray Price, and then I think “Healing Hands of Time,” Ray put, in [’66], on Another Bridge to Burn, on that record. And actually, I won’t play the whole thing, but I kind of want . . . I mean, that’s such a different version of the song than the Willie one we just did.
Vince Gill: Well, of course, yeah.
[Ray Price singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
Vince Gill: That’s more in the vein that Paul and I did the song. That’s the version that we were drawing from. I mean, and you think about that—that’s simple. There’s a little flamenco guitar that makes you feel like you’re down there in Texas on the border somewhere in a Mexican restaurant, but then you got Buddy Emmons just ripping its face off in the intro. What’s cool about that record is Buddy’s intro on steel defines the record, long before Ray sings. That, to me, is also one of the great arts of making records, is watching those musicians shine, and watching those musicians do the things that help define records, and help them make them special. That’s what’s unique. I mean, like I said, you know when that intro comes, you know it’s “Healing Hands of Time.” You know it’s Ray Price that’s about to sing, but thanks to Buddy Emmons, he defines it.
John Spong: Are there any other Willie songs on the Ray Price record?
Vince Gill: I don’t think so. I think that’s the one we chose. We cut a lot of neat things that . . . we cut “One More Time,” “Kissing Your Picture” . . . [singing] “You wouldn’t know love.” It’s fun; we did “Sweet Memories.”
John Spong: Oh wow. Because that’s a Mickey Newbury song, but Willie had a pretty big hit with that in the seventies. I think it went to number four?
Vince Gill: Yeah. We did that too. I found out Ray had done a version of “Sweet Memories,” so did that. Did “Danny Boy.” We did a—
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Vince Gill: I wasn’t sure that that was a good idea, but then I thought, you know, if we could make “Danny Boy” kind of like “Night Life,” where it’s a really prominent feature on the steel. So we kind of went into that space a little bit with “Danny Boy,” and it’s really beautiful. It was fun to sing such a great song. So yeah, we’re having a ball. We’re trying to put the finishing touches on it, and get it out there not too far from now.
John Spong: Did you cry when you sang “Danny Boy”?
Vince Gill: It does. It’s emotional. I don’t know why. Maybe because it goes back so far, and the melody of it sounds so Irish, or something. That’s a song that feels like it’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old, and it may be.
John Spong: Right. Well, I love that “Danny Boy,” “Go Rest on That Mountain,” and “Healing Hands of Time,” I mean, they’re all of a piece.
Vince Gill: Yeah, everything has its place and its point. I remember when I wrote that song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” I was just grieving losing my big brother. He had passed away, and I didn’t even intend to record that song. You know, I’d written it, and Tony Brown, who I worked with, heard it, and he goes, “You got to do this.” I said, “Well, it’s pretty sad.” He says, “I’m telling you, you got to do this.” I said, “Okay.” So away we went, and that’ll be the song I’m remembered for, I think, if there is one. It’s pretty neat to have one that you can kind of hang your hat on and be proud of like that.
John Spong: Like you said earlier, to know that it’s helped people through the most difficult experience of their lives . . .
Vince Gill: It’s deeper and more meaningful than a hit song. I’ve had both, and trust me, that one’s a whole lot better on the heart.
[Vince Gill sings “Go Rest High on That Mountain”]
John Spong: I’ll close with this. It seems kind of forced, almost, but what’s Willie’s place in country music history?
Vince Gill: Well, to me, he’s kind of survived ’em all. All the rest of his contemporaries are gone, and he survived ’em all. He epitomizes what American music is. He’s the, in my mind, poster child, in so many ways. He’s a fair-minded guy. He’s kind. He’s all those things. And he’s a better person than he is a songwriter, a musician, and singer, and all that stuff. He’s just one of the best people I’ve ever met. I think that’s the guy that belongs on that Mount Rushmore—if it had a fifth head, it ought to be his.
John Spong: That a sentiment that’ll go over in Texas.
Vince Gill: What’s that?
John Spong: The idea that he belongs on Mount Rushmore. Nobody’s going to fight you on that where I’m from.
Vince Gill: I mean, he just really is. He’s everything that’s great about this country. Not just the music, but who was there when the farmers were struggling? Willie. The real deal. I really have the utmost respect for the man.
[Willie Nelson singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
John Spong: Of the jokes he’s told you, are any of them . . .
Vince Gill: Not repeatable.
John Spong: Didn’t think so. Okay.
[Willie Nelson singing “Healing Hands of Time”]
John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans, that was Vince Gill getting into “Healing Hands of Time” and a whole lot more. A big thanks to him for coming on the show, a big thanks to our sponsor, White Claw Hard Seltzer, and a huge thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe. Maybe tell a couple friends about us. And visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.
Oh, and be sure and tune in next week to hear one of the greatest living American composers, Jimmy Webb, talk about a song he actually wrote for Willie, along with Waylon, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman.” Those guys were, of course, country music’s first supergroup, and that’s the song that gave them the name. . . . We will see y’all next week.