Natalie Mering, known to fans by her stage name, Weyes Blood, first heard Kurt Weill’s classic 1938 composition “September Song” the same way Willie Nelson did, though a Frank Sinatra recording—though it’s worth noting that she found it as a young music lover in the 2000s, and he would have likely first heard it on Your Hit Parade in the forties. Still, her appreciation of the song changed altogether when she finally discovered Willie’s version on 1978’s Stardust, on a night in the Sierra Nevadas she recalls with absolute clarity. “I remember hearing it and staring at that [album] cover,” she says, “and really feeling like, wow, we’re like [on a] starry night outside at the cabin, and this is like a bedtime story being whispered to me.”

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

On this fourth and final installment of One By Willie’s special Live From Luck! miniseason, Mering talks about her long relationship with “September Song,” voicing genuine affection for both the big-strings bombast of Sinatra’s version and the high-eighties gloss of Lindsey Buckingham’s 1981 cover. But she settles on Willie’s stripped-down recording on Stardust as the definitive one, leading to a discussion of the unlikely way Willie recorded the album (in Emmylou Harris’s living room!) and the pushback he got from his record label just to cut it (it became the biggest seller of his career!), with digressions on Elvis, Guy Clark’s wife Susanna, and why record labels want to make everything sound like the musical equivalent of Greek yogurt.

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 production by Isabella Van Trease and 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 Boot Barn.

This week, one last installment in our special, four-episode miniseason of the podcast that we’ve been calling One by Willie: Live From Luck! That’s right, these are interviews taped this past March at Willie’s ranch–slash–golf course–slash–Old West town with four artists who’d come to play his annual Luck Reunion, and that we recorded in an old Boles Aero camper-trailer that Willie’s great-nephew-in-law, Joe, tricked out just for these conversations and parked about a hundred yards from the main stage. And if, by chance, you are having a hard time picturing how cool that was, you need to get to the next big show in Luck and check it out for yourself.

This week, acclaimed California-based singer-songwriter Natalie Mering—known to fans by her stage name, Weyes Blood—talks about another song off Willie’s 1978 masterpiece, Stardust: specifically, Kurt Weill’s 1938 classic, “September Song.” It’s one of those Great American Songbook touchstones that’s been covered by hundreds of artists, and Natalie talks about first learning the song from a Frank Sinatra recording when she was growing up in the early 2000s—just like Willie first did when he was a kid in the forties.

From there, we get into the record label’s opposition to Willie even making Stardust, and the completely unorthodox way he ended up recording it, with great digressions on Lindsey Buckingham, Elvis, integrity, and the unforgettable night in a Sierra Nevada cabin when Natalie first heard Stardust.

Let’s do it.

[Willie Nelson singing “September Song”]

John Spong: As I say, where we’ll always start is what’s so cool about the song you’ve picked, which is a goofy thing to ask when you’re talking about Kurt Weill. But what’s so great about “September Song”?

Natalie Mering: I think “September Song” is just a really haunting, beautiful tune about the passage of time. And I think the way that Willie does it, it’s so understated, because I grew up—my parents, unfortunately, were not into country music.

John Spong: Okay.

Natalie Mering: So, I grew up listening to the Frank Sinatra version, and I knew about that song as this big, kind of blown-out orchestral number. 

[Frank Sinatra singing “September Song”]

Natalie Mering: So, hearing that record, Stardust, for the first time, and hearing that version of “September Song,” with like a little, lonely harmonica in it, was—yeah. It was, to me, the most like fall, and the most like those dwindling days, you know, “when the days dwindle down to a precious few,” and it’s kind of like, yeah, it dwindled down to a precious few instruments and ended up being just as incredible. So, I feel like that was a big moment for me. I was an adult, and I was staying at a cabin, and somebody just brought that record and put it on, and I was like, “I had no idea this existed. It’s so gorgeous.” So, yeah. I just think it’s very haunting and very beautiful, and didn’t have to be this fully orchestrated production, which I like a lot.

John Spong: You grew up in Pennsylvania?

Natalie Mering: California.

John Spong: California. So, what do you think of Willie, growing up? Because you must’ve had an impression of him prior . . .

Natalie Mering: I mean, I knew he existed.

John Spong: You knew there was a Willie.

Natalie Mering: I knew his voice. Yeah. I knew his voice. I knew he existed, and I could tell that it was him on the radio or something, but, yeah, there was just no . . . Country music was kind of like something to be made fun of in my household. My brothers really liked rap. We were listening to, like, Tupac. So, I always felt like it took me becoming a songwriter and getting into music to really understand the lineage. And my parents were really Christian, so there was some overlap with gospel and old country songs that were more on the Christian side of things. But yeah, I didn’t really discover Willie until I was a full-blown adult, and it took that record, really, as the entry point. Yeah. I think that it was a pretty remarkable discovery, because there’s a fragility to his voice and the arrangements, and I think, as a songwriter, I’ve always tried to be really over-the-top and really bombastic, but hearing him do such an understated version really showed me that less is so much more.

John Spong: Uh-huh.

Natalie Mering: And so, yeah. It kind of opened the world to his vibe. You know?

John Spong: Yeah, yeah.

Natalie Mering: And also, he’s a Texas hero, and when you live in California, Texas is like a force to be reckoned with, because it’s another big—

John Spong: In a good way?

Natalie Mering: Well, yeah. It’s another big, huge state, and California’s a big state. So, it’s like, I always felt this connect. But I always knew that things in Texas were, like, there’s more melted cheese, and things were a little bigger.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: Yeah. I got into Townes Van Zandt, actually, and Guy Clark, and there was a bunch of Texas people I was kind of into first, when I was getting into folk music. So it kind of made sense, once I understood the whole concept of the Texas hero and saw it all in perspective, and also found out that he wrote those Patsy Cline songs, which, my mom was definitely into Patsy Cline . . .

John Spong: So Patsy did get played in the house.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, yeah.

John Spong: Okay.

Natalie Mering: It was like Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, stuff like that. So then it was a big eye-opening thing for me, because there’s also a longevity to what he does, and a persistence, and not really giving up, and not like an initial blowout stardom, but this long, enduring authenticity.

[Willie Nelson singing “September Song”]

Natalie Mering: Wow.

John Spong: What’d you think?

Natalie Mering: I mean, yeah. I still think what I thought when I first heard it—that it’s a masterpiece.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: It’s beautiful.

John Spong: I’d never realized until getting ready to talk to you—I hadn’t thought about it: there’s almost no guitar in that song.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: His sister carries it on the piano the whole way. Anybody who ever wondered how important she was to what he was doing—that’s a Bobbie song, in a lot of ways. And then Trigger comes in for the solo, which is so stately and perfect, but—

Natalie Mering: It’s also kind of amazing that the chorus is drumless.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: That there’s just a little bit of drums in the verse, and then he just kind of carries the chorus without any drums.

John Spong: Oh, s—. I hadn’t thought of that.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: It’s really bizarre, but you don’t even notice, really.

John Spong: Do you know how they recorded this?

Natalie Mering: I don’t. Do you?

John Spong: [Laughs] You’re my new best friend. “Why, yes!”

Natalie Mering: No. Yeah, yeah.

John Spong: Should we back up so she can just ask it cold, please? No. Yeah. It’s wonderful, because Willie, for all of the rebel, outlaw stuff people talk about, the weirdest thing he ever did, hands down, is this album. Because he finally breaks in ’75 with Red Headed Stranger, and then they put out Wanted! The Outlaws, and they put out Waylon & Willie, and it’s all this, for lack of a better term, rock ‘n’ roll, jam-band stuff in a country setting, and he’s shooting the finger to everybody, in some people’s minds. He goes to the label, and they say, “What are you going to do next?” and he said, “I think I want to do a collection of old Tin Pan Alley songs.” And they said—I think the exact quote from the record exec was, “What? Do ‘Luckenbach, Texas’ again, or some g—damn thing like that,” was the quote.

Natalie Mering: That’s what the label always says.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: They said, “Bring back the Greek yogurt. Everybody likes that.”

John Spong: Willie said, “Nah. You know what?” He said, “Most of my fans don’t know these songs because the songs are too old, and then the people that do know the songs love them. It’ll be fun. The kids will think they’re mine, and I’ll do it.” And then Willie said, “And, I have creative control.” So they let him do it, but then here’s where it gets even weirder. So, he was living in a condo in Malibu with his wife and his two little girls, and Booker T. Jones moved into the condo place, and they become neighbors. And they, like, meet taking the trash out or something.

Natalie Mering: Wow.

John Spong: They become buddies, and they jam in the condo, and they decide they want to work together. So Booker T. produces this, and then they record it in Emmylou Harris’s living room.

Natalie Mering: It does sound like a room. That’s amazing.

John Spong: They pull a recording van into the driveway or the street, run the s— into the house, record it in there—except for the harmonica parts, which Mickey did in the bathroom, because the tile was just right for reverb.

Natalie Mering: Oh, yeah. That makes so much sense.

John Spong: Isn’t that cool?

Natalie Mering: Well, yeah, because when I first heard it in a cabin, it just felt like it was in the room.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: It didn’t feel like we were listening to a produced thing. It just really was very intimate. I didn’t know Malibu was where he came up with that idea. That’s wild.

John Spong: Well, who knows where he came up with the idea, but that’s where—”Booker T., you’re good at this stuff. Let’s do this together, man. That was fun picking just now. Let’s do something.” And then, actually—have you heard Willie’s Christmas album?

Natalie Mering: No, unfortunately not.

John Spong: Well, of course not. A lot of people—

Natalie Mering: Most people haven’t?

John Spong: But it’s the only record that sounds like this in Willie’s whole thing, because they did it about the same time. So, it’s all these other familiar songs. It’s more Irving Berlin, of course, and stuff like that, but with this setup—I don’t think it was at Emmylou’s, but it’s the only Willie record that sounds quite like this one.

Natalie Mering: Wow.

John Spong: And it’s awesome.

Natalie Mering: Well, I think the label probably was excited that his interpretation of these—it’s so distinct, it really did bring these songs to a whole new generation of people that probably didn’t want to hear the kind of production, you know, that Frank Sinatra would have, or something. This really updated it and made it very laid-back. And really relatable.

John Spong: Well, and this is before people . . . Because now it’s almost a trope: “Rod Stewart sings the American Songbook.” You know, once you lose your fastball, you stop rocking and you do this. Willie did this at the height of his game . . .

Natalie Mering: I know. I know. It’s really smart.

John Spong: . . . and it became the biggest album of his career.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: This is easily the biggest-selling studio album, non–greatest hits album he’s ever done.

Natalie Mering: Wow.

John Spong: Yeah. And it’s the only Willie record some people even have.

Natalie Mering: Well, maybe that’s why it’s the first one I heard—somebody who’s on the periphery of all this.

John Spong: Makes sense. This is a ridiculous question, but do you believe—because I know you love old standards. Do you believe in “definitive versions”? Is that a real thing?

Natalie Mering: You know, I do think there’s something to be said about everybody’s version. And no, I think that he really breathed new life into something like “Stardust,” which was very . . . I was always really into the Nat King Cole version, and I think that the way that he simplified it—I don’t know, he just made it folkier, and now I can’t think of another arrangement when I think of that song, because all the other ones are so complicated.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: So I do think that he made it definitive, as in, anybody could play it.

John Spong: Yeah. I’ve made a playlist where I have other versions of all these songs, and most of them are by Lester Young. Because Lester Young’s “Stardust” is great, but there’s the same kind of mournful quality to the way Lester plays.

Natalie Mering: I will say, Lindsey Buckingham does “September Song.”

John Spong: Oh, really? Take me back to California.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, yeah. Lindsey Buckingham does a pretty cool “September Song.” But it’s very zany, eighties . . .

John Spong: Okay.

Natalie Mering: It’s definitely more his kind of tweaked-out production.

[Lindsey Buckingham singing “September Song”]

Natalie Mering: But I heard that version of “September Song” first—well, the Frank version, Lindsey Buckingham, then Willie, and I think now the Willie one, for me, takes the cake.

John Spong: You put it on more often than the others, if nothing else.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, the Buckingham version is very interesting—

John Spong: A time and place.

Natalie Mering: —because he’s definitely made it very eighties. But yeah, it’s interesting that that song keeps coming back.

John Spong: Well, it did occur to me that because of the quietness of this record, and that creation story or whatever, it’s almost like— because he seems like he’s whispering through much of the record, and it’s almost like he’s letting us in on a secret, and the secret are these songs that actually are timeless. So, somebody who grew up like him, listening to the Sinatra version from the forties, when they would hear it, it might take them back there. It takes me back to the eighties, probably, when I first discovered this. And it takes you back to a cabin. Where was the cabin?

Natalie Mering: In the Sierra Nevadas. Like up, kind of, Northern California.

John Spong: When you can remember exactly where you were when you first heard a song, the song must have made an impression.

Natalie Mering: Oh, yeah. Yeah. No, it was a big deal. And even that album cover, like, I didn’t realize that Guy Clark’s—

John Spong: Wife—

Natalie Mering: —painted it, and I wish I could remember her name.

John Spong: Susanna.

Natalie Mering: Susanna.

John Spong: Yeah. No. I talked to Guy about it once, because I got to hang around with him a lot towards the end of his life, and he said the album was Susanna’s idea altogether.

Natalie Mering: Really?

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: I mean, I could see that, because she’s that smart. She’s really smart.

John Spong: She’s really smart—scary smart, and just scary. And I can see it happening because she told Willie he needed to do it, and it’s either cross Susanna or make the album.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: I would rather cross Columbia Records than Susanna Clark—

Natalie Mering: Yeah, than Susanna. That’s so funny.

John Spong: —than a force of nature like her.

Natalie Mering: That’s amazing. I love that connection, though. It’s just very cosmic, too, how it all comes together. And I remember hearing it and staring at that cover, and really feeling like, wow, we’re like, starry night outside at the cabin, and this is like a bedtime story being whispered to me.

John Spong: If you stare at the album cover too long, you’re floating in it.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: I mean, for real.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

[Willie Nelson playing “September Song”]

Natalie Mering: You know, I watched the Ken Burns documentary, and learning about how he left Nashville feeling defeated, and kind of returning to his roots and getting back in touch with that kind of authenticity, I don’t know, to me it’s a very encouraging story, because I’ve been playing as Weyes Blood since I was fourteen, and I’ve had many different seasons and failures and moments of walking away with my guitar case. It wasn’t full of weed, but I did have some weed in it.

So, I just feel like he—to me—I really look up to the longevity, and the humbleness of really not giving up. Because it’s so easy to become disillusioned and overcome with your own insecurities, and I felt like he just stayed true, and that’s just remarkable. And also, just, he’s so prolific. The amount of music, I don’t know if I could ever fully get through all of it in one lifetime. I mean, it’s immense. And that’s somebody that’s not just trying to make money. That’s somebody that’s doing it for very spiritual purposes. So, I think as a musician on a whole, he’s definitely one of my favorite legends because of that, because there’s a persistence and a humbleness, and just doing his own thing.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: When you get involved in the music industry, and you start getting in the gears, there’s a lot of weird people whispering in your ear, and there’s a lot of ideas about how you should do it, and you can get jaded very fast. And the music can lose its magic very fast. For him to have gone through that machine and come out of it whole and intact, and then have this prosperous, extremely authentic career—I think to any musician, that’s just a dream story. It’s something really inspiring.

John Spong: It’s really interesting, ’cause there’s a misconception that when he was in Nashville, he was being forced to do things he didn’t want to do. And I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that he wanted to be a star, and he was in Nashville, and that’s what you did to be a star, and the producers and the players all absolutely adored him and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. So, he kept trying, and it kept not working—but to get it to your point, I’ve even read . . . I see it written a bunch of different ways. I’ve heard it described as he retired from music because he was making enough on publishing that “Eh, I’m just going to go back to Texas.” But then he gets here, and there’s a way for him to make music here, and his sister is here, so he gets to be with her again, which really is the key to every Willie story. It’s all Bobbie. And suddenly, he is doing it his own way. It wasn’t like they were making him do something he was unwilling to do, but he was doing something that was coming from somewhere other than inside.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, yeah.

John Spong: And so, he gets here, and it’s coming from inside. And Bobbie’s onstage with him, and he’s comfortable that way, and comfortable taking risks. When they went to record Shotgun Willie in [’73], which was his first record outside of Nashville—and it was the first record he ever did with his own band—when they got there, he didn’t have any new songs, and he was stuck. So before they recorded that record—which is kind of the pivot, right—he and Bobbie recorded a bunch of gospel songs. Of course.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, yeah.

John Spong: They spent the first two or three days recording gospel songs.

Natalie Mering: Just returning to the roots.

John Spong: Yeah. And so they get that out of the way. It wasn’t released until later in the seventies. “Uncloudy Day” is on it. It was a top-five hit for him. But, that was getting the nerve, getting the—not nerve, comfort—to do it.

Natalie Mering: Well, yeah. No, it’s really hard. It’s so competitive. Especially now—music barely makes any sense because of the way it is with the internet, and it’s so easy to lose yourself. And yeah. I think a lot of people have lost their identity. There’s not a lot of community or homes to be spoken of, in general, just the way the modern world is turning out. So, I feel like it becomes an even more valuable story over time, for people to get in touch with who they really are, versus what they think Instagram says they should be, or whatever. You’re lucky. You’re not on the social media. You’re lucky, but us kids . . .

John Spong: Yeah. I was going to say, I wonder how long it’s been since Willie fretted over how many likes he got on an Instagram post.

Natalie Mering: Oh, yeah. It’s ridiculous.

John Spong: It might not have come up all week.

Natalie Mering: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s ridiculous.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: But I guess there’s probably similarities to how things were going in Nashville. There’s always been that aspect of music, of this dangling carrot, of, like, “If you could just be more like someone else. If you could just be more like this person. If you could be more like the Greek yogurt that’s selling really well.”

John Spong: That’s exactly what I was saying! Because when he brought this up, they said, “No; why can’t you be more like you as we’ve decided you are, based on what happened over the course of the last five years.” And to be able—I mean, I didn’t even think of that. But to turn down what is essentially a compliment—they’re not asking him to sound like some other Nashville guy, like they did through all the sixties. They’re asking him to sound like him, because it’s great, and it’s selling. It’s the dream.

Natalie Mering: Yeah. That is, I think—

John Spong: But it’s not his dream.

Natalie Mering: Yeah. I think that’s the true death of an artist, when you try to, like, re-create lightning in a bottle. It happens once, and then you got to keep doing what you authentically want to do, and anytime I’ve had a manager or somebody be like, “Oh, that one song—could you do another song like that?” and it’s just like, that is the antithesis of creativity in music, so it never works.

John Spong: I honestly get the feeling that I would not be any happier crossing you than I would Susanna Clark.

Natalie Mering: [Laughs] Cool.

John Spong: Because you know what you’re doing, and it’s comical to me that a manager would say that.

Natalie Mering: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s their job, is just trying to . . . They’re never that clever, and the A&R people, it’s like they’re nine-to-fivers. They’re not artists.

John Spong: Yeah. Oh, two things—one goofy, just ’cause I like this. When I was reading, doing some online digging, I found you talking about how much you loved Elvis’s live version of “Unchained Melody” from 1977.

Natalie Mering: Oh, the last one, yeah.

John Spong: Yeah, because that song’s on this album too. 

Natalie Mering: Oh, yeah, yeah.

John Spong: And the difference between . . .

[Elvis Presley singing “Unchained Melody”]

John Spong: . . . to this whispered version of “Unchained Melody.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Unchained Melody”]

Natalie Mering: Yeah. Well, you can hear that pain on Elvis’s shoulders, trying to carry just how big they made him.

John Spong: How big they thought he was, and yeah, how big they made him.

Natalie Mering: So, he was really trying to fill that, and you could see him struggling, and that’s its own tragedy and its own beauty. But yeah, it’s definitely completely different.

John Spong: Wow. Yeah. The other thing I wanted to mention, because I was so thrilled to think of this, about the melody in “September Song,” because it really is—in old standards or whatever, and that era of songwriting is different, but talk about the melody.

Natalie Mering: I think what’s so crazy about “September Song” is the verse is, it’s a very peaceful, kind of like “we’re bringing you along on this song” trip, and then the chorus is so dissonant. There’s such a weird kind of half step. There’s just a lot of angst, and I think that’s really rare. Usually, they save those melodies for the verses, and the chorus has a little bit more of a gentle—

John Spong: Yeah. That’s where you rest.

Natalie Mering: Yeah, and I think that by making the choruses the angsty part, it gives “September Song” a—it’s a transition. Just like the seasons transition, and we transition through different phases of our life, there’s going to be that little uncomfortable period of dissonance. I don’t know. It’s really well done.

John Spong: The melody itself is telling a story, and it’s that one. Because it’s like, “September, November.”

Natalie Mering: November.

John Spong: It’s a cliffhanger.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: It’s like, what comes next?

Natalie Mering: It’s like, are we going to make it?

John Spong: Yeah. Yes. But then, where it takes you back to is springtime, rebirth.

Natalie Mering: Well, yeah, and also, we got to appreciate these few precious days.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: Oh, s—.

Natalie Mering: Spending with somebody.

John Spong: Yeah.

Natalie Mering: Yeah.

John Spong: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sitting down with us.

Natalie Mering: Oh, it’s been wonderful.

John Spong: Good.

Natalie Mering: I’m so much happier now than I was before, just talking about it, so, it’s great.

John Spong: Thanks. Enjoy Luck. I take it it’s your first time here.

Natalie Mering: My first time, yeah.

John Spong: How long have you been? Have you seen much going on, or—

Natalie Mering: So, I just got here and did this, so it’s a good start.

John Spong: Well then, I think you should get out there and check it out.

Natalie Mering: I’m going to check it out.

John Spong: All right. Can’t wait to see your show tonight.

Natalie Mering: Cool. Thank you so much.

John Spong: Yeah. Bye.

[Willie Nelson singing “September Song”]

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Weyes Blood, a.k.a. Natalie Mering, talking about “September Song,” in the fourth and final installment of our special, four-episode, Live From Luck! miniseason of One by Willie. A huge thanks to her for coming on the show, a big thanks to our sponsor, Boot Barn, 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. Oh, and please also check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music. But in the meantime, thank you so much for listening.