With Willie’s ninetieth birthday coming this weekend, we celebrate with his son, acclaimed singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, who discusses a song that devoted Willie lovers consider one of his all-time finest deep cuts: “I Never Cared for You.”
Written in the early sixties, it may be the clearest example you’ll ever hear of just how far ahead of his time Willie was. Though the song failed to make the charts when originally released as a single in 1964, it quickly became a staple of Willie’s live shows—a favorite of such discerning listeners as Tulsa legend Leon Russell—and ultimately one of Willie’s favorite compositions to revisit in the studio.
(Read a transcript of this episode below.)
For this special birthday episode of One by Willie, Lukas turns our attention to the 1998 version of “I Never Cared for You” that Willie recorded with producer Daniel Lanois for the landmark album Teatro. Lukas was nine years old and in the room for those sessions, and he recalls with crystal clarity the breathtaking way Emmylou Harris harmonized with his dad, before dropping deep thoughts on the dangerously high price of fame, the art of living in the moment, and covering Pearl Jam.
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One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with audio editing by Jackie Ibarra and production by Patrick Michels. Our executive producer is Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.
Hey there, I am 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, with Willie’s big ninetieth birthday just a couple days away, we talk to his son, singer-songwriter-and-bandleader Lukas Nelson, about “I Never Cared for You.”
It’s one of those old, early sixties Willie compositions that casual fans may not even know about, and that diehard fans consider one of the best and most important songs Willie ever wrote. The version Lukas will focus on is off Willie’s 1998 album Teatro and it gets him thinking about cave paintings, Emmylou Harris, the dangerously high price of fame . . . and getting his dad to cover a Pearl Jam song. Let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “I Never Cared For You”]
John Spong: Well, then where we always start is with what’s so cool about “I Never Cared for You?”
Lukas Nelson: Well, there are a few songs that Dad has written that really sort of challenged, I think, the status quo of what types of songs that were being written at that moment in time. One other great example is “Hello Walls,” where it was a man talking not to his lover, but to the walls of his own home and the windows. It was so outside of the box, and such a beautiful and, I mean, undeniably poetic way of conveying the sense of loss of a lover.
That out-of-the-box songwriting, I think, really hit a different place and a cool place with “I Never Cared for You” in terms of the idea that he sets up, where he’s asking the listener to “take heed and disbelieve,” so that everything following is a lie. “The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all. And the sky was never blue, the stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall, and I never cared for you.” He’s saying that “I know that men have tainted your sense of truth and trust. So here’s what I’m going to do. I know you’re going to think I’m lying, so I’m going to tell you all these lies, and you’re going to think the opposite,” which I just don’t think I’ve ever heard that in a song before. I find it to be a really brilliant piece of writing.
John Spong: It’s wonderful that way. Those are some of the same things that have always struck me. There’s a counterintuitive premise, just as a general matter, no matter the era, but then jump back to 1963 or ’64 when he writes it. That language you’re talking about, “Take heed and disbelieve . . . Your mind cannot conceive . . . Your heart has been forewarned.” Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran were geniuses, but nobody used language like that in a country music song in 1964.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. He was very timeless in his way of writing. I mean, that type of writing is . . . There’s an authority to it. There’s a sense of it coming from . . . It sounds more like an ancient text than it does a song. “Your heart has been forewarned, all men will lie to you. Your mind cannot conceive.” It sounds like if she came stumbling into a cave, she could read it chiseled in the walls, from thousands of years ago. Really, all those lines could fit. That song could be sung in ancient Greek times as well as it could be sung to in today’s world. That type of imagery is, I think, on par with Homer.
John Spong: Yeah. Well, then if you will travel with me to 1998 . . . Can I spin this song and listen to it with you?
Lukas Nelson: Let’s do it.
John Spong: Let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “I Never Cared For You”]
John Spong: Well, it’s interesting, because if I remember the history right, it was a single on Monument in ’64. It was a local hit in Houston, but it didn’t work in the wider world. Then for all the times your dad has revisited old songs, this one was tucked away for a long while. “December Day” is on Good Times in 1968, and then again on Yesterday’s Wine three or four years later. But this one . . . I wonder if in part, because it’s so ahead of its time—you know, timeless now—but back then, I don’t know that country music was ready for that.
It’s interesting. It’s something that Mickey said, because back then your dad would do it in a small group. Mickey said that it’s one of those melodies and it’s one of those songs that even in a sparse arrangement, with a three-piece, you could hear that whole wider world of the song. It was all implied in there, like what happened with the later, bigger versions. It’s just got that kind of melody and sense to it. Have you ever heard the 19—he did a version of this on the Grand Ole Opry in ’65?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah, I’ve heard it.
John Spong: Have you heard that?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Yeah.
John Spong: It’s got that great really heavy-duty flamenco guitar that David Parker played on the 45 and that he plays at the Opry that day. For all the times I’ve ever heard people say that your dad was ahead of his time, and that Nashville didn’t get it, and regular audiences didn’t get it . . . when I listen to those old sixties country records your dad made, they sound to me like great mid-sixties country records. But when I listen to that Grand Ole Opry one, of this song, that’s the first time I ever thought, “Those people had to be blown out of their minds.” This is so different from what country music was doing at that time.
[Willie Nelson singing “I Never Cared For You,” Grand Ole Opry version]
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Well, I’m sure that they were blown out of their minds, or whether they took to it or not, you know, he didn’t become a huge, major star until much later in his career. But you know, real true work, real art, I think, is good no matter whether people heard it or not. There’s a lot of great, amazing artists out there who have amazing songs that aren’t mainstream or necessarily well received. In fact, a lot of times I think that . . . and this is a philosophical question, but I think that sometimes the deeper it is, the less chance it has.
Because they’re harder to sell, people don’t want to look deep into themselves. Their music is there, for most people, as a means of escapism, or as just a consumer product. The percentage of people who listen to music for the art of it is quite a bit lower than the percentage of people who consume music, or who listen to it because it’s the popular thing. I think that whether it was popular is irrelevant to the art of it.
John Spong: I buy that. If it’s that innovative, it’s almost by definition a challenge anyhow, but then you get the folks that do get it. I wonder, have you ever heard the story about how Leon Russell first came to Austin to first go see your dad at the Armadillo?
Lukas Nelson: I don’t know. Maybe. Remind me.
John Spong: Yeah. Jim Franklin was the artist in residence at the Armadillo and the master of ceremonies when they had big shows. So, he gets invited up to Tulsa to paint a big mural on Leon’s swimming pool. Leon and Jim Franklin both told me this story. Your dad had just played the Dillo for the first time, and Franklin was completely freaked out. He’s just completely wowed by the show. And so your dad’s got another show coming up, Franklin’s in the pool, and he looks up at Leon and he says, “Hey, man, Willie’s playing the Armadillo this week. Do you know Willie Nelson?” And Leon Russell looked at him . . . This is, what, ’72, ’73? Leon Russell looked at him and said, “ ‘The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all. The sky was never blue.’ Yeah, I know who Willie Nelson is, man.” Franklin said, “Well, he’s playing the Dillo on Friday.” It’s like they got in the car in that moment and came down. The people who got it, got it all the way.
Lukas Nelson: Well, yeah. I mean, Leon was another poet. I think talent recognizes talent. It’s funny, I never knew that he had quoted that song, but I’m not surprised that’s the one. I mean, look, this is one of my favorite songs of my dad’s, of my father’s. It’s a beautiful song.
[Willie Nelson singing “I Never Cared For You”]
John Spong: The version we’re talking about, and that we listened to is off of Teatro, and you wanted to pick that one because you said you were there when—
Lukas Nelson: I was there when they recorded. Yeah, that’s right.
John Spong: Yeah.
Lukas Nelson: The thing I remember most about that was how excited my father was to be singing with Emmylou and to have her be doing the harmonies. I remember him making a comment that she was one of the only singers who really understood how to follow him when singing backgrounds live. He’s a jazzy singer. He sings in a very jazzy way, and so she had the musicianship, in his mind, to really follow his singing. He said that not many singers did, which is really cool.
John Spong: Well, it’s interesting. Wim Wenders, the director, made a short performance doc, documentary, right after that was recorded, after the sessions. Some of those actually were just turned into music videos and they’re easy to find on YouTube. This one in particular is right there. The way she studies your dad while he’s singing . . . Because they’re sitting practically knee to knee in that wild little studio that Daniel Lanois, the producer, created. If it was anybody in the world but Emmylou, you would almost think you saw some fear in her eyes the way she’s trying to see what he’s doing. But no, she knows exactly what’s up, and she’s right there with him, and it’s such a . . . You see their whole friendship in their faces while they’re doing that. It’s really powerful.
Lukas Nelson: There’s a technique that I think she was using, or it seemed like she was, that I use, and it helps me to follow him when he’s singing, is I watch the side of his mouth. As I’m singing, I’m watching him, you can almost observe by the jaw muscles and by when he chooses to lean forward, and I’ve gotten it down to where I can almost get it exactly right and know when he’s going to come in and know when he’s going to start singing. Of course, having done it a long time with him every night and everything, I know generally where it comes in, but it’s different every night. It’s just watching his mouth, watching his face, which is a good practice, I think, when you’re backing up.
John Spong: It’s the tip-off.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. If you’re watching and those visual cues sort of help your intuitive . . . I have a feeling that intuition and premonition and all these things that some people feel, that these things have a lot to do with just micro-observations that people make. There’s just little bits of information that you gather from your visual, your smells, all these things that your body’s processing. Sometimes they’re so quick that you can’t compute them except you sort of have a feeling that this might happen or that this might be the case, so keeping all of your senses open while you’re playing music is really key.
John Spong: Well, that’s cool because that’s basically a scientific-slash-factual explanation for a spiritual feeling, and they’re not remotely contradictory.
Lukas Nelson: No, they don’t have to contradict. I mean, there’s still the question of “Why?” [Laughs] That’s where I get into my spiritualism is not the how; it’s the why.
John Spong: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah.
[Willie Nelson plays guitar on “I Never Cared For You”]
John Spong: You’re nine when this is recorded, which kind of takes us back to your . . . What I’m guessing was a somewhat unique childhood, but not unique for you? It’s just your childhood. What’s it like growing up? If I’ve read right, there’s time on the road, there’s time in the Hill Country out in Luck, and a lot of time on Maui?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. I mean, I was born in Austin, Texas, and I grew up kind of on the road with Dad, but he’d had a place in Hawaii for a long time. So, I ended up growing up mostly in Hawaii from my first birthday on and going back and forth between Austin and Hawaii up until high school, where I went to Hawaii mostly.
John Spong: I read somewhere that one of the reasons you were in Maui instead of Austin was because your mom was thinking, “If we’re in Austin, Willie’s a king, and I don’t want these kids growing up feeling like princes.”
Lukas Nelson: Yeah, I think she was right about that. There’s just so much that fame can destroy in terms of determining healthy priorities for yourself, for your family. I think fame is a symptom of success. I think it’s something that’s necessary in certain businesses. In certain jobs you have to be famous in order to do well. But being megafamous serves nothing but the ego, and it can really, really, really be a dangerous thing.
It can be a scary thing. People get crazy. And people want to be around it, and you never know the motives of people. It’s a very difficult thing to navigate that world. Growing up away from what would be the epicenter of that, in Texas, I think, was a pretty smart, wise decision by my mom. But the thing is that we grew up on the road anyway, so I was never in one place. I grew up in America. I grew up in every state of the Union. And I got to see every Walmart in every little town and every little diner, roadside diner, and spent Thanksgiving in truck stops, and, you know, saw the countryside and just fell . . . I fell in love. I feel like America is my home.
John Spong: And the truck stops and diners, that’s the high glamour of rock stardom right there, isn’t it?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Well, it’s funny what people will do to get famous. But look, we want our crowds to grow. We want to make a living. I want to reach people with my art and everything, but there’s a line where it becomes very difficult to live normally, and that’s just the way it is.
John Spong: Yeah. Your dad explained that to me once. We were talking about musical genres, but it gets at that fame thing, too. I asked if it was okay to add a commercial, pop music sound to a country record, and he looked at me like I had just said the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. He put it so simply—he said, “Why would I not try to get my music in front of as many people as possible?”
Lukas Nelson: Uh-oh. Hold on.
John Spong: Yeah.
Lukas Nelson: Let me make sure the thing’s still recording. My mom just called. Okay, go ahead. Sorry.
Lukas Nelson: What was your question again?
John Spong: Oh, well, your dad had said, he said, “Why would I not want to get my music in front of as many people as possible?” It wasn’t about selling as many records as possible. It wasn’t about being popular or being famous. It was about touching people.
Lukas Nelson: Yes. That’s the thing is that you want to do that. You want to reach as many people as possible. That’s why I say that to be successful at that, you’re going to have to deal with symptoms. Fame is one of them, fatigue is another, but they all go together.
[Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris singing “I Never Cared For You”]
John Spong: Tell me about your mom, because that sounded like such a smart way to take care of y’all. What’s she like?
Lukas Nelson: Oh, my mom’s an amazing person. She’s brilliant, she’s strong, and she’s full of integrity. I mean, she’s fiery. She’s a good balance to my dad. The greatest thing about my mom is she takes great care of my father. Not the greatest thing, there’s many good things, but that is one of my favorite parts of her is how well she takes care of him and how she’s kept him healthy and alive and still doing what he loves for so long. I think he appreciates and respects that.
John Spong: It seems like such a full partnership. A couple years ago, I think it was Brandi Carlile’s birthday, and so of course your dad’s going to sing “Happy Birthday” in a video to get to her, but he doesn’t do it by himself. He does it with your mom. They’re always kind of side by side.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah.
John Spong: It’s inspiring. It’s cool.
John Spong: You were getting on stage with Micah when you were real little, but at some point music went from being something you were exposed to and that you did because you’re a Nelson, and it became something you do. It became something you do because it’s who you are. What’s the evolution of your relationship with music?
Lukas Nelson: Oh, well, I fell in love with music at a young age, and I had a sort of feeling and a dream. I had a dream that I was singing in front of a bunch of people and that they loved it, and it was like a vision when I was a young kid. I just followed that vision because it felt like something that . . . Well, at least in the dream, I felt really good about it. And so I decided that it would be worthwhile to dedicate my life to it at a certain point.
John Spong: And guitar became what you wanted to play? I think I read somewhere that it was because it was going to be a bond with your dad.
Lukas Nelson: Oh, yeah. There also was the fact that he was gone all the time, and I just felt that if I could learn how to play music, then it would bring us closer, which it has.
John Spong: When he’d come in off the road or you’d go meet him, how old are you? What would you play? When does guitar become the focus for you?
Lukas Nelson: Actually, I sang really at a younger age and then went into guitar for a long time. Guitar started around ten, eleven, and then I worked on both of those things pretty heavily. He made a good point. I remember we were walking one day together, and he said that “You should really focus on singing because that’s going to set you apart. If you can be a good singer, it’ll set you apart as an artist from all the guitar players that are out there and all the songwriters that are out there. You have to be able to do all three in order to really make it.”
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Lukas Nelson: And he was right. I’m glad that I started that at a young age. And I did take his advice because I like being able to interpret my own music in a unique way. Yeah.
John Spong: I’m really kind of stunned that it was at ten or eleven because you must have learned quick, because didn’t you get onstage with Bob Dylan when you were like fifteen?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Well, I learned guitar pretty quick.
John Spong: Well, if through some of those years, you’re just playing guitar around the clock to teach yourself guitar, you get onstage with Dylan. I think I read that Dylan asked you to join the touring band, and your mom said “Nope”?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Well, that was a different style, but both of their styles, combined, made me who I am now.
John Spong: But about that same time you actually get a cut on one of your dad’s records on . . .
Lukas Nelson: Yeah, that was the first song. The first song I wrote was called “You Were It.” First song I ever wrote. Looking back, it’s not bad. It’s not a bad song.
John Spong: For a fourteen-year-old in particular, but I mean, “All the pain is gone. I once had a heart. Now I have a song.” That’s a great line, man. The thing is, I’ve known that album for a long time. I didn’t realize you had written that as a punk kid, honestly. I just loved that song. That’s a great record. That song’s one of the high points. That didn’t have to happen that way.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. No, it gave me confidence at that point that I . . . “Okay, these things are coming to me, and I got to listen to them,” and so I did.
[Willie Nelson singing “You Were It”]
John Spong: A few years later, you make Heroes, the album Heroes with your dad, which is essentially a duets album. Really, it’s so much of the two of y’all. How did that record come to be and how did you come to be such a big part of it?
Lukas Nelson: I don’t know exactly how I came to be so much a part of it. I think he just wanted me a part of it, and my brother, too, but as far as the song that got the most attention from that record was the Pearl Jam cover that we did together, “Just Breathe.” I mean, it stands to this day as the most sort of shared or viewed, if you will, or streamed song that I have with him, and that he has, I think, in the recent times. I mean, it’s a better part of twenty-five million views or twenty million views. I don’t know, something like that, which is, you know, compared to the pop singers of the day, it’s not a lot, but it is quite a lot of people that it’s reached. Somehow it hit a nerve between the two of us.
John Spong: Well, but it’s also . . . I mean, if you look at that album, there’s a lot of duets on the album. There’s so many with you, but there’s also a Sheryl Crow duet and Ray Price and Billy Joe Shaver and Snoop. And that your song, y’all’s song, is the standout, is a monster accomplishment. And you’re the one that took the song to your dad, right?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Well, we were listening to a lot of Pearl Jam, my band and I, and that record had just come out, Backspacer, so I loved that song. I thought the lyrics really spoke to the way that Dad feels and has taught me in life . . . It just reflected that. It was great. It was cool the way it came together.
John Spong: I was listening for it and trying to think what might have been one of the connections for y’all that would make you think it was good for him. There’s the, in the chorus, “Stay with me, let’s just breathe.” That’s such a live-in-the-moment notion, which so many of the people I’ve talked to about your dad, they all say one of the real magical things about him is “In the moment, we’re doing it right now, we’re staying right here. Past, future . . . the moment needs to be cherished,” and that’s kind of the point of that song.
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s what made me think of him when we heard it.
[Willie and Lukas Nelson singing “Just Breathe”]
John Spong: Do you have a sense of how it is that your dad’s managed to stay in the moment the way he does or to . . . He seems comfortable in his skin. The fame doesn’t seem to have changed him. How does he stay grounded? Do you know?
Lukas Nelson: Well, um—
John Spong: Or did I make that up? Is he grounded?
Lukas Nelson: Well, first of all, I think he’s a normal person. I think he’s got his ups and downs and he’s got his issues and his demons and all those things. I think that the difference between him and someone is he doesn’t stand on pretense, maybe. Someone else would sort of pretend like they don’t have those issues or sort of act like they’re larger than life. And I don’t think that he’s ever tried to do that. That acceptance of who you are really opens the door towards presence, because if you’re so worried about appearances, you’re going to be spending all your time worried about that and none of your time on what’s going on right now, or trying to be happy and all those things. I just think he spends his time well. He doesn’t think about those things.
John Spong: And he’s fixing to turn ninety, which is rarefied air. Do you have a birthday wish for him that you can share in front of all of us?
Lukas Nelson: Yeah. Here’s to ten more.
John Spong: At an absolute minimum.
Lukas Nelson: That’s right.
[Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris singing “I Never Cared For You”]
All right, Willie fans. That was Lukas Nelson, walking us through “I Never Cared for You” and wishing his dad a great ninetieth birthday. A huge thanks to Lukas for coming on the show, 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. And please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.
And then just so you know, we’re gonna have a quick break in production so we celebrate Willie’s monster birthday shows at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, but we’re gonna be back in one month’s time—right before Memorial Day weekend—to formally launch season four of One by Willie. The lineup is still being worked out, but I can tell you that we will have more of Willie’s family members, more longtime fans and collaborators… and even a few surprises.
So keep your ears out for more One by Willie. See y’all in a few weeks.