Shortly after the midterm elections, Willie Nelson confessed with characteristic humor that he was disappointed by the results.
“I’ve got a new song called ‘Y’all Got the Ball,’ ” he said, referring to the Republican takeover of the United States Senate.
Whether the song actually exists, Nelson won’t say. But he is working at a pace that belies his 81 years: Last week, he released “December Day,” an album of duets with his sister Bobbie. It follows “Band of Brothers,” which hit number-one on Billboard’s country albums chart in June. An album of duets with Merle Haggard is planned for release early next year.
Nelson’s longtime friend Dan Rather, 83, also isn’t slowing down. The journalist anchors two programs for AXS television—Dan Rather Presents, an investigative program, and The Big Interview, featuring celebrities. Last month, he interviewed Nelson and Haggard together for a new program, “Inside Arlyn,” that Nelson is hosting.
Still in the pilot stage, without an announced network or airdate, the program pairs Nelson with legends and newcomers for live performances recorded at Austin’s Arlyn Studios. Haggard was the guest for the first episode, and the young Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. played with Nelson for the second.
Immediately following Rather’s interviews for “Inside Arlyn,” I spoke to Rather and Nelson about music, politics, and longevity.
Andy Langer: You both got your start in Texas radio.
Dan Rather: I’ll admit I didn’t know until recently that Willie was a disc jockey in Houston the same time I worked at KTRH. We were the ‘50,000 watt voice of the Golden Gulf Coast. Tall Tower, Full Power. We Break In When News Break Out.’ Where were you?
Willie Nelson: It was KRCT in Pasadena. We played country music. It was cool that I also got to promote the shows I was working in the clubs. I had a good thing going. And I enjoyed playing the music I wanted to play. I worked at KVAN, in Vancouver, Washington, for a while and KBOP, in Pleasanton, Texas.
DR: I have fond memories of KTRH. In the mid-fifties—that shows you how long it’s been—we had a live program at noon: Hillbilly Bandwagon with Babe Fritsch. That’s where I met Elvis Presley. He was still truck-driving some between shows when he came in for an interview. He was scruffy. I had a feeling he’d been up all night. He apologized and said he’d indeed been up all night driving his truck, but whether that’s true or not, I’ll never know.
AL: Dan, I’ve heard you talk about the role of music as solace and company when you’re out reporting. I suspect over the years you’ve listened to Willie in some far-away, dangerous places.
DR: Absolutely. I don’t want to be sophomoric about this, but I always felt a strong bond because he was the voice of the Texas I knew. In Vietnam, before Willie really hit it big, one of the favorite tunes of the soldiers was “Crazy.” I’m not certain why, but they’d play the Pasty Cline version over and over again. Myself, I knew Willie’s music before Red Headed Stranger—Hello Walls was always one of my all-time favorites. But when that Red Headed Stranger first hit, I literally pulled the car off the road the first time I heard his version of ‘Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain.’ I was someplace in Alabama. I can’t explain it. I’d heard others sing the song before, but it cut somewhere really deep within me. I remember thinking that Willie has done something here that if he doesn’t record another song the rest of his life, that song will still resonate through the ages.
AL: Willie, people must tell you those kind of stories all day long.
WN: And I can listen to ‘em all day long.
AL: But what does that mean to you as a songwriter? You sit with pen and paper, and later, people have these deep, meaningful experiences with the songs.
WN: I can relate. I have similar experiences with other writer’s songs, like Hank Williams or Floyd Tillman. It’s easy for me to understand how someone can be a fan of someone. I was telling a friend the other day that people pay a lot of money to come to hear me or somebody sing, and there’s an energy exchange that takes place out there that you can’t put a price on—for the entertainer or the audience. People like to come out, clap their hands and sing along to the songs that mean something to them.
DR: They do. And I think in the lonely moments people really value music.Take ‘Mama Don’t Let Your Babys Grow Up To Be Cowboys.’ I have a friend in Dallas who, when I visited with him in his home, he listened to it over and over again. While I was in his presence, he must have listened to it a dozen times. That has to make you feel good.
WN: Well, that’s one of those songs that people can relate to young or old. It goes back to the old Gene Autry and Roy Rogers days when the singing cowboy was riding and shooting. That’s what I grew up with.
DR: With a song like that, people can tap into the Texas you wanted Texas to be. We all understand Texas is more urban than it is rural, that the day of the great cattle drives is long since gone. But it touches something within you that’s inexplicable. There’s a resonance of the Texas that once was and is no longer. But in your mind, it’s the Texas you want to be and the Texan you want to be.
AL: Dan, you’ve got two shows on the air. Willie, you tour non-stop. Is passion the key to longevity?
WN: It definitely is. But it’s also that anybody that goes out and sings for two hours has to be in pretty good physical condition to do it. You’re using your lungs, one of your largest muscles in your body. Once I do it, I feel good—like it’s a good workout. I ride my bike a little bit, but the real workout is the show.
DR: I feel the same way working on a story. There’s nothing like feeling you’re out in front of a big breaking story. I do think passion is a key to longevity. Another is gratitude. God, thank you for giving me something I love to do and for letting me still do it. That might strike some people as corny, but particularly at this age and stage, I feel lucky to get to do it.
AL: Dan, you’ve embraced the concept of TR—time-remaining. At some point, you’ve both probably considered how to spend the time you’ve got left. And I suppose the answer is doing exactly what you’ve always done.
DR: I’d rather wear out than rust out, particularly doing what I like to do.
AL: And Willie, for as often as you play, every night there’s got to be people seeing you for the first time, people who will get to tell people they saw Willie Nelson play.
WN: Sure. But there are also people who have seen 100 shows. That’s gratifying too.
AL: Are we at the point where politics are simply too divisive to get anything done?
DR: The short answer is yes. It’s something I worry about. And I’m not a worrier by nature. I’m an optimist by nature and experience. But I’m worried about the country because none of us ask often enough, ‘What’s good for the country?’ In elected politics they too often ask. ‘What’s good for me in the next race?’ or ‘What’s good for the party?’ I’m a child of WWII and I can remember the time everybody in the country pulled together. That’s what we’re missing today.
WN: We have to figure out a way to put people back to work. We have to start rebuilding our infrastructure—our highways and roads—and employ all those unemployed people to build our country back. That’s where the money should go.
DR: Today, preparing for our Inside Aryln interview, I was shown a list of songs that really meant something to Willie. On it was “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima,” a long forgotten song. And there was “A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” Maybe it’s because I was at memory age during WWII and I was bedridden with rheumatic fever for a long time. And that song, about a physically challenged boy who desperately wanted to go to war, it’s in my memory bank forever. It’s like an old jukebox in my mind.
WN: Elton Britt, who sang that song, was one of the best singers we ever had. The great voices like that stick in your head forever.
DR: You mentioned before something about what’s so special about Willie. It’s an echo from the past. My maternal grandmother had an old-fashioned record player, and when Jimmie Rogers sang it lifted her day. They were farmers, and she’d pick cotton before dawn and after dark, and she’d come back in and sing “Waiting For a Train.” Way down in Bloomington, Texas, they had nothing. But they had Jimmie Rogers. I think that Willie today—and has been for a long time—is to the late twentieth century and early twenty-first what Jimmie Rogers was in the late twenties and thirties.
WN: There’s a song that Merle and I were recording on this new album—“Django and Jimmie.” It’s about Merle’s connection to Jimmie and mine with Django. It brings all that full circle.
AL: Obviously, both the news and music businesses have changed a lot over the years. You could look at it positively and say both are more democratic, that they’ve given more people voices. Or is it just bad news?
WN: I still hear the music I want to hear. It’s not like I have to listen to what one station or another plays. I can hear, thanks to satellite radio and the Internet, any kind of music I want to hear. And I still prefer Jimmie Rogers, Merle, Ray Price, because that’s where I come from. Music is fine. I’m not worried about it all. It’s always been that the good music outlives the bad. That’s the end of the story.
DR: News has changed tremendously. We’re in the Internet era—the same way we went from print to radio to television. Overall, its better. More information is available to more people, in more places than there’s ever been. But there’s a dark side to it. Quality news and integrity is in short supply. And one of the reasons is that nobody has come up with a new business model to support the best kind of quality news—deep-digging investigative reporting and first-class international reporting. Quality journalism is still out there, but not in the quantity it used to be. I think it’ll come back around again though.
AL: Finally, there’s a Ratherism along the lines of, ‘the Michigan race is tighter than a Willie Nelson headband.’ How tight is a Willie Nelson headband?
WN: Ha. It gets pretty tight. Pretty tight indeed.