Nelson shared some of those stories and observations Tuesday at the Billboard Summit in Nashville, talking easily about his early years in Nashville, his move back to his home state of Texas, and his ongoing success with music that knows no boundaries.
For example, the singer’s new album, “Heroes,” finds him dueting with everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Snoop Dogg. Nelson sees nothing strange about having Snoop on the CD.
“I met him once in Amsterdam and we went to a lot of coffee shops,” Nelson joked with Billboard’s Ray Waddell, who led the Q&A.
Getting a little more serious about his recording, Nelson said he doesn’t set a schedule. “Usually it’s off the top of my head,” he admitted. “If I feel like recording I’ll go out and find a studio. These days you can get a computer and go in the back room and make a record.”
Son Lucas was a huge part of “Heroes,” and Nelson says, “There’s nothing better than having your kids working with you.” He said he’d left a lot of instruments lying around the house to see what his kids would do with them. “It took them a long time, but finally Lucas picked up a guitar and Micah started playing the drums.”
Being a songwriter himself, Nelson spoke a bit about what inspires him to record songs that he didn’t write. “It’s one of those instantaneous moments when a song grabs you. You hear it and you wonder where it’s been all these years.”
He also reached back to remember when he knew he was going to make music his career. “I picked up a guitar when I was six years old. It was an old Stella and the strings were about this high [off of the fretboard], and my fingers were bleeding but I didn’t care. I had found what I wanted to do. Now I have a Martin and it’s easy on my fingers.”
In looking at his early years in Nashville, Nelson said that he has no regrets. “I had been told all my life that this was the place to be. They said if I had something to sell there would be people who might buy it in Nashville. So I came here to give it a try.”
Nelson joked that he raised hogs for a year and almost went broke. “Hank Cochran and I would write songs together and one day we wrote seven songs. The last one we wrote was ‘What Can You Do To Me Now?’ The next day my house burned down.”
It wasn’t long before Nelson was getting cuts, including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Ray Price’s “Night Life” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls.”
A huge part of Nelson’s songwriting energy was hanging out at Tootsie’s, a nightclub that had its back door directly across from the Grand Ole Opry’s back door. “Musicians from the Opry would come over to Tootsie’s and hang out between shows on the Opry and I decided that might be a good place for me to be,” Nelson said.
He remembered the night Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s husband, came in. Nelson had brought in a 45 record of his recording of “Crazy” and put it on the jukebox at Tootsies.
“Charlie heard the song and he said ‘Let’s play it for Patsy.’ We had drunk a few beers and I told him I’d rather wait until the morning. Charlie wanted to do it right then so we got in his car and drove to his house. I wouldn’t go in.
“Charlie went in and told Patsy about the song. She came out to the car and made me come in. I sang ‘Crazy’ for her and she said she wanted to cut it.”
While Nelson was writing for Pamper Music, Ray Price called up and asked if he could play bass. “Doesn’t everybody?” Nelson replied and soon found himself Price’s new bass player because Johnny Paycheck had quit.
“While we were on the bus going to the first date, I got Jimmy Day to show me a few things and run down Ray’s show. I thought I knew it but obviously didn’t. I had to wear Paycheck’s clothes and he was smaller than me. After working for Ray for two years, they fit me.
“In later years I asked Ray if he knew I couldn’t play bass and he just went ‘Uh-huh’!”
(We’ll have more from the Willie Nelson Q&A at the Billboard Country Music Summit tomorrow.)