by Robert K. Oermann
“I probably know two or three thousand songs,” said the member of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame, “everything from Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel No. 1’ to the songs of today. There’s not enough room on one record for all of my favorites. There aren’t enough records, either — not in one lifetime.”
Fourteen of Nelson’s favorite oldies can be found on his latest album, Remember Me Vol. 1, released on R&J Records. As its title suggests, he has recorded more than can fit on one album. “Eventually, we got it down to 32 songs,” Nelson said. “The biggest problem was cutting it down.”
He and producer James Stroud both contributed to selecting the repertoire. “Me and James got together and chose the songs and chose the keys I would sing them in,” Nelson said. “I came up with a few. James came up with a few. James went into the studio with the Nashville musicians and cut the tracks. Then he brought those down to Austin and I put my vocals on them.”
“We started out with about 75 songs,” Stroud remembered. “It was sort of a combination of music that we loved and music that we could apply to Willie’s style.”
Stroud’s production credits include new hitmaker Chris Young, superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Randy Travis and Wynonna, living legends Charlie Daniels, Neil Diamond and Hank Williams Jr., plus Country Music Hall of Fame members Merle Haggard and Barbara Mandrell. As a session drummer years before he began producing, Stroud worked with hundreds of others as well.
His association with Nelson goes back a long way, but neither man can remember exactly how they met. “I played on one of his records that Chips Moman produced (in the 1980s) but Willie wasn’t there,” Stroud recalled. “Then, sometime in the early to mid ‘90s, a mutual friend introduced us and we played golf in Nashville. The first music I produced for Willie was for a TV special, maybe 11 years ago. I was working with one of my heroes, so it was a combination of feeling intimidated, excited and thrilled. I’m on a small list of producers who have worked with him, one of the top three or four Country artists in history. Honored is not the word, because I was beyond honored. And I still feel that way. But he never makes you feel that way.
“Willie is about as easy to work with as anybody I’ve been around,” Stroud added. “Working with Willie is like pouring water. It’s just that easy. He’s very knowledgeable. He certainly understands everything that he can do — his inflections, the way he sings, the way he plays, the way he ties his (vocal) phrasing in around the way he plays his guitar. Everything that he does, he’s an expert at being Willie Nelson.”
Nelson’s vocal performances on Remember Me Vol. 1 sound astoundingly strong for a man who will celebrate his 79th birthday on April 30. What is his secret?
“If I knew, I’d bottle it up,” he answered, with a chuckle. “I do an hour-and- a-half show every night, and that’s the best (vocal) exercise you can do. When other singers ask me, that’s what I tell them: Sing all the time. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
“Willie has an awesome range today,” Stroud confirmed. “If he sang a song more than three or four times, it was rare. I mean, he had each vocal on that record done perfectly by three or four, every one of them.
“He’s very spontaneous as far as the way he records,” the producer continued. “He would sit and play his guitar and have fun. He’d sing a song, and then we might go out to eat or go hit a golf ball, because his studio is on his own golf course. I remember one day we did a couple of vocals and then he said, ‘Let’s go play golf.’ So we went outside and got in his Mercedes. He popped the trunk, we put our golf clubs in the back and he drove it onto the course. We played golf in his Mercedes! He said, ‘I like to play golf with it being air conditioned.’ That’s how we worked. We take our time. He doesn’t stress out.”
The oldest song on the album is “Roly Poly,” a Western Swing tune by Fred Rose that was popularized by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys in 1946. Nelson had a particular connection to Wills, so he and Stroud gave it an especially swinging treatment. “I grew up on Bob Wills’ music,” the singer explained. “And I got to know him personally. Very early in my career, I did some concert promoting, and I hired him for some shows. He was such a great guy.”
From 1947 comes “Smoke That Cigarette,” a hit for Tex Williams, who co-wrote it with Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Travis. Phil Harris took it up the pop charts that same year. It was this song that actually jump-started the album.
“One day we were talking about ‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),’” Stroud recalled. “I remembered my mother hearing that song on the radio and then seeing her actually smoking a cigarette. So Willie and I were laughing at that. He said, ‘You know what we should do? We should look at all of our favorite songs.’”
Singer/songwriter Stuart Hamblen created the original version of “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You” in 1950. During that same year, Ernest Tubb also had a big hit with the song. Hamblen is represented on the album as well by Nelson’s revival of his “This Ole House,” from 1954.
Also dating from 1950 is “I’m Movin’ On,” the signature song of Hank Snow, a previous Nelson collaborator. During the 1980s, Nelson sought out many of his musical heroes to record duet albums, including Snow. The first of these was San Antonio Rose with Ray Price in 1980. “Release Me,” written by Eddie Miller, Dub Williams and Robert Yount and introduced by both Price and Kitty Wells in 1954, is revived on Remember Me Vol. 1.
In 1982 came Nelson album collaborations with Roger Miller (Old Friends) and Webb Pierce (In the Jailhouse Now). Nelson revives Pierce’s 1954 smash “Slowly” (written by Pierce and Tommy Hill) on the new album. Also in 1982 were the first of four Nelson duet albums with Waylon Jennings (WWII) and the first of three with Merle Haggard (Pancho & Lefty).
In 1985, Nelson reacquainted audiences with the songs of Faron Young (Funny How Time Slips Away) and Hank Snow (Brand on My Heart), including “I’m Movin’ On.” All seven of these classic duet partners are members of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame, and all except Haggard and Price have since passed away. Were these projects a way for Nelson to get to know his boyhood favorites while he still could?
“I’ve done a lot of duet projects,” Nelson reflected. “I did an album of Lefty Frizzell songs (To Lefty from Willie). And then I did whole albums with Ray Price and Roger Miller (Old Friends). It’s just that I loved their music. It’s just that I loved the sound of people like Webb and Hank. Those two were guys I just really liked the unique styles of what they do.”
Three big hits from 1955 “made the cut” after Nelson and Stroud trimmed their song list. “Sixteen Tons” was written by Merle Travis and popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford. George Jones broke through to stardom with “Why Baby Why,” which he’d written with Darrell Edwards. “Satisfied Mind” (Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes) was a 1955 hit for three future members of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame: Red Foley, Jean Shepard and Porter Wagoner.
Though songs from the 1940s and 1950s dominate on Remember Me Vol. 1, other eras are represented too. The 1960s gave us “Today I Started Loving You Again,” introduced by songwriters Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens in 1968. And Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” a massive hit for Johnny Cash in 1969, was named CMA Song of the year in 1970. Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson were billed on albums they recorded in 1985 (Highwayman), 1990 (Highwayman 2) and 1995 (The Road Goes On Forever).
“I had the best seat in the house,” said Nelson, fondly recalling his tours with the group. “I was at the right of the stage, Kris was on the left, with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings between us. I felt like I had a front-row seat at the best concert in the world, every night. I consider those records and those tours with The Highwaymen as a major highlight of my life.”
A rocking remake of Haggard’s 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever” represents the 1970s. Haggard, Hamblen and Travis are the only songwriters featured twice on the album. “James and the musicians in Nashville had the idea to crank it up on ‘Ramblin’ Fever’ and make it rock,” Nelson said. “I thought it turned out great.”
The late Vern Gosdin had a 1989 hit with “That Just About Does It.” Nelson becomes the first artist to revive this mournful ballad, written by Gosdin with Max D. Barnes. “That’s the most recent song on there,” Nelson commented. “I just love Vern Gosdin. He’s the best. Again, a real stylist.”
In assessing Nelson’s perspective throughout Remember Me Vol. 1, Stroud ventured, “I think his state of mind right now is grateful. He’s lost some friends over the years, and I think he looks back and is grateful that he knew them. He’s grateful that he’s still able to play well and perform at a real high level. But we always talk about what’s next. He’s always looking forward. He’s as excited about his music right now as ever.”
On the Web: www.WillieNelson.com
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
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