By early 1973, Willie Nelson had abandoned his Nashville dream of national glory and, after a brief flirtation with retirement, returned to Texas and settled in Austin. At that point, the most likely outcome was that he would continue his career as the local hero he had always been. But, of course, he became one of the most beloved artists in the world.
In 2020 Texas Monthly launched One from Willy podcast to find out what his music means to his fans. In every issue we talk to one famous Willie fan, and naturally most of the conversation is about albums (147 in all!) and songs. Here we have excerpts from several discussions of our favorite guests about their favorite Willy tracks.
Steve Earle on “Local Memory” from Shotgun Willie (1973)
There was no point growing up not knowing who Willie Nelson was. I literally went to high school four and a half miles from Floore’s Country Store in Ilotes, and even before Willie got back to Texas, he was there to play. My dad used to go to these shows.
Then Shotgun Willy came out in 1973, when I was already on the verge of leaving home. “Local Memory” stood out because I started writing songs that didn’t have a female name in the title, and I never noticed that a country song was literature to the extent that it was intentionally. “Memory” was a poltergeist-like character, a creature that roamed the city wreaking havoc. Cole Porter wrote this [with lyrics that read like literature]. Porter, probably, could become an academic and poet, the American Seamus Heaney. But he liked musical theater, so that’s what he did, and he was kind of in the slums.
Willie is like that. I’ve never heard a Willie Nelson song that didn’t have alliteration after the semicolon. He’s doing it on purpose, and they put him here for it. I really believe in it.
Vince Gill on “The Healing Hands of Time” from Sound in your mind (1976)
The title of the song itself is intriguing. Like the first line of a great song – “He said, ‘I’ll love you until I die'”, or “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away”, or “Hello darkness, my old friend” – make you say: “Good , I’m in”. And Willie always wrote lyrics that were a little deeper than most people. His songs about pain are still blues, but “I can handle you, clinging to the healing hands of time. . .”? You can’t get any better than this. True.
“Healing hands” are immersed in a spiritual place. I know from my experience with Go Rest High on That Mountain, which I wrote while mourning the loss of my older brother, that when people get hurt more than ever and they lean on your song, that’s the sweetest thing. a feeling to be hoped for. This is much more important than a hit. Willie had several songs like “Healing Hands” and “Family Bible” that did just that.
Margo Price on “Angel Flying Too Close to Earth” from Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
I found “Angel” in my early twenties and it was one of those songs that you have to stop and listen to a few times to really get into it. Who writes these melodies? It’s so good, so haunting, with the most poetic, almost surreal lyrics. My favorite line is: “I patched up your broken wing and wandered around for a bit / Trying to cheer you up and bring down your fever.” This line is so good it hurts.
It’s about losing someone, but there are many myths behind who it might be. I saw the suggestion that it was Connie [Willie’s third wife]. They had problems then. I heard that he sometimes dedicates it to Billy, his son, who died in 1991. But Willy doesn’t explain every detail. It allows people to find meaning on their own. And having lost a child, I know that no one should outlive their children. So for me it’s just a beautiful song about loss.
Ethan Hawke on Too Sick to Pray. Spirit (1996)
“Too Sick to Pray” and the album it’s on Spirit, came out shortly before the birth of my daughter, our first child, and we played it throughout the pregnancy. It’s such a transitional moment. Yes, the baby is in a cocoon state, is about to become a butterfly, but so are the parents. And for me, “Too Sick to Pray” captured that weird feeling when you turn away from your spiritual life, when you’re too wrapped up in your stupidity to remember your humility. There is so much of the best of Christianity in this song.
There was also a connection with redhead stranger. When I was a kid and my parents got divorced my dad listened redhead stranger again and again. He had it on an LP, an eight-track record. He played it on the piano and we sang. This album became a real source of healing for him. That’s why I felt so good at heart when I was 26 or so when I met Spirit and having Willy in my life is like when I was six or so. Just now I was preparing to become a parent.
Casey Musgraves on the song “Are You Sure” from her album Competition material (2015)
I’m an owl and I’m falling into YouTube wormholes. One night I came across Willy’s 1963 demo “Are You Sure”. This is a persistent waltz, so straightforward and well-aimed. I just loved it. Shortly after that, we’re on tour with him, and one night we’re on the bus. Something was transmitted and I got a painful high. For example, I didn’t know how I was going to get out of the situation. But somehow I mustered up the courage and said, “Do you ever sing that song ‘Are You Sure?’ again. His expression was so surprised. But he reached back, and Trigger bursts out of the magic cloud of smoke, strumming and singing: “Are you sure you want to be here?” Then he asked if I would like to record it with him. Ah, yes.
Late one night when I recorded my second album, competition material, we turned off all the studio lights, went into this weird mindset – I made all the guys in the band wear sparkly tiaras – and recorded a version of it. Then I gave it to Willie, who sang it, and his guitar solo still kills me. It’s so outside. I love that he’s still willing to take that kind of musical risk.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the magazine. Texas Monthly with the title “Sound in our minds”. Subscribe today.