Yesterday Willie Nelson became the first country singer to receive the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. In response to the announcement we reached out to local musicians about their favorite Willie Nelson songs and why they are so moving. Here are a few (lightly edited) responses we received.
Sabrina Ellis – A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit
Willie Nelson has been a huge influence on my ability to write good lyrics. I didn’t know how much I cared about Willie’s songwriting until my mid-twenties when Esther Phillips’ cover of “Hello Walls” drew me in. To this day, that is my favorite Willie song. The song is written like a riddle, concise, revealing more about the singer’s situation line by line. The singer is addressing a personified wall, accusing the wall of being lonely since his/her lover walked out. During the bridge he says, “She went away and left us all alone, the way she planned. Guess we’ll have to learn to get along without her if we can.” Leave it to Willie to make a heartbreak induced schizophrenic state seem sweet. My favorite line is in the second verse, when he addresses his window, “Is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane? Now, don’t you try to tell me that it’s rain.” His poetry make those hard truths go down easy.
The beauty of a Willie Nelson favorite song is the fact one has their definite, without a doubt, favorite…. depending on your mood. That’s the amazing gift Willie has, uptempo or slow. “Night Life” was the soundtrack of my actual life. While “Crazy” was a literary masterpiece.
I have to pick one , I remember listening over and over to “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” on the “Live at Panther Hall” record. It’s a song of murder but some magical way Willie seem to make it alright. It’s not PC and it’s likely not printable but honestly it’s Willies honesty in the song. He manages to put into song the dark side and make you enjoy it.” the flesh around your throat is pale/Indented by my fingernail ….And Death is a friend to love and I….” It’s like honky tonk Shakespeare.
Elizabeth McQueen – KUTX FM, Formerly Asleep at the Wheel
It’s obviously impossible to choose a favorite from the bottomless depths of the Willie Nelson catalogue. Should I choose an early work of genius like “Crazy,” or a melancholy beauty like “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground”? There’s so much to choose from, but my mind immediately landed on one of his more recent compositions “Roll Me Up and Smoke me When I Die.” What I love about this song is how much it encapsulates what I think is truly Willie’s greatest strength — that he is not afraid to be his authentic self. Here’s a man near the end of his life not only nodding to his own mortality, but fully acknowledging his counter culture side. The man like to smoke pot, which is illegal in a good portion of the country he resides in. He’s never made any apologies for this, but in this song he actually stands tall, and encourages you, the listener, to do the same. “Roll me up and smoke me when I die. And if anyone don’t like it, just look ’em in the eye”
Essentially he’s telling us all to be ourselves, despite the possibility of disapproval. And that’s the magic of Willie. He is open. He is himself. He doesn’t care what you think, or if you approve, he is who he is and he wants you to be who you are. And that energy, that ability to be free and at peace with ourselves, that’s what we’re all looking for.
Brendon Anthony – Texas Music Office Director, Formerly with Pat Green’s band
I grew up with Willie records being played in the house. My favorite record from start to finish is “Red Headed Stranger.” The concept record is something from another time and this one is among the very best, in my opinion. It included the Fred Rose song, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” and I’m still moved when I hear the guitar kick the song off. It is instantly recognizable, couldn’t be any other song. Trigger is truly Willie’s “other voice”.
I love the standards either written or performed by Willie. “If you’ve got the money”, “On the Road Again”, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, Etc. A possibly overlooked gem is his cover of a Bruton song with Bonnie Raitt, “Getting Over You”. Hard to touch that one….
He was a master of making other’s songs his own but he proved throughout his career that he could write the songs that would add to others fame as well. I point to ‘Crazy’ as an example. Patsy’s version is timeless.
He’s still doing it today. The ghost track on Kacey Musgrave’s new record “Pageant Material” is phenomenal, just about the best thing on the record (again, my opinion here). It is a duet with Willie of his 60’s tune “Are You Sure”. Amazing…. Great record and this duet closes it out in fine style…..