Buddy system: Willie Nelson makes great music with Nashville producer
Outside of his family and band, who has been the most important person in Willie Nelson’s orbit for the past few years? Perhaps Merle Haggard, who teamed with him for a landmark record and many shows in the last year of Haggard’s life. Maybe Kris Kristofferson, his fellow Highwayman with whom he spends a lot of time in Hawaii when he’s not in Texas or on the road. Or Billy Joe Shaver, the old friend and troubadour whose 2010 trial he attended when Shaver faced assault charges from a bar shooting.
It could be any of them, or a couple of others. But let the record(s) show that nobody has had a more profound influence on Nelson’s music in this decade than Buddy Cannon.
A 69-year-old producer and songwriter long known for his studio work with Kenny Chesney as well as Reba McEntire, Sara Evans and many others, Cannon first worked with Nelson on the 2008 “Moment of Forever” album and has since done almost a dozen records with him.
Their latest, “God’s Problem Child,” which topped the country charts upon its release two months ago, may well be their best. They co-wrote seven of the album’s 13 tracks, including “Still Not Dead,” a humorous riff on exaggerated rumors of Nelson’s demise. That song is sure to be a highlight of Nelson’s set concluding his annual Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas on Tuesday.
Though Nelson’s legend is largely built on having left Nashville for Austin and sparking the outlaw-country phenomenon in the 1970s, Willie has always maintained relationships in Music City. Cannon is a case example of the reason for that. “He’s in Nashville, where the songwriters congregate, and he knows everybody,” Nelson said by phone in mid-June while touring the Midwest.
The two men met in the 1970s when Cannon was working for country star Mel Tillis’ publishing company. But they didn’t really get to know each other until about 10 years ago, when Chesney asked Nelson to sing the 1940s pop standard “That Lucky Old Sun” with him on an album of the same name. Nelson liked the result so much that he asked Cannon to do a record with him on the spot.
“That just blew me right out of my chair,” recalls Cannon, speaking from Nashville in late June. “Because he’s been the strongest influence of anybody on me for my whole musical life.”
Their close ties deepened in 2011 when Nelson invited Cannon to Austin for sessions that became the 2012 album “Heroes.” Willie’s son Lukas played a significant role, along with ace musicians Cannon brought with him from Nashville. “I got five guys who I knew would be as excited about being around Willie as I was,” he said.
“Heroes” included “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” the first song Cannon and Nelson wrote together and now a staple of Willie’s live shows. “One Saturday morning I got up and I looked at my phone, and there was a text message from Willie,” Cannon remembers. “It had the whole chorus of that song. It took me about 10 minutes to write a verse, and I sent it back to him, and he said, ‘I love this.’ He sent it back to me with another verse, and literally within 30 or 40 minutes we had the song written.”
So began a fruitful collaborative process that Cannon calls “the strangest way of songwriting I’ve ever heard of. We write the whole lyric via text, and then we’ll figure out the melody later.”
Their partnership began to hit full stride with 2014’s “Band of Brothers,” which featured nine songs they wrote together. It was the first Nelson album to feature predominantly original material since 1996, serving notice that Willie would continue to be a creative force well into his 80s.
“We’ll have periods where we’ll write more,” Nelson said last year of his continuing work with Cannon. “I’ll come up with an idea, or he will, and we’ll send it back and forth. And then he’ll cut a track on it with a scratch vocal of him with a guitar. We have kind of a formula worked out that seems to be working.”
Cannon seems amazed that it has worked so well. “We’ve never sat down and held a guitar and written a song,” he marvels. “We’ve talked about trying that, but neither one of us want to mess up what we’ve got going.”
Four more Cannon/Nelson compositions turned up on “Django and Jimmie,” the 2015 album Willie recorded with his longtime pal Merle Haggard that ended up being the last record Merle ever made. Nelson took a break from original material in 2016 for a Cannon-produced tribute to George and Ira Gershwin, which won Willie his first Grammy in a decade, and a tribute to Ray Price produced by Fred Foster.
That set the stage for “God’s Problem Child,” which best exemplifies all the strengths of the Nelson/Cannon relationship. “Still Not Dead” mines the same semi-novelty vein as “Roll Me Up,” but they reach deeper on other tracks that find Willie coming to terms with his years. On “True Love,” he promises to keep believing in true love until “the whole damn thing is over and we reach our journey’s end.” In “It Gets Easier,” he confesses that “as we get older, it gets easier to say ‘not today.’”
Just as important are the songs they selected from other songwriters. Southern soul great Donnie Fritts sent Willie the perfectly suited “Old Timer,” and Gary Nicholson offered up a heartfelt salute to Haggard with “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” But sometimes finding a song takes a little legwork, and that’s how Cannon connected with veteran songwriter Sonny Throckmorton for the exquisite ballad “Butterfly,” co-written with Mark Sherrill.
A couple of years ago, Cannon traveled to coastal Alabama for the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival, a small but influential event where many old-school songwriters gather every year. Throckmorton played “Butterfly” in his set, and Cannon was captivated.
“Sonny didn’t even have any kind of a guitar-vocal (recording),” Cannon says. “I kept calling him periodically, saying, ‘Man, send me that song, I can’t get it out of my brain.’ Finally he did, last year sometime; I aggravated him till he finally made me a little guitar-vocal (demo). I sent it to Willie and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that, I love it.’”
Another song was even longer in the making, even though it landed right in Cannon’s lap: The writer, Lyndel Rhodes, is his mother. Last fall, after he and Nelson finished recording her sweetly hummable tune “Little House on the Hill,” Cannon drove to his mother’s house in Lexington, Tenn., and filmed a short video of her hearing it for the first time. It’s been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube since then.
Rhodes, 93, wrote the song around a decade ago after visiting Cannon in Nashville one day. “She just wanted to get back home to her little house up on the hill,” Cannon said. “She wrote the song on the way home. I didn’t know she had it written for nine years or so.
“One day when I was visiting, she started showing me these songs she had written. I had her sing into my phone. And this one just stuck in my head. When we were getting ready to make this album, I made a little bit cleaner demo of it with me doing the vocal and I sent it down to Willie. In about 10 minutes, he emailed me back and said, ‘I love this, let’s put it on the album.’”
It’s the first time his mother has ever had a song recorded by someone. “She doesn’t quite realize what it means to have a Willie Nelson cut, you know,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve tried to tell her that if every songwriter in Nashville only got one song recorded and it was a Willie Nelson cut, they would feel like every dream they ever had came true.”
One song made it onto the record entirely by accident. “A Woman’s Love,” by pro-football-star-turned-country-songwriting-great Mike Reid and Sam Hunter, was initially sent to Nelson by Rob Galbraith, Ronnie Milsap’s producer, so that Nelson could add a vocal part for a duet on Milsap’s upcoming record. Somehow that detail got lost along the way, and Willie ended up cutting his own version.
“I freaked out,” Cannon admits. “Rob Galbraith is a great friend of mine, and I thought, ‘Man, they’re going to hate me.’ But it ended up that both of them cut the song. Willie sang on Ronnie’s version, and then we got a cut on Willie’s album, and nobody got hurt. It was a little stressful for me there for a few days. Working with Willie can be like being at adventureland.”
Putting together the Picnic lineup no doubt has been a crazy adventure in Willie world for a long time, though Nelson says he’s mostly removed from the booking process these days. In the past, “most of the time I put it all together myself, the Picnics and the Farm Aids,” he said. “They’re pet projects of mine that I’ve really enjoyed doing. But where it is now, they’d know better than I would anyway. Live Nation, the promoter, they put it all together.”
It’s a strong lineup, one that abandons the past two years’ template of placing a mainstream Nashville act in the right-before-Willie time slot. That was Brantley Gilbert in 2016 and Eric Church in 2015, but pop star Sheryl Crow has the honor this year. Crow, who did a CMT Crossroads special with Nelson in 2002, joins Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price in a welcome expansion of female performers on the main stage this year.
“Kacey and I have done some things together,” Nelson says, mentioning a video they shot two years ago at Austin honky-tonk the White Horse. “She’s a great artist. And Margo is another great artist. There’s a lot of them out there this year.”
Asked if he plans to keep the Picnic at Circuit of the Americas, Nelson replied that “it’s doing pretty good over there. No reason to change location, I think, right now.” A little later, though, he sounded a bit more ambiguous about the event’s future.
“Next year I don’t know whether I’ll have one or not,” he said. It’s worth noting that there have been almost a dozen breaks in the Picnic’s timeline since it began in the early 1970s.
“One of these years will have to be the last one,” he adds, matter-of-factly, though he doesn’t mean to cause concern. Some fans worried about Nelson’s health earlier this year, when he missed a few concerts with an unspecified illness.
“I had pneumonia,” he revealed in mid-June. “I had a bad cold to start with, and then I went over to London and did a movie over there and it got worse. But I feel great (now).”
Whatever the fate of the Picnic, there’s still more music to be made. Back in 2011 when Nelson and Cannon recorded the material for the “Heroes” album, they had a bunch of additional tracks that featured Willie and his son Lukas, who’s playing the Picnic with his band Promise of the Real. Another son, Micah — also on the Picnic bill, with his group Insects vs. Robots — added vocals to the tracks later.
The result is a father-and-sons album tentatively set to be released later this year. “It’s going to be called ‘Willie & the Boys,’” Nelson said. “We sang some old country standards, some Hank Williams and Hank Snow. We did ‘Movin’ On’ and ‘Home in San Antone,’ just songs we’ve been singing over the years.”
Next up in the pipeline is a tribute to Merle Haggard, Nelson says. In the meantime, Cannon can’t wait to record a bunch of new material from his latest round of text-message songwriting exchanges with Willie.
“I think the best ones that we’ve written are these new ones that we haven’t recorded yet,” he says, adding a sincere assurance: “I really do, I’m not just saying that. A few of these things that he’s sent me have just been classic stuff. I can’t wait to get some tracks cut on them.”
It’s already been a remarkable run. Cannon is well aware of how special these years have been. “I’ve just been blessed to be able to have people like Willie think that I have something to add to their greatness,” he says. “It blows me away when I think about it.”
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic