Willie Nelson may be one of the most prolific artists in pop music. Since the sixties, the Red Headed Stranger has released an average of one record per year and he estimates that he’s sitting on a wealth of unreleased material: “I’ve written thousands of songs and recorded thousands,” he says. Last week, Nelson, who just turned 77, released his latest album, Country Music, a mellow collection of country and folk standards he recorded with roots producer (and Oscar winner for Crazy Heart) T-Bone Burnett. Vulture caught up with Nelson on his birthday to talk about the record, his current weed-smoking habit, and his famously dinged-up guitar, Trigger.
First of all, happy birthday. What are you doing to celebrate?
Well, I’m playing a gig tonight in West Virginia. It’s business as usual. No party. Just another day.
Since the early sixties, you’ve released roughly one album a year. What’s your secret to being so prolific?
I would’ve thought I had put out one record a year. I just love to play music and I love to record. Usually the problem is with the record companies. It’s difficult for them to keep up with marketing because I come up with so much product. When I feel like recording, I do it.
Do you have a studio in your home?
My studio is outside of Austin, and it’s built on a golf course. We call it the Cut and Putt. You can go record, then play some golf, then go record again.
On your new album, Country Music, you collaborated with iconic roots producer T-Bone Burnett for the first time in your career. It’s surprising you guys have never worked together before.
Yeah, it is. He had asked me to come to L.A. and go to the Crazy Heart premiere. We’d played together and talked about doing a record. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I trust him as a producer. He brought all the songs to the sessions and picked the musicians and the studio. Everything that happened, he called the shots. To me, with a good producer, you can say, “Okay, you’re the producer. You get the music and musicians and I’ll play.”
Country Music features mostly covers of standard folk and country tunes — “Man With the Blues” is the only original on the album.
That song is over 60 years old. I wrote that one back in my early years as a writer. I first recorded it in a basement at my friend’s house in Vancouver, Washington. I wasn’t much of an artist back then at all, but I always thought it was a pretty good song.
You released the album on 4/20, the international holiday for pot smokers. Was that intentional?
I hope so. When I saw that it was coming out on 4/20, I thought, Well, someone was thinking.
What’s your current weed-smoking habit like?
I still smoke, but I’ve changed my habits a little bit. I smoke with a vaporizer; it’s easier on my lungs. I have several of them.
On your upcoming tour, you’ll be playing gigs at a few casinos. Are you much of a gambler?
No, but I like to get together with the guys and play poker. We don’t go gambling. We have our own private games. I have no idea if I’m good or not. Sometimes I win; sometimes I don’t.
Your guitar, Trigger, has been through quite a lot and has a giant hole in the body. How do you keep it from totally falling apart.
I’ve had to have it reinforced on the inside a couple of times, and I have to watch it in places. It does get a little fragile. But I keep it in a hard-shell case.
Trigger is famously scratched with signatures of various celebrities. Who was the first to sign it?
Leon Russell. I asked him to sign my guitar because he asked me to sign his. I started to sign it with a magic marker, and he told me to use a ballpoint pen and scratch it in there. I’ve had hundreds of signatures since then.