Willie starts with the words. It’s one of the surprising revelations in Willie Nelson ‘s new book, “Energy Follows Thought: The Stories Behind My Songs,” an examination of the 90-year-old country legend and soon-to-be Rock & Roll Hall of Famer ‘s seven decades of songwriting.
While his guitar is practically an extension of his body at this point, he has always started the writing process by thinking up words rather than strumming chords. To him, it’s doing the hard part first. “The melodies are easier to write than the words,” Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s release of his book.
He does not, however, write those words down, not even on a napkin. “I have a theory,” he said, “that if you can’t remember ‘em, it probably wasn’t that good.”
Nelson actually started out as a poet of sorts. At age 6 in Depression-era Texas, he composed a verse in response to the looks he got when he picked his nose and got a nosebleed while standing in front of his church congregation.
“My poem was, ‘What are you looking at me for? I ain’t got nothin to say, if you don’t like the looks of me, look some other way,’” he recalled 84 years later. “That was the beginning.”
He started writing songs soon after. When he became a superstar in middle age in the mid-1970s, Nelson would be best known for his dynamic live performances and his guitar and vocal stylings. But as a young man in the 1950s and early ‘60s, he was best known as one of the struggling songsmiths who spent their days and nights at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville.
In 1961, three of his songs became hits for other artists: Billy Walker’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” and, most importantly, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” a song that would become a signature for her and both a financial boon and an ego boost for him.
“Because Patsy liked it, I was poor no longer,” he writes in the book. “This particular ‘Crazy’ convinced me, at a time when I wasn’t a hundred percent sure of my writing talent, that I’d be crazy to stop writing.”
He would go on to make other writers’ songs his own in the same way. He didn’t write most of the biggest hits associated with him, which came in the 1970s and 80s: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind.”
He almost seemed to retire from songwriting when fame finally came to him in the Outlaw Country era, enjoying the chance to record his favorite old standards or the compositions of hot young writers.
But he never stopped composing entirely. Director Sydney Pollack prodded him to write a new song for the 1980 Nelson-starring film “Honeysuckle Rose,” on which Pollack was an executive producer. Nelson responded by writing — words first — “On The Road Again.”
Pollack was less than thrilled with the lyrics in isolation: “The life I love is makin’ music with my friends, and I can’t wait to get on the road again.” But was pleased when he heard the chugging music that suggested a train, or a tour bus.
And Nelson would appreciate the nudge. “Without knowing or trying, in a few little lines, I’d written the story of my life,” he says in the book.
But the songs did get fewer and farther between. More than performing, songwriting can be a young man’s game. “I don’t write as much as I used to,” he told the AP. “The ideas don’t come that quick. I still write now and then.”
He did recently write the song that gives the name to his book, “Energy Follows Thought,” for his 2022 album, “A Beautiful Time.” In it, Nelson and co-authors David Ritz and Mickey Raphael give brief backstories to 160 different songs he’s written through the years.
It wasn’t prompted by any great sense of reflection. “Some of my business guys thought it would be a good thing to do,” Nelson said.
The year of his 90th birthday has been overloaded with events. He was feted by a fellow stars, including Neil Young and Snoop Dogg, in a two-night celebration at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer. And on Friday, the same week the book is released, he’ll be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Last year, fellow country legend Dolly Parton got a spot in the hall, and had mixed feelings about whether she belonged, even turning down the honor at first. But Nelson, whose whole body of work has been built on ignoring the lines between genres, has no such problem. “You can get rock ‘n’ roll in country, rock and roll in any kind of music,” he said.
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