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Willie Nelson: The Songwriter Reflects On His Hits

Before he became a leader of the outlaw country movement, Nelson worked for decades as a songwriter, pumping out hit after hit for other performers in Nashville. In 1996, he joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his most famous songs, including "Crazy," "The Family Bible" and "Night Life."

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Other segments from the episode on September 1, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 1, 2010: Interview with Willie Nelson; Interview with Waylon Jennings; Review of the film "The American."

Transcript

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Willie Nelson: The Songwriter Reflects On His Hits

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our country music week continues today with interviews from our archive
featuring two songwriters and singers who were at the forefront of the
country outlaw movement: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

In 1996, Willie Nelson brought his guitar to FRESH AIR. He performed and
talked about some of his most famous songs. He first established himself
as a songwriter in the '60s, with songs like "Hello Walls," "Crazy" and
"Night Life." In the '70s he broke through as a performer. He earned the
country outlaw image through his music, stripping away the slick surface
of commercial country, and with his long hair and blue jeans that defied
the rhinestone style of the period's country performers.

I spoke with Willie Nelson after the release of his album of gospel
songs, "How Great Thou Art." I asked him about the role gospel music
played in his life as a child.

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician): Well, my sister and I both were raised
around gospel music and owned(ph) gospel music, literally. Every Sunday
we went to Sunday school and church, and we played. We were the -
basically the only musicians in the church.

So other than – there was one piano player, but sister Bobbie(ph)
learned to play like her pretty quick. And pretty soon we were the
musicians of the church.

So we played every song every Sunday, and we had booster bands that we –
when I was young, we sung in those, and all through – Monday night was
choir practice. Wednesday night was prayer meetings. And Thursday night
was singing conventions in Hillsborough. So all week long we were
involved in gospel music.

GROSS: Would you sing for us one of the gospel songs that you loved to
sing as a child?

Mr. NELSON: Sure, let me see.

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a
wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. I was blind, but now
I see.

GROSS: Now, I think your grandparents sang gospel, too. Is that right?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, my grandparents were music teachers and both vocal,
voice coaches and teachers, and they taught piano.

GROSS: Now, one of the first songs that you wrote that got recorded was
called "The Family Bible."

Mr. NELSON: Right.

GROSS: And this was - what, in the late 1950s, early 1960s, I don't
remember which.

Mr. NELSON: This was in the '60s. I was down in Houston, writing and
playing down there and ran into a guy named Claude Gray(ph). And he was
looking for a song to record. So I sang him "Family Bible" and wound up
selling it to him, between – I sold it to him and two more guys for $50,
I think. And it went on to be a number one record.

GROSS: Did you get any royalties since you'd already sold the song?

Mr. NELSON: Not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Not really.

GROSS: Would you sing us a bit of "The Family Bible" and tell us what
went into the writing of it?

Mr. NELSON: Well, this is sort of autobiographical, or practically 100
percent autobiographical.

(Soundbite of song, "The Family Bible")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) There's a family Bible on the table, its pages
worn and hard to read, but the family Bible on the table will ever be my
key to memories.

At the end of day when work was over, and when the evening meal was
done, dad would read to us from the family Bible, and we'd count our
many blessings one by one.

I can see us sittin' round the table when from the family Bible dad
would read. I can hear my mother softly singing: rock of ages, rock of
ages, cleft for me.

GROSS: That's nice. Willie Nelson, thank you for singing that.

Mr. NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: What did your family Bible look like?

Mr. NELSON: Oh, it was worn and hard to read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: It was one of those typical, old, faded family Bibles where
all the history was - the family history was in there, you know, where
all the grandparents came from and the great-grandparents. It was a
wonderful – it was – the library or - to the family, all sort of sit
around and read.

And it was very interesting. A lot of the Sunday school lessons that we
learned from the Bible and things that were taken from the Bible, very
interesting.

It must have been to keep the kids my age interested enough to, you
know, want to sing it and want to get involved in it.

GROSS: Well, I think it's very interesting that you could write
compelling, autobiographical songs about the family Bible and about the
nightlife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Well, they're very much involved. You know, they're very
close together. I mean, I would sing to the same people on Saturday
nights in the clubs that I would sing to on Sunday mornings in church. I
had to act like I didn't see them the night before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Many people have pointed out that you have the kind of behind-
the-beat phrasing that's really more associated with jazz than with
country music, although I think some of the great country singers also
had a wonderful behind-the-beat kind of sound. Was Sinatra a big
influence on your phrasing?

Mr. NELSON: Yes, he – well, I don't know about phrasing. He was a big
influence on my singing. There's a whole lot of the guys that I really,
I felt like I picked up some things from: Bing Crosby and Perry Como and
Ray Charles, George Jones, all the great singers.

GROSS: Now, what did people like Sinatra, who were, you know, Northern,
singing with big bands, represent to you as a kid in Texas? Was it,
like, a different part of American life, in addition to being a
different kind of singing?

Mr. NELSON: Well, not really, because all the songs that I was hearing
on radio, my sister and I played them, and we sung them, and we played
them in the clubs where we were playing. We danced to them.

And it was all kind of music. It was pop music, country music. It was
all mixed together. There weren't that many labels in those days. It was
just music. People would request "Stardust," and then they would request
"San Antonio Rose."

GROSS: You said when you were growing up, all the music kind of blended
together. You were a disc jockey for a while. Did you play a wide
variety of music on the radio?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I played everything. I played everything from Patti
Page's "Old Cape Cod" to Mary Robbins' "White Sport Coat." I played
everything, anything I wanted to play. It was back in the good old days
of radio when you could go in and grab your favorite records and play
them.

GROSS: Right, before playlists told you what you were supposed to play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So did you have a persona on the air? Did you go by your own
name? Did you have a different voice that you used?

Mr. NELSON: Not really. I didn't have a different voice, but I used to
open my show when I first started out. I had some disc jockey heroes
that I ripped off pretty thoroughly.

And there was a guy named Eddie Heel(ph) out of Memphis that I stole a
lot of his things from. But anyway, the way I would wind up opening my
show, I'd say this is your old cotton-picking, snuff-dipping, tobacco-
chewing, stump-jumping, gravy-sopping, coffee-pot-dodging, dumpling-
eating, frog-giggin' hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.

GROSS: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And did you write that yourself?

Mr. NELSON: Well, as I said, I wrote a lot of it myself, and I ripped
off Eddie and some of the other guys. But it's some of theirs and some
of mine all put together.

GROSS: You must have said it a lot of times to remember that off the top
of your head so well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I must (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Now, how did you get to Nashville, where you started writing
songs professionally?

Mr. NELSON: I was living in Houston - in Pasadena, really, outside of –
working at another radio station there and playing at clubs at night and
writing songs. And I had written – one week I had written, let's see,
"Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life."

GROSS: I'm sorry, did you say you wrote that in one week?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I was working...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh geez, I wish I had a week like that.

Mr. NELSON: That was a great – well, that's when I decided maybe to go
to Nashville. And so I took off to Nashville in my '46 Buick that just
barely made it. I think it died when it hit the city limits. And went
immediately to a place called Tutu's Orchid Lounge, where I had heard
was the spot to be in Nashville if you want to find some songwriters and
hang out a little bit, so...

And sure enough, it was the great, it was the spot to be. I'd run into
some friends of mine, Buddy Emerson(ph), Hank Cochran. Faron Young was
there, and we all got in a jam session and started singing songs.

And I sung some songs to Faron that he liked and wanted to record. So we
recorded them the next week. He did two of my songs, one called
"Congratulations," and the other one was called "Hello Walls."

GROSS: So just to make sure I'm hearing correctly, you record - you
wrote "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life" in one week?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you say to yourself, wow, these are three great songs that
will become classics?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Well, I'm afraid I wasn't that knowledgeable. But I wish I'd
have known then what they were going to do. Maybe it's better that I
didn't. I made enough mistakes as it was. But no, I had no idea that
these songs would be as successful as they have been.

GROSS: Would you play one of those three for us now?

Mr. NELSON: Sure.

GROSS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy,
crazy for feeling so blue. I knew you'd love me as long as you wanted.
And then some day you'd leave me for somebody new.

Worry, why do I let myself worry, wondering what in the world did I do?
And I'm crazy for thinking that my love could hold you, crazy for
trying, crazy for crying, and I'm crazy for loving you.

GROSS: That's such a terrific song. What came first when you were
writing it? Was it the hook of crazy?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, and then it (unintelligible) you know, everything sort
of came from that. I don't know where that one came from. Maybe it was a
self-analysis. It must have been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, how did Patsy Cline end up recording it?

Mr. NELSON: I went to Nashville, and I had that song, with some others,
and I met Hank Cochran, who was with Pamper Music, which eventually
wound up to be the publishing company that I signed with, thanks to
Hank.

And Hank knew Patsy. He knew her husband, Charlie Dick, and he took the
song to Patsy and to Charlie. I think maybe Charlie heard it first and
thought it would be a good song for Patsy.

So that's through Charlie, Patsy's husband, and through Hank Cochran,
she got the song. She wasn't too sure about it. It took her a little
while to - I think the first day she went into the session, she spent
about four hours trying to sing it the way I was singing it, and it
wasn't working for her.

And so the next day, the producer, Owen Bradley(ph), said: Why don't you
sing it like Patsy one time? And that's what she did. And that song has
gone on to be the top jukebox song of all time, Patsy Cline's recording
of "Crazy."

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Willie Nelson.
We'll hear more of it after a break as our country music week continues.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: As part of our country music week series, we're listening back to
Willie Nelson's 1996 FRESH AIR interview and performance.

So you started to work for a music publishing company in Nashville. Did
that mean you had to go to work every day and sit at a desk and write
songs?

Mr. NELSON: No, I had to go in every day and me and the other songwriter
would sit around and sing the songs that we had written the night
before, and that was really all we did.

Being with a publishing company, the good thing about it was having
other writers around, your peers that you could play your new songs for
and get feedbacks, and they'd play yours.

And you could find out really how you're doing. When you're just writing
by yourself, you really, you're in the dark a lot, and it helps to be
around other writers, I believe.

GROSS: Who were some of the other writers with you at the time? Anyone
we'd know?

Mr. NELSON: Oh, yeah, sure. You know all - Hank Cochran and Roger
Miller, Harlan Howard(ph), some of the greatest writers, Wayne
Walker(ph), Mel Tillis, Ray Pennington, just all these guys were around
in those days.

GROSS: This must have been quite an interesting environment to be
working in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: It really was. It was great.

GROSS: Did you ever start feeling frustrated that other people were
having hits with your songs and you weren't recording yourself? I mean,
did you want to be the performer having the hits?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I did, and yes, I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: Faron Young, who is a good friend of mine, used to tell me
when I was in Nashville just writing songs, and I was raising hogs and
cattle and writing songs, and he was singing them, he said, now, you
should never go out on the road. What you should do is stay here and
write the songs and let me sing them.

And I said, Faron, but I want to go, I want to - you know, I just - I
used to have a band. I want another band, I want to go sing. He said no,
no, no, you stay here.

So I'm glad I didn't listen to him, but I really couldn't because I
enjoy performing - more, really, than I enjoy writing. So I had to get
back out.

GROSS: Now, I think it was before you went to Nashville that you wanted
to record your song "Night Life," and one of the producers you were
working with at the time, Pappy Daily, told you that you weren't country
enough. Do I have that right?

Mr. NELSON: Actually, I recorded in Houston for Pappy Daily, who had a
company called - it was Glad Publishing Company, D Records for Daily.
And I recorded "Family Bible" on that label, and I recorded a couple of
other songs.

But "Night Life," they wouldn't record it because they said it was too
bluesy. It wasn't country. So I recorded "Night Life" under the name of
Hugh Nelson on another label across town, just to prove a point.

GROSS: And did you prove it?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, it's – that particular record, "Night Life," I think
it's still the best record of it. I did it with Paul Buskirk(ph), Herb
Remington(ph), Dean Reynolds(ph), some of the greatest jazz musicians
around Houston.

GROSS: Would you sing the song for us now and maybe tell us about
writing it?

Mr. NELSON: Well, this is one of those songs that I wrote the same week
I wrote "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," driving back and forth
from the Esquire Club to Pasadena every night.

(Soundbite of song, "Night Life")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) When the evening sun goes down, you will find me
hanging 'round. The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life.
Many people just like me dream of old used to be's. And the night life
ain't no good life, but it's my life. Listen to the blues they're
playing. And listen to what the blues are saying. Mine is just another
scene from the world of broken dreams. And the night life ain't no good
life, but it's my life.

GROSS: What was your night life like when you wrote that?

Mr. NELSON: I don't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: As if to prove a point.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, were you really cutting loose for a while? I mean, you were
on your own and you were starting to make money with your career as a
songwriter.

Mr. NELSON: Well, yeah, I was, you know, throwing it away with both
hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: The faster I'd make it, the faster I would spend it.
Everybody else would travel in the bus, and I was still playing bass for
Ray Price when "Hello Walls" made a hit and I got my first royalty
check.

So I, you know, started flying first class to all the dates as Ray's
bass player, right? I'm making $25 a day, and I get a suite at the
hotel. Ray's got a regular room at the Holiday Inn, you know, and I got
the penthouse. And so the checks came and went. But I had a lot of fun.

GROSS: Were you married at the time?

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I was.

GROSS: And did that bother you...

Mr. NELSON: It bothered her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Oh, right.

Willie Nelson, recorded in 1996. We'll hear more of that interview and
performance in the second half of the show as our country music week
continues. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's Country Music Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Willie Nelson's
1996 FRESH AIR interview and performance.

In the '70s, he was at the forefront of the Country Outlaw Movement
which brought a stripped down style and rock rhythms to country.

GROSS: When you really started recording in Nashville, your own songs,
did you feel you had any trouble fitting into country music as it was?

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer-Songwriter): At those – at that time?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NELSON: No, I didn't. There was no slot that I fit in; I wouldn't go
in that one or that one, or that one. It wasn't that I wouldn't, I just
didn't fit.

GROSS: What were the available slots and why weren't you fitting in?

Mr. NELSON: Well, my chords - my songs had a few chords in them, and the
country songs weren't supposed to have over three chords, according to
executive decisions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: And if it had more than three, then it wasn't country and it
shouldn't be recorded. And my voice wasn't exactly - I was nowhere near
Eddy Arnold. And I was not - I guess I was closer to Ernest Tubbs than
Eddy Arnold. But still, my phrasing was sort of funny. I didn't sing on
the beat. I had too many chords in my - I just didn't fit the slots, you
know. And I wouldn't take orders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: I just - I couldn't, you know. I didn't know how to take
direction that well, so I wouldn't fit into any of these slots. And so,
I became one of those guys that, you know, they had to call something
else.

GROSS: And what were you called?

Mr. NELSON: You have to have a label, you know.

GROSS: What were you called?

Mr. NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first. And then they found the word
outlaw and they decided that would smooth it out a little bit. So they
started calling us that. I think time that term was used was in a column
written by Hazel Smith, an old friend of ours from Nashville. And I say
it took off, I guess.

GROSS: You have written over 2,000 songs. Many of those songs have
become hits. Many of those songs most of us have never heard. I mean
that's a lot of songs.

I would love for you to sing one of the songs that you've written, that
you love, that you wish was better known.

Mr. NELSON: Hmm. Let me think about that.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

Mr. NELSON: You ever heard of a song called "I Never Cared For You?"

GROSS: I don't think I know that.

(Soundbite of song, "I Never Cared For You")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at
all and the skies were never blue. The stars are raindrops searching for
a place to fall, and I never cared for you. I know you won't believe
these things I tell you. No, you won't believe. Your heart has been
forewarned all men will lie to you and your mind cannot conceive. Now
all depends on what I say to you and on your doubting me. So I've
prepared these statements far from true, pay heed and disbelieve. The
sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all and the sky was never
blue. The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall, and I never
cared for you. I never cared for you. I never cared for you.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, I want to thank you so much for talking with us,
and for playing and singing for us. It's just been a pleasure. Thank you
so much for being with us.

Mr. NELSON: My pleasure.

GROSS: Willie Nelson recorded in 1996. His latest album is called
"Country Music."

Coming up: An interview from archive with Nelson's friend and fellow
Country Outlaw, the late Waylon Jennings.

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Waylon Jennings: An Outlaw Opens Up Musically

TERRY GROSS, host:

Up next on our Country Music Week series, an interview from our archive
with Waylon Jennings. He started his career playing with Buddy Holly and
went on to change the sound of country music as a creator of the Country
Outlaw Movement. Along with Willie Nelson, he originated a sound with
less strings and more rock rhythms and an image with no sequins.

Being an outlaw was a very rewarding experience. Jennings had 16 number
one singles and several gold and platinum albums. He also performed with
Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, as the group the
Highway Men.

A lot of people knew him as the narrator of the TV series "The Dukes of
Hazzard." He also sang the theme.

Waylon Jennings died in 2002 of complications from diabetes. He was 64.

Let's start with the title track from his popular 1973 album, "Honky
Tonk Heroes," the song was written by Billy Joe Shaver.

(Soundbite of song, "Honky Tonk Heroes):

Mr. WAYLON JENNINGS (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Where does it go? The
good Lord only knows. Seemed like it was just the other day, I was down
at Green Gables, a hawkin' them tables and generally blowin' all of my
hard earned pay. Piano roll blues, danced holes in my shoes. There
weren't another other way to feel, for the loveable losers and no
account boozers, and honky tonk heroes like me. Hey. Hey. Where does it
go? The good Lord only knows. Seemed like it was just the other day, I
was down at Green Gables, hawkin' them tables and generally blowin' all
of my hard earned pay. Piano roll blues, danced holes in my shoes. There
weren't another other way to be, for the loveable losers and no account
boozers, and honky tonk heroes like me. Hey. Hey.

GROSS: I spoke with Waylon Jennings in 1996, after the publication of
his autobiography.

Did you have a sense, as a young man, of what your own music was?

Mr. JENNINGS: Now, you know, no. I didn't. I was just like everybody
else. I heard somebody I liked. I loved Hank Williams and I loved Carl
Smith and Ernest Tubb. And I wanted to sound like all of them. and I was
in Phoenix and in a club before I really realized that I was different.
And that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imitate nobody.

GROSS: What made you realize that at this club?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, the thing was, I was writing songs and they sounded
different. They sounded - you know, I thought, man, mine don't sound
like anybody else's. You know? Which I didn't realize was good. I
thought - but you couldn't imagine it being played on the radio, because
I would use calypso beats and hard rhythms and what have you. And they
wouldn't have fit, at all, on the radio, in country music that way.

But the way I developed my style, really, was getting bored. I would be
in a nightclub and play for four hours and you sing the song like
somebody - the guy that wrote it or the guy that sang. And I got tired
of that. So I started changing the rhythms and maybe giving it a heavier
beat, and just rearranging the song to fit what I felt. And it worked.

GROSS: So what was the moment in which you were discovered?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, you know, Bobby Bare is one of the great country
singers of all time. And he came through Phoenix and he came over to
this club where I was working and just flipped out. He heard, you know,
we had our sound. And I was telling you a while ago, I had my own way of
doing songs and own rhythms, and I could sing on a lot of them - that
helps.

Well, he's playing there in Nashville and - I'm sorry, in Phoenix. And
then he's going from there to Vegas. Well, the next day when he left to
Vegas, he stopped at every phone booth he saw and he hounded Chet
Atkins, saying you got sign this guy. He said this guy deserves to be
Long a major label.

Finally, Chet called me to get Bobby Bare to shut-up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: And said he's so laid-back and everything, he said, we'd
like to have you with RCA. He said I like what you do.

He had heard some of my demos and what have you. And he said, Would you
like to sign with us? And of course, you know? That's the right hand of
God is Chet Atkins. And so I signed with him and that was it.

Chet signed me without ever seeing me. You can't do that nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why don't we hear one of the records that Chet Atkins produced of
yours? And this was also your first single to reach number one on the
country charts, recorded in 1968. This is "Only Daddy That'll Walk the
Line."

Do you want to say anything about this?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. You know, that song, Chet is all over that. Wayne
Moss is playing the guitar on it and the band is wonderful. This song
was out by someone else and I said, well, I'd love to do that but I'm
going to give him a chance. So I waited six months and then he re-
released it and I had to wait another six months to do it, because I
wasn't going to cover him.

(Soundbite of song "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line")

Mr. JENNINGS: Everybody knows you've been steppin' on my toes and I'm
gettin' pretty tired of it. You keep a steppin' out of line and be
messin' with my mind. If you had any sense you'd quit. 'Cause ever since
you were a little bitty teeny girl, you said I was the only man in this
whole world. Now you better do some thinkin' then you'll find you got
the only daddy that'll walk the line. I keep a workin' every day all you
want to do is play. I'm tired of stayin' out all night. I'm a comin'
unglued from your funny little moods. Now, honey baby that ain't right.
'Cause ever since you were a little bitty teeny girl, you said I was the
only man in this whole world. Now you better do some thinkin' then
you'll find you got the only daddy that'll walk the line.

GROSS: My guest Waylon Jennings recorded in 19678.

In your book you write: The more your records sold, the further they
receded from what you had in mind, the sounds you wanted to hear.

What did you want and what did you feel you were getting instead?

Mr. JENNINGS: I wanted to recognize a record, have a - duel tracks. And
I come back and they had put horns and all kinds of things on it. This
was when Danny Davis started producing me.

Chet was trying to get away from producing and more back into his own
artistry, and playing guitar more. And he put me with Danny Davis. And
he was just overworked.

But anyway, what I wanted to hear was what I was feeling and what I had
in mind. It was kind of like a painting. I don't know. That sounds
corny, I guess. but to me it was. I could write a song or find a song I
like and I could describe what it was going to sound like when I got
through, and I got into a position where it didn't; and that's very
frustrating and drive you crazy.

GROSS: Now, I want to just take a little sidestep here, into a tangent.
I can't remember who was producing the session. It might have been Herb
Alpert, where you decided you just couldn't stand pickup notes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and you took a gun and said what?

Mr. JENNINGS: I took it in the studio but it was - I think at the - on
that session, I think that was I'm not sure - Danny Davis, and that was
after Herb Alpert. Herb Alpert would throw something at me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: So I did go in there. And what had happened is I'd loaned
Harlan Howard...

GROSS: The songwriter?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, my gun. It was Buntline. He took it out in his
fishing boat. And Merle Haggard wound up with it, somehow, and he
brought it back to me. And so I was just putting it on the holster. You
know, I still got it and everything - and put it on. And I went in there
and I thought, well. And there was some British journalists were in
there in the studio - in the little studio there at RCA. I walked in,
and I said, now, the first guy that I hear use a pickup note, I'm going
to shoot his fingers off.

And the guy that's sitting there looking at those numbers on that paper,
after the third rundown, I'm going to just kill him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Anyway, later on, I met John Lennon, and I - you know, we
were cutting up and everything at one of the Grammy things. And I said,
man, you're a lot of - you're funny. I didn't know you were funny. I
said I thought you were some kind of mad guy or something like that. And
he said, me? He said, listen. People in England think you shoot folks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, explain for people who don't know written music what pickup
notes are. And then tell us why you're so opposed to them.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, you know, it gives it away. You know, it goes...

(Singing) ...dun, dun, dun, dun...

You know, like - and there you - you know, why not just keep it rolling
and rolling and having a good time, and then come in where you're
supposed to? And you haven't given everything away. You know, that's
what pickup notes do. And it's the easy way, too, because it keeps - you
know, you don't have to pay that much attention. When you hear a pickup
note coming, you know you've got to change keys. And...

GROSS: So it was just all becoming formula to you.

Mr. JENNINGS: It was all formula. It was like cookie cutters, you know,
everything you did. And here are these guys playing four sessions a day,
sometime. How creative can you be, you know? And they wouldn't let you
use your own band. They didn't want you to use your - I'm not saying one
thing bad about the musicians here. They were the greatest musicians in
the world, because, I mean, they could - they had that number system.
And for that music, it was wonderful. I just didn't like, you know,
pickup notes, like I said. It's like...

(Singing) ...dun, dun, dun, dun - oh, I'm a good dun, dun, dun, dun,
dun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: That was it.

GROSS: How did the outlaw name come about?

Mr. JENNINGS: I had an album on RCA, and it was called "Ladies Love
Outlaws," which was after a song, you know. And they kind of picked it
up there. And then, when in search of something, they called me
everything for a long time. They called me outlaw. They called me rebel.
They didn't know quite what pocket to put me in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: And - but that's where it had started, originally. And
then when they decided to put out the album with me and Tom, Paul, Jesse
and Willie, they used it there, and it kind of caught on.

GROSS: That's the album "Wanted: The Outlaws," which was first country
album to sell a million, I think.

Mr. JENNINGS: It was, yeah.

GROSS: Why don't I play one of the recordings featured on the "Wanted:
The Outlaws" album that you did with Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter?
This is something you co-wrote with Willie Nelson, and you both sing on
it. And it's "A Good-Hearted Woman," which you also recorded on your
own. Tell me about this particular track.

Mr. JENNINGS: That song, Willie and I wrote that when we were playing
poker one time in a hotel, with Billy Gray and Paul English.

GROSS: You were playing poker with Billy Graham?

Mr. JENNINGS: Billy Gray.

GROSS: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought that sounded improbable.

Mr. JENNINGS: Billy Graham cheats. We don't let him play no more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: But anyway, and - so I was recording the next day, and I
said, Willie, I lack two lines in this song. You help me get them, and
I'll give you half this song. So we did, but we wrote it while we was
playing poker. Now, we lost our rears in that poker game, but we got a
pretty good song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JENNINGS: Hey, I've enjoyed it. I really have. You got some good
questions there, girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, thank you.

Waylon Jennings, recorded in 1996. He died in 2002 of complications from
diabetes. Our Country Music Week continues tomorrow. You'll find links
to all the interviews in this series on NPRMusic.org.

Here's Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson singing a song they co-wrote,
"A Good-Hearted Woman."

(Soundbite of song, "A Good-Hearted Woman")

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) A long time forgotten, the dreams that just fell
by the way. The good life he promised ain't what she's livin' today.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. JENNINGS: Willie.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) But she never complains
of the bad times or the bad things he's done, Lord. She just talks about
the good times they've had and all the good times to come.

Mr. JENNINGS and Mr. NELSON: (Singing) She's a good-hearted woman in
love with a good-timin' man.

Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) She loves him in spite of his ways she don't
understand.

Mr. JENNINGS and Mr. NELSON: (Singing) With teardrops and laughter, they
pass through this world hand in hand, a good-hearted woman lovin' a
good-timin' man.

GROSS: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews George Clooney's new film,
"The American."

This is FRESH AIR.
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'The American': An Abstract, Angst-Filled Art Thriller

TERRY GROSS, host:

George Clooney stars in a new movie opening today called "The American."
He plays Jack, an elusive gun maker hiding out in Italy from mysterious
assassins.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The paranoid thriller "The American" is spare, solemn,
uninflected. It's like Camus' "The Stranger" and all the pulp novels in
the '50s and '60s, French and American, that cribbed its existential
worldview. The movie has an amoral hero with no ties who moves from
country to country, sheds past lives, and either kills for money or
crafts weapons for other assassins.

The film is so studiously desolate that I think if, at the screening I
attended, someone had giggled in the wrong place, it would have opened
the floodgates. It would have been like "Mystery Science Theater," with
the audience heckling George Clooney and his God's-loneliest-man act.

But the silence held, and the movie cast a spell. We entered the mind of
a man with no past or future, only a present made tenuous by a bullet
that could come at any time.

One reason for the movie's power is a shocking opening sequence, an
assassination attempt on a frozen lake in Sweden. I won't spell out what
happens, but it lingers in the mind for the next hour and a half. Then
Jack flees to Italy, where he contacts a man named Pavel, who seems to
be his employer. I say seems because the movie does little, by design,
to orient you.

Johan Leysen's Pavel has a ravaged face and a chilled demeanor. He only
seems curious about the woman with Jack on that Swedish lake.

(Soundbite of movie, "The American")

Mr. JOHAN LEYSEN (Actor): (as Pavel) Who was the girl?

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (as Jack) A friend.

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) A friend?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Jack) Who were the Swedes?

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) I'm working on that. It's going to take some
time. Did she set you up?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Jack) She had nothing to do with it.

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) Pity. You can't stay here. I've made arrangements
for you to leave town, while I sort this out. Take a right outside the
bar, then second left - Via Magenta. You'll find a dark blue Fiat Tempra
with Biscara plates. I've marked a small town on the map, Castelvecchio.
Stay there. Lay low till you get my call. Don't talk to anyone. And
above all, don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that.

EDELSTEIN: "The American" is full of passages like that, with pauses,
hidden agendas, minutiae. There are long scenes in which Jack does
nothing but construct a weapon to a female client's specification, for
purposes unknown: a machine gun with the range of a rifle and a device
to disguise the shooter's location. For a while, the only interludes of
talk are Jack's exchanges with the old priest of an Abruzzo hill town.

The Father, played by Paolo Bonacelli, utters thesis lines like: You're
American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present.
And: You cannot doubt the existence of hell. You live in it. It's a
place without love.

That was where Clooney lived in his last movie, too, "Up in the Air."
And I get a sense he's trying to deepen his persona. That might be a
doomed enterprise. Clooney is naturally gregarious, a disarmingly
handsome smoothie with a toasty, caressing voice. He pulled off the
brooding thing in "Michael Clayton," but he doesn't here.

Yes, he's magnetic. And he's lost a lot of weight for the film, trimming
himself down to muscle and sinew. But when he stares blankly off-screen,
he's just blank. He's rather different from the loquacious - and British
- hero of the novel on which "The American" is based, Martin Booth's "A
Very Private Gentleman," who aims be, quote, "as indistinguishable from
the next man as a pebble on the beach." Clooney's the last guy I'd cast
as an anonymous assassin.

The Netherlands-born director, Anton Corbijn, helps by making the
landscape do the talking. There are lots of paranoia-inducing overhead
shots. Empty spaces alternate with twisty ancient stone stairs and
shadowed passageways.

As in "Up in the Air," Jack does make a new friend, Clara, a prostitute
played by the oxymoronically named Violante Placido. I wondered why she
was so familiar, with her soft, open face and voluptuous body. It turns
out she's the daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, unforgettable as Michael
Corleone's doomed Sicilian bride in "The Godfather."

On every substantive level, "The American" is ridiculous. The book has a
conventional whodunit solution. But the film, like Antonioni's "The
Passenger," leaves you with a giant: Why?

But I enjoyed it anyway. It takes you back to an era of European angst-
ridden art thrillers, in which the plotting was almost abstract. "The
American" is, well, the least-American action movie in years.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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