Willie Nelson’s Collaborators Share What He Taught Them About Making Music
It's no secret that Willie Nelson has staying power in the studio. With 68 studio albums, 12 live albums, two soundtracks, two Christmas albums, 42 compilation albums and 34 collaborative albums to his name, it's no surprise that Nelson was honored by the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing on Wednesday (Feb. 6) in advance of the 2019 Grammy Awards.
That the country legend knows how to make magic happen in the studio is evident, but in order to learn exactly what makes Nelson's approach works so well, you have to ask some of the people who know firsthand what it's like to record an album with him.
"Willie's thing is, don't overthink it," says Ray Benson, founder of Asleep at the Wheel and longtime friend and collaborator of Nelson. "I've recorded so many things with Willie, for so many different projects. [We've worked on] movie soundtracks; one time I did duets with him and Robert Duvall ... and one thing I've learned from Willie is to maintain the spontaneity. Don't beat it to death."
On that front, according to Benson, Nelson leads by example: "With Willie, it's usually one or two or three takes -- at the most. Usually one or two," Benson recalls, adding that both his and Nelson's approach to the studio is informed by the era in which they grew up.
"He came from a time, and me too, where you didn't have all the technology. You just and down and played. And they turned on the recorder and recorded it, you know?" he adds. "That's definitely Willie."
Not only is Nelson prolific, but every song he records is top-notch. Lyle Lovett explains that being around the legendary singer gave him an even more demanding metric for determining what constituted good songwriting.
"[I learned from Nelson that] songwriting is really hard! To write a song that good is really hard," Lovett says with a laugh. "What you learn from listening to a song like "Crazy," or "Hello Walls," is that there is such a thing as a great song, and there are such things as songs that are just, you know, okay."
According to Bobby Bare, Nelson's recipe for making iconic country albums is surprisingly simple: "If it stops being fun, you stop doing it!" he explains.
"He's come in to sing on my record before," Bare adds of Nelson. "What I took away from it was ... 'That was really a lot of fun!' And that's what it's all about."
Especially as they get older, Bare goes on to say, there's no reason for artists of his and Nelson's generation to continue making music unless they're enjoying themselves.
"As old as Willie is, and as old as I am, when it stops being fun you go home and watch TV," he adds with a grin.
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