NPR FOR THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t


listen.gifFRESH AIR

Willie Nelson brought his guitar to the Fresh Air studios in 1996 for an interview and in-studio performance. During his visit, the country-music icon told host Terry Gross about the genesis of songs like “The Family Bible” and “Crazy” — the song Patsy Cline turned into a country classic — and took his timeworn Martin guitar out for intimate, idiosyncratic performances of several tunes, including a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Nelson first established himself as a songwriter in the 1960s, with songs like “Hello Walls,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” In the 1970s, he broke through as a performer as one of the so-called “country outlaws.” His music stripped away the slick surface of commercial country music, while his long hair and blue jeans defied the rhinestone-studded style of other country performer. During his performance, Nelson told Gross that he wrote three of his classics in the span of one week. “Let’s see, in one week I wrote ‘Crazy,’ ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ and ‘Night Life’ … That’s when I decided maybe to go to Nashville,” Nelson said. “So I took off to Nashville in my ’46 Buick and went immediately to a place called Tutu’s Orchid Lounge, where I had heard was the spot to be if you want to find some songwriters. And, sure enough, it was the great spot to be. … I wish I had known then what [the songs] were going to do. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. Made enough mistakes as it was. I had no ideas that these songs would be as successful as they have been.” Over the past 50 years, Willie Nelson has recorded 250 albums and appeared in 25 films. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid, which Nelson helped organize. His newest album is titled Willie Nelson: Country Music. This interview was originally broadcast on July 16, 1996.

listen.gifIn the mid-1970s, country music star Waylon Jennings made records with a stripped-down production style and a rock rhythm. It was an outlaw movement, and it changed the direction of country music. Jennings, who started his career as a disc jockey, grew up in Littlefield, Texas, and started playing in a band when he was 12. His group made frequent appearances on KDAV, a local country radio station, particularly its “Sunday Party” program. It was there that he met Buddy Holly in 1955. “Local acts got to come in and sing, and Buddy was one of the regulars. I was from another town, about 40 miles away,” Jennings told Fresh Air host Terry waylonjenningswaylonbuddy.jpgGross in 1996. “But that’s where I first got to know him, and we just liked each other. And we both loved music, and that’s the only thing we wanted to talk about and think about.” Jennings became Holly’s bass player and toured the country with him. It was Jennings who gave up his seat to the Big Bopper on the plane that crashed, killing everyone aboard — including Holly. “We had been on a school bus because a couple of days before, it had been about 40 below, and our regular bus froze up,” Jennings said. “Anyway, the Big Bopper had the flu, and he came to me and says, ‘I hear you have a plane tonight. Is there any way I can talk you into letting me have your seat on that plane?’ And I said, ‘If you talk to Buddy and if it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me.’ ” The next day, Jennings’ guitarist told him about the plane crash. “That was my first experience dealing with death with someone that was close to me,” Jennings said. “It took me quite a while to get over it.” Jennings took several years off from the recording industry, but continued working in radio. In 1965, he moved to Nashville, where he met Willie Nelson. A decade later, Nelson and Jennings would team up on their compilation album Wanted: The Outlaws, which became a platinum record. In 1978, Nelson and Jennings released their biggest hit, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Being an outlaw was a rewarding experience. Jennings had 16 No. 1 singles and several gold and platinum albums. In 1975, he was named the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year and was later elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jennings joined Gross in 1996 to discuss his autobiography Waylon, his collaborations with Nelson and his career in Nashville. He died in 2002 of complications from diabetes.

waylon-buddy2.jpgRELATED: Waylon Jennings always wore a black hat. He named his kid Shooter. Lonesome, ornery and mean, he walked it like he talked it. He was a rebel to the bitter end. Take this life and shove it, he must have thought, a legend and a ghost, forgotten and alone, exiled in Arizona, the place where people go to die. Fuck Nashville. Fuck Grand Ole Opry. Fuck the Country Music Hall of Fame. Fuck the law. And motherfuck Garth Brooks and the horse he rode in on. That goes double for diabetes, which took his foot before it took his life back in 2002 at age 64. It wasn’t always like this. The luck of the draw was on his side that day the music died in 1959. He played bass for Buddy Holly and at the last minute chose not to take that fateful charter flight that crashed and burned with Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on board. And he would press that luck for the next 21 years, telling the dealer to hit him again and again–scaling mountains of blow, backstroking across rivers of whiskey–until he crapped out. If you played his 60 albums backward, he would in fact get back his wife, his horse and his dog. And despite his mega-selling commercial heyday in the mid-’70s, he will likely be best remembered for singing the theme song to The Dukes of Hazzard. Life is cruel like that. Nobody understood that better than Waylon Jennings. — JONATHAN VALANIA

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