Willie Nelson is lauded around the world for his songwriting on numbers like “Crazy” and “On the Road Again,” but the legendary musician doesn’t have to pen a song to recognize it as a good one. Stardust, his 1978 album of standards, went triple-platinum, and stayed on the country charts for ten years. In 1983, his take on Elvis Presley’s “Always On My Mind” won three Grammy awards for Song of the Year, Best Country Song, and Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Now, Nelson turns to the classics again, tackling the catalog of one of the best-selling artists of all time—friend and fellow icon Frank Sinatra. My Way, released September 14, is the Red Headed Stranger’s take on eleven songs made famous by Ol’ Blue Eyes, from “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” to “Fly Me to the Moon” to “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” a duet with fellow Texan Norah Jones. G&G had the pleasure of catching up with Nelson to talk about Sinatra’s influence, the joy of collaborating with other artists, and what makes a great song.
What kind of impact has Frank Sinatra had on you?
I’ve been a big Sinatra fan forever—since the first time I heard him sing. He is and was my favorite singer. I always felt like one day I’d try and do an album of Frank’s songs. We played several shows together through the years, in Vegas and Palm Springs, where we got to hang out and say hello. We recorded a couple of songs together a few years ago. But I just enjoy listening to him sing. I like his phrasing, I like the choices of songs that he recorded. I thought he was brilliant in that respect.
You’ve done covers before—you’ve even won Grammy awards for a few. What’s the biggest challenge when you record one?
Oh, I don’t know—they’re all a challenge to me. There’s nothing easy about any of ’em, especially if you’re doing a Sinatra song. I mean, he’s got millions of fans out there who are gonna be listening, and wondering how you’re gonna do. You’re always uncertain, but I feel fairly confident that I did the best I could do. [Laughs]
A good cover starts with the songwriting. What makes a great song?
That’s hard to say. Harlan Howard, an old country music writer from years ago and a friend of mine, said that country music is like three chords and the truth. I guess you could say that’s true, and the blues is maybe four chords and the truth. [Laughs] There are a lot of great songs out there. I like the old guys—Ray Price, Waylon [Jennings]. But I know there are some new ones coming along that’ll be just as good. Somewhere, there’s somebody going into New York or Nashville or L.A., drivin’ a pick-up with a suitcase full of good songs.
You collaborate with plenty of artists—old and new…
Y’know, I feel like the music business is in pretty good condition. There’s a lot of artists that I enjoy working with, and we’re always glad to have [other artists] on a show—them working with me, me working with them. That goes all the way back to the early days with the Highwaymen. I enjoyed working with Johnny Cash, and Kris [Kristofferson], and Waylon. All of that was a lot of fun.
Do you have a favorite Sinatra song?
He never did a bad one. They’re all good, so [for this album] it was just a matter of picking the ten or twelve that I knew better. But “My Way” is probably my favorite of all time.
I think it’s just those five words there—“I did it my way.”
My Way is available now via Amazon.