Willie Nelson Playing Guitar
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'When Life Gets Hard, Willie Nelson Gives People a Song.' This Podcast Recounts Them One By One

No matter your age, there's a good chance Willie Nelson has been a part of your life for a significant part of the time you've been on this planet. At 89 years old, Nelson has been a universally beloved cultural figure for over 60 years. Yet somehow, even the most devout followers of the Red Headed Stranger, even the most dedicated Nelson scholars, are still adding new tales to their collections of Willie lore.

That's what John Spong has discovered over the course of three seasons of his Texas Monthly podcast One By Willie. The podcast, which kicked off season three last month, features intimate conversations with artists about what their favorite Willie Nelsons song means to them. But it also explores the life and legacy of the man himself, leading to everything from first hand accounts of just how Nelson got the nickname "Shotgun Willie" to a sweet story about Willie Nelson bonding with Wynonna Judd's grandma over their red hair.

"It wasn't about Willie, the big star. It wasn't about Willie, the performer. It was about Willie, the nice guy," Spong tells Wide Open Country. "Willie just wanted to visit with [Wynonna's] grandmother and spend his energy and attention on her. And what a great thing. What a great guy....That certainly sounds like the person I've always thought I was listening to."

It's just one of the stories that sums up what makes Willie, well, Willie — an American icon who's perhaps as recognized for his activism, philanthropy, humor and all around good-hearted nature as he is for his timeless songs.

Through conversations with Kacey Musgraves (who, in addition to delivering a spot on Owen Wilson impression, tells a great story about her grandpa beating Willie Nelson at poker), Margo Price, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, Robert Earl Keen, Sheryl Crow and more, Spong and guests break down decades of Willie Nelson songs.

"To talk to an artist like Steve Earle or Kacey Musgraves or Margo Price about their own work is a very different thing than talking to them about somebody they admire. And so I love the idea that we're getting these artists that mean so much to so many of us — to get them talking about an artist that means so much to them," Spong says. "Picking one song seemed like just a great bite-size bit, but then also, country music — it's always about the song."

One By Wilie podcast artwork

Texas Monthly

'When life gets hard, Willie gives people a song.'

Spong, an author and Texas Monthly senior editor, is a lifelong Willie Nelson fan who served as co-editor and lead writer on Willie, Now More than Ever, a special issue of Texas Monthlywhich was a finalist for a National Magazine Awards for best single-topic issue, and the article "All 144 Willie Albums, Ranked," which was nominated for a National Magazine Award for best digital storytelling.

Spong says putting together the special 2020 Willie Nelson issue of Texas Monthly was a labor of love and provided a much-needed escape. (It was also an important opportunity to celebrate Nelson while he's here to see it. "The first thing I said was 'This needs to be done, but there is not one reason to wait to do it. We need to tell Willie thanks now,'" Spong says.)

"I got to spend all my time listening to Willie records and talking to writers who were working on Willie stories.
I mean, it was kind of a lifesaver for me really," he says. "The other thing happened in the middle of all that is that my family's house burned down late one night. Being able to park my head in those months in Willie world was just a real gift."

Willie's songs are gifts in themselves. And the ways in which he delivers those gifts — and what they mean to those receiving them — are a guiding principal for Spong.

"When life gets hard, Willie gives people a song," Spong says. "When Darrell Royal, his friend, the former UT football coach, when he loses a kid, which happened twice, Willie went to Darrell's house and there was nothing to say. So, Willie pulled out Trigger and played 'Healing Hands of Time' for him. That was the first step at trying to make sense of this really difficult life. When life gets hard, Willie gives people a song. And when life gets hard, Texas Monthly gives people Willie."

At 89, Nelson is still doing what he does best. His Outlaw Music Festival Tour, which includes the return of his legendary 4th of July Picnic, will resume in June. He's probably the busiest — and definitely the coolest — almost nonagenarian around. It's difficult to sum up what makes the country legend so effortlessly cool. It's just the essence of Willie. But beyond his obvious magnetism, Spong says its Nelson's generosity and genuine spirit that has made him so universally adored.

"There's charisma. I mean, when he walks in a room, your eyes go to him...he's just got that kind of intangible 'it' thing," Spong says. "But maybe more than any of that, he really does seem to be a genuinely decent person who cares. He's sweet to Wynonna's grandmother. He also started Farm Aid and he's sincere about that stuff. Famously, he still signs every check that Farm Aid sends out because he grew up with the tough life of a farmer during the Depression and, seeing American farmers go through the difficulty they've had for the past 40, 50 years, he wants to give back...When somebody's barn burns down in rural Texas, the community comes together to build that family a new barn.That's the world Willie grew up in. Farm Aid is that exercise on a national level. That is really assembling his community to help out members of the community that are having a tough time."

In addition to his seemingly constant presence on the road, Nelson's musical output has remained nothing less than prolific. Just last month, he released his 72nd solo studio album, A Beautiful Time, produced by frequent collaborator Buddy Cannon. All these years later, he's still sharing his wisdom with us.

"There is something interesting on every single record," Spong says. "There is something interesting in the collaboration, in the people he's working with....When Willie hit big in the '80s, he did those duet albums with Roger Miller, Faron Young... there were four [albums] that all came out one right after the other. That's because those were the guys that did him a good turn when he was first in Nashville... I don't think Willie looked at it as payback, but I know those guys really appreciated getting some mailbox money, finally, after all those years, and a little renewed attention. He's been doing that his whole life — his whole career."



Season three of One By Willie will feature appearances by Nathaniel Rateliff, Charley Crockett and more. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Stitcher. 



Want to spend 4th of July with Willie Nelson?We're GIVING AWAY 4 Premium VIP tickets to Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic featuring Willie Nelson & Family, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Tyler Childers, Brothers Osborne, Allison Russell and more in Austin PLUS $3000 Cash and a special edition vinyl of Willie's new album A Beautiful Time. Enter here.


READ MORE: Willie Nelson's 'A Beautiful Time' A Track-By-Track Guide