When Willie Nelson’s instrumental album Night & Day was released, few fans were surprised. A love of jazz and swing has been evident in Willie’s music for years. He’s a devoted follower of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, and he hears both flash and fun in the bouncy tunes of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. Night & Day contained tunes by both, plus Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” VH1.com’s Jim Macnie interviewed the singer when the disc was released. The chat spilled into barn dances, highway songwriting, and the mojo behind his very battered guitar.
Jim Macnie: Instrumental music has always been a cornerstone of country. But some people think this vocal-less disc is somewhat novel.
Willie Nelson: Fiddles and guitars have always been put to use in an instrumental way. Pianos, too. There have been big sales on pianists, all the away back to Del Wood, from the Grand Ole Opry.
Macnie: Are you a Floyd Cramer fan?
Nelson: I’m a big Floyd Cramer fan. His “Last Date” is incredible. It sets a real mood. As far as guitars go, I loved Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West’s stuff. It was pushing the envelope a little back then, as far as getting played on country radio goes. They were playing some really jazzed up versions.
Macnie: People really respect the way you approach the guitar. Has it always been crucial for you to have picking chops?
Nelson: I was more of a guitar player than a singer back in the early days. I did all of it, actually: Fronted, sang, played guitar and went to school on all the other guys. All the work we did in those beer joints was a great learning experience.
Macnie: You played in Bud Fletcher’s band as a kid. Were you doing barn dances and dancehalls?
Nelson: A whole lot of dancehalls. Where I grew up, Bob Wills