Willie’s Secret Weapon

Almost everything superstar Willie Nelson has recorded over the past decade has been in collaboration with producer Buddy Cannon

Willie Nelson has a Buddy.

Not a buddy, but The Buddy. He’s the Nashville uber-producer who’s been producing Nelson since 2003. Most recently, they collaborated on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, Willie’s latest album, a new collection of songs written by the late, great Nashville tunesmith Harlan Howard.

The album contains Willie’s all-new cover versions of Howard’s “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (a hit for Buck Owens), “Busted” (recorded by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and a later it for John Conlee), “She Called Me Baby” (Carl Smith, Charlie Louvin, Charlie Rich), “Streets of Baltimore” (Gram Parsons, Bobby Bare), “Too Many Rivers” (Brenda Lee, Johnny Rodriguez, Ray Price, Eddie Arnold, Ernest Tubb), “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache” (Buck Owens, The Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam), and the Ricky Van Shelton hit “Life Turned Her That Way.”

“I sent Willie a list of about 30 Harlan songs,” recalls Cannon of the project’s genesis. “I said, ‘Why don’t we choose from this?’ And Willie said, ‘Hell, let’s just cut the first ten!’ I don’t think we ended up doing exactly that but, I mean, what a goldmine of songs.”

Willie chose to name the project—the title of another Harlan Howard classic—when all the tracks had been finished.

“I think he just really liked that song,” says Cannon of “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” which was a No. 1 chart-topper for Conway Twitty in 1984.

Cannon’s musical path first intersected with Willie back in the 1980s, when Cannon was producing another act, Mel Tillis.

“The first time I met him, I was working with Mel [for a 1984 album] on a track called ‘Texas on a Saturday Night’,” says Cannon. “Mel thought it would be good to have Willie sing on it, and Willie said he would. So, he came into town one night and we went over to the old Music Mill on 18th [Avenue] and spent about two hours working on that song.”   

Cannon and Nelson eventually became buddies and true working collaborators years later, when Cannon was producing a new album for superstar Kenny Chesney, and the “No Hat, No Shoes, No Problem” singer also invited Willie to join him on a cut of the old pop standard “That Lucky Old Son.” Nelson liked Cannon’s production on the track so much, he asked Cannon on the spot to work with him on a record.

“He said, ‘Let’s go find some songs and make an album’,” says Cannon. “That’s how it kinda started.”

To date, Cannon has produced just shy of 20 albums for Nelson, and they’ve cowritten dozens of songs. The new I Don’t Know a Thing About Love is Willie’s salute to a songwriter regarded as one of the top tunesmiths of all time, the one who described a great country song as “three chords and the truth.”

Earlier this month, Nelson’s 2022 album A Beautiful Time received the Grammy for Best Country Album, and he won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for “Live Forever,” a track from his tribute last year to singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Yeah, Cannon produced both of those, too. 

Nelson, a musical icon by any measure, began his career in his native Texas in the mid 1950s. He later relocated to Nashville in 1960s, where he struggled to crack into the musical community, eventually establishing himself as a fledgling songwriter. In the 1970s, he became a torch bearer for country’s “outlaw movement,” a musical ethos of iconoclastic artists who insisted on creative freedoms beyond the strictures of Nashville’s Music Row. Today, he’s a bona fide superstar, with 25 No. 1 hits, more than 200 albums and enough awards—including 12 Grammys—to fill a Texas dance hall.

And on the cusp of turning 90 in April, he’s still going strong. Cannon recalls a recent trip to visit Willie at his getaway home in Maui, where he watched him work out with a boxing speedbag. Only Willie wasn’t punching, he was kickboxing.

“It was higher than my head, and he was kicking that thing,” Cannon recalls. “He’s very agile.”

Killen says the vibe at the sessions for the new album were relaxed and in synch with Willie’s musically laid-back personality—and suffused with a portent of his almost-shamanistic creativity, just like always. “There’s an aura around him,” Killen says. “Every time I’m around him in the studio, I get excited because, you know, something magical is about to happen.”

Nelson’s iconic, idiosyncratic singing style and jazz-influenced phrasing have become musical trademarks, and his guitar playing is a thing completely his own. “You never know what it’s going to sound like, his singing or his playing,” says Cannon. “Even he doesn’t know what it’s going to come out like.” And forget about asking him to do another take of a guitar part, or a vocal phrase, the way he did it previously. “He sees absolutely no point in playing or singing the same thing twice. It’s different every time.”

He adds that Nelson has never been one to over-prepare, over-sweeten or overcook when it comes to making music. Nelson and Cannon’s collaborations show how “you can under-produce instead of over-produce, and it will be just as effective,” says Cannon. “A lot of Willie’s recordings have no background harmonies on them, and you don’t even notice it.”

One of Nelson’s albums long before he started working with Cannon was Willie Nelson & Family, the 1971 LP that established his eclectic, ever-widening circle of musicians, associates, friends and blood kin as a unique, like-minded clan…a family.

And for the past ten years or so, producer Buddy Cannon has felt like he’s part of that family, too.

“I get the Willie Nelson and family thing now,” Killen says. “People mean something to him. I think I’ve somewhat become a part of that.” 

What’s next for Cannon, and for Willie? The producer says their next studio collaboration will tap into Nelson’s wide-ranging tastes in all kinds of music. And they’ve already started working on it.

“We’re cutting a bunch of Willie’s old stuff with bluegrass musicians,” says Cannon, who’s mum on other details about the project.

But he notes that the bluegrass project is in keeping with Willie’s unpretentious, musically ecumenical embrace of all kinds of styles and formats, from country to pop standards, jazz and blues.

“He doesn’t think about genres,” says Cannon. “As far as he’s concerned, it’s just songs, and he’s just a singer.”

Neil Pond


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