Transcript

John Spong: Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One By Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. This show is brought to you by White Claw Hard
Seltzer.

This week, we kick off season three with none other than singer-songwriter-superstar Kacey Musgraves, who’s here to talk about “Are You Sure.” It’s a pretty obscure Willie song, a deep cut off his 1965 album, Country Willie: His Own Songs, that he recorded for RCA Records with producer Chet Atkins. But hard-core Willie nerds will also know it from his 1961 demo for the Pamper Music publishing company, and hard-core Kacey nerds will know it from the duet she and Willie did on it for her great 2015 album, Pageant Material. It prompts her to open up on what she calls “real-ass country music,” the lucky joint Willie gave her on the bus one night, and that scary, surreal night she sang “Rainbow Connection” with Willie at the CMAs a few years back. Oh, and she also does the most spot-on Owen Wilson impression that you’re gonna hear all year.

But one word of caution: Kacey throws around enough f-bombs to make Steve Earle shudder. Listener discretion is advised. Let’s do it.

[Clip of Willie Nelson singing “Are You Sure”] 

John Spong: Well, and the place to start is, what’s so great about the Willie song, “Are You Sure?”

Kacey Musgraves: You will be hard-pressed to find a more real-ass song than Willie Nelson—well, Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons’s, “Are You Sure (This Is Where You Want to Be).” I remember when I heard it, I thought, “Holy shit, this is so blunt, and so to the point, and so simple,” and I just fell in love with it.

John Spong: Yeah, and it’s a short story. You have no idea what went wrong in this relationship, but Willie is sitting in a bar, looking presumably at his wife, and wondering why she prefers the presence of barflies, the company of barflies to him. He’s just completely heartbroken.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. I remember asking him about the song one time, and he explained that it was Buddy and him sitting at Tootsie’s after writing like one day or something—and I might be getting some of the story wrong. ’Cause it was a little fuzzy, the surroundings of the story. But he said that they had written that day and they were hanging out and then they went downtown, to have some beers, and there was just a bunch of hanger-ons, you know, just a bunch of people that were just kinda clinging on and just, he looked at Buddy and said, “Hey, are you sure this is where you want to be?”

John Spong: Oh wow.

Kacey Musgraves: And, I just, I don’t know. I can relate to that. I really am thankful for the people that I have around me. And I feel for those who maybe are in the industry, the spotlight, or not, even, and feel like they’re around people that are maybe like energy drainers, or aren’t there for the right reasons, or whatever it is. And this song is just saying like, look around you, look down the bar from you at all these, like, all the local used-to-bes—like, are you sure this is the energy that you want to surround yourself with?

John Spong: Yeah. It’s like, is this good for you? Is this really a smart move for you?

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. Like—let’s pull up the lyrics. Let’s look at those.

John Spong: Yeah. Let me do that, and so . . . Can you still hear me?

Kacey Musgraves: I can.

John Spong: Cool. Okay. Now you’re looking at the lyrics, and now here comes the song. Can you hear it?

Kacey Musgraves: Mm-hmm.

[Willie Nelson singing]

[Kacey Musgraves singing along]

Kacey Musgraves: Damn.

John Spong: Yeah.

Kacey Musgraves: It’s just so—it’s so real. It’s so good. Ugh. And I love how like, you can hear the staunch, it’s like a staunch waltz, and you can hear his, like, early kind of crooner singer, country and western style really coming through, you know?

John Spong: Right. Well, and so, and for folks who don’t know, who was Buddy Emmons?

Kacey Musgraves: Buddy Emmons was a legendary pedal steel player here in Nashville, but also wrote songs, too.

John Spong: And kind of invented the steel guitar, or was among the guys that did it—the pedal steel, I think.

Kacey Musgraves: Like, he’s a founding father, you could say.

John Spong: There you go.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. But they were friends and wrote, and I think palled around together. So one night I was . . . I get into these wormholes. I’m a night owl, and I just get on YouTube. And then I just find myself like in the weirdest corners of the internet. I’m like, okay. And just when I think that I’ve hit the furthest dark corner of the internet, I’m proved wrong, and I’m like, “Holy shit, this is—wow, I’ve really done it this time.” But one of these nights, I was kind of, you know, cruising around, and I stumbled upon this Willie Nelson demo from 1963, ’65?

John Spong: I think ’63. Yeah.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. And I was like, “What is this?” And I clicked on it, and oh my God, I just, like, I loved it so, so much. Actually, this is a fun fact too: I used to be a big fan of the show Lost. And there’s an episode where this song is on there. I just think that’s so random—but really cool.

John Spong: And so, when you do these deep dives—’cause I have the same affliction, and after dinner my wife goes to bed around nine, and then I’ll roll up around one o’clock, and in the morning when we actually talk, I’ll say, “Honey, I found this Willie video last night.” But, like, how do you fine-tune your searches? How can we go to school on Kacey Musgraves research?

Kacey Musgraves: [Laughs] I really just don’t know. I don’t know how I even got there. I just was like, “Whoa, what is this?” And then, you know, got really obsessed with it. Shortly after that, we got to go on tour with him. It was a co-headlining tour where it was Willie and Alison Krauss. It was unbelievable every night. It was unreal. And I remember we were all congregated up on his bus one night after, and it was like Dan Tyminski and Allison were over here, and I had a couple guys from my band here. There was Mickey, I think Paul, maybe Annie Nelson was up there. It was a really crowded bus. And I remember something getting passed around, and I got, like, painfully high. I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to get off this bus. I don’t know how I’m going to exit this situation. I have forgotten how to say ‘goodbye.’ I . . . My throat is now the Sahara Desert. I just really just don’t know really what to do.” So I just kinda sat and watched everything. And I somehow got the courage to say—I was sitting right across from Willie at his little bus table or whatever, and I said, “Hey, do you ever sing that song anymore, ‘Are You Sure’?” And the look on his face was so surprised. He could not believe that I asked that question. And he goes, “Are you sure / This is where you want to be?” I was like, “Yeah, that song! Oh my God.”

And he literally reaches back, and out of like a fricking magic puff of smoke, I don’t know where Trigger came from, but he just pulls a guitar out, and he just strums, and he goes, “Well, would you want to sing it with me?” Okay—I’m struggling to like just comprehend anything about existence at this point. And I’m like, “Yeah.” So we’re up there on the bus, and it’s fricking, you know, Allison and Dan, and literally everyone, and Willie pulls out this guitar. We sing, “Are You Sure,” and he says, “Well, would you want to record it?” And I was like, “I’ll think about it.” I was like, “Uh, yeah.” And he said, “Well, I’d love to sing on it with you if you’d have me.” And I said, “Well, all right, we’re doing it.” So then, when I went in to record Pageant Material, which was my second album, one late night, it was after we had recorded everything else, and we turned all the lights off in the studio, and really kind of just got into this trippy mindset and put down a version of that song. And then I got it to Willie, and he sang on it or whatever. His solo on that song kills me, still. I mean, it’s so out there. I mean, it was—when we got his recordings back, we were like, “Holy shit,” and loved it.

[Clip of “Are You Sure” duet plays]

John Spong: A couple—a handful of things floor me about it. One, you just mentioned the Hawaiian-sounding intro. Whose idea was that? That’s not on the demo. That’s not on Chet Atkins’s version. And is that Paul Franklin on steel?

Kacey Musgraves: It is. It’s Paul Franklin, who I love so much.

John Spong: He’s a genius.

Kacey Musgraves: He’s such a genius, and he’s such a sweetheart too. And he’s such—he’s a good sport too. Like, I remember when I was making Pageant Material, I thought it’d be funny to get a whole bunch of tiaras. And I brought them into the studio and I made all the guys wear them. There was fricking Paul Franklin sitting there playing steel with like a sparkly tiara on. It was really cute. But no, so it was . . . Paul was like, “Guys, I got to go. I have to go in thirty minutes.” And we were like, “Paul, you have to do this song. We’re not letting you leave until you do this.” He’s like wearing this crown. He’s like, “Guys, I really have to go.” We’re like, “Paul, just give us like two takes, and just do whatever you want on the intro. There’s no rules, just f—ing do something and make it really country.” And so, he sits down and he just pops that out, that long intro. It’s like, “Mrrrrrr.” Oh my God. It was so simple. That was, I think, take one or two, and then he said, “Got to go.” And he left. And we were like, “Okay. That’s it.”

John Spong: Oh, it was that Paul Franklin, was it? Wow. That’s amazing. But I was surprised when you said that y’all sent the tape to Willie, because I’ve talked to lots of folks and I’ve listened to lots of duets that Willie did, especially the ones remotely. And he doesn’t always spend that much time with it. You know, it might be just the vocals or a couple of Trigger licks.

Kacey Musgraves: Oh, no.

John Spong: Trigger is all over that recording y’all did.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we didn’t really have to edit it that much. He sent us back . . . That’s the thing with Willie, is you’re going to get what you’re going to get, and that’s what you get. Understandably. So, you know, we weren’t really sure what we were going to get when we sent it off. ’Cause we—for some reason, I couldn’t be there in person. We had to send it to him down in Austin, or Dripping Springs, wherever his place is. So yeah, like, we sent it down there, and that’s what he sent back, and we were like, “Whoaa. Damn. All right.” Yeah.

John Spong: And then, also, like we were talking, the song initially is the aggrieved husband, at the edge of the bar, crushed because his wife would rather be there than home with him, and he doesn’t get it. But when Willie does the song with you, and his lines come in, he has suddenly shifted, and now it’s like he’s the guardian angel, looking at you, saying, “Why are you here? Are you making the right decisions with your life? Shouldn’t you be somewhere else?” And that is such a great twist.

Kacey Musgraves: Totally.

John Spong: The song means something completely different.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. It’s kind of just like looking at that outward—that energy that’s around you, and going, “Wait a second, is this really what you want to be doing?” I mean, and if you’re going to take advice from anybody about that, I mean, I think Willie’s probably a good person to take it from.

[Clip of “Are You Sure” duet plays]

Kacey Musgraves: So then, I ended up putting it on the album and I really fought really hard to have it as a secret track. I thought it would be so cool if the album ended, and then out of—you think it’s over, and then out of nowhere, then this kind of trippy western, kind of almost Hawaiian-sounding song comes on, and it’s a surprise Willie track. Come to find out in the digital age, it’s like way, way harder to convince people to do secret tracks, because you have to f—ing label every single thing. But anyways, it ended up going on there. And then somehow I convinced the label to let us do a music video for it. So we head down to Austin. Willie says he’s in; he says he’ll do the video with us. We go down to a bar down there. My little sister’s one of the directors on the video. And it was a low budget, like small crew. We just went to this bar. I got to pick out some clothes for Willie. I said—I asked Annie, his wife. I was like, “Do you think Willie would let me dress him up, kind of, a little bit, in some western stuff?” I was really pushing my boundaries. She was like, “Sure. Here’s his sizes. Just, you know, grab some things and we’ll see if they work.” I got some, like, western jackets, and rhinestones, and was like, “We’re going to take Willie back to the f—ing fifties right now with this.” He was game. He was such a good sport about everything, which, I’m like . . . Okay. Now, I’m thirty-three, I’m tired, and I’m impatient a lot of times. I’m like, “Damn, Willie, like, you’re in your eighties. I’m this newcomer; I’m jack s—.” Anyway, so he comes out, he’s wearing this jacket that I picked out. It’s got rhinestones and fringe on it. It’s black. He’s got his hair in the braids. My band’s behind us. And between takes, it was so fun. We would just sing old country songs, and get him—and we would just sing together. He was genuinely really happy to be there.

So in between all those takes, we were just singing all these old standards and classics, and I was singing harmony with him and stuff. And then at one point, I was like, “Hey, Willie, would you do a tequila shot with me?” And he said, “Yeah, don’t tell my wife.” I said okay. So I have a picture of us—well, actually, we do a shot on camera. It’s in the video. So I’ll never forget that day. And lastly, there was a photo booth there on set. One of those like in the bars, like a $5 photo-booth strip. I get in there, and I pull him in there. I’ll send you the picture. It’s like my most treasured possession, basically. But it’s such a cute little photo strip of us. And I just got like overtaken by the spirit and just kissed him on the cheek at one point. It was funny because I walked out and I didn’t realize there was a screen on top of the photo booth, and his wife, and literally everyone that was there, saw the whole thing. She was like, “I saw that.”

[Clip of Willie Nelson singing “Are You Sure”] 

Kacey Musgraves: But I love them. I love them so much. There’s so many fun stories that I could just go on and on about. I mean, I have a framed joint in my art room over here. It was the first time . . .

John Spong: No, you don’t. You do?

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. He rolled it up, started it off. And we each took a little hit. This was like on the first tour with him. Then he said—he tapped it out and he said, “Here, save it for later. Here’s something nice for later.” So I saved it. I’m not going to ever use that. It’s behind glass. But I mean, I could just keep going on and on. I mean, there’s like . . . One thing I’ve really loved to do anytime I’m around Willie is I really like to ask him to tell me stories, things that he remembers, and talk about people that he used to be friends with. I asked him how Ray Charles was one time, and he just has the best stories about Ray.

John Spong: Oh wow.

Kacey Musgraves: He said Ray was just such a badass. He would go over to his house. First off, all the lights would be off, because it didn’t matter. You know, so he didn’t want to be rude and ask to turn the lights on. So he just hung out in the dark with Ray. And he said that they would play chess and that Ray would totally kick his ass. A blind man in the dark would kick his ass. He would cook in the dark. He just knew his way around so well. He also said it was really interesting, like Ray remembered things by having audio scrapbooks. Basically, he would carry around a tape recorder all the time on his person. And he would constantly record to tape everything, like conversations, business meetings, everything. And so he had this entire wall, from floor to ceiling, full of all these labeled-in-braille cassette tapes from, I mean, just loads of just daily, in and outs of life, and that, that was his way of remembering what happened.

John Spong: Oh wow. That’s got to be like sixty or seventy years of . . .

Kacey Musgraves: . . . the most random interactions and thoughts. It’s got to be one of those things that was just on his person all the time. So yeah, I thought that was really cool.

John Spong: That’s wild. That’s wild. Well, how does it become such a . . . Well, I guess before it becomes a great friendship, you are a monster fan. And so when you’re little and you’re thinking that this is what you want to do with your life, and Willie is somebody on the radio, or in your parents’ CD collection or whatever, what did he do that spoke to you so strongly?

Kacey Musgraves: Well, there’s no one like Willie, and there never will be anyone like Willie. I don’t think there’s another artist, really, that embodies American music like he does. I mean, there’s very few.

John Spong: Ray Charles being one.

Kacey Musgraves: Ray Charles, Dolly Parton. I mean, there are some. Johnny Cash is one. But—I don’t know. There’s something about him that’s different. I mean, he brings a lot of different people together. One thing about seeing his shows is that every race, every gender—like, if you’re a fan of Snoop Dogg, chances are you’re probably a fan of Willie. But then also, like, my grandparents are too. So it’s this interesting cross-section of people. No one doesn’t like Willie. If you don’t like Willie, I’m pretty sure you’re the problem.

John Spong: [Laughs] Yeah. So like, the other thing with Willie, like, as an inspiration—I was listening extra closely to your new record, Star-Crossed, and it echoes Phases and Stages a little bit; it’s a divorce record. It’s like the side one from Phases and Stages blown up, right? At the risk of getting all goofy, “Justified” . . . “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line” is such a great line, and whatever that song is like sonically, and then the arrangement and everything, that’s an old-fashioned country music line. That’s a Willie line from ’62.

Kacey Musgraves: Totally. Well, I appreciate you saying that. Actually, after you brought that record up, I need to bust that out again and really listen, ’cause that wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind when I was making the record, but now that you say that, I could see how you could draw some similarities there, and yeah, it’s interesting. There’s been a lot of talk around Star-Crossed and like, is it country? Is it country enough? What is it? I mean, my answer to that is like, I mean, my music has never been straight-up one hundred percent one thing or the other. And I think all the best music is that way. I mean, when you listen to Willie Nelson, like, I feel like people like Willie or the Beatles, or whoever, they kind of end up creating their own genre. You can’t really put your finger on what it is. Of course, yes, Willie is a Texas and country artist, but he’s also so many other things.

John Spong: I was interviewing him once, and I asked him something about what was country and what wasn’t. And he looked at me—I was asking him to classify music somehow—and he looked at me like whoever had scheduled this interview had wasted his entire day. You know, it is not about the folder you put it in. It’s about whether or not it touches you, and it matters to you, and you mean it when you sing it.

Kacey Musgraves: Totally. I mean, and especially now even more so with genre lines being so blurred, it’s like less and less, there isn’t a need for you to go in to a categorized music store where physical copies of things are needing to be separated in genres for you to be able to find them. It means even less and less. So it makes things like Grammy categories and discussions on that whole thing—it makes it hard because it’s like, well, what the hell is it? I don’t know. Is it good? That’s all I care about.

[Clip of Willie Nelson singing “Are You Sure”]

John Spong: When y’all did “Rainbow Connection” at the CMAs, the world was lit up with concern that Willie was in rough shape physically, and that video was hard to watch in the days afterwards. I love being able to ask the question two years later, ’cause Willie’s blowing and going, and when COVID finally let up, he was the first one to announce a tour. So he’s fine. But what was that like that night? What was—

Kacey Musgraves: Oh my gosh. Well, first off, let me just say, like, the weight behind that moment, it wasn’t just like, “Oh, I’m singing a song with Willie.” It’s a song—it was one of the first songs I ever learned as a kid. I mean, there’s all these home videotapes of, like, me singing that song as an eight, nine, ten-year-old. So, for it to come so full circle like that for me, with a true icon that I’ve looked up to my whole life, I mean, it couldn’t have been more special. So there was a lot of emotional weight behind that moment as is. And the arrangement was really beautiful. I loved having the strings, and Willie and I—just keeping it really simple. We rehearsed it; everything was fine. We got out there in the actual moment, and I could really tell in real time he was having a really hard time, and I was kind of freaking out inside. I was like, “Oh my God, oh my God. Like, he seems like he’s really struggling to breathe.” And I could really see, just being three feet away from him, I could see him, like . . . [gasps] . . . taking these big breaths in between phrases. [Dog barking in background] Oh, sorry. There goes my dog.

John Spong: That dog saved us both.

Kacey Musgraves: Come here, come here, come here. And I was just like praying and willing, with like every fiber of my body—I was like, my being—”Just please get through this song; please, please get through this song.” And there’s a moment where I could kind of see a little bit of fear, I feel like, in his eyes, which kind of freaked me out. I kind of put my hand on his elbow to reassure him just a little bit. But yeah, I mean, we got through it. And I have never been so relieved to get to the ending of a song. But I was really, really worried. Ultimately, Annie, his wife, reached out and said, “He’s going to be all right. I think he maybe just hit the pin a little too hard before the show.”

John Spong: I saw a tweet to that effect.

Kacey Musgraves: Yeah. That’s what they said. But I was really worried. I will say, whenever I do a performance, I might rewatch it once, but I kind of just move forward and don’t really look back too much. But for some reason, I went back and watched that performance, and I don’t know what specifically it was about it, but I got lost in it for days. I wept for days afterwards. I could weep talking about it right now. It was just like . . . I can’t explain what it is, but I was like, kind of encapsulated in that moment. It was very hard for me to move on from that moment. 

[Clip of “Rainbow Connection” duet plays]

Kacey Musgraves: Here’s another fun story. Okay. So from that to getting to witness my grandpa play Willie Nelson in poker in Hawaii—I’ll never forget that. This was several Christmases ago. It was probably about four, at this point. My family and I were taking a trip to Maui. And we ended up staying really close to where Willie and Annie and them live, kind of on that north shore or whatever. And one of the nights . . . I think they were having a party for Lukas, because Lukas’s birthday is on Christmas, so they were having a get-together. Couple really funny things happened. 

First off, it was really cute—Owen Wilson was there. Annie had made this big spread of all this wonderful food, and I’m behind Owen with my plate, and I literally hear him going, “Wow, wow, wow.” And I was like, “Oh my God, there it is.” Flash forward, we’re just like hanging out. Willie has this, like, amazing poker room in the back. He and his buddies get out there every night and they play poker and listen to music, a lot of Willie’s music, which I think is so baller. You’re just like playing poker, passing around joints, and listening to your own music. It’s kind of amazing—like, why wouldn’t you?

John Spong: And if they weren’t intimidated when they were invited, they will be when they sit down.

Kacey Musgraves: One thousand percent. So, you know, we’re all standing around and there’s this guy beside me, and he looks really familiar, and I’m like, “Oh, I can’t put my finger on who this is.” And so I’m like, well—I was standing behind him for like five minutes—I was like, I might as well just say hi. So I turn and introduce; I’m like, “Hey.” I was like, “What’s your name?” And he said, “My name’s Paul.” And I said, “Nice to meet you, Paul. I’m Kacey.” And he said, he shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you too.” And then we turned back around and faced the poker game. In about two minutes, it kinda dawned on me that that was motherf—ing Paul Simon. 

John Spong: I saw where you were headed.

Kacey Musgraves: And I was like, “Oh man. Wow. I think I’m the biggest idiot on the face of the planet.” I mean, I adore Paul Simon. It just didn’t click for some reason. Yeah. Anyway, so that was not my finest moment, but it was really funny. So the family was there. We were hanging out, and Willie was going to have a poker game the next night too; we were still going to be in the area. So I said, “Hey, would you mind if I brought my grandpa to come play you in poker?” So my grandpa, he’s a few years younger than Willie. His name is Darrell, and he, my entire life, he’s just always played poker every week with his friends, and he’s really good. So, I was like, this would be crazy to see, like, who would win. My actual, real-life grandpa or my, like, fantasy grandpa, Willie Nelson. So he said, “Sure, sure. Bring him down. But the buy-in is going to be three hundred dollars cash.” So I went to an ATM, I got out some money, and when I got home—like I said, it was almost Christmas—I handed Pop a wad of cash, and I said, “Merry Christmas.” And he said, “What is this for?” And I said, “This is your buy-in to Willie Nelson’s poker game tomorrow.” He was like, “What?” He was so confused. But he had the biggest smile on his face. We went, he played poker, he put his money down. I was so nervous. It was Woody Harrelson, Willie, my grandpa, and a couple other random people. And they get going in the game or whatever. He loses all of his money, and then he eventually wins it all back, and then he stood up and said, “Well, I got to go.” And he ended on a high note. He’s basically like won his buy-in back and then said, “Got to go.” So it was like, “Holy s—, this is actually really happening.” He like, he lost to Willie, and then beat Willie’s ass, and then we left.

John Spong: Wow. There you go.

Kacey Musgraves: And then, yeah. And then my grandpa, of course, was like the talk of their little Texas town. He was like, all of his friends were so jealous. It was really cute.

[Clip of Willie Nelson singing “Are You Sure”]

John Spong: All right, Willie fans. That was Kacey Musgraves, going deep in the weeds on “Are You Sure.” A big thanks to her for coming on the show and kicking off season three with us. A big thanks to our sponsor, White Claw Hard Seltzer, and a big thanks to you guys for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe. Please maybe tell a couple friends about us. And please visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and if you’re curious, check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music. And be sure to tune back in next week for a special birthday edition of One by Willie. We’ll come on and talk about a song about her namesake, “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag.” We’ll see y’all next week.



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