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Mammas, Let Your Babies Listen to Willie Nelson

Why does Nelson deserve the Gershwin Prize? Listen to his collaborations.

If you’re a music lover like me, you’ll tune in to PBS this Friday night (Jan. 15) at 9 p.m. ET to watch Willie Nelson receive the newest Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and see a terrific concert to boot.

For one special night, at the Gershwin Prize event, a singular artist’s songs take center stage and, well, something original and spellbinding always occurs. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the level talent the Library of Congress has recognized since the Gershwin Prize was created in 2007: Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Willie Nelson is the first country musician to receive the prestigious Gershwin Prize.

I know there are some who’ll think Willie Nelson doesn’t belong in the same category as previous winners — or with the Gershwin brothers (George and Ira) either. But let me be the first to say you’re wrong.

For starters, there’s Nelson’s 60-year career, which has found him playing country, jazz, blues, folk, rock and even reggae and show tunes. Artists including Neil Young, Paul Simon, Alison Kraus, Raul Malo, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges and others showed up to sing his songs and pay him tribute last November when the prize ceremony was filmed. Why? Because Nelson has written and recorded some of the most quintessential of American songs: Patsy Cline’s hit Crazy and Nelson’s classics Always on My Mind and On the Road Again among them.

There’s something else about Willie Nelson that makes him special, too: He’s extraordinarily collaborative. Folks claim he holds the record for charting more duets than anyone in country music history. These group efforts don’t just make Nelson’s music more fun, they make his songs communal. These classic collaborations show the power Nelson’s music has to bring people together:

Pancho and Lefty

(with Merle Haggard)

This is one of the greatest story songs ever written. Merle Haggard and Nelson made this song the title track of a duets album they released in 1983. A haunting tale of bandits and betrayal, the details of the story are murky and mysterious.

Seven Spanish Angels

(with Ray Charles)

In 1982, Ray Charles was working on a country project with Columbia Records when the idea came about for the album Friendship, pairing Charles with established country singers like Ricky Skaggs, Hank Williams, Jr. and the Oak Ridge Boys. Seven Spanish Angels was originally pitched as a duet with Ronnie Milsap, but producer Billy Sherrill found out that Nelson liked the song and was willing to cut it for the duets album.

To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before

(with Julio Iglesias)

In 1984, Nelson paired with the most unlikely of duet partners. While on tour in London, Nelson heard Julio Iglesias on the radio and immediately liked the sound. The country crooner tracked down the Latin superstar and pitched the idea of recording To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before. On its way to No. 1 on the country charts, the song sold over a million copies, peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts and eventually won honors from both the ACM and CMA awards.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

(with Norah Jones)

 Sometimes the best duets are between two artists no one would ever think to pair. On this stripped down version of the Christmas standard, Nelson’s rough rodeo vibe balances out Jones’s jazz fairy charm. Brilliant.

 Beer for My Horses

(with Toby Keith)

 This tune about Old West-style justice needed duet partners with a sense of humor and a strong connection to the past. Channeling his inner lawman, Nelson brings a bit of believability to all the talk of stringing up bad guys while conveying it in a fish tale kind of way —  just like when you hear grandpa talking about the whopper he caught back in the day, and you know it’s mostly true. Co-written by Keith and Scotty Emerick, Beer for My Horses spent six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard‘s country songs chart and eventually spawned a feature film of the same name.

Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys

(with Waylon Jennings)

Arriving in 1978 on the album Waylon & Willie, Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys proved to be career defining for both performers. Although Jennings passed away in 2002, Nelson rarely plays a show without including Mammas at some point. Written by Ed and Patsy Bruce, Mammas appealed to male and female country fans by conveying the rugged individualism of a cowboy, as well as the sensitive side. The song spent four weeks at No. 1, earned Nelson and Jennings a Grammy and currently lives on in smoky old poolrooms everywhere.

The Highwayman

(with The Highwaymen — Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings)

Talk about a super group. Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Jennings. Wow! The Highwaymen were active between 1985 and 1995 and recorded three major albums. Their version of the Jim Webb song The Highwayman featuring each of the four verses sung by a different singer (first Nelson, then Kristofferson, then Jenning, and finally Cash) prompted Webb to observe: “I don’t know how they decided who would take which verse, but having Johnny last was like having God singing your song!” This was the most popular and widely known of The Highwaymen’s songs and their only one to reach No. 1, although Desperados Waiting for a Train got as high as No. 15.

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