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How long have you lived in Hawaii?
About 20 years. I built a house out there in the early ‘80s. I bought the property in the late ‘70s. I raised five kids out there. I’ve got a place in California, too, because I’ve got a bunch of kids going to school there. We’re back out in Hawaii because our youngest, who’s 15, he’s going to school. He grew up out there.
What’s it like coming back to Nashville today?
I count my blessings every day, because when I got out of the Army and came here I had no idea if I was going to make it or not, but I loved it so much. Particularly in that creative atmosphere that was on Music Row. Music Row didn’t look at all like it does now. In a couple of blocks there you’d see all your peers and the places where you’d pitch your songs. Then you’d go off to some house and have a guitar pull all night long. Or at the old Boar’s Nest, which was kind of a neat place. Sue Brewer owned it. There was girls there, and rooms where you could find people sitting on the floor singing songs. It was a real creative time. I was so lucky, because although I didn’t get songs cut right away you could always find people who were excited about your music. That made me feel like I made it, even though I wasn’t getting them recorded. To me it was a soul saver.
Why did that scene disappear?
It happens when you make more money, I think. That’s the price of financial success, I guess. To me, the temptation is to label it like Vegas or something. But I’m sure if I were spending a lot of time here, there’s probably still places where they’re doing it just for the love of music. I would like to think that.
Where do you usually write songs?
Wherever I am. Fortunately I don’t have to write them down. I can still remember things now. I can’t remember people’s names, but I can remember what I’m writing! That’s another thing about old age, I can’t remember anything. Names are the worst.
So you literally don’t write songs down on paper?
Never have. I can’t write music. I sometimes put it down on tape. If it’s a good enough song I’m going to remember.
Musically, the last two albums have been very spare. Does that put more pressure on you?
There’s apprehension, yeah. Especially with this record and the one right before it, there’s a minimum of help from other musicians. But it worked on the first one [2006’s This Old Road], and I’m hoping this one as well. That one I just went in and played by myself for an hour and a half and then they overdubbed a few things. This one we had [guitarist] Stephen Bruton, Rami Jafee played keyboards, Jimmy Keltner on drums. He’s an old friend, very sympathetic. He’s right in tune with where I am. Very subtle.
And you have Don Was as producer again.
I’m real comfortable with Don. He’s perfect for me. I like this better the more I hear it, and feel more grateful to him because it all seems to be just the right amount of background. You never have your attention taken away from the words, what the song’s about.
It’s in keeping with how you’ve been performing live for last few years, mostly by yourself without a band at all.
That scared me when I first did it. I didn’t have a band to hide behind. But something worked that made me want to keep doing it. It was like a direct communication. [The audience is] forgiving of mistakes, and when you’re by yourself you can make a mistake without causing a train wreck. There might be occasions when I’ll play with a band [in the future], but for now I’m just doing my own show.
You were involved in making the upcoming Jerry Lee Lewis album. How did that come together?
I was there with him on several songs. [Producer] Steve Bing’s putting it together. He called me up the other day and played me Jerry Lee singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Steve told me he said, “Why didn’t Kris give me that song? Why’d he give it to Johnny Cash?” He used to be that way too: “Johnny Cash! Johnny Cash! Why doesn’t he just give all his songs to Johnny Cash?” He’s got a lot of people from the Rolling Stones, and really good artists have contributed to it. I’ll be anxious to hear it. It’ll be good for Jerry Lee. It’s great to see him getting the respect he deserves.
I never would have thought he’d be the last of the legendary Sun Records artists still standing.
That’s very funny, I was thinking of that the other day, thinking of all the Sun people. All of them are gone. Who would have thought Jerry Lee would have been the last? He’s been a hero of mine for a long time, Jerry Lee has. He knows it, and we have a lot of affection between us.
Do you hear much music these days that interests you?
I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t hear much music. I don’t listen to the radio. When I’m between gigs, I’ve got such a big family I usually just lose myself in that, then I go back out on the road and do my own songs. But jeez, I just heard Steve Earle the other night. We were taping Austin City Limits, and he did an hour before me. Just blew me away again. He’s just powerful. Even the stuff in between his songs is worth remembering. I wanted to go see him again last night, but [at concerts] I’m kinda like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland—I cause a distraction.
Why don’t you listen to music much?
I got out of the habit when I started going on the road. I had to listen to so many people the way that I tried to make people listen to me back in the day, so after a show when I was still going out and hanging out with singer-songwriters, I’d have to be listening to everybody. I quit listening to the radio or other music because I didn’t want it to influence mine, to be stealing a song somehow. So I got out of the habit. I may get back into it, because it kicked me right in the rear when I saw Steve Earle. I was like, “Dang!” I felt all enthusiastic again. Maybe I should do that. It was really powerful.
You’ve been outspoken about politics for a long time. What does the political scene look like to you now?
Well, in some ways it’s as hopeful as when Kennedy was here. But I don’t remember Kennedy getting attacks that are as severe as the way they’re attacking Obama. That’s depressing to see. To see the lies that are just accepted and printed in the paper. Like on this health issue, they’re acting like we’re going to become a socialist or communist society. We’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have public health taken care of for people who can’t afford it.
Do you think you’ve alienated some people by speaking out about things you believed in?
I know there was a time when I was considered a communist or unpatriotic or worse. That was particularly when I started going down to Nicaragua and writing about what the Contras were doing down there. I think they tolerate me more now than they used to, or maybe the world situation has changed enough that they can see what I was talking about. I guess when you get to be as old as I am, they’re not as mean to you as they used to be. I used to take a lot of flack. I even had people ask me for their money back at shows. But they don’t do that anymore. They don’t yell at me.