Skip to main content

JD McPherson: Five Essential Willie Nelson Songs

JD McPherson (photo by Alysse Gafkjen, PR)

JD McPherson (photo by Alysse Gafkjen, PR)


Last year, Oklahoma's JD McPherson released his third album, the blistering Undivided Heart & Soul, a tour de force of wicked blues, dirty garage rock, country licks, and sultry grooves. Based out of Nashville these days, where Undivided Heart & Soul was recorded, McPherson sought a stylistic changeup for this album. He took a hard left turn from the more retro-leaning rockabilly of his previous releases, opting for a more robust rock 'n' roll route (which was evident in his fantastic FUV Live session).

McPherson's dynamic live chops fit right into the energy of Willie Nelson's upcoming Outlaw Music Festival tour — and McPherson will be joining that all-star lineup this summer on June 23 in Noblesville, Indiana, along with Sturgill Simpson, the Head and the Heart, the Old Crow Medicine Show and, of course, Nelson himself.

McPherson is a massive fan of the "Trigger Master," so when we asked him if he wanted to come up with his "Five Essential Willie Nelson Songs" for FUV Essentials, he immediately said yes.

JD McPherson: Five Essential Willie Nelson Songs:

"Yesterday's Wine," Yesterday's Wine (1971)
This is absolutely my favorite Willie recording. I listen to this one with great frequency. It's a pleasant, powerful sentiment. It's about receiving a stranger as a friend. "Sit down with us, drink some wine, and tell us your story." What really gets me about this recording is the drums. I just go nuts over the drums in this track — the pickups into the choruses are dynamite! BOOM bah BOOM BOP boom boom BOOM! Who played drums on that, Jerry Carrigan? I tried to force the Cactus Blossoms into having drums like that on "Adios Maria" when we recorded their first record. They didn't get my obsession with that.

"Crazy," ...And Then I Wrote (1962)
Arguably one of the greatest pop songs ever written. This song appears on ...And Then I Wrote, the record Willie was able to make, based on the merit of the songs he was writing for others. Obviously, Patsy Cline made this one famous, but Willie's performance is fantastic. The B section melody and chord structure shines like gold as it glides up and down. His laid-back, plaintive delivery sells the song as well as Patsy's, in my opinion. Side note: ...And Then I Wrote is a quality record, soundwise. Sonorous. They don't make them like this anymore.

"Darkness On the Face of the Earth," ...And Then I Wrote (1962)
This is dark.

"Whiskey River," live version, album unknown
When I was a kid in Tulsa, I used to hear this version of "Whiskey River" on KVOO. I would still hear it from time to time on classic country radio. It's not the version you hear on Willie Nelson and Family Live. Anyhow, I put this on my list because the guitar solo is nutzoid! Willie's longtime companion "Trigger," an amplified nylon string acoustic, sounds more like something in Sonic Youth than Stonewall Jackson. He does these chromatic runs with octave notes, and through the amp it just sounds like thunder. What a crazy setup.

"Gold Star," written at age seven and never recorded
You won't hear this anywhere, outside of the occasional interview. Willie's first song, written at the age of seven, is better than most of what you hear written by 10-person committee on pop radio these days. "They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago." Willie takes a cue from his teacher, who gave him a gold star on a well-made essay and applies it to his romantic love song. What else do seven-year-olds know? A natural born songwriter.

- JD McPherson
April 2018

JD McPherson will be on tour this summer, also playing New York's Rocks Off Concert Cruise aboard the Liberty Belle on July 25,  the Newport Folk Festival on July 27, and Camden's XPoNential Music Festival on July 28 and 29.

Read all of FUV's Five Essential Albums and Songs here.