In a rare interview, the King of Country discusses the final shows on the Cowboy Rides Away tour and his lifelong "knack for picking good songs"
Are there any songs you missed out on that you wished you'd have cut? Or the opposite?
You can't look back. I have no regrets in that regard. If I missed a few, so be it. I found more than I missed. There have been many times that I've gone back over my holds from the album before and found or remembered songs that I just didn't get to on the last one. I don't ever forget one that I've had on hold. They always stay locked away in my memory banks.
You've had remarkable success with producers, including Tony Brown. How do you view the producer's role, and what do you expect from one?
I've had great personal and business relationships with Tony for a long time, and I'm happy to call him a friend. We started out together on the "Pure Country" [soundtrack], and have been working together ever since. Tony has great ideas and produces his butt off. He's a perfectionist in the studio, and all of the musicians like that about him, and respect him for it. The great musicians we work with are the same way. There have been very few times that we've butted heads on things. I think a producer's role is to take ideas from the artist and fine-tune them. Or, if you get stuck on something, to come up with an alternative, all the while remembering that the artist is the one who ultimately has to have the final say. If the artist isn't happy, the relationship isn't going to last very long.
How has your recording process changed through the years?
Not a whole lot, except that I'm much more comfortable with it now than before when I was a rookie and got a little intimidated. I sometimes will do vocals at home now, but not very often. It's easy with all of the technology available. Chuck Ainlay, who has been the engineer on so many of my records, is the best there is. He works his butt off, especially when we record in Key West [Fla.], which is great, but requires a little more effort on his part. He's one of those guys who goes the extra mile, no matter what. We have a great time though, always.
You'll be the first country artist to receive Billboard's Legend of Live Award [which recognizes professionalism and steadfast commitment to the art and craft of live performance and reaching fans through the concert experience]. You've never been honored specifically for the live thing. Does this have special significance for you?
I never would have thought I would get an award for touring after 30 some odd years. I'm honored that I would be considered for it. [My wife] Norma and I were having dinner with some friends the other day and we were talking about all of that. It struck me as kind of funny when I said I'd been touring since 1981 and they thought that was so long. I never really looked at it that way. Even today, it doesn't seem like that long ago that I started. It's just been my life for so long. In reality, though, it still comes down to three decades. They were right, but to me it just doesn't seem like that long. Sure, I slowed down along the way, but I still had that commitment every year. There have been times I've dreaded going back out, but once I'm out there, I've enjoyed every minute onstage.
In terms of touring, what single thing must be in place for a show to come off well? Are green M&Ms OK?
I'm not a big stickler on riders. I'll eat green M&Ms. When I tour, I stay on my bus. I love my bus-all the comforts of home. Hell, it's been my home for years.
What has it been like out there this year, knowing that it's a finite thing?
I played some huge shows this year. We had 80,000 in Houston, and I couldn't describe that feeling. There are just no words. It was so much fun, and such a special night that I'll remember forever. Same thing in San Antonio. Everywhere we played this year was special, and I've got to say I almost lost it a few times knowing I may never play some of those places again. When I can't do it anymore, just play me one of the live recordings I've done and let me hear those great fans out there. It will bring a big smile to my face, for sure.
What should people expect on your tour next year? Are you going to surprise everyone by dancing?
Yes, me and the whole band are going to be dancing onstage next year. Wait till you see the little outfits. [laughs] We have some surprises up our sleeves, but aren't quite ready to announce the tour just yet. That will come in September sometime. I did a segment in the shows this year where I sang some of my very first records, and talked about how I came to record them, and all of that. I loved doing it, so I may do it again next year, except with different oldies. I have quite a few, you know.
What about recording? Will you keep up the same pace going forward? Are there any bucket-list albums you want to do?
I've been pretty consistent about making records throughout my career. I'll probably keep that pace, which is a [release] about every 12 months or so. I've talked about doing a big-band swing album for years. Maybe I'll get that done. Also, I'm writing more now, so if I have material that I feel is good enough, I'll do a complete record of all of my songs. I found a bunch of old songs not too long ago that I wrote in the '70s and early '80s, and I'm going to go back through those and see if maybe I can do some of those. I put one on my latest record that I think I wrote in '78. I think it turned out great.
Very few artists have managed to maintain the consistency and career longevity that you have seen, regardless of genre. Is there a rule you live by that has contributed to this career longevity?
It's hard to say why I've had the longevity that I've had. Maybe it's not doing all of the interviews. I've definitely been conscious of overexposure, though. I don't do everything that presents itself. I don't do a lot of TV. I've never let the music business be the only thing in my life. There are other things that I love to do as well. I don't rope much anymore, because it was getting too hard on my back and knees, but that used to be my passion, and I couldn't wait to get off the road and concentrate on that. I really miss being able to rope like I used to. I love to fish, hunt and play golf. I just love to be outdoors, enjoying God's beautiful creation. I do have great and loyal fans. It's amazing that I still see fans from the '80s at some of my shows today. That's pretty special.
What do you know for certain about your fans?
That they are the best fans in the world. A lot of artists say that, but mine really are. Sorry.
Any messages for the country music industry, radio, Nashville, the business?
Yes. Don't give up on me just yet. I've got a lot left in the tank.