Dan Rather on His 'Big Interview' With Willie Nelson: 'He Never Ceases to Amaze Me'

Willie Nelson sits down with Dan Rather
AXS-TV/The Big Interview

Willie Nelson sits down with Dan Rather for AXS-TV's "The Big Interview"

Dan Rather has been perfecting his craft since 1950 -- when he first went to work for The Associated Press as a reporter in his home state of Texas. And even though he's been on the job for an amazing 66 years, Rather still gets excited when he gets the story. 

His latest venture, The Big Interview, began its' fourth season on AXS-TV on Tuesday (Jan. 12) at 8 p.m EST. The series features in-depth discussions with some of entertainment's most iconic stars and is something in which Rather told Billboard he takes a great deal of pride.

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"It's a privilege and doing The Big Interview is something that I enjoy doing. The challenge has been to adjust my interview style somewhat," he said, admitting that it is a little different than much of the hard news he has covered in the past. "I see it more of a conversation, instead of a breaking news story. I'm trying to get down to the essence of the person -- beyond the professional and celebrity side and really dig down deep -- because we have enough time to have a meaningful conversation."

With this in mind, he said, he wants his subjects to "open up in a way that people haven't seen on television before."

The first performer interview of the new season is legendary rocker John Fogerty. Rather said the conversation runs the gamut of amazing highs and perilous lows, which he admitted surprised even him.

"Of course, I knew John Fogerty and his work, but what I learned was the importance -- as well as the difficulty -- of resilience," said Rather. "He was at the very heights of success and then went through a period that took him to the depths. That is among the things he talked about. I gained a new perspective on how difficult resilience can be. We often talk about comebacks and it's sometimes easy to take them for granted. But, in Fogerty's case, the comeback was long, arduous, difficult and maybe not even yet complete."

The next week, the veteran newsman will sit down with Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro and will close out the month on Jan. 26 chatting with Country Music Hall of Fame member Willie Nelson. Interviewing "The Red Headed Stranger" posed somewhat of a challenge to Rather, due to the fact that Nelson has told so much of his story before in various books, but added the singer always brings something new to the table.

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"He's such a strong storyteller and with his experiences, he has so many stories," Rather said. "As well as I know him -- and I'm proud to say that he's a friend of mine -- he told stories that has never been told before of what it was like coming up in the music world. He never ceases to amaze me."

Over the first three seasons of The Big Interview, Rather has spoken with some of the most legendary artists in country music, with one of his favorite conversations coming last year with Charley Pride.

"I loved doing Charley," Rather said. "There are so many surprises in doing the show and one of them is when I proposed doing a show on him, someone said 'Well, he was big in his day, but does anyone care anymore?' So, we did the show and had almost as much reaction to the interview as most of the ones we've done. I was really pleased to see that. Charley Pride is someone I've admired greatly because -- beyond music -- he's one of the people who has saved his money and made some good investments in real estate. I admire him for his accomplishments as an entertainer, but also for his smarts as a businessman."

As someone who has been on the front seat of history over the years, where does Rather see the journalism world today? At its heart, he believes the basic parts of the vocation are still in play.

"I still think it's very valuable to serve an apprenticeship in journalism," he said. "There's an importance of covering what is going on at the police station, the city council meetings, even the boring zoning meetings. I think that is important for a young journalist. These days, I think it's probably easier to get that experience in some form of social media. However, whether there's an appetite for that kind of reporting on social media remains to be seen.

"I think it's tougher to start out in journalism today because the audiences are more fractured that the idea of three or four networks having big audiences has just about passed. I think it's more difficult, but the fundamentals haven't changed. To be successful, you have to be able to write clearly, directly and quickly. You also have to have sort of a backbone and be persistent, because reporting requires you to be. Those things haven't changed."


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