Interview with Willie Nile: Channeling Woody Guthrie Through Joey Ramone

From his tumultuous start to his present positioning as one of rock’s genuine troubadours, Willie Nile has kept one theme current in his life and his music. That theme is persistence. Weathering false starts and labeled expectations, Nile has powered his way into the hearts and souls of millions of music lovers throughout the world. From his time with John Hammond to his continued friendship with Bruce Springsteen, Willie nonchalantly gives the reviewer his intuitive recollections with the attitude of a performer that is enjoying the journey.

Willie Nile is no blue-collar clone. His music is ignitable in stature and explosive in person. He turns left where others follow the herd, and his fan base is insatiable. Nile’s latest record, The Innocent Ones, is an anthem-fueled nova that is finally getting the respect and kudos he’s worked so hard for. If Springsteen is the hardest working man in music, then Willie Nile is definitely the heir to that throne. Willie took a few minutes from the road to share his amazing stories and thoughts with me.

You were born and raised into a very musical family; how did your family members influence your musical direction?

Well, I had two older brothers; they used to play old rock and roll records when I was really young, and… my mother used to always have music in the house. Whether it was classical or big band or popular hits of the times, something was always playing. My two brothers also played piano, so the house was always full of music. Now, my grandfather ran an orchestra for over 20 years in Buffalo, NY. He was a vaudeville pianist who played with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Eddie Cantor. When he died in 1953, Eddie Cantor—during a live national TV show—mentioned that his good friend had passed away and gave him props as an important player in music. I was one of eight kids in a gregarious Irish catholic family, so whenever there were any parties, someone would be banging away on piano doing ragtime—you know just really inspired stuff going all the time.

How did you end up being associated with Pete Townsend and The Who?

Well, my first record came out on Arista in 1980 and it got a lot of attention. You know, they called me the next big thing, which was all nonsense and hype, but you know the whole Dylan and Springsteen thing. They were looking for some label to hang on me and it got a lot of notice. One day the record company guys said, “Oh, you know Pete Townsend’s a big fan, right?” And I said, “Oh, yeah?” I mean, I didn’t believe it.

There was a lot of press, like The New York Times, Time Magazine, The L.A. Times all giving it rave reviews, and I had Vagabond Moon charting in the 20s and Bill Curbishley, the Who’s manger, came backstage after a show one night and asked me if I wanted to open up for the band’s latest nationwide tour. At first I thought he was kidding, but I realized he was their manager so I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it!” And at the time Arista didn’t really want to support my tour, so they tried to talk me out of it by saying, “Wille, no one wants to see an opening band for the Who.” And while I can see that point, as I wouldn’t want to see an opening band on a Who show, I think they just didn’t want to front the money.

So I went back to Bill and told him Arista wouldn’t support the tour and I asked him what he needed. He said don’t worry about it and they took care of it. So I went from never really playing with a band to opening for 25,000 Who fans, which is amazing. I told the record company, “I appreciate you looking out for me, but I’m a fan as well and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I’m gonna do it for the sheer fun of it.” And we did great. We got a standing ovation in Dallas! When we were in Atlanta, Alex Cooley, the legendary promoter, came backstage after my performance and said, “Do you know what you just did?” and I said, “No, what?” He said, “You just got a standing ovation from the Who audience!” Lynyrd Skynyrd was booed off the stage a few years earlier and they were home town boys from that area! It was just amazing.

Do you think the music industry has forgotten about the real reason their jobs exist?

It can be confusing, and there’s a lot of money involved. Everybody’s chasing the hottest looking horse, you know? It’s like a gold rush. It’s like, “It’s over here! No, it’s over here! (Laughs) Meanwhile, if you’re just a songwriter because it’s fun or meaningful to you, that really doesn’t mean much to them. But some are in touch with the art.

I was telling someone yesterday, when I first moved to New York in the ‘70s, I started jumping up onstage at open mic nights, and after a couple of months of being there, this woman came up to me and said, “I think my boss would like to see you.” Her boss was [producer] John Hammond. So I went in his office and played a song with my guitar. I was playing and jumping out of my chair and he thought enough of what I did to put me in the studio the very next week. The outcome was that while he thought I was good, he also thought I needed a little more seasoning, and he was right. And he said, “And besides, I just signed this kid from New Jersey a couple of weeks ago.” It was Bruce Springsteen (laughs).

The Innocent Ones is the first record that your fans took personal initiative to help get the word out. How did that come about?

There’s a program I’m sure you know about called Kickstarter, and the fans just totally took to it and knocked the doors down. It’s been very moving and meaningful to me. I mean, you’ve seen me play, I give everything and more when I’m performing and if it didn’t mean the world to me, I wouldn’t be up there doing it. When I was playing Europe last summer I was thinking, “You know, these people believe in me. They’re coming out, there responding like crazy.” You know that old saying, it’s better to give than to receive? It’s true. You give and give, but you get back so much and that’s what fans did. Kicked in money on Kickstarter and stepped up and said, “Yeah, we believe in what you’re doing.” We’re here for you. They took the initiative and made this record happen.

I like the recent comparison of you as “Pete Seeger channeled through Joey Ramone.” It makes perfect sense for the intensity and passion you have created throughout the years.

These are volatile times, you know? I’m trying to bring some good news and spread some joy around, occasionally write about what’s going on… I mean, life’s tough and it’s hard times for everybody all over the world, so anything you can do to lighten somebody’s load, that’s the main concept of what I do. Someone came up to me in Madrid in April of 2011 when I was signing CDs after a show and said, “”Your music makes me want to be a better person.” And I said, “Oh my god! That’s the nicest review I’ll ever get!” I mean, I’m not a religious healer or snake charmer or whatever; I’m just looking to spread some good music around. So it was meaningful to him and it is to me. I’ve also been called the rock and roll Woody Guthrie (laughs), which I really like a lot.

How did you get involved with the Light Of Day charity?

Bob [Benjamin] interviewed me for my very first album during a show in Buffalo, and we’ve been friends ever since. Over a decade ago he had found out he had Parkinson’s disease and he had invited me to a party he had started hosting, and then I started coming to play and raise some money for Parkinson’s research. We’ve been doing that since then. I mean, can you imagine when we actually find the cure for Parkinson’s? All of us know people who are affected by Parkinson’s and if we could find a cure for that, what a glorious day it would be!

So anything Bob needs, I’m there for him. I just came back from doing some shows for that in Europe. I mean, they do it all over the world, raising money for the hope for a cure. But Bob Benjamin’s the heart and soul of it and I’d like nothing better than to see a cure for that disease. And when we beat that one, we’ll pick up and chase another one down, find a cure for the next one.

If there could be one message from you to musicians scrambling to make it in this business today, what would you tell them?

I’d say, follow your heart, believe in what you’re doing and have fun with it. Because if you have fun with it then chances are someone else will enjoy it as well. Whatever you’re doing, follow your instincts and know that having fun is really contagious. People will come around if they sense sincerity. Life is way too brief; give it all you got brother.

Willie Nile will be appearing at The Light Of Day charity event in Asbury Park at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 14. For more information, go to