by Joe Nick Patoski
Back in late January, I caught up with Willie Nelson for the first time since the biography I wrote Willie Nelson: An Epic Life was published.
We talked about music, his new recordings, Lance Armstrong, and life its ownself -and here’s the story:
Five years ago, my 500 page historical biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, was published on Willie’s 75th birthday. At least seventeen biographies and his own autobiography, ghosted by Bud Shrake, no less, were already out there, but you can’t write about Texas without writing about Willie. I already knew him as the most interesting person in the world, just as he struck me during my first interview with him back in 1974. It turned out there were a lot of new things to learn, and unlike the case with most public figures, the more I knew, the more I liked him. Since a whole lot of other folks feel the same way, I’ll be talking about him for the rest of my life.
Since the Willie book, I’ve been obsessing about football, the Texas high school version and the Dallas Cowboys version, so I hadn’t been inside the Willie bubble in awhile. With his 80th birthday rolling around, a fine, even number to stop and ponder, it was a good time to check in. A lot had changed, I quickly discovered. A lot remains timeless.
Nutty Jerry’s is a massive, utilitarian metal building a few miles east of Winnie, the southeast Texas farming community just off Interstate 10 that is home of the Texas Rice Festival. Nutty Jerry’s is the community’s big bar, dancehall, and all-purpose entertainment facility. On a Friday night in late January, it was also a tour stop for the longest running road show in music, the Willie Nelson and Family traveling revue, this particular leg being one week into the Old Farts and Jackass Tour.
A little more than a year earlier, on the morning of January 8, 2012, Kevin Smith got the call from Mickey Raphael: “Can you drive to Winnie tonight and play with the band?” Smith was the standup bassist for Heybale! the trad-county supergroup of hotshot pickers featuring Merle Haggard’s guitarist Redd Volkaert and Johnny Cash’s (and the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”-vintage Byrds’) Earl Poole Ball, currently in their fourteenth year of Sunday night residency at the Continental Club in Austin. Smith had also logged time with High Noon, the retro country band, original rockabilly Ronnie Dawson, western-swinger Cornell Hurd, and had knocked off more than 160 dates in a year-long tour with Dwight Yoakum in 2006. He got on Willie’s radar three years later by playing on the Willie and the Wheel album and tour, when Smith was with Asleep at the Wheel.
“Tommy Tedesco, in that Wrecking Crew documentary, said there’s three reasons you should take a gig – the hang, the money, and the music,” Smith said, fairly beaming as he tuned up a bass on the crew bus before the show. “All three of those are just great here. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Bee Spears, the one player in the Family band who could hear and anticipate Willie’s sometimes unusual timing and his tendency to sing behind the beat, died from exposure after falling outside his home in Nashville on December 8, 2011. The loss of the forty-year veteran was the band’s first personnel change since rhythm guitarist Jody Payne retired in 2008 after thirty-five years on the road. Spears’ last gig, which was a few days earlier in Mississippi, happened to also be the very last gig for Chris Etheridge, Willie’s long ago bassist in the early 1970s, who sat in with Bee and the band, knowing he was dying of cancer.
In the wake of Bee’s sudden death, Billy English switched from drums to bass (regular drummer Paul English, Billy’s brother and Willie’s friend and bandmate for sixty years, was at home in Dallas recuperating from a stroke) and Willie’s son Micah filled in on drums to finish out the year’s dates.
Smith doesn’t just play bass. He also plays old-style slap bass with a big upright, bringing a new-old sound to complement the other addition, young gun guitarist Lukas Nelson, who opens shows with his band, Promise of the Real, before joining his father’s band as second guitarist
But on this balmy, late January evening, Lukas wasn’t feeling well, so his dad would have to handle the guitar chores alone, which actually turned out to be a good thing. Paul English had experienced a second wind and rejoined the family, playing and doing the books on the road. Paul allowed that he and Willie had played a round of golf had played a round of golf not too long ago but stopped after nine holes; they were two old duffers with nothing left to prove.
Music, however, was another matter. “I’m feeling good,” English smiled in his office in the back of the band bus, where he offices to keep the band’s books.
Poodie Locke, the garrulous stage manager for the band for the past 35 years and a legend in his own right, passed away from a massive heart attack in 2009. Filling his shoes was young John Selman, Poodie’s neighbor at Willie World. John, who joined the family after road managing Randy Rogers, had been at the job long enough to run a very tight ship. Shows were running on time from stage call to last note, performances consistently hitting the ninety minute mark, a cutback from the four-hour marathons of the 1970s, perhaps, but mighty impressive for a six-piece that included three octogenarians and one septuagenarian.
The three-bus, one-truck conglomeration was a lean, mean traveling machine, with music as the driving force binding everyone on board, one reason why Willie’s home base studio, Pedernales Recording, had recently gone private, so Willie can record whenever he wants.
Mickey Raphael, the Dallas-born harmonica man responsible for giving every WN tune its indelible ID, was almost giddy with the band’s renewed sound, the new crew boss, and the revived Paul. As the former “kid” in the band, Mickey went out of his way to mentor John Selman and now Kevin Smith in the Willie way. The infusion of youth was proving infectious.
Read Joe Nick’s entire article on his website.
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