by: Dave Shiflett
Music can be a hard life, as exemplified by the early departures of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Corbain and Amy Winehouse, all at age 27. Yet not every icon is doomed to a quick exit. Willie Nelson, at 82, is still playing 150 nights a year while occasionally denying Internet hoaxes that he too has gone toes-up. It’s enough to make you wonder what his secret is.
Willie—with whom the world is on a first-name basis—provides several hints in his candid, heartfelt memoir. “It’s a Long Story” will probably not be endorsed by the surgeon general, Sunday-school teachers or marriage counselors, but those of a traditional bent will be happy to learn that Jesus and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale are definitely in his backup band.
His enduring glory, we learn, did not originate in a stable relationship with his parents, who married when they were 16 and were divorced when he was 6 months old. Willie and his sister, Bobbie, ended up being raised in Abbott, Texas, by their grandparents Mama and Daddy Nelson. The Nelsons didn’t have much money but were rich with love—for each other, their grandchildren and the Baby Jesus. Willie got right with the Lord early on.
IT’S A LONG STORY
By Willie Nelson
Little, Brown, 392 pages, $30
“I was a believer as a kid,” he writes, “just as I am a believer as a man. I’ve never doubted the genius of Christ’s moral message or the truth of the miracles he performed. I see his presence on earth and resurrection as perfect man as a moment that altered human history, guiding us in the direction of healing love.” He also took to heart Norman Vincent Peale’s gospel of “positive thinking.”
His faith, however, didn’t inspire exceptionally close adherence to the rule book. He mentions that his Methodist church preached that “straight is the gate” but that he “can’t remember being afraid of venturing beyond that straight gate.” His walk on the wild side was under way by the time he hit double digits. He was using his musical talents to charm the local ladies by age 10 and discovered another keen interest. “As a kid I’d sneak off and smoke anything that burned. Loved to smoke. Would even smoke strips of cedar bark.”
Willie (with able assistance from veteran music journalist David Ritz) presents his story in a plainspoken, conversational tone reminiscent of his singing voice. He makes it clear that his lasting success cannot be attributed to matrimony, unless you mean the serial kind. He first married at 19 (his firecracker wife was three years younger), with two other stormy marriages to follow (his current marriage is holding strong). He admits that he didn’t practice monogamy nearly as much as guitar and could be prodigiously careless in covering his tracks. In one case he made the mistake of having the hospital where a love child was delivered mail the bill to his home. His wife was not amused.
But there is no doubting his devotion to music. By 14 he was playing in a polka band and had worked up enough confidence to book idol Bob Wills for a gig that provided him with his lifelong work ethic. Watching Wills perform that night, Willie is “transfixed” and feels as if Wills is telling him: “The job is to play like your life depends on it. . . . The job is to give the people what the people want and what the people need.”
While he would eventually get rich—he now divides his time between Maui, a spread in Austin, Texas, and his tour bus—things were desperately tight early on. He made ends meet by operating a tree chipper, selling encyclopedias and tapping the resources of working wives. Money was so scarce that he once offered to sell the rights to several of his early songs, including “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” for $10 each. Fortunately his offer was refused, and those songs have since deeply feathered his nest.
Readers hoping to pick up songwriting tips may be dismayed to learn that Willie’s songs came to him “prepackaged.” Composition has been so easy that he sometimes wonders: “Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit to express these feelings?” He later acknowledges less celestial assistance, including borrowing the opening note to “Crazy” from “I Gotta Have My Baby Back” by Floyd Tillman. “Good songwriters,” he explains, “realize that a little borrowing now and then is part of the process.” Attorneys take note.
Country-music fans will enjoy recollections of the times he spent with Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Johnny Cash. Willie’s relationship with Waylon was especially close and sometimes illuminated the mystical nature of popular music. As they prepared to sing a duet of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Willie asked whether his friend knew “what these lyrics are about.” Jennings responded, “No f—in’ idea, hoss.” They sang it anyway, as have over 1,000 other acts who have covered the deeply obscure if not flat-out incoherent megahit. His own hits, he adds, have sometimes confounded music-industry “suits,” who predicted that such triumphs as “Stardust” wouldn’t sell. “Last time I looked,” Willie says of the latter, “it had sold five million copies.”
He revisits other glories, and setbacks, including six claustrophobic months playing Branson, Mo., and a serious tangle with the IRS, which informed him, in his late 50s, that he owed $32 million in back taxes. He also lost a long-troubled son. Yet his positive attitude has never deserted him, thanks in part to the Good Lord, Norman Vincent Peale and a herbal supplement that is to his public persona what booze was to Dean Martin’s.
Willie’s long-standing relationship with marijuana has been no casual affair. When one of his houses caught fire he rushed inside to rescue his stash. He has toked high and low, near and far, and even on the White House roof during the Carter administration with a friend in high places, leaving one to wonder if the peanut was the only plant dear to the president’s heart. “I owe marijuana a lot. As I write these words on the verge of age eighty-two, I think I can fairly make the claim that marijuana—in the place of booze, cocaine, and tobacco—has contributed to my longevity.” It may be worth mentioning that Willie is also an avid golfer.
He ends the book in church, where he waxes somewhat humble about his long success. “I sing okay, I play okay, and I know that I can write a good song, but I still feel like I’ve been given a whole lot more than I deserve.” His many adoring fans would likely add that he gave as good as he got.
—Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at www.daveshiflett.com.