Yes, indeed, as the country-music giant affirms in his new autobiography, “It’s a Long Story: My Life.”
“As a kid, I’d sneak off and smoke anything that burned,” writes Nelson, who performs here Friday at Harrah’s Resort SoCal in Valley Center.
“Loved to smoke. Would even smoke strips of cedar bark. The various substances have changed over the years, but the act itself has never ceased to satisfy me.”
Happily, Nelson’s musical legacy continues to burn even brighter than his long-avowed fondness for marijuana.
Now 82, Nelson is embarked on a joint summer tour with his longtime band and Alison Krauss & Union Station, although his Harrah’s show is, sadly, sans Krauss.
Blessed with an oh-so-supple voice, Nelson has released 17 albums in the last decade alone — and nine since 2010. They include last year’s “December Day,” which teams him with his sister, Bobbie (his pianist for the past half century), and this year’s “Django and Jimmie,” his first duo outing with Merle Haggard since 1983’s “Pancho & Lefty.”
Highlights on the album include “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” “It’s All Gone To Pot,” “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” and an inspired new version of Haggard’s classic “Swinging Doors.”
“My Life,” co-written with David Rich, is not Nelson’s first book. It was preceded by “Willie: An Autobiography,” “The Tao Of Willie,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes.”
Nelson’s sense of humor is matched by his tenacity. Both have helped him greatly in a career that proceeded in fits and sparks, before finally igniting in the 1970s.
In 1961, four artists scored Top 20 hits with songs Nelson wrote: Patsy Cline (“Crazy”); Faron Young (“Hello Walls”); Ray Price (“Nightlife”); and Billy Walker (“Funny How Time Slips Away”). Yet, his first 14 albums were all flops. Undaunted, the Air Force veteran persevered, as befits a former encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salesman.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Nelson told me in a 1993 Union-Tribune interview.
“You’ve got to sell yourself first. And, once you do that, it really doesn’t matter what the product is; they’ll try to buy it from you, whether they like it or not. Door-to-door selling was the best education I ever had. My first door-to-door salesman job was back when I was a kid — so I’ve been selling one thing or another ever since I can remember.”
Willie Nelson & Family, with Emi Sunshine
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: The Events Center, Harrah’s Resort SoCal, 777 Harrah’s Resort Southern California Way, Valley Center
Behind Willie’s remarkable music is a remarkable life, well rendered in It’s a Long Story,” Willie’s recently released memoir, told with the help of David Ritz. Ritz’s talent is telling the story of public figures in their own voices. He has done this with such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Don Rickles. (I can’t imagine what this last one would be like — does he call the reader a hockey puck?) Willie and Ritz tell a great story without the rampant lily-gilding and score-settling that mar so many such memoirs.
It certainly has been a long story. Willie first played beer joints in West and Waco, Texas, at age 12 with a fifteen-person family outfit called the Rejeck Band. So it has been 70 years of writing songs and performing – with some time off in there to act in a few movies. (Perhaps “act” isn’t the precise word. In The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, and a few horse operas, Willie is just Willie. No acting required.) Willie turned 82 in April, and played 150 one-nighters over the past year. An alternative name to the memoir could have been “On the Road Again,” because Willie and his band have spent a remarkable amount of their performing lives on a tour bus.
Willie’s story begins in April of 1933 when he was born in Abbott, Texas, in the hill country near Waco. It would seem a bad stroke of luck to be born into a poor farm family in a poor part of the country during the Great Depression. More bad luck when Willie’s parents, both free spirits, deserted the family before Willie was in grade school, leaving him and his sister to be raised by their paternal grandparents. But Willie remembers these formative years as being happy ones, filled with music and love. Love from the grandparents, and music at Willie’s church, from the Philco radio at home, and from the other farm hands, including blacks and Mexicans, who worked the same fields the Nelsons did. Willie from the earliest saw music as something that lightened people’s load. Made them happy. And he’s been causing lots of happy ever since.
Willie was musically ecumnical from early on. As many a poor white son of the South, he loved to listen to Earnest Tubb and Roy Acuff on the radio. Another favorite in the Nelson household and across the region was Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who played something called Texas swing. But in addition to country music, Willie also tuned in Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louie Armstrong, and others, always able to recognize the value in the best in all musical forms.
Willie knew as a youngster that his career would be music. It’s all he ever wanted to do. He had the inclination and the talent. But while Willie may have been destined for greatness from the beginning, greatness took its sweet old time catching up with him. Along the way young Willie tried to advance his career in places like Waco, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Vancouver, Washington, Nashville (where he never fit in), and finally, and most simpatico, Austin.
Along with recording and performing, and music-related jobs like being a country music Deejay, Willie also kept body and soul together with such gigs as dishwasher, grain warehouse worker, tree trimmer, carpet removal worker, and gas station monkey. He even sold encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners. Until he was in his thirties, the wolf was not only often at Willie’s door, but was often biting his bum. Readers will cringe, as I did, when they read about how a money-desperate Willie almost sold all rights to “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Times Slips Away,” and “Hello Walls” for $10 each in Houston one night.
While Willie struggled mightily to get his musical life together and profitable, there were plenty of struggles in his private life as well. Never Mr. Discipline or, in his early adult life, Mr. Fidelity, there are three ex-wives who put up with Willie’s philandering for a long time before finally giving him his unconditional release. Willie says the fourth time is the charm, and that he and his current wife Annie are in it for the duration. We can hope so.
As most TAS readers already know, if there were a Conservative Life Hall of Fame, Willie would not be a first-ballot inductee. His left-populist politics vary from naïve to daft. He seems to have no left-delusion immune system, and his cultural analysis never rises above the level of the little guy is always noble and the banker is always a crook. His religious views would bewilder a room full of theologians.
Willie has said he’s a believer in Christ’s moral message, sees His presence on earth, and accepts His message of healing love. But Willie has never applied the Abbott United Methodist Church’s “straight is the gate” rules of engagement to his own life. To the evangelical Christianity of his childhood, Willie has added Buddhist riffs, reincarnation, and other exotica. If he is a missionary for anything it is for the healing powers of music and marijuana. In religion, as in so many other areas of his life, Willie manages to be sincere without being coherent.
Read more at http://spectator.org/articles/63185/willie-willie-%E2%80%94-revelations-and-recollections
Willie is clearly right-brained. Not an acute analyst. Not a relate the evidence to the hypothesis kind of guy. He’s heart over head every time. And his heart has brought to life music that will live much longer than this old road warrior. For this treasure, and the pleasure it brings us, we can forgive much and give thanks.
Willie, with the help of David Ritz’s, has told his remarkable story in a breezy, easily accessible style. It reads like what you might hear if you were sitting on the front porch talking with Willie about his life and about music. And who wouldn’t want to do that?
Read more at http://spectator.org/articles/63185/willie-willie-%E2%80%94-revelations-and-recollections
“This book is my way of sharing a little of what I’ve learned in seventy-two years of making music and friends on this beautiful planet.Â I don’t know if the things I write here will change your life, but they sure changed mine.
The ways my life has changed seem pretty amazing to me.Â For somewhere along the way, the freckle-faced, dirt-eating kid from Abbott, Texas, ended up being a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather with a family, friends, and work I wouldn’t trade for anything on earth.Â By hook or by crook, I seem to have stumbled onto something all of us search for in this great mystery of life.
Some would call it happiness, but I like to think that what I found is me.Â That sounds simple enough, but the truth is, it took quite a while to do it.Â Among other things, it took me learning that I had to quit trying to be something else.
Trying to be someone else is the hardest road there is.
I thought I’d tell you a little about how I got here, and maybe by getting to know me and a little about the path I’ve taken, you’ll find a path of your own.Â Along the way, you’ll get to know both of us a little better.
That’s what we’re talking about — me and you.
So welcome to The Tao of Willie, my little guide to the happiness in your own heart.Â From the get-go, we need to get one thing straight.Â If you’re looking for a scholarly work about the ancient Eastern philosophy found in the Tao Te Ching, this may not be what you had in mind.
On the other hand, if you don’tÂ know beans about the ancient Chinese philosophy called the Tao, there’s no reason to fret.Â You don’t have to know the Tao for the Tao to know you.
Whatever you think of the Tao, if my thoughts strike that bell of truth in your heart, it will also be ringing in mine.
Attention, people of Texas in general and Austin in particular: Michael Streissguth, author of “Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville,” insists that the title is not personal.
Indeed, it absolutely makes sense.
When most folks think of outlaw country, they think of Texas. “Progressive” country, the Armadillo World Headquarters, hippies and rednecks getting together: These things are as crucial to the mythology of late 20th-century Austin as anything.
But Waylon Jennings, he of the massive voice, rugged persona and love of the guitar phaser-effect; Willie Nelson, he of “Red-Headed Stranger” and dealing with super-stardom better than most; Kris Kristofferson, he of a genuinely revolutionary way to write country songs: These guys were rebelling against Nashville, not Texas.
And Nashville was still (and is still) the world capital of country music, the center of the industry, the place where all three artists spent an awful lot of time.
“I do feel like Nashville lived in some ways in the shadows of this movement,” Streissguth says.
The Le Moyne College professor is the author of several books on country music, including two on Johnny Cash. “They had come from Texas, but they were based in Nashville, for the most part,” Streissguth says. (Willie’s Texas residency excluded.) “I wanted to tell the Nashville side of the story.”
Streissguth says the book started when he began to look into the life and times of the great Waylon Jennings.
“When ‘Crazy Heart’ with Jeff Bridges came out, it reminded me that Jennings had been dead (about seven years), and he seemed to be slipping from memory,” Streissguth says. He started getting into Waylon’s life and career, and that opened up the outlaw topic.
“Outlaw” traces the movement via the very different career paths of Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson. All three intersected with each other’s careers, all three embodied a new way of thinking about (and writing and recording) country music.
But all three started at different points and arrived at very different places. Along with way, Streissguth folds in figures such as Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Kinky Friedman, and, of course, Johnny Cash.
“I don’t want to say there is a specific path from Cash to outlaw,” Streissguth says. However, Cash is certainly a player, recording Kristofferson’s songs and engaging progressive singer-songwriters on his short-lived-but-increasingly legendary TV show, which featured performances from Kristofferson, Jennings and Bob Dylan.
In fact, Dylan’s recording “Blonde on Blonde” in Nashville is one of the key moments in the development of outlaw country. “There was one ‘a-ha!’ moment in writing this, and that was finding out that Kristofferson was working as a studio lackey during the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ sessions,” Streissguth says. “I don’t think you can’t discount how Dylan changed Nashville.”
Then again, Streissguth got a lot of time with Kristofferson. “He was very generous,” Streissguth says. “I didn’t talk to Willie, though I tried, and Waylon came alive for me through his drummer and confidant Richie Albright. Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Roseanne Cash were great as well.”
What emerges is a case for Nashville as its own incubator, a place where, for a brief period of time, this sort of songwriting flourished.
“I do think that we typecast Nashville,” Streissguth says. “There was very much a Greenwich Village-like scene in the West End,” the neighborhood that helped nurture all of the book’s heroes.
In fact, there were many aspects to Nashville in this period that Streissguth thinks have been under-reported or are becoming forgotten. An entire generation knows Kristofferson more as a character actor than a songwriter.
“It’s a cliche at this point, but Kristofferson’s songwriting changed Nashville, it really did,” Streissguth says. “And I developed a great appreciation for producers such as Fred Foster and Jack Clement. These guys were serious risk takers. They took chances on artists, and you need that in a vibrant scene. Anything that is pioneering involves money and risk.”
Streissguth notes that Clement collected these songwriters, giving them publishing deals and pushing them to think big about their careers. “He would say, ‘you’re a writer, but have you thought about performing? What about film-making?’”
Waylon, the reason for all of this research, also came under some revision.
“There was a lot of bluster surrounding him and this idea that the was rebelling for the sake of rebelling,” Streissguth says. “But you look at the nuances of his career, and he really had been beaten down by the Nashville machine. He was thinking about packing it in and becoming a session guitarist.”
And then there were Waylon’s personal habits. “Cocaine is almost a character in this book,” Streissguth says. (Speed is pretty important as well.) “I think Waylon’s suspicion of journalists and fans really harmed him in the long run. Had Waylon made himself more accessible to the world, the way Willie did, I suspect we would be talking about him in the same way as Willie.”
Ah, Willie. He really does emerge from “Outlaw” better than anyone.
“No question he becomes the quintessential outlaw figure,” Streissguth says. Kristofferson went Hollywood, Waylon flamed out, but Willie endured. “He’s remained on this even path, and he’s still such a powerful symbol of so many aspects of American culture.”
I met Robert Redford at a benefit in New York City. The next day, we found ourselves sitting next to each other on the plane back to Los Angeles. We got to talking. He told me about this movie, The Electric Horseman, that he and Jane Fonda were about to make with director Sydney Pollack.
“Ever thought about doing a movie, Willie?” he asked.
“Sure. But let me ask you this, Bob: is acting anything like having a conversation?”
“That’s exactly what it’s like.”
“Well, I believe I can do that.”
“You’re a natural, Willie. As a singer and musician, you’re naturally relaxed. As an actor, I think that same quality would come through.”
I thanked him for the kind remark. The more I thought about it, the more I was inclined to make the move. But how?
Figured the simplest way was the best. Pick up the phone, call the boss, and ask for the job. In this case the boss was Sydney Pollack.
I’d never met the man, but he sounded glad to hear from me. “How can I help you, Willie?”
“Put me in that movie you’re making with Bob and Jane Fonda.”
He laughed, not scornfully but sweetly.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “you might be right for the part of Redford’s manager. Would you mind reading for it?”
“Be my pleasure.”
The reading was easy. The part was easy. I played myself. In fact, in every movie to follow, I played myself. Or as that great sidekick cowboy Slim Pickens would soon say, “No one plays Willie Nelson better than Willie Nelson.”
I didn’t plan and I didn’t rehearse. I learned my lines, but tended to bend them my own way — or borrow from writer friends. In The Electric Horseman, Pollack loved the line I spewed: “Gonna get myself a bottle of tequila and find me one of those Keno girls who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch and kick back.” Still not sure how that made it past the ratings people. Wish I could claim credit, but I’d found it in a novel by my buddies Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins, who were happy to loan it out. For the most part, though, I did what Redford had predicted I’d do: I said what came naturally.
Reviews were great. I sang what I thought was an appropriate song on the soundtrack, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, as well as Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.
The film did brisk business, I got good reviews and, just like that, I was sitting in a dark theatre and staring up at myself on the silver screen, another one of those crazy boyhood fantasies turned real. The hustler in me got all worked up. Movies were not only easy to do, but the exposure gave me an even bigger audience, not to mention good money.
Just as I’d always wanted to do it my own way with music, I wanted to take the same approach with film. I’d work up my own projects. The first that came to mind wasRed Headed Stranger. Connie [Nelson’s third wife] had been right: ever since I sang it to my children, I’d always seen that song as a movie. If people were calling me a natural actor, I sure as hell would call that song a natural film script.
Took the idea to my friend Bud Shrake, but Bud was hesitant.
“How you gonna make a hero out of a man who shoots his woman to death for stealing a horse?”
Bud suggested I try another writer friend in Austin, Bill Wittliff, who wrote a beautiful screenplay that Universal liked. My idea was to make the movie with their money through my production company. Of course I’d play the Red Headed Stranger.
Universal didn’t see it that way. They saw Robert Redford in the role. They also wanted me to leave Columbia Records for their label, MCA. Welcome to Hollywood, where strings are always attached.
Being a practical man, I couldn’t dismiss their offer out of hand. Redford could easily play the part. I called Bob to see what he thought of the script. He liked it but said he needed time to make a decision.
Well, two years later Bob still hadn’t made up his mind. By then Universal had lost interest and I was back where I started. I had a good screenplay but no financing. And of course I was not about to break Hollywood’s golden rule: When making a movie, never use your own money.
With patience, I figured, the stars would be aligned and the Red Headed Stranger would have his day.
In the meantime, other roles came my way. In Honeysuckle Rose, I starred as Buck Bonham, a Willie Nelson-styled character torn between his love for his wife, Dyan Cannon, and his girlfriend, Amy Irving — a delicious dilemma if there ever was one. Sydney Pollack was the producer. At one point Sydney, director Jerry Schatzberg and I were flying to some location in a private plane.
“This movie could use a song, Willie,” said Sydney. “What do you say?”
I was always willing, ready, and able to write a song. “What do you think it should be about?” I asked. “Being on the road.”
Nonchalantly, I threw out a line at them: “On the road again.”
Sydney and Jerry looked at each other for a second or two. Then, at the same time, they said, “That’s it!”
“But do you have a melody?” asked Sydney. “I will by the time we get to the studio.”
By the time the plane landed, the lyrics were written.
On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends And I can’t wait to get on the road again On the road again Goin’ places that I’ve never been Seein’ things that I may never see again And I can’t wait to get on the road again On the road again Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway We’re the best of friends Insisting that the world keep turning our way
As promised, the melody clicked in shortly thereafter. Independent of the film, the song wound up with a life of its own. Even got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Became a big hit on its own — so big that when it was time to air the movie on TV, they changed the title from Honeysuckle Rose to On the Road Again. That simple song, a part of my nightly repertoire ever since I wrote it back in 1979, has had a longer battery life than the film it was written for.
The studios took a liking to me. In Barbarosa, written by Bill Wittliff, I played the lead character, a badass cowboy, and co-starred with Gary Busey. The press had been calling me an outlaw for so long, I figured I might as well get paid to play one.
And in Songwriter, I was Doc Jenkins, the most autobiographical Willie Nelson character of all. That’s ’cause it was written by Bud Shrake, who knew me so well. The story has Doc all mixed up with hard-headed producers, crooked promoters, and sexy women. He means well. All he wants is a simple life with his wife and children, but he just can’t resist the temptations of the road. That sounded awfully familiar. I was having fun, but my co-star Kris Kristofferson proved to be a singer who, unlike me, had honest to God acting chops.
At about the same time my movie career kicked off — the tail end of the seventies — I was able to buy the old Pedernales Country Club together with a large parcel of land. Thirty miles outside Austin, this acreage was the perfect spot. There was lots of room for friends and family to camp out as long as they wanted. This was also where I’d build my recording studio.
To say his Christian faith is unconventional is an understatement. A rebel since his teens, the singer’s tumultuous career and personal life mirror the ups and downs of his spiritual journey, which seems to resemble a tapestry of many colors.
But embedded deeply in his DNA is his Christian upbringing in the Abbott Methodist Church in rural Texas, where he and sister Bobbie sang gospel songs as children.
His mother deserted him shortly after his birth, which undoubtedly left a painful void. A short time later, his father remarried and left Willie and his sister in the care of grandparents, Mama and Daddy Nelson, who loved the Lord.
Daddy Nelson, a blacksmith, bought him a guitar when he was six and taught him a few chords, which began Willie’s life-long love affair with music.
Their grandfather gave sister Bobbie a piano he procured for $35. Bobbie recalls their grandmother singing the gospel standard “The Great Speckled Bird” while she and Willie played along in church, according to an interview she did with Matt Curry, a Presbyterian minister.
“I don’t sing,” Bobbie told Rev. Curry. “When I was very young, I used to harmonize with Willie when we would sing in church. His voice is so good, and I never had that quality of voice. He didn’t need me. I could get in his way. So I just played piano for him to sing. That’s what we still do.”
The Abbott Methodist Church still holds a special place in Willie’s heart. When the church faced financial problems in 2006 and considered selling the building, the singer purchased it so they could continue holding services.
“Now, you’re all members of the Abbott Methodist Church, and you will be, forever and ever,” he told congregants then, according to news sources.
The church’s Facebook page describes it as a “wonderful ole country church saved from destruction by Willie and Bobbie Nelson. God is alive and well at the Abbott Methodist Church!!!!!!” The worship schedule includes the notation that “you just never know who will be there for service.”
As a younger man, Willie taught Sunday School in Fort Worth, Texas and sold Bibles door-to-door to makes end meet.
About the writer: Mark Ellis is a senior correspondent for ASSIST News Service and also the founder of www.Godreports.com, a website that shares stories, testimonies and videos from the church around the world to build interest and involvement in world missions.
** You may republublish and any of OUR ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
Summer is a time of familiar comforts: the scent of sunscreen and the feeling of sand between toes, the taste of Bomb Pops and the sight of long, late, orange sunsets. But with the multiplexes filled with sequels, reboots, and retreads, and the beginning of a long election season crowded with familiar names, don’t you think something original is in order? In the spirit of getting out of our comfort zones this summer and taking a crack at something new, we asked recent Zócalo guests for the fresh and forthcoming nonfiction books they think curious people should bring to the beach, pool, bar, and porch this summer.
It’s a Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson
As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed Willie Nelson a few times—and yes, one of those times was on his tour bus. He was a candid and captivating storyteller, a warm-hearted outlaw with a unique perspective on his life as a singer, songwriter, and activist. And so first on my list of summer beach reads is his new autobiography. We all know Willie’s music, but equally interesting are his musical journey and his boundary-pushing, from bucking the established Nashville Sound of the ’60s to his current crusade to legalize marijuana. — Denise Quan, entertainment journalist and producer
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.
It’s a Long Story: My Life
Willie Nelson with David Ritz |
Little, Brown and Company
Willie Hugh Nelson, known by the whole world simply as Willie (or The Red- Headed Stranger, if you have a flair for the dramatic), was born in the tiny north Texas town of Abbott. At 7, he started writing poems and shortly thereafter, as he learned to play guitar, he started setting poems to music.
Long before he penned classic country radio hits like “Crazy,” or helped define the outlaw country movement of the ’70s, or created the Farm Aid benefit concert, or championed marijuana legalization, or wore a hole in his trusty guitar Trigger, or got screwed by the IRS, or received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, Nelson was instinctually writing songs as a way of expressing himself and of telling stories he deemed important.
His latest book, It’s a Long Story: My Life, is really just a natural extension of these instincts towards self-expression and storytelling. Billed as the definitive Willie Nelson autobiography — perhaps to distinguish it from earlier, less complete attempts — Long Story thrives on the basis of two factors: Nelson’s short sentences, chalk-full of his deadpan wit and the larger-than-life tales he shares.
Nelson, 82, spins humorous yarns and tales of palling around with famous buddies like Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and even President Jimmy Carter. Also here, however, are heartbreaking stories of familial strife, addiction and remorse — though rarely ever regret.
Nelson’s story, as he delivers it in Long Story, is wrapped up in the progression of American culture in the 20th century. He quotes Whitman on contradiction, advocates for gay rights, remembers helping Charley Pride break down color barriers in country music, details “bitch slapping” his daughter’s abusive boyfriend and tells about how it could easily have been him instead of The Big Bopper in that plane the day the music died. Through these stories and liberal plugs of quotations from his songs, Nelson unravels himself, but he also tells a story about all of us.
Nelson’s sage and easy-going spin on these various yarns, and the morals he offers up in his summations, are endearing and entertaining. The true Williehead will likely find no particularly new factual information here, but fans and initiates alike, as well as those with an interest in popular music history, will nevertheless find it essential reading.
“Troubadour.” Willie Nelson was just a kid when he discovered the word and learned what it meant. He savoured it, accurately sensing that the concept of a travelling minstrel would define his entire life. His fervent wanderlust was inherited from his mom—a woman, he says, “who sought adventure and the open road.” She and Willie’s dad divorced when he was six months old and remained caring but distant parents. His paternal grandparents, taking responsibility for raising Willie and sister Bobbie in the tiny Texas burg of Abbott, nurtured his love of, and appreciation for, a wide spectrum of music. But as Nelson tells it—in precisely the sort of colourfully plainspoken way you’d expect—his musical journey didn’t truly began until, in his teens, he discovered jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Frank Sinatra was near as influential.
Major success didn’t happen until he was into his forties. Nelson devotes nearly half of his “long story” to two preceding decades as he bounced from Texas to California to Oregon to Nashville, working as a radio deejay and sideman for hire, finally breaking through as a songwriter with hits like Crazy (for Patsy Cline) and Funny How Times Slips Away. His inherent restlessness extended to his love life. He’s been married four times, with more than a few flings and flirtations.
It wasn’t until the mid-’70s that his career as a performer took flight. It was the dawn of “outlaw country” and Nelson emerged as the movement’s beloved, grizzled icon. Still, he refused to be pigeonholed, scoring with everything from classic honkytonk to gospel and Stardust, his landmark collection of vintage standards that remained on the charts for over a decade.
Though the book’s final third touches on such professional highlights as his establishment of Farm Aid, his ignition of the vibrant Austin music scene and his role, alongside Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the country supergroup the Highwaymen, two personal themes dominate. First are his long-standing troubles with the IRS that, with demands for $32 million in back taxes, nearly crushed him. More predominantly, there’s his outspoken affection for, and advocacy of, marijuana. He delights in telling of a clandestine climb to the roof of the White House during the Carter administration for a quick joint. “I couldn’t betray marijuana any more than I could betray a family member or a lifetime friend,” he says, “That’s because marijuana has never betrayed me.”
Across eight decades, Nelson’s serpentine road has often been a bumpy one. Along the way, he’s drawn inspiration from such disparate gurus as Khalil Gibran, Norman Vincent Peale and Edgar Cayce. All these years later, toting “Trigger,” the timeworn Martin N-20 guitar that’s been his trusty sidekick since 1969, he remains, quite simply, “a picker from Hill Country, Texas, who got more good breaks than bad and managed to keep from going crazy by staying close to the music of his heart.”