Danny Clinch shooting Willie Nelson and his sons for a high- fashion campaign. / Courtesy of Danny Clinch
Behind the scenes w/ the photographer who shot Willie’s new album cover and the John Varvatos fall and winter campaign that Willie and the boys were featured in.
Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category
Danny Clinch shooting Willie Nelson and his sons for a high- fashion campaign. / Courtesy of Danny Clinch
Funny How Time Slips Away
by Bill DeYoung
Well, hello there My it’s been a long, long time
With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna (both trademarks of his for many years), he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.
How’m I doing? Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine
There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre–jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tip–toe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.
It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.
It’s been so long now And it seems that it was only yesterday
For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show–business.
And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Nelson never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, usuing the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville—and the world—was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.
When he and success found themselves at last running neck–and–neck on the same horse track, Nelson made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight–ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.
Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away?
Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”
Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.
Nelson is the original Zen cowboy—no one knows him can recall any show of temper, ever—and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”
Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid–back before people knew what laid–back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”
The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”
Patience, as a virtue was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.
Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933 in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees). Nelson was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson. Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Nelson’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.
Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player and loved to play and sing music. He encouraged the same in his children: Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two. Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a cardboard–box piano.
Mother Myrle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrabbler, a free spirit and a fun–lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.
Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents, William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson. Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice, a Methodist.
But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail–order degrees, and they filled their two–story house in Abbott with song: Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.
Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (when she go a real one) night and day. The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled, as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible. Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six. He gave the boy a chord book, which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.
Willie had made his first public performance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing–along and picnic. He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white–and–red sailor suit. Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.
Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age seven, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame–red hair, his nickname was Booger Red.
Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather: The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house). His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Forth Worth.
“I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled. “Because it was new in the house. There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it. The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry. That was a regular. And everything else. I turned the dial.
“I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really. A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley. And Glenn Miller and those guys.”
Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and into what Nelson would later describe as a “shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields. Nelson’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.
Cotton picking is back–breaking, hand–shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him. Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep somewhere out of the brutal Texas sun.
He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues. Their regular Methodist Church visits filled Willie and Bobbie with gospel music and Christian hymns.
The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial–shopped ceaselessly, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned to love lyrics and melody.
Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart. Although Bob Wills and Texas swing were omnipresent on the Texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO in Waco, for Hank Thompson’s hillbilly show. He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams too. Floyd Tillman was a big favorite.
Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off–meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.
“My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early. And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”
But Nelson’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who first showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.
“Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills and probably other people that I don’t even know.”
Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.
“It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be , but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there…I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”
While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15–member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and horn section.
He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand–printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.
Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with the 13–year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Nelson thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.
That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.
Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs. I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”
Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Nelson’s musical education.
“My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30?s and ’20?s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”
It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact—still a crony of Nelson’s today—who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start–up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).
Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16–year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.
Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).
In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign–on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’, hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.
“He was a Fort Worth pimp and part–time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up. (more…)
Mother Earth News May/June 1987 Farm Aid’s Founder:Â Willie Nelson Patrick Carr
It’s midwinter in Tampa, Florida, and as usual the weather is warm going on stifling. Willie Nelson really needs the air conditioner humming peacefully in his mobile home away from home, the Silver Eagle Honeysuckle Rose.
In his own, quiet, careful way, Willie’s all business today. Waiting in the cool, dark comfort of the bus for the horde of people his presence will draw to town tonight, he’s working hard: poring over snapshots of himself and his sister Bobbie outside the Abbott, Texas, church in which they learned to sing, for the cover of a genuine hard-core Christian mail-order gospel album; making little decisions about the set he and his band of honky-tonk gypsies will play tonight; ordering up a carefully nutritious chicken dinner from the kitchen bus that travels with his five-vehicle caravan, then forgetting to eat it; talking business with little haste or waste of words or energy, on the radio telephone at his elbow.
The business concerns the usual megastar matters — movie promotion, investment opportunities, the touring schedule, a $1.5 million book contract — but also something seemingly out of place in this context: the Farm Aid cause, Mr. Nelson’s foray into public service. Cocooned amid Tampa’s concrete consumerism, the former Bible salesman, and latter-day multimillionaire is taking time to help the family farmers of his country fight back against government policy, big business and the economics of scale.
There is something rather special about Willie Nelson. It was he, after all, who united the rednecks and the hippies and the surburbanites of the 1970s in appreciation of a style of country music considered both archaic and impossibly uncommercial by the Nashville powers-that-were. Likewise his image — a lovely blend of longhair, cowboy, rebel, hardcore party legend and wise old man — is suggestive.
It’s no wonder he’s such an institution. You can look up to some entertainers (Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Paul McCartney), but Willie invites involvement, not distance. The dominant element of his stare — a thoroughly savvy serenity — is mighty trustworthy.
That invitation to trust must have been part of his image all along. Certainly it was during his late teenage years, when he was already trying to get ahead in the world by promoting dance concerts throughout east Texas, earning his percentage from acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and the Brownies, Spade Cooley, and the legendary Ernest Tubb while he watched from the wings and learned the ropes.
It also impressed the folks in the Nashville big leagues after Willie had decided to forgo his studies for the Baptist ministery in favor of a full-time career in the hillbilly highway nightlife; you need a lot more than even the kind of devasting song-writing talent Willie possessses to become a primary source for the Music Row hit machine the way he did in pretty short order. And when eventually his ambitions outstripped what Nashville was willing to offer and he made his legendary end-run around Music Row, his aura so impressed the college hippioes of Austin, texas, that not too long after he’d been among them they began to buy posters proclaiming, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie,” and to enshrine them in their places of fun and meditation.
A Nashville executive describes his experience: “It was amazing, just wonderful,” says the Nashville executive. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Neil Reshen (Willie’s manager) was so bad — I mean, you really wanted to have the man arrested; the secretaries used to run for the bathroom when he showed up. But when you talked to Willie, it was like negotiating with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and you were so relieved you didn’t have to deal with Neil that you gave Willie whatever he wanted. But, of course, what Neil wanted and what Willie wanted were the same things. They were working the good cop, bad cop routine, the oldest con in the world, but they did it so well you didn’t realize what was going on till it was all over. And by then you’d done a deal you’d never have even dreamed of otherwise. Willie just outplayed me, and he ended up getting what he really deserved. And all that means is he’s smarter than I am. He just has to turn that smile on you, and you’re hooked. But now I take him seriously. He may be beautiful, but he’s not dumb.”
Such a man — with his hard-earned combination of country compassion, common sense and carefully honed business skills – would have been the perfect choice if American farmers had gone looking for a leader in their hour of need. That’s not how it happened, though. It was Willie who went unbidden to the farmers.
September 1985 was when it began, in Champaine, Illinois, as a notion kicked around between Willie and his crew in the wake of Bob Geldof’s Life Aid marathon. As Willie recalls, in the low-to-vanishing key for which he is renowned, “I have no idea how it got started. I was just sitting in the bus….”
Like a large proportion of the projects Willie judges worthy, the 14-hour Farm Aid benefit moved from the idea to action with little further ado. It was set up with minimum fuss and executed with slightly less toll and craziness than usually attends a mammoth outdoor music festival featuring multiple major entertainers. (Which figures. After more than a decade of organizing and hosting his legendary Fourth of July picnics, Willie is perhaps the world’s premier mastermind of such events.) When it was all over — when Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Alabama, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferosn, Bon Jovi, Joni Mitchell, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Cougar Mellencamp and some 45 other acts had done their thing and the TV viewers who watched them had sent in their donations — Willie and his crew suddenly found themselves in temporary possession of a great deal of donated money.
That came as something of a shock. “I figured people would respond,” says Willie, “but not nearly as well as they did, and as all that money started rollin’ in, I had to rethink my position. I realized I had to do a lot more than make some calls and go out and sing. My name was attached to that money, so by necessity I had to take responsibility and decide that I would be the one who writes the checks. So that’s what happens, nothing goes out without my signature on it. And so far, I know that every quarter of that money has gone to benefit the family farmer in some way.”
After Farm Aid One in Illinois and Farm Aid Two, held in Austin on the Fourth of July, 1986, the approximate total for which Willie has taken responsibility is $14 million.
And Willie doesn’t just sign the checks, he approves them.
“He makes the final decision,” says Caroline Mugar, the director of Farm Aid (Willie is Chairman of the Board). “We just do the research on what’s going on, who’s doing what where, what they hope to do and how they’ve used the money they’ve already gotten, and we make recommendations Then Willie decides.”
Willie Nelson,photograph by Annie Leibovitz,
Willie Nelson lives on the road. So it made perfect sense for him to just park the tour bus on the street outside Annie Leibowitz ‘s studio sometime in the middle of the night before the shoot. (We got the permit.) By his own account, the 70-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer is tough and stuborn and knows what he wants. When asked if he would like to put on one of the many cowboy hats that had been collected for him, he said, “You mean as opposed to the one I’m wearing?” leaving little room for discussion.
He’s also a charmer, an elequent poet, a songwriter, actor, Farm Aid Co-Founder, and golfer who, in his 40-year career has made records and performed in concerts with practically everyone — including Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Julio Iglesias. One of his favorite duet partners is Norah Jones, and at our shoot these two very private stars were clearly pleased to have some time to sit next to each other and catch up. Later, posing duties over, Willie got back on his bus to go to New Jersey for a show on the never ending tour that is his life.
by Lisa Robinson .
Annie Leibovitz: American Jewish Photographer, born October 2nd, 1949 in Westbury, Connecticut, She is the third of six children, her great grandparents were Russian Jews and her father’s parents emigrated from Romania. Her mother was a modern dance instructor and her father was a lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Air Force. They moved a lot because of her father’s work and took her first photographs in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. When she was in high school she became very artistic and interested in music and writing. She attended the San Francisco Art institute where she studied painting. Later. she kept developing her photography skills and soon learned to adapt Jewish concepts to her photographs in certain jobs.
When the Rolling Stone magazine was just launched in the 1970s, Leibovitz started her career as a staff photographer for them. In 1973, she was titled chief photographer for the Rolling Stone which she would continue on for 10 years. Most of her intimate photographs of celebrities is what helped define the Rolling Stone look; Photographers such as Robert One of Her first assignment was to shoot John Lennon.
At 66, Willie Nelson is Still on the Road, and Headed for Another Joint
by Bob Townsend
After the Yesterday’s Wine album came out a friend of mine got a call from a hippie fan in San Francisco who said, “I’m worried about Willie. He thinks he’s Jesus.”
I got a kick out of that. Just last year, one of those supermarket newspapers had a full page story about the face of Jesus suddenly appearing on the outside wall of a grocery store in South America after a dramatic rainstorm. Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus, and some of the sick went away cured. A few days later, following another thunderstorm, a new figure appeared on the wall beside Jesus. It was Julio Iglesias.
What happened, the rain had washed off the coat of whitewash that had covered a poster for “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
The supermarket headline said: THAT’S NOT JESUS – IT’S JUST OLD WILLIE
– Willie Nelson
It’s hard to say much about Willie Nelson without reverting to hyperbole, let alone spiritual metaphor. But the man is a cultural icon like few others — fiercely capable of maintaining his artistic integrity while somehow being all things to all people.
An idol beloved by bikers and hemp smokers, old ladies and babies and almost everyone in between, Willie has done time in Nashville and Hollywood, recorded over 200 albums and, in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, appeared in the guise of country-politan songsmith, redneck outlaw, rural folk hero, canny interpreter of sappy standards, savior of the family farmer, and David fighting the IRS Goliath.
An ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic wrote in the liner notes to the recent weirdo tribute Twisted Willie, he is the rare figure who ‘transcends genre and generation.” But unlike many big stars, his larger-than-life persona exudse a mellow, comforting quality. Willie is the wide-eyed, pothead rascal in red pigtails, T-shirt and running shoes, who seems to hold some cabalistic clue to the meaning of the universe.
“He has this presence that radiates out of him – an aura.” Emmylou Harris has said, “You can feel it even when he’s not in the room. If you want to understand what I’m taliking aobut, go to one of his concerts. People act like they’re in church, as if he fills a spirtual void for them.”
That commingling of the everyday and the ethereal even translates over the telephone wire. Calling from a stop in Albuquerque one afternoon, Nelson’s sonorous baritone fills the receiver like a familiar refrain. “This is Willie,” he says. And so it is.
Nelson is on the road again.Â But isn’t he always on the road, if only in his mind? Through he turns 66 this month – an age when most of his associates have retired, or set up shop in Branson — Willie is touring behind one of the most adventurous recordings of his career.
Teatro harks back to the turbulent early ’60′s, when Nelson sojourned in the wilderness of Nashville as a short-haired Music Row songwriter. That’s when he penned such jazz-bent masterpieces as “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls” and “Crazy” — songs that forever changed the sound of country music, and gained Nelson his first measure of success. But it was also a period when his personal life was disintegrating along with his first marriage.
With the help of producers Daniel Lanois and fellow traveler Emmylou Harrris, Nelson recalled those days in radical fashion on Teatro. Recording in a converted Mexican movie theater, Lanois delivered the kind of cinematic energy he made famous in his work with U2, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan and lately, Harris herself. But Nelson didn’t allow Lanois to go too far over the top, as he turned in one of his most battered and beautiful performances since the early ’70s, when he made Phases and Stages in Miracle Shoals with Jerry Wexler.
Nelson, who entrusted Lanois with nearly complete control of the Teatro sessions, is magnamimous in his praise for the shifting sonic textrues he conjured on the disc. “I felt like I was lucky to get him” he says. “I left it up to him, more or less, because his idea was to take the song, and the voice and the guitar and then build around it and enhance it. I was interested to see what he would do, so I let him have a free hand.”
Interestingly, Nelson says he even allowed Lanois to pick the songs for the album. “We started out with 100 songs, picked 20 of those, and then ten of those to record . I turned in new songs and old songs together. And I felt like maybe all the new songs would get reocrded, but I was going to let Daniel choose the ones he liked. He listened to the old ones and the new ones not knowing which was which, and he picked the songs that are on the album/ I left it enterely up to him.”
But there was one tune Nelson thought twice about: “The one where I choke the girl.” He says he thought the jealous murder ballad, “I Just Can’t Let You Say Good-Bye” was a tad too dark — even for an album that features, “I Never cared for you,” “I Just Destroyed the World” and “Darkness On the Face of the Earth,” in its exhibition of lovesick devastation. “I probably wouldn’t have put it in. But he liked it so well. I even argued with him. I said, ‘No. You don’t want to put that goddammed song in there.”
Of course, listeners who’ve only heard Willie crooning with Julio or pickin’ with Waylon may be surprised by how much he risks on Teatro. But longtime fans have seen Nelson through all manner of changes. And as his continuing spate of concept albums (he recorded his first, Yesterday’s Wine, in 1971), duet projects and musical tributes prove, he clearly likes shaking things up from time to time. “Maybe that’s what I do best,” he allows.
Nelson laughs easily when reminded of the grocery store Jesus story. “Pretty weird,” he says.Â But when it comes to accounting for all the fame, fortune and awards — such as being named a Kennedy Center honoree, and squeezing into a tux to stand alongside the likes of Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black — Willie cops the perfect Zen bastard blend of antic, irony and wistful awe.
“I guess I think, “Fooled ‘em again,’” he says. “Dazzled ‘em with fancy footwork.’ But I do, I wonder about it occasionally — how it all happened, and how it all got to where it is — until I just give up wondering about it.”
When he was born in 1933, in the town of Abbott, in the midst of the Great Depression, it would have been pretty hard to predict that Willie Hugh Nelson would amount to anything.Â It would have been nigh on impossible to foresee Red Headed Stranger, let alone The Electric Horseman, or Wag the Dog.
“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie recently told an Entertainment Weekly writer. “Because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer your’re going to hell. And by 7, I was gone.”
Willie found salvation in poetry and music: “I started writing poems when I was about 5. And when I learned to play guitar I was about 6, so I started putting melodies to the poems.” And he began embracing the whole wide world of sounds that emanated from the fields and churches of Abbott, and the air waves beyond.
“I listened to the radio a lot when I was growing up. I listened to all the stations, from jazz, to blues, to boogie woogie, to country to WSLM in Nashville — and we listened to WLS in Chicago, and we’d catch a station out of New Orleans — so I just listened to everything.”
As to his distinction Django Reinhardt meets Bob Wills style of guitar playing, Wilie has a rather surprising explanation: “I’ve always felt that I was about half Mexican. And I may be, because I really love the Spanish flavors, and Mexican mariachi, and gypsy type music. I was just born and raised around that kind of music and I love it. So I guess that’s why you hear a lot of that in my music, because that’s part of me.”
One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the way he goes about writing a song, “I guess it’s always been the same,” he ways. “I get an idea and I write it. But I have to have an idea to start with. The melodies aren’t that hard, once you get the lyrics.”
Nelson says his early years as a songwriter, which Teatro reveals in stark relief, were a kind of excruciating conundrum. “Nashvile was easy, really, because everything was formula. If you wanted to write commercial stuff and you were a professional writer, it wouldn’t be a problem to do it. I just wanted to write what I felt like saying. And then, if at the same time I could imagine someone singing that song, then I would write it with a melody, or a rhythm that I felt like that one perosn might be comfortable with.”
“For instance I wanted to hear Billy Walker do “Funny How Time Slips Away’ and I wanted to hear Faron young do “Hellow Walls’ and wanted to hear Ray Price do ‘Night Life’ – so I just had these little ideas of what I wanted to hear, and I would try to work in that direction.”
Confronted with the standard show biz query as to if there’s anyone he hasn’t worked with that he’d like to, Nelson pauses to think about it for a moment. “I would be sort of greedy and selfish if I said, “Oh I’d like to do this, and this, and this and this,” he says. “Because I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of things with a lot of great people. I’ve sung with B.B. King and Hank Williams and Ray Price and Faron Young and Lefty Frizell and Julio. What else could I want? I jokingly said the other day that I think Barbra Streisand and I ought to do something together. But after I think about it awhile, maybe we could. Like ‘A Star is Buried.’”
The Family, Willie’s legendary road band, is another thing that has remained fairly constant over time. His sister, Bobbie Nelson, can still be found on keyboards, offering an emotional and musical continuity that goes back to Abbott, where she and Willie learned to play through mail order courses taught to them by their grandparents. And then there’s long time sidekicks, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and drummer Paul English.
“We’re more acoustic than we used to be,” Nelson offers. “The instrumentation is a little different. The bass player now is playing acoustic bass. Paul is playing just the snare. So we’ve reduced the loudness of the rhythms – it’s a little more subtle. And I like that because it makes everything stand out a little better.”
Willie says the current show runs the gamut from old favorites such as “Whiskey River” to several songs form Teatro and even a set from the jazz flavored instrumental album Night and Day that’s due out in July.
Asked if the new acoustic bent to his live performances is a sing he’s finally slowing down, Nelson says simply, “Mother Nature has a way of doing that to you.Â But, he quickly adds, life’s too good, and he’s having way too much fun to ever consider retirement.
“I guess the best part of it is that I’m still here. Still out here having a good time playing music and hanging out with my friends and family and fans — hey, let me put a melody to that and I’ll call you back. But, seriously, that’s it. I just enjoy what I do. I don’t know why I’m still here. A lot of my friends are gone. And a lot of the guys that are my age decided long ago that they didn’t want no more of this stuff. But I’m lucky. I’m healthy and I enjoy what I’m doing. People ask, ‘Why are you still doing this? And I say, ‘All I do is play golf and music.’ And don’t wanna quit either one of them. I don’t really wanna quit nothin’”
“We at Austin MD Magazine are so proud of our Nov/Dec issue with Willie Nelson on the cover! We talk about both his as well as other great Austinites support of HAAM and getting musicians the health coverage they need, read more here!”
[Thank you, Margie Lemons for heads up about this magazine!]
Country Song Roundup
by: Gail Buchalter
Willie Nelson finally landed on the sofa in his dressing room — it has taken him an hour to get there. People clustered in groups, constantly moving and changing direction as the Messiah of Music wound his way through the backstage area at Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe. Each formation had its own request — an autograph, a photograph, a kiss, or a simple thank you — but Willie was the common denominator. And he had time for everybody because he’s a nice guy. “I know it’s not easy to get backstage; you need a lot of patience and a good story. So if someone is willing to go through all that ttouble, of course, I’ll take the time to talk to them,” says Willie, leaning back against the cushions and wiggling his toes in his bright-blue Nikes, as he rests his feet on the coffee table.
This is the same wily Willie who breaks through police lines when he thinks he’s being overprotected, thus causing his fans to become underprivileged. Nelson’s phenomenal success apparently hasn’t changed him and his music. There are just more of them. Also, life changes very little from what’s visible on stage to what happens once the curtain is dropped.
Once again that evening, the Nelson humor comes to the fore. A man in the audience shouted out his 40th-birthday request, “Hey, Willie, would ya sing ‘Johnny B. Goode?’” “This man is gonna need all the help he can get,” commiserates the 46-year-old singer, “But I don’t know that song. Jody Payne over here, on guiter does,” announces Willie, as the spotlight follows his pointing hand.
Nelson retrieves a bottle of Cuervo Gold that had been passed up to him from the audience, walks back to his amp, and tips the bottle to his lips. The moment lasts a bit too long and sends Willie hurrying back to his mike after missing the first couple of lines of the chorus. The smile-lines deepen around his eyes as he sings back-up harmony to Payne’s lead vocals.
“Willie doesn’t drink like he used to,” explains drummer Paul English. “In fact, the only time you see him with a bottle these days is when he’s on stage.” A few sips of beer did manage to wet Nelson’s throat while he waited for the next show.
This is all a part of Nelson’s new plan of making it through the night and the next night, etc. Willie’s traded in his cowboy boots for jogging shoes, and his nylon-mesh running shirt that he wears on stage is more than an apparel affectation. “I run five miles a day. It doesn’t matter whether we’re working Vegas in the summer, or filming in Hollywood during the winter,” he adds, looking lean from healthful activities.
Willie’s taking good care of himself these days — just the way he’s always taken care of his Family; an elite group that includes only his band and the road crew.
Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister, is literally family. They have ben playing together, on and off, since adolescence, though there is now talk of Bobbie’s possible road retirement. Paul English might as well be Family, since he’s been with Willie for 25 years. Nelson’s song, “Me and Paul,” details their travels and tribulations, and Willie dedicated his album Troublemaker to the memory of Paul’s wife, Carlene English, who initially worked for no money, earned $150,000 in 1978, as one of Willie’s two drummers. The other drummer, Rex Ludwig, has been with the Family for five years. The newest member of the band is Chris Ethridge, who joined two years ago.
Bee Spears had been playing bass for Willie for ten years when he left for personal reaons. Ethridge, whose credits begin with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and includes Delaney & Bonnie and thousands of hours of session work, replaced him. When Spears wanted to return to the fold, he was immediately welcomed back. The band recognized that this wasn’t a fireable offense as far as Chris was concerned, so now he and Bee share the bass lines. Mickey Raphael, another veteran of the studios took his harmonica on the road with Willie eight years ago and has been touring with him every since.
“This organization runs best on confusion,” comments Paul. “Nobody has a title. Everybody is too busy helping everybody.” But somehow things seem to work out.
“One thing we’ve all learned from Willie is, very few decisions have to be made immediately. If you just let things slide, they will usually sort themselves out. Another Willie-tenet is, as long as it’s fun we’ll do it, and when it stops being fun, we won’t do it,” adds Snake, Willie’s… well, in any group he would be titled road manager, but at Harrahs he was registered as “confidant.” Of course, in any other band someone would know his Christian name. The same holds true for “Beast.”
An ex-Army cook and supervisor of food services at the University of Iowa, h is in charge of the Chuck Wagon, one of three Silver Eagle buses that bear the Nelson logo. “This way, everybody gets one hot well-balanced meal a day,” says the portly part-time caterer. “Willie’s favorite foods are Southern dishes so I cook a lot of hamhocks and different kinds of greens.”
Not only does Willie make sure his band gets a hot meal a day, he also guarantees them a $10,000 bonus on each album they record with him. And as quick and casual as Willie is about recording (Willie and Leon boasted an unprecedented 100 songs in six days of session work. “I don’t know what’s so special about that,” Willie laughs. “The Lord made the world in six days.”), these bonuses plus studio scale go a long way towards putting each member of the band in the six figure salary range.
First-class accommmodations are provided for the band and the crew while they are on the road or in the air. Even when the band is ensconced in the luxury of being a top act, Willie can still be founds sleeping on a berth in the bus.
As good as things are now, there was a time when things were even better. It took a severe manager to tell Willie he had to stop paying the Family’s laundry, dry cleaning, and long-distance phone bills while they were on the road. Though he listened, he no longer has a manager.
There are times when it appears that Willie’s Family extends to include all of his fans. When he’s in the supermarket, he’ll return the waves and smiles of the ‘Hey, Willie’ bunch. “They’re never a problem,” he says, “it’s the ones who don’t recognize me. I run up to them, pull them on their shirt sleeps, and break into a chorus of ‘Whiskey River, take my mind…’”
“Willie Nelson is a master craftsman” (Acoustic Guitar Magazine Celebrates the songwriting of Willie Nelson)Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
by Adam Levy
Pick up the December 2013 issue of Acoustic Guitar, and read the rest of this great article by Adam Levy. It focuses on Willie Nelson’s song writing, and guitar playing, and they put a lot in to the pictures, stories, music they share. I’d love to type the whole article out here, and I probably will eventually, but that wouldn’t be fair, I know. This is one you will want for your collection. Here’s a sample:
Along with Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and a handful of other iconoclasts, Willie Nelson has become more or less synonymous with outlaw country. The country subgenre took root in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as these artists sought to distinguish themselves from the squeaky-clean Nashville sound prevalent at the time. They often sang of hard living, hard drinking, and hard loving, and they favored relatively raw productions, without the gitzy orchestrations heard on mainstream records by their contemporaries.
Yet, despite Nelson’s outlaw affiliation and his unconventional look — usually sporting a ragged beard and long hair braided into pigtails — he has always taken songwriting as seriously as anyone in the business. He’s a master craftsman with many great songs to his credit including, “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” and “Three Days.” Remarkably, all of these now classic songs were on Nelson-s first recorded… And Then I Wrote, released in 19662. Only the album’s opening track, “Touch Me,” hit the Billboard charts for Nelson as an artist, but the songs were hits for other country stars: Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Billy Walker with “Funny How TIme Slips Away,” and, of course, patsy Cline with Crazy.”
That was just the beginning of the remarkable songwriting journey of Nelson, who turned 80 this year. To help put Nelson’s legacy in perspective, I interviewed a handful of esteemed musicians who count themselves amoung the icons’s biggest fans — guitarist Bill Frisell,; sing-ersongwriters Doug Wamble, Mile Zuniga, and Rhett Miller; and producer Joe Henry (a singer-songwriter himself). s Frisell told us, it’s hard to zero in on a favorite Nelson tune. :Oh, wow,” he says. “How doyou choose? So many extraordinarys ongs, it’s crazy.”
Pick up your copy of Acoustic Guitar and enjoy the rest of the article.
Willie Nelson cover photo and article in December issue of Acoustic Guitar, on news stands now!
Cover photo by the great Jay Blakesberg Photography
Country Music Magazine
by Patrick Carr
We begin with an ending of sorts. We are in Nashville on a drizzly night, packed into the Municipal Auditorium like so many high-rent sardines approaching the strung-out finale of the Disk Jockey Convenion 1975.
Taken together tonight, we are perhaps the most professional audience any of these Columbia/Epic acts are likely to play for at least another year: all of us are Somebodies in the country music business, and we’are all hip to the score. The Columbia/Epic actes bounce on stage and do whatever thing they do, three numbers each, one after the other. Tammy Wynette, Mac Davis, Barbara Fairchild, David Houston… it’s very democratic but pretty soon it becomes obvious which artists are getting corporate nod right now because all you really have to do is watch the company personnel pay or not pay attention. Nevertheless, it’s a subtle affair.
But when Willie Nelson and his band of gypsies make their entrance backstage, looking for all the world like some flying wedge of curiously benign Hells Angels, subtlety goes by the board and it’s plain that this year’s Most Likely To Succeed slot has just been taken with a vengeanance: a great shaking of hands begins.
The impression is confirmed when Willie proceeds to get up onstage with his full band (all the other acts were backed by the Columbia band) and play a 40-minute set that, except for a qute seemly absence of illegal drugs and teenage nudity among the audience, might just have well be happening in Texas on the 4th of July. This is the ending of sorts, and what it means is that after telling the Nashville powers-that-be to get lost and leaving town just three short years ago, Willie Nelson has become the country music wave of the future and is now accepting Nashville’s praise and promotional efforts on his own terms.
There is a postscript, though. Three or four hours later — after another couple of hundred handshakes, after attending a very high-rent Columbia party to which his band was not invited, and after behaving like a perfect gentleman through it all — Willie gets himself down to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store and plays for two hours while most every other star in town is out at Opryland all gussied up to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry amid great pomp and ceremony of the By Invitation Only Kind.
It isn’t that Willie couldn’t have shown up at the Opry — with his current Columbia-backed status, that’s a silly notion — and it isn’t that he’s trying a reverse-chic move like one of Nashville’s several dozen I’m-so-hip-isn’t-this-earthy tipes might attemps. It’s just that his old friend and musical hero Ernest was gracious enough to invite him, and that Ernest Tubb’s Record Store is still the best place in town to get down and play straight honky tonk music for the friends and neighbors.
Apart from being a rebel against Nashville’s creative restrictions, a culture hero, a real sweetheart, a person blessed with a highly sophisticated sense of humor, and the man who first made it possible for hippies and rednecks to co-exist under the protection of his music — all of which he is — Willie Nelson has always been one other thing. He has always been a wrtier and singer of the classic country honky tonk song, which is to say that he has always had a very precise, lonely, realistic understanding of the hard ways of this vale of tears in which we all live and suffer form time to time. This is the juke box Willie.
Historicallly, this music came out of more or less, his whol career up to today (which seems somewhat more optimistic when you consider the conclusions of the Red Headed Stranger album). It’s the kind of stuff — like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t It Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Pretty Paper,” “Touch Me” and all those other perfectly songs — that really say it to you when you’re down and getting kicked. Willie wrote most of it in Nashville when he was a highly-reputed songwriter trying to be a singing star, simultaneously going through the usual business of divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage and consequent craziness (or is that vice versa?) and running with the likes of Faron Young, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and other distinguished crazy people.
A segment of my Willie Nelson interview:
Willie (laughing): “I think a lot of people got to thinking that everybody had to do the same thing Hank Williams did, even die that way if necessary. And that got out of hand. I always used to think George Jones got drunk because Hank Williams did, like he really thought that was what he was uspposed to do.”
Me: “You ever do that?”
Willie: “‘Course I did. That’s the reason I know it’s done.”
Me: “You still do it?”
Willie: “I still get drunk, but I’m not really mimicking anybody now. I have my own drunken style.”
These days, see, Willie won’t talk about the personal agonies of those Nashville years without humor, but it’s all there in the songs which made him one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, and it came to a head during the years — his last year in Nashville — that gave rise to his Phases and Stages album. That year was a turning point, and it is chronicled in Phases and Stages. The album is an excruciatingly universal account of the way one man and one woman deal with their divorce (”That was the year I had four or five cars totalled out and the house burned down,” says Willie), but it ends with a very significant song called “Pick Up the Tempo.” It goes like so:
People are sayin’ that time will take
care of people like me
And that I’m livin’ too fast, and
they say I can’t last for much longer
But little they see that their
thoughts of me is my savior
And little they know that the beat
ought to go just a little faster,
So pick up the tempo just a little,
and take it on home….
For a man hitting the crucial age of forty, those are important lines. They speak of an affirmation of life and a determination to triumph over its emotional problems, and they represent Willie’s decison to leave Nashville, move back home to Texas, and finally realize his potential which is, in fact, exactly what he did. “I knew I only had a few years left to do what I was gong to do, and I had to make a move,” says Willie. “I wasn’t going down there to quit. I was going down there with a purpose.” the purpose, quite simply, was first to make himself a national recording star, and then to use that power base to make damn sure that people like him could be free to make their own music their own way without having to starve in the process.
Remember, Willie has a history in this department. It was he who first chaperoned Charley Pride into the country music concept scene, bringing him on stage in Louisiana — actually kissing him right there in the spotlights – and risking God only knows what kind of backlash in the process. The risk, once taken, paid off: Charley was accepted because Willie was behind him. Similarly, Willie, used his high prestige and general likeability in country music artist circles to ease Leon Russell into the Nashville scene by surrounding him with Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Jeanne Pruett and a whole galaxy of main-line performers when he was cutting the sequel to his “Hank Wilson” album.
Willie can get away with heresy because more than any other artist occupying the often-queasy ground between because more than any other artist occupying the often queasy ground between country and something else, his country credentials are in order — more to the point — he has never betrayed his roots.
So Willie arrived in Austin (where he was already a star), formed his present band around himself and his old compadre drummer Paul English (of “Me and Paul” fame), began booking his own dates and managing himself, set up that first media-shocking Picnic at Dripping Springs, connected with the local power elite in the person of Darrell Royal (coach of the University of Texas football team and a very influential citizen), and quickly assumed the role of main Godfather in the Austin scheme of things. That, incidentally, is some gig: you don’t know what a loyal crowd is until you’ve been to Austin and watched a whole clubful of liberated young things worship the ground good ol’ Willie walks on to quite embarrasing excess.
Along the way — just before that first Picnic, in fact — Ritchie Albright of the Waylors suggested that he get in touch with Neil Reshen, a New york manager and fixit person who at the time was looking to consolidate his country music holdings. Reshin already had Waylon as a client, and Willie followed suit. This action signified the arrive with the neccessary teeth for the coutlaw allliance Willie had been pondering for years, and it became a classic Beauty and the Beast operation that continues to this day.
An example of the dynamics of that Beauty and the Beast relationship:
Willie on Neil Reshen: “He’s probably the most hated and the most effective manager that I know of. He enjoys going up to those big corporations and going over their figures. He’s so sadistic, he loves to do it.”
And once again, Willie: “At least you know where you’re at with Neil. Nowhere.”
And again: “Anyone who can learn to like Neil can like anyone. It’s a challenge to like Neil.”
“Willie, how are you doing on that?”
“I’m coming along, I’m coming alone. I can stay around him a little while now.”
Althought the mere mention of Neil Reshen’s name has been known to send secretaries to the bathroom and turn grown executives into violent monsters (”He’s another of those guys I don’t understand how he lived so long with somebody really hurting him,” says Willie),Â you have to admit that while Willie and Waylon (”It’s like having a maddog on a leash,” says Waylon) may have been able to get out of Nashville’s grasp without him.Â It’s only through this man’s unspeakably vicious yet effective manner of dong business, that the outlaw bid for independent power on country music has avoided bankruptcy and actually shown a profit.
So, with the active assistance of New York Neil, Willie has established the power base he was after. It is now possible for Willie to record with Waylon or Kris or Leon (he’s planning a whole Willie/Waylon joint album), and what’s more, with the formation of Lone Star Records, he can get people like Jimmy Day, Johnny Darrell, Floyd Tillman, Billy C., Bucky Meadows, his sister Bobbie and other Texas worthies into the recording studio and, since Columbia Records pays for promotion and distribution under a joint Columbia/Lone Star deal, actually get the finished product before the public. Like Willie says, “We’re all togethe
hr, and we have the same idea about what we wnat to do, which is to do our thing our own way. I’m trying to get these guys to do for themselves what they’ve been bitching about people not doing for them.”
Willie’s long affair with the business of honky tonk music represents one considerable side of his character which may be traceable to the fact that he and his sister Bobbi (”it’s alwyas been me and her”) were raised without parents. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson divorced when Willie was a baby and Bobbi was there, and so for the first six eyars of his life Wilile was with his grandparents. For the next tne year, he was raised by his grandmoter alone, grandfather having passed away. That of coruse is a vast oversimplification, but the roots of his two divorces and highly creative loneliness must lie buried somewhere in there, just as the roots of his present, almost uncanny serenity must be located in the emotional steps he took to overcome his personal problems. Whatever, it is an absolute fact that the presnet-day Willie Nelson is most definitely not an individual still in conflict with himself.
In a sense, Willie Nelson now is in some sort of still-perceptive, still creative cruise-gear, moving through a world of incredibly high pressure with almost perfect equilibrium. You can hear this feeling on the Red Headed Stranger album (a concept suggested and assisted by his wife Connie, with whom he does in fact seem quite happy) and you can see it when, dead center in the eye of one of this nation’s strangest cultural hurricanes, he drifts through the absolute mayhem of his Picnic and somehow manages to be a rock-like source of calm and competence for (literally) thousands of the most outrageously uncalm, incompetent hustlers, freaks and assorted weirdos ever assembled under one patch of Texas sky.
It also shows when, in the middle of yet another night of pushing his ragged band through a set of half-tragic, half-boogie music and watching with a smile as his audience stumbles and whoops its way towards unconsciousness, it comes down to just him and his Spanish-style, gut-string amplified Martin, and for a while the most carefully emotional, beautifully balanced little collection of mood notes in the world go soaring through the rancid air.
This is the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt, Grady Martin and the other psychological gypsy guitar pickers from whom Willie developed his style; it is also the mark of a man who has really seen it all and can still look it straight in the eye.
Atlanta, Georgia: Willie is on a First Class trip. Laid out in the back of the limousine behind his big spade shades, he is relaxing into the ways of being a star with records on the charts. There’ll be no more no-money dives to play, and for a while there won’t even be any songwriting unless the fancy takes him. Willie explains that he’s not one of those poeple who get headaches when they’re not writing, and since his next two albums — a Gospel album and an album of Lefty Frizzel songs — are already in the can, all he really has to do is keep on showing up for Willie Nelson concerts.
There are also some interesting projects in theÂ wind, and they might even get done.Â there’s the issue of a Red Headed Stranger movie, for instance (”If I had the money and any idea about how to do it, I’d be somewhere doin’ it right now”,) and the almost equally interesting notion of Willie, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush getting together to do a couple of original Cherokee Cowboy dates.
Tonight Willie’s nose will be back on the grindstone as once again he takes the stage with his gypsies and plays for the sticky young drunks and dopers of Atlanta. Tonight, once again, he’ll be up there doing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Eileen Goodnight” with whoever wants to join in (this time it’s Tracy Nelson and Linda Ronstadt and Mylon LeFevre), and tonight there’ll be another endless hillbilly amnesia session up in the hotel room.
Tomorrow there’ll be another bloody mary morning when Paul, bless him, has paid the bills and checked us all out and onto the road again.Â But now, just for a while, Willie is thinking about his Gospel album and remembering that he was asked to quit teaching in Sunday School when they found out that Little Willie played the local Texas beer joints at night.
“Were you a good preacher, Willie?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “I really was.”
“Are you a religious man?”
“Yes,” he says, “Probably more than I ever was. Y’know?”
Somehow, when you really get serious about Willie Nelson, the answer is not at all surprising.