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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, “Django and Jimmie” (Rolling Stone Interview June 2015)

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

blackhats

www.RollingStone.com
by:  Patrick Doyle

“Hello, I know you!” Merle Haggard says as he emerges from the bedroom of his tour bus. He’s talking to Willie Nelson, who’s sitting in the bus’s cramped front quarters. Standing nearby, Nelson’s wife, Annie, asks the pair if they’ll sign a couple of acoustic guitars for a charity run by Matthew McConaughey, a friend of the family. “Absolutely not,” Haggard says with a smile. Later, when Annie takes a photo of the two signing the guitars, Nelson grins and gives the camera the finger.

It’s a perfect Saturday night in South Texas, where Haggard, 78, and Nelson, 82, are playing the last of three sold-out shows together at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheater. Haggard is about to play a set, during which Nelson will join him on “Okie From Muskogee,” “Pancho and Lefty” and a handful of other songs. Backstage, Nelson family members catch up; his rail-thin 90-year-old roadie Ben Dorcy (who was once John Wayne’s assistant) ambles around, smoking a pipe. Directly behind the stage, locals ride down the Guadalupe River in inner tubes, stopping on the bank to listen to the show. “We’ll get somebody out there to sell them tickets,” Nelson jokes.

Sitting side by side on the bus, Nelson and Haggard look like they could be a grizzled Mount Rushmore of country music. “It’s a mutual-admiration society with us,” says Nelson. “Merle’s one of the best. There’s not anyone out there that can beat him. Maybe Kris Kristofferson. But then you start running out of names.”

Haggard and Nelson are about to release a new LP, Django and Jimmie. (The title is a tribute to Nelson’s and Haggard’s respective heroes, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers.)

One of the best songs is “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” an ode to their late friend and a meditation on mortality. “There’s a thousand good stories about John,” says Nelson. Haggard tells one, about the time Cash thought it would be hilarious to dynamite a broken-down car he encountered on the side of the road. “He hooks it all up, hits the plunger and blows it up. And he said, ‘Now, when that guy goes to tell his old lady his car blew up, he won’t be lying!’?” Nelson cackles, adding, “John used to say, ‘I always get my best thinking done when June is talking.’?”

“I didn’t know anything about marijuana,” Haggard says. “It’s fantastic.”

Nelson and Haggard met at a poker game at Nelson’s Nashville house in 1964, when both were struggling songwriters. (Neither would have major success until they left Nashville behind; Nelson for Austin, Haggard for Bakersfield, California.) They didn’t become close until the late Seventies, when they were playing casinos in Reno. “We’d play a couple of long shows a day, then spend all night long jamming,” says Haggard.

In 1982, they recorded Pancho & Lefty together at Nelson’s ranch near Austin, where they’d stay awake for days — “We were living pretty hard in that time period,” Nelson has said — playing golf and then recording all night (Haggard barely remembers singing his famous verse on “Pancho and Lefty”). At the time, they were fasting on a master-cleanse regimen of cayenne pepper and lemon juice. “I think Willie went 10 days,” says Haggard. “I went seven.”

“I still ain’t got over it,” says Nelson. “Still hungry.” Adds Haggard, “You’re still high!”

These days, they share a love of conspiracy theories (both are devoted fans of paranormal-obsessed radio host Art Bell) and making music with their children (Haggard’s son Ben plays guitar in his band; Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah frequently join their father onstage). “It’s as good as it gets, to have your kids up there playing,” says Nelson. “And they’re good!”

On the new album, the two cover Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).” The track was recorded before Dylan criticized Haggard and other artists in a widely publicized MusicCares speech in February: “Merle Haggard didn’t think much of my songs, but Buck Owens did,” Dylan said. “Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.” Dylan later apologized.

Haggard (who toured with Dylan in 2005) thinks Dylan was talking about the Merle Haggard of the Sixties — the guy who took shots at hippies, weed and premarital sex in 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee.”

“I didn’t misunderstand Bob,” says Haggard. “I know what he meant. He figured I was lumping him in with hippies [in the Sixties]. The lack of respect for the American military hurt my feelings at the time. But I never lumped Bob Dylan in with the hippies. What made him great was the fact that every body liked him. And I’ll tell you one thing, the goddamn hippies have got no exclusive on Bob Dylan!” He pauses. “Bob likes to box — I’d like to get in the ring with his ass, and give him somebody to hit.”

In fact, these days Merle Haggard is far more liberal than the man in his classic songs. For one thing, he loves pot. “I didn’t know anything about marijuana back then,” he says. “It’s one of the most fantastic things in the world.” Did he and Nelson smoke in the studio? “Are you kidding me?” Haggard says with a laugh.

Soon, the conversation devolves to jokes. “You know what you call a guitar player without a girlfriend?” Nelson asks. “Homeless.”

Next, they talk current events, Nelson explaining the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit to Haggard. (“They stole more than they were supposed to,” he says. Haggard nods.) Asked if either has any thoughts about communicating with fans through social media, they shake their heads. “Just so long as somebody else can do it,” says Nelson. “That’s why I didn’t learn to play steel guitar.”

“What was that little girl that played steel in Asleep at the Wheel?” says Haggard. “Cindy Cashdollar. Everybody was trying to look up her dress.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” deadpans Nelson. “I think I had the wrong angle.”

By now, Haggard is supposed to be onstage; his son has been extending his three-song warm-up set for several minutes, telling the crowd his father will be out soon. These co-headline dates sold so well that Nelson says there will be more: “In fact, I was talking to some folks today — I was gonna see what they thought of making us do a tour of it when it comes out.”

He turns to Haggard. “We ought to do whatever we can get — as many days as we need to,” Nelson says with a smile. “Because I know it’s a good record. I think it might sell a couple.”

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/willie-nelson-and-merle-haggard-pancho-and-lefty-ride-again-20150526#ixzz3zDqvM1Wu
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Thursday, February 4th, 2016

blackhats

www.rollingstone.com
by:  Patrick Doyle

“Hello, I know you!” Merle Haggard says as he emerges from the bedroom of his tour bus. He’s talking to Willie Nelson, who’s sitting in the bus’s cramped front quarters. Standing nearby, Nelson’s wife, Annie, asks the pair if they’ll sign a couple of acoustic guitars for a charity run by Matthew McConaughey, a friend of the family. “Absolutely not,” Haggard says with a smile. Later, when Annie takes a photo of the two signing the guitars, Nelson grins and gives the camera the finger.

It’s a perfect Saturday night in South Texas, where Haggard, 78, and Nelson, 82, are playing the last of three sold-out shows together at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheater. Haggard is about to play a set, during which Nelson will join him on “Okie From Muskogee,” “Pancho and Lefty” and a handful of other songs. Backstage, Nelson family members catch up; his rail-thin 90-year-old roadie Ben Dorcy (who was once John Wayne’s assistant) ambles around, smoking a pipe. Directly behind the stage, locals ride down the Guadalupe River in inner tubes, stopping on the bank to listen to the show. “We’ll get somebody out there to sell them tickets,” Nelson jokes.

Sitting side by side on the bus, Nelson and Haggard look like they could be a grizzled Mount Rushmore of country music. “It’s a mutual-admiration society with us,” says Nelson. “Merle’s one of the best. There’s not anyone out there that can beat him. Maybe Kris Kristofferson. But then you start running out of names.”

Haggard and Nelson are about to release a new LP, Django and Jimmie. (The title is a tribute to Nelson’s and Haggard’s respective heroes, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers.)

One of the best songs is “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” an ode to their late friend and a meditation on mortality. “There’s a thousand good stories about John,” says Nelson. Haggard tells one, about the time Cash thought it would be hilarious to dynamite a broken-down car he encountered on the side of the road. “He hooks it all up, hits the plunger and blows it up. And he said, ‘Now, when that guy goes to tell his old lady his car blew up, he won’t be lying!’?” Nelson cackles, adding, “John used to say, ‘I always get my best thinking done when June is talking.’?”

“I didn’t know anything about marijuana,” Haggard says. “It’s fantastic.”

Nelson and Haggard met at a poker game at Nelson’s Nashville house in 1964, when both were struggling songwriters. (Neither would have major success until they left Nashville behind; Nelson for Austin, Haggard for Bakersfield, California.) They didn’t become close until the late Seventies, when they were playing casinos in Reno. “We’d play a couple of long shows a day, then spend all night long jamming,” says Haggard.

In 1982, they recorded Pancho & Lefty together at Nelson’s ranch near Austin, where they’d stay awake for days — “We were living pretty hard in that time period,” Nelson has said — playing golf and then recording all night (Haggard barely remembers singing his famous verse on “Pancho and Lefty”). At the time, they were fasting on a master-cleanse regimen of cayenne pepper and lemon juice. “I think Willie went 10 days,” says Haggard. “I went seven.”

“I still ain’t got over it,” says Nelson. “Still hungry.” Adds Haggard, “You’re still high!”

These days, they share a love of conspiracy theories (both are devoted fans of paranormal-obsessed radio host Art Bell) and making music with their children (Haggard’s son Ben plays guitar in his band; Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah frequently join their father onstage). “It’s as good as it gets, to have your kids up there playing,” says Nelson. “And they’re good!”

On the new album, the two cover Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).” The track was recorded before Dylan criticized Haggard and other artists in a widely publicized MusicCares speech in February: “Merle Haggard didn’t think much of my songs, but Buck Owens did,” Dylan said. “Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.” Dylan later apologized.

Haggard (who toured with Dylan in 2005) thinks Dylan was talking about the Merle Haggard of the Sixties — the guy who took shots at hippies, weed and premarital sex in 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee.”

“I didn’t misunderstand Bob,” says Haggard. “I know what he meant. He figured I was lumping him in with hippies [in the Sixties]. The lack of respect for the American military hurt my feelings at the time. But I never lumped Bob Dylan in with the hippies. What made him great was the fact that every body liked him. And I’ll tell you one thing, the goddamn hippies have got no exclusive on Bob Dylan!” He pauses. “Bob likes to box — I’d like to get in the ring with his ass, and give him somebody to hit.”

In fact, these days Merle Haggard is far more liberal than the man in his classic songs. For one thing, he loves pot. “I didn’t know anything about marijuana back then,” he says. “It’s one of the most fantastic things in the world.” Did he and Nelson smoke in the studio? “Are you kidding me?” Haggard says with a laugh.

Soon, the conversation devolves to jokes. “You know what you call a guitar player without a girlfriend?” Nelson asks. “Homeless.”

Next, they talk current events, Nelson explaining the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit to Haggard. (“They stole more than they were supposed to,” he says. Haggard nods.) Asked if either has any thoughts about communicating with fans through social media, they shake their heads. “Just so long as somebody else can do it,” says Nelson. “That’s why I didn’t learn to play steel guitar.”

“What was that little girl that played steel in Asleep at the Wheel?” says Haggard. “Cindy Cashdollar. Everybody was trying to look up her dress.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” deadpans Nelson. “I think I had the wrong angle.”

By now, Haggard is supposed to be onstage; his son has been extending his three-song warm-up set for several minutes, telling the crowd his father will be out soon. These co-headline dates sold so well that Nelson says there will be more: “In fact, I was talking to some folks today — I was gonna see what they thought of making us do a tour of it when it comes out.”

He turns to Haggard. “We ought to do whatever we can get — as many days as we need to,” Nelson says with a smile. “Because I know it’s a good record. I think it might sell a couple.”

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/willie-nelson-and-merle-haggard-pancho-and-lefty-ride-again-20150526#ixzz3zDqvM1Wu
Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

 

Willie Nelson interview, with Chet Filippo (Rolling Stone July 13, 1978)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

[I post this a lot, but it’s one of my favorites.  He was one of best interviewers I have ever got to read.  I miss getting to read Chet Filippo’s articles.]

www.RollingStone.com
by: Chet Filippo
July 13, 1978

The saga of the king of Texas, from the night life to the good life

The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. “Got no Willie Nelsons today.” He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook.

He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: “You goin’ to see Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had ta haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, ‘Man, you die fast in this town.’

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.”

“Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . ”

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.”

Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?” He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs – Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few – but Willie’s own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him.

Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.”

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does.

I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.'” Willie fell over laughing. “Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?”

“What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?”

With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes.

Eyes that don’t miss much. He is not the most talkative person around – lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers. Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he’s sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both.

Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music.

He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music. “I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.”

Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of him – in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.”

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds, they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.”

Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three “concept” or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday’s Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it. At the time, Willie’s house in Nashville had burned – there’s an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album. He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as “before life and after life.”

Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn’t promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages.

Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvall, along with other CBS executives, thought it underproduced and weird, but it, and the single off the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” broke the C&W crossover market wide open. (It also recently brought Willie a movie deal with Universal for a filmed version of Stranger and a movie based on Willie’s life.)

After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete. Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business.

But Willie’s success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of ’72.

When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun. The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades. I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while. He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled. He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was. Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible” – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.” Traveled there in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract. Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. “I’ll do all right.”

Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on. Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.”

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time. When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate. I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I still don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong. His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life. “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it.

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. “Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans.

There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one’s lover. No wonder Nashville didn’t know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics:

The flesh around your throat is pale
Indented by my fingernails
Please don’t scream, please don’t cry
I just can’t let you say goodbye.

Willie’s explanations of his songs sound almost too simple: “I’d been to bed and I got up about three or four o’clock in the morning and started readin’ the paper. There was a story where some guy killed his old lady and I thought, well, that would be a far-out thing to do.” He laughed. “To write this song where you’re killin’ this chick, so I started there. ‘I had not planned on seeing you’ was the start, and I brought it up to where she was really pissin’ him off, she was sayin’ bad things to him and so he was tryin’ to shut her up and started chokin’ her.” All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? “Ah, well, chokin’ seemed to be the way to do it at the time.”

Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: “Opportunity to Cry” is about suicide, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, “I’ve Got a Wonderful Future behind Me” means just what it says. Some of Willie’s best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. “What Can You Do to Me Now?” and “Half a Man” resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in “One Day at a Time”:

I live one day at a time
I dream one dream at a time
Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at a time.

“I don’t know whether I’ve ever written any just hopeless songs,” he said. “Maybe I have, maybe I’m not thinking back far enough. I’m sure I have. Songs I’m writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it. Even though the story I’m trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like ‘Walking’: ‘After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain’t no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I’ve been lying to thee all along/There ain’t nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I’ll be gone’ – to me that’s a happy song. This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too.”

Is writing his form of therapy?

“Yeah, it’s like taking a shit.” He laughed his soft laugh. “I guess a lotta people who can’t write songs, instead of writing songs they’ll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time. I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don’t have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs. And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There’d be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad.”

Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. “Gonna go out and run three miles,” he said. “Wanta come along?”

“I can’t do 300 yards,” I replied. He laughed.

Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum. Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus’ only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert. The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people’s land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice.

I thought of a Willie Nelson song, “Slow Movin’ Outlaw,” that talked about that:

The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty,
Now stands with scars on her face;
And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly,
From the weight of the whole human race;
And it’s not that I blame them for claiming her beauty,
I just wish they’d taken it slow;
‘Cause where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go? 1

Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro’s evening traffic. Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell’s Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!” Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence.

The song I was thinking of was “The Troublemaker:”

I could tell the moment that I saw him
He was nothing but the troublemaking kind
His hair was much too long
And his motley group of friends
Had nothing but rebellion on their minds
He’s rejected the establishment completely
And I know for sure he’s never held a job
He just goes from town to town
Stirring up the young ones
Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob.2

The song’s about Jesus, in case you didn’t guess.

The Hell’s Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who’s been with Willie since 1954. English was once what used to be called “a police character” in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour. Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called “You Look like the Devil.” He does, too, and he’s still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat’s-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he’s as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard’s father.

Although the 17,000-seat coliseum was not full, it was a splendid evening of music: Billy Joe Shaver opened, followed by Emmylou Harris and then Willie. The bulk of his set was material from Red Headed Stranger, and when he started “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in his powerful baritone, I heard actual gasps of awe from the front rows. Been a long time since I heard that.

When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in “Amazing Grace” and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward.

One of Willie’s friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During “Amazing Grace” he began shouting, “I’m healed. I’m healed.” He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were “amens” from the folks around him.

Another of Willie’s friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie’s songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie’s “Half a Man” and soon had the jury weeping: “If I only had one arm to hold you . . . ”

Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes.

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

1. Willie sang “Whiskey River.”
2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke.
3. Willie: “Went over to Peckinpah’s house.”
4. Me: “You talk to Dylan?”
5. Willie: “No. Dylan don’t talk a lot.”
6. Me: “I know.”
7. Willie: “He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah’s house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin’ and runnin’on them horses down there and he ain’t no cowboy.”
8. Willie sang “Shotgun Willie.”
9. Me: “You write that?”
10. Willie: “Yeah.”
11. Me: “Good.”
12. Silence.
13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in.
14. Willie: “Go away. I’m busy.”
15. Paula: “Why can’t I stay?”
16. Willie: ‘Cause you’re a little ole girl.”
17. Paula: “Help me carry something.”
18. Willie: “I can’t. My legs are broke.”
19. A toke.
20. Silence.

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit.

“Wasn’t Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?” I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. “Yeah, it was,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how it’ll do, but so far it’s outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it’d either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.”

After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs?

“Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I’ll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me.” He chuckled. “I do have some new ones, ‘She’s Gone,’ ‘Is the Better Part Over,’ ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I don’t think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don’t write as much depressive music now because I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Do you feel any vindication now that you’ve succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn’t be a singer?

“I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don’t know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track.”

During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

“Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin’ out and quittin’ and never doin’ it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn’t because I didn’t think the music wasn’t good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me.”

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters?

“Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other’s houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin’ wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I’ll never write again, never sing again, don’t wanta see nobody again, don’t call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed ’em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin’ up and hog prices kept goin’ down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs.”

Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing?

“Yeah, I do. I’ve been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin’ up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don’t progress, they could very well pass me too.

“But I wasn’t considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in ’em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don’t know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn’t do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people’s ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance.”

But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson.

“Well, Kris has agreed with that. He’d been listenin’ to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I’d listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville.”

I’ll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn’t you listen to Sinatra and Crosby?

“Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin’ up. We didn’t have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I’d hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way.”

Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music?

“I think there’s a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it.”

Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else?

“Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I’d pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing.”

(Author’s Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.)

There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think?

He answered seriously. “I think I made it work for me. There’s no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I’d written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I’da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door.”

He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. “Willie,” I asked, “do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?”

He thought about that one for a long time: “The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they’re gonna try to figure out how that’s done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they’re firing at that market. Those guys just didn’t know that audience was there. That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin’ beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear.”

Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn’t particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he’s decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly.

After one run-through of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: “You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn’t have the nerve to pitch it to you.”

“Hell, Willie,” said Jones, “I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut ‘Crazy’ but I couldn’t find you.”

Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: “Okay, Willie’s stuff is good and we can overdub George later.”

They moved on to “Half a Man,” and Jones was still having trouble. “How the hell does Waylon sing with you,” he asked. “I’m used to singin’ right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses.” Willie laughed.

Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.

Willie Nelson talks about “Summertime” with Rolling Stone

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

 

www.rollingstone.com
by: Stephen L. Betts

On February 26th, Willie Nelson will release what is essentially a musical acceptance speech with his latest album, a tribute to the timeless songs of George and Ira Gershwin called Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin.

In this exclusive behind-the-scenes video of the making of the album, Nelson explains that the recording is his way of saying thank you to the Library of Congress for honoring the 82-year-old singer-songwriter with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song last November. Nelson made his first extensive foray into material from the Great American Songbook with his phenomenally successful 1978 LP Stardust.

Titled after one of the most memorable tunes from the Gershwins’ opera Porgy and Bess, the Summertime LP contains 11 of the Gershwins’ most enduring standards, and includes guest appearances from Sheryl Crow (on “Embraceable You”) and Cyndi Lauper (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”).

Narrowing down the list of tunes for the collection was a difficult task for Nelson, but he admits he had a little help from his Frank Sinatra, with many of the songs “borrowed” from the albums of his favorite singer.

Nelson’s longtime producer Buddy Cannon and co-producer (and keyboard legend) Matt Rollings join him in the video. Rollings notes that the Grammy-winning Stardustdemonstrated the country musician could handle a wide range of musical genres.

“He is equally at home singing ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,'” Rollings says. “It feels like it’s time for the world to be reminded that this is a deep well of amazing music, to have someone like Willie sing them. It just seems the perfect match.”

“When I was just a small guy, I remember hearing all these great Gershwin songs,” says Nelson. “Ira and George Gershwin were just these fantastic writers who wrote some of the greatest songs ever.”

Other Gershwin tunes on the collection include “But Not for Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin is available for pre-order at iTunes.

“I can look at a guy and tell if I like him or not” — Willie Nelson

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

“I’m just an ole redneck from Texas who ain’t a Democrat or Republican, but i can look at a guy and tell whether I like him or not.” — Willie nelson

Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and friends celebrate Waylon Jennings

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

 

joshuatimmermans

www.RollingStone.com

Two days after Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, while the dust still settled on the lawn of the Austin360 Amphitheater, Nelson joined another group of country all-stars at Austin’s nearby Moody Theatre. There, in the company of Highwaymen and honky tonk heroes, he helped lead a tribute to Waylon Jennings, who passed away in 2002. The 20-plus song setlist included performances by family (Shooter Jennings, Jessi Colter), friends (Bobby Bare, Billy Joe Shaver) and fresh faces (Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson), as well as a revised version of the Highwaymen’s biggest hit, “Highwaymen,” with Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson subbing in for Waylon and Johnny Cash. Photographer Joshua Timmermans was on the scene during the rehearsal and show, capturing shots of the legacy (and community) Waylon Jennings left in his wake.

Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s Willie Nelson

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

bollock

www.TexasMonthly.com
by:  Jan Reid
1996

Randall Jamail, the founder of Houston’s Justice Records, jiggles and jumps, takes a phone call, props a running shoe on a mixing board in Seattle’s vaunted Bad Animals Studio. He wears dark gray shades and his haircut is half an inch long. He hangs up, bolts down the hall to refill his cup with the studio’s “heroin coffee,” as he terms it, then hurries back and plays frenetic air guitar beside his hip, explaining the song’s arrangement to a musician. The 39-year-old Jamail is the son of famed Houston trial attorney Joe Jamail, a longtime chum of Willie Nelson’s. The younger Jamail grew up around Willie’s gigs and Fourth of July picnics; after college he graduated from law school, planning to join his dad’s firm, but that’s a hard act to follow. He launched Justice Records as a jazz label in 1989 and had fifteen Top Ten hits in three years. But the jazz share of the record market is minute, so Jamail branched out, signing blues singers, then county and western artists, followed by punk rock acts and recording a concert by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an oration by Pope John Paul II—part of the Vatican’s first official acknowledgment of the Holocaust. Jamail also landed two of Willie’s albums, Moonlight Becomes You and Just One Love, when changing country and western fashion left the legendary Texas singer without a recording contract on a major label. Now it’s July 1995, and Jamail is engrossed in his latest long jump: Turn the nation’s top punk and grunge rockers loose with Willie Nelson material. “Outlaw to outlaw,” he frames the concept. The new record, scheduled for release later this month, is called Twisted Willie.

The lobby walls at Bad Animals Studio are lined with framed platinum records of Nirvana and Pearl Jam—Texas possesses no studio remotely like it—and one spin across the Seattle radio dial offers more evidence that this lush, fashionable, traffic-crushed city has become one of the country’s true music capitals. Yet grunge rock, the nihilistic evolution of punk and heavy metal that spawned the Seattle scene, began as the antithesis of commerciality. Nirvana and other groups put out albums on independent labels that, with no help from MTV videos or radio push of singles, spread word-of-mouth, took a large, youthful audience by storm, and made the major labels’ producers come to them, hats and contracts in hand. What’s that go to do with Willie Nelson? Precedent. “It’s like twenty years ago,” Jamail says, “when Willie was all but run out of Nashville. He came back to Texas, set up in Austin, and said, ‘I’m going to do what I do. And if the big record companies don’t get it, screw ’em.’ That’s exactly how it happened in Seattle.”

Willie’s career has looped, circled, and doubled back over so many times it’s akin to a trick roper’s routine. When the Nashville-based country music industry shunned him as a performer in the early seventies, he built his audience with tireless road appearances that filled rowdy halls with bankers, hippies, bikers. Their record-buying power changed the industry—suddenly it was all right for traditional country to rock and roll—and made Willie a superstar, along with his rough-edged Texas soul mate Waylon Jennings. But since then, the style they inspired has been burnished and slickened into the “hot country” sound that today drives the Nashville industry—hokum pop with a soft-rock dance beat. Willie and Waylon are old guys, they don’t prance around in tight jeans, and in the cities, country and western deejays just won’t play their records. And their 1985 tour and record with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen did little to bolster their standing in the C&W market. To Nashville executives, they seem to be mere nostalgists.

But not to a younger generation of alternative-rock musicians. Jamail’s proposal of a radical interpretation of Willie’s songwriting, with contributions from each of the Highwaymen, has set off a stampede of big-name rock performers to get on board: members of Seattle grunge heavyweights Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees. Lollapalooza tour headliners L7, an all-woman band from Los Angeles; the seminal Hollywood punk rockers X. Moving around the Bad Animals control room is Danny Bland, a dark-haired man in jeans, lizard-skin boots, and a cap that says “Willie.” Bland, who helped Jamail line up much of the rock talent, is the manager of the Supersuckers, a red-hot band that moved to Seattle from Arizona a few years ago. Bland grew up in Phoenix, listening to his dad’s outlaw country records. “For four years my band’s been opening their shows with ‘Whiskey River,’ he says. “I told Randall, ‘Are you aware how much these musicians idolize Willie? I bet a lot of them would love to cover him on a record.’ So Randall got me to start asking around. I’d say, ‘The guy has produced Willie and the pope. That good enough?’” Bland chuckles. “This is going to be the first record I’ve ever been involved in that my dad will listen to.”

 

bollock2

Jamail hopes to tap into the vast audience represented by those platinum records on the studio wall in downtown Seattle, but he wants Willie’s fans to buy the album too. For this session Jamail has recruited a Seattle all-star band to play behind Johnny Cash. “I said, ‘Johnny, I’m doing something kind of perverse with Willie Nelson songs.’ He said, ‘Great, I’m in.’” But Cash won’t show up for several more hours, and he doesn’t know exactly what he’s in for. Jamail, who is a skilled guitarist, has been sitting in with the players, trying to impart his vision of a track from Willie’s 1975 concept album, The Red Headed Stranger. The ominous lyrics of Willie’s “The Time of the Preacher” seem tailor-made for the sonorous drawl of the Man in Black: “It was the time of the preacher/In the year of ‘01/Now the lesson is over/And the killing’s begun.” Over the years Cash has accidentally set a fire in a national forest, holed up in a cave to die, kicked an addiction to painkillers at the Betty Ford Center, and written a novel about the Apostle Paul. Despite the thematic appropriateness, the band finds that turning the song into rock and roll is not all that easy.

(more…)

Willie Nelson to Headline Luck Banquet on his ranch in Texas (Mar. 18, 2016)

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

ebetrobertsRS

www.RollingStone.com
by:  Kory Grow

Willie Nelson will headline a daylong festival, dubbed the Luck Banquet, at his Luck, TX ranch in the spring. The festival, which will showcase 20 country, rock, folk and soul artists who will be announced at a later date, will also feature food by Austin chefs and a boutique where locals can sell their wares. The event will take place on March 18th. Tickets go on sale Friday at noon CST on the festival website.

“We welcome you all to Luck,” Nelson tells Rolling Stone. “Either you’re in Luck or you’re out of Luck.”

The ranch served as the setting of the singer’s Red Headed Stranger movie in 1986. The Banquet, which occurs during South by Southwest, will take place on two stages: in a revival tent next to the chapel and on a main stage overlooking the front porch of the singer’s “world headquarters.” The festival will begin in the tent, where artists will partake in a collaborative “song-swap set,” according to organizers, in the style of Heartworn Highways Revisited, the sequel to the 1976 movie about outlaw country.

“We believe that the best way to honor the true Americana story is by embracing the spirit of the movement and harboring a community that pushes boundaries – celebrating the wild, gritty and ultimately beautiful work of artists we love,” a spokesperson for Luck Productions said in a statement. “The support of Willie, and the opportunity to revive ‘Luck’ as an artistic gathering place, is a gift.”

On the night before the concert, Luck, TX will also host another kind of feast: Chef’s Pot Luck. It will offer attendees a multi-course meal made by what producers promise to be all-star chefs, and it will benefit Wholesome Wave, an organization that helps low-income families get fresh, locally grown food. Nelson is also set to perform.

Willie Nelson & Family in Laughlin, NV (Jan 2, 2015)

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

laughlin

http://laughlinentertainer.com

Willie Nelson at 80+. Seeing as how we are in a betting town, you can be pretty certain the over/under on him reaching that age 20 years ago was prohibitive on the under. Say +350. He did have a recent operation on his lungs but things went successfully and he’s back on tour, beating the odds once again. But Nelson has always been about beating the odds…both in his career and his life. 

Known as a great songwriter by early Nashville and Memphis music centers (he did write “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, after all), he decided to sing his own songs and was almost laughed out of Dodge. His voice was too nasal, they said; he was not handsome enough, they said. Well, he pushed ahead, and though it took quite a while, he broke through as one of country music’s most iconic singers. He’s had them all waiting in line to join him in duets. “Hey, Nashville! Ray Charles is on the line and wants to sing a song with me…but I told him I had to sing with Dolly and Julio first.”

When everyone, but everyone, in the music industry said an album had to have 12 songs of about three minutes tops in length, each having a different topic or theme, Willie Nelson went out and recorded an album that defied all convention. It told one long story about a strange man filled with sorrow of a lost love, utilizing ballads that wound the theme around his haunting acoustic guitar work. Songs would fade away, meld into each other, appear again later on the album…the sum creating a national sensation that introduced Willie Nelson to a bigger audience than most artists would ever enjoy. The album was the heralded Red Headed Stranger (1975) and set the stage for more second guessing by the experts on Nelson.

After Red Headed Stranger there were those who thought he should clean up his act to help his career roll along. What did he do? He let his hair grow even longer and took to wearing in-your-face braids and a scraggly beard. He plowed along, and with friend Waylon Jennings in tow, created the whole “Outlaw” musical genre, warning every mama not to let their “babies grow up to be cowboys.” This pairing gave a shot in the arm for both Nelson and Jennings and gained them respect outside the country music genre.

It looked like the honky tonk road was the one that Willie Nelson was going travel now. He owned it and could sing songs about whiskey, women and worry until the truck broke down. But in true Nelson fashion he turned left when everyone else was going right. On the heels of the release of the Wanted: The Outlaws album, he released a compilation of classic songs from the American songbook in his Stardust album. Willie singing “Blue Skies” and “Stardust”? Really? Well, the wily Willie knew what he was doing. His natural jazz influenced vocal stylings (see his quote about Bob Wills in the box above) with his syncopated and half-beat lag worked wonders on these songs. The album became the most successful of his career to date, reaching No. 1 on the country charts (they didn’t know exactly where to put this album so they went with Nelson’s identity as a country singer), earning multi-platinum sales awards and a Grammy.

Many established singers, and friends of Nelson, were now fully on board with him. Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, joined him for the Highwaymen album and experience; the duets started flowing in great number; movie roles came his way (The Electric Horseman“, “Honeysuckle Rose“, “Stagecoach” and others); and then the IRS came calling.

It has always been said that “you can’t fight City Hall.” Well, Willie Nelson had a $16 million bill from the IRS, and his take on it was,  “I think it’s funny that a cotton picker from Texas owes the government $16 million dollars.” But that cotton picker could also sing, so he sold off a lot of his assets, held concerts “for the government” and settled his debt within a couple of years. He fought “City Hall” and came away O.K. Not saying he won, but he came away O.K.

As the years accumulated, Willie Nelson became more than just a country singer/western actor. He became something of the “wise man on the mountain as evidenced by his sayings on this page. To that end, a few years ago, he came out with a book called The Tao of Willie in which he relates his journey of bumps and scrapes, forks in the road, detours, disastrous twists and hairpin turns—from swimming against the currents of a whiskey river to the Zen-like figure of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin.

Another publishing venture by Willie Nelson was his Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die – Musings from the Road, published by HarperCollins in May 2012.

So how many more “takes” is Willie Nelson going to perform before he’s satisfied enough to call it quits?

His response: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”


WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY

The Edgewater E Center

Wednesday-Friday, December 30-January 1. 8 p.m.; doors open 6:30 p.m.

(See Showtimes for tickets)

Willie Nelson’s Spiritual Take on “Imagine”

Thursday, December 24th, 2015


www.RollingStone.com

If it weren’t for the lyric about dreaming up a world without religion, John Lennon’s “Imagine” could almost be a gospel song, thanks to a simple, hymn-like melody that seems to invite entire congregations to sing along.

That’s exactly what happened at this month’s John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert in New York City, where Willie Nelson performed Lennon’s universally known solo single with help from a beefed-up house band — including Leland Sklar on bass and longtime partner Mickey Raphael on harmonica — and an arena full of Lennon fans. When Nelson’s vocal wobble prevented him from singing the “yoo-hooo” line in the song’s chorus, the audience chipped in, turning the Madison Square Garden concert into a celebration not of the musicians onstage, but of the night’s late honoree.

Sandwiched between mini-sets by Spoon and Brandon Flowers, Nelson’s performance was loose and limber, with the Red Headed Stranger taking liberties with the song’s phrasing before launching into a guitar solo full of blue notes. Other performers at the tribute show included Chris Stapleton and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed up with Nelson for “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”

Willie Nelson: America’s Favorite

Monday, December 14th, 2015

besty

Willie Nelson, Yoko Ono, Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty celebrate in NYC #JohnLennon75

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

theowargo

photo:  Theo Wargo

www.rollingstone.com
by:  Sarah Grant

Kevin Bacon hosted the tremendous, star-packed event — airing on AMC on Saturday, December 19th at 9:00pm ET/PT — which hit every note of Lennon’s songwriting personality, his interests, concerns and loves. In the first half of the show, Sheryl Crow played a rollicking serenade of “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Killers’ Brandon Flowers conducted an effervescent sing-along to “Instant Karma,” Latin pop sensation Juanes sang “Woman” wearing Lennon’s famous New York City shirt, and Train frontman Pat Monahan impressed the crowd with an acrobatic rendition of “Jealous Guy.” John Fogerty, the biggest Beatlemaniac in the room, kicked off the night with a striking one-two acoustic punch of “Give Peace a Chance” and “In My Life.”

“Rock & roll is here to stay!” Yoko Ono asserted on the stage of the Theater at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, telling the audience that’s what her late husband would have said in response to “Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert.” Steven Tyler, Eric Church, Aloe Blacc, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and Tom Morello were just a few of the multi-generational luminaries who came together onstage to pay homage to the revolutionary Beatle — the Liverpool songwriter, lionhearted political activist, peacemaker and musical treasure, who would have been 75 years old on October 9th and who died 35 years ago this month. Put on by Blackbird Presents and AMC, the show benefited the poverty-fighting organization

The most memorable performances were by the least-well-known artists. R&B artist Aloe Blacc held the notes of “Steel and Glass” for breathtaking stretches. The song, from Lennon’s dark 1974 solo album, Walls and Bridges, is about psychological extremes. “How does it feel to be off the wall?” Blacc wondered with gravitas, standing in a zippered leather jacket with arms folded behind his back. Nashville singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, who made a splash at this year’s CMAs, gave a titillating, bluesy take on “Don’t Let Me Down,” flanked by Crow and Flowers. Alt-rock band Spoon offered 10 minutes of full-octane rock & roll.

Lennon’s activist anthems shone especially bright. The Roots gave “Julia” a hip-hop treatment, while working-class heroes Kris Kristofferson, Tom Morello and harmonica legend Mickey Raphael performed a sobering, stripped-down set in front of a picture of Lennon towering over them with his arms crossed. Morello came back for an anthemic rendition of “Power to the People” with the New York Freedom Choir, which includes representatives of nine different charity organizations in the state. This was the peak performance for so many reasons. Morello’s guitar playing was incendiary. He raised his fist to the crowd in solidarity, and, more movingly, simply pointed upward toward the sky. He played his guitar flipped over so it revealed the word “IMAGINE” in all capital letters on the back, and then, after a climactic, toe-curling solo, rested the instrument on the stage in a symbolic gesture of laying down arms.

kevinmazur

photo:  Kevin Mazur

“John Lennon wrote music that mattered because it said something,” said country star Eric Church, who called the evening a ‘bucket list’ night before launching into one of Lennon’s moodiest songs, “Mind Games.” Church rekindled the declamatory spirit with his new Nashville brother, Steven Tyler, his partner on a blazing “Revolution.” Everyone went wild for Tyler’s reprisal of his druggy role as frontman of Future Villain Band from the 1978 musical film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Every song has a story,” Ono said to the audience, sporting a whimsical bowler hat and Sgt. Pepper–style blazer with golden epaulets, after a clip played of the Plastic Ono Band singing “Attica State” on a talk show. Lennon and Ono sat on the show’s red step, singing about freedom with razor-sharp intent. The archival footage seemed to foreshadow 2015, a year marked by social violence in the United States. The song, like so many others shared that night, carried a message of brotherhood, solidarity and peace: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” brought cheer with a children’s choir and a Peter Frampton–Crow-Blacc trio. Legendary storyteller Willie Nelson offered a magnificently serene “Imagine,” conveying the lyrics in a such a stark, plainspoken way, it was as if the song were being sung for the first time.

Yoko Ono; Birthday; Lennon
Theo Wargo/Getty

“Happy birthday, beautiful boy,” Paul McCartney said in a prerecorded video. It was a touching reminder of one of the last songs Lennon gave to the world, “Beautiful Boy,” an ode to paternal love that ends with Lennon whispering to his young son Julian, “See you in the morning, bright and early.” Hope, joy, and camaraderie filled the theater when the all-star roster joined together to deliver the simplest, truest advice Lennon offered in his lifetime: “Love is all you need.”

kevinmazur2

photo:  Kevin Mazur

 

 

 

Keith Richards talks about Willie Nelson

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

williekeith

www.ishotamaninreno.com
Graeme Thomson
from 2005 interview with Keith Richards

KR: Hello Graeme

GT: Hello Keith. How are you?

KR: What are you doing up this time of night, old boy?

 GT: I’m writing my book on Willie Nelson.

KR: Yeah, that does take a lot of midnight oil!

GT: Hell, yeah, it takes a long time. What are you up to?

KR: I just got into Portland out of Seattle.. on the road, you know.

GT: How’s it all going?

KR: Yeah, going very well, man. I mean, brilliantly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

GT: In context of Willie, I’ve been thinking a lot about what …

KR: Yeah, you must be well embroiled in it by now!

GT:……I’m up to my neck in it, but it’s brilliant. I’ve been thinking a lot about what keeps people on the road. In your case what is it that keeps you out there?

KR: I dunno. You could ask Willie that one!

GT: I know. I have.

KR: One could say that it becomes like an addiction or… there’s loads of people out there who want to see what you do and you feel like doing it. It’s a simple as that. It’s probably somewhere between the two: white line fever.

GT: With him it seems to have just become his life almost…

KR: [Sings] On the Road Again…

GT: It’s his manifesto, isn’t it?

KR: He’s an amazing guy, Willie. I’ve never hung with Willie except when we’ve been working together, but Willie always makes a little space to hang. He’s an amazing guy. He’s your All American. He’s what I would call an American patriot, but not in the flag waving sense or that shallow sort of…. he loves the soil, man, he loves the… land itself, and he’s the right guy to put the case. I mean, he’s a real old regular American. There’s very few of them, really, at least that stand up and say so. Willie is just that way. He couldn’t be any different any other way I don’t think. Times that I’ve known him, I always have a great time with him. We’re guitar pickers and song writers and shit so we can just kinda kick shit around, you know. But as a man he’s a bit of a mystery, actually.

GT: I get the sense he’s pretty unknowable really.

KR: So you’ve got that feeling too, right?

GT: Totally, yeah.

KR: I don’t think he really knows all of himself, he’s just dedicated to his idea and after all, on top of that a brilliant musician and a songwriter par excellence – that’s your actual French, you know?

GT: Ha! When did you first become aware of him? His harmonica player Mickey Raphael told me that the Stones offered him a support slot in the 70s and he turned it down. Do you remember that?

KR: Well, I do believe so, it is very hard to recall that kind of thing. Maybe it was because he had a previous engagement, a lot of the times you want to work with people on the road and you find that they’re doing Australia while you’re trying to get a gig together in LA. It’s all that ships in the night passing away. But, em, Willie sort of cracked into my perception, I started to hear these songs first…. ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, and ‘Crazy’, and I started to see this name Nelson. When they were 45s it was easier to check out who wrote what. I knew nothing about his character, I just heard these very interesting songs coming out of this guy called Nelson.

Finally, when he burst through the bubble and actually became Willie Nelson in fact rather than just being a Nashville songwriter and whatever it was he was doing – I know what he was doing, actually, but I’m not going to tell! – but Willie sort of creeps up on you. Every time you heard a really interesting song, half the time you’d find Willie Nelson’s name attached to it. And then when he became a performer, because he’s such a recluse in a way. He’s the most unlikely star.

I’ve worked with him…. I think the first time I worked with him he asked me to come up to that casino somewhere in Connecticut, where the Indians are running the joint. About time they got their money back – Willie agreed with me I think. I was amazed at that country thing – there’s Willie, he finishes the show and then he spends like an hour or more and he just signs about every autograph in the audience, you know that country tradition of ‘you’re one of the folks.’ When you’re up there on the stage you’re that, but then afterwards you’ve got to mix, and I was amazed that that was still going on. And Willie, that great patience that he has, that sort of stoic…. meanwhile he’s going, ‘Where’s the joint,’ you know? I always judged Willie shows when I’ve worked with him by how many guys he’s got rolling behind him in the bus: ‘This is a three Frisbee show, pal!’

GT:  He smokes an unbelievable amount of dope, doesn’t he?

KR: Oh, absolutely – and always good stuff. Believe me, I’m a connoisseur. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work with him a lot! No, I’m attracted to the man just as a character and a player. His knowledge of the music… those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music.

GT: How do you rate him as a guitar player?

KR: Oh, he’s incredible man. Absolutely. He’s unique, can you get any better? I mean nobody else could play like that. I mean, look at the state of the guitar for Chrissakes! He’s punched holes through it, scraped it away, and it still sounds better than ever. It’s that weird mixture of stuff, and he doesn’t mind going off on a flight somewhere in the middle of a song. Just taking it and seeing where he ends up. He’s got a beautiful bravado. I admire that.

GT: Has he ever let you play that guitar?

KR: Oh, I’ve had a bash at it. I say, ‘I can’t play it, it’s got a hole in it Willie!’ Where’s there’s a Willie there’s a way.

GT: I’m surprised you’ve never done… because he’s done so many albums and duets and stuff, have you never discussed doing anything on record together as a piece?

KR: We kind of talk about it and look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, when and where?’ and then it becomes: Oh, later. It’s sort of in the air, I’d love to, but his schedule is…most of the difficult things about working with guys you really admire and would like to get together with is since everybody’s busy, they’re always on the other side of the planet when you’re doing things. It’s finding the time and stuff, and Willie’s a busy man. He has to save all those small farms.

GT: Last time I spoke to him he said he was making six albums – at the same time!

KR: Yeah, he’s been incredibly productive in the last few years, he’s really working hard, man. But then I don’t think he couldn’t. If he wasn’t working I can imagine him fading away.

GT: Do you know his band very well, have you met those guys?

KR: Yeah, the guys around him and everything, I always have a great time when I see Willie. I’m always waiting for the ‘I’m doing a TV show, do you want to come by?’ I say, ‘How many Frisbees involved, man?’ The last time, I met Merle Haggard via Willie. I’d never met Merle before, which was interesting. It ends up with Merle working with us in a few weeks time in Texas. I’m sitting rehearsing with Willie on the West coast somewhere, I think it was Parsons thing or whatever, and sitting there on the drum riser, and there’s this guy with a baseball cap on – the right way around – and a grey beard and he’s picking like a maniac, and he’s sitting next to me and suddenly I said, ‘Your name’s not Merle?’ Yup! Jesus Christ, what a way to meet.

Willie brings people together, that’s the other thing that I think is important to stress. Willie is a great magnet. All kinds of different music. He can pull people together that probably very rarely that somebody else could. They’d be staying in their own lanes, so to speak. But Willie can pull together like Norah Jones…. a diverse amount of people from every spectrum of music you can think of, Jesus Christ there’s enough spectrums to think!

I always admire him because…. when I work with him he’s doing these TV shows. And he’s on stage with absolutely everybody. All day. He’s got to rehearse with them and then he’s got to do the show. Me, I come there and I just do my bit with him, ‘You wanna join in on this?’ I can pick and choose. But I watch the man work, Graeme, and it’s amazing the heart and diplomacy of the man. He should be President, I think! We’d be a lot better off, or at least the Americans would. Possibly we would. But his dedication to what he does, amazing energy. A lot of guys say: how do we [the Stones] do it? How does Willie do it? I mean I’m watching him up there with 24 acts and he’s singing with every one of them. And he’s got it all together, very very smooth, beautiful, no sweat. He has that amazing effect on people, a sort of calmness, but there’s a certain ….under there there’s a hint of real danger if it blows up.

GT: Those eyes…those black eyes he’s got.

KR: Yeah, yeah, he’s one of your great Westerners. A real love for the soil of the land and a feel for it, more than waving stars and stripes and all that crap. A real concern for where it all comes from and what you live on, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really honest. Which is hard to find in this day and age and this world we live in.

GT: Pretty much unique, I’d say.

KR: How does he strike you, once you’ve taken this gig on? Same way?

GT: Pretty much the same way, yeah. I think….

KR: Oh, he’s a great singer man, Such a wry delivery. I mean, everybody has got a great voice, it’s just a matter of what to do with it. I mean, I get a lot of that flak too, you know. The Grizzle, and all that crap. Willie and I have been pretty well grizzled and we kind of find ourselves in a weird way – which is really amazing coming from where we come from, totally different places – I feel at home with Willie.

GT: Did you listen to that reggae album he made?

KR: Yes I did, yes, cos I live in Jamaica I know most of the cats that are on the session. I thought it was a very bold move, and then I found out that Johnny Cash has been living in Jamaica for years, and round the corner from me. But when you go to live in Jamaica you don’t advertise, I found out without me knowing it that Johnny Cash had been my neighbour, virtually, at 20 minutes away, for like 20 years, but probably never there at the same time because when you go to Jamaica you don’t want to be seen by white people! It’s one of those things.

GT: How much time do you spend there?

KR: As much as I can. I haven’t been there for about a year now, mainly because we’ve been making records and doing this. But as soon as these hurricanes stop I’m going to the bolt hole.

GT: Well listen, that’s fantastic.

KR: Ok, Graeme. All right.

GT: Can I use this as a little introduction to the book? Is that cool?

KR: You can use it in any way you like. Yes. And give my regards to Willie, all right?

GT: I shall, and thanks for your time Keith. Take care.

KR: Pleasure, Graeme. Later man

Willie Nelson: Mr. Record Man (Houston Press) (4/24/13)

Friday, November 27th, 2015

houston

William Michael Smith won awards for “Best Print Article 2013) for his article.
One of Our Own Wins VMG Music Writing Award

Mr. Record Man
The Houston Press
by: William Michael Smith
April 24, 2013

WILLIE NELSON was dead broke.

The American music icon, who turns 80 years old on April 30, was once just another starving musician looking for his next gig. In early 1959, he was 26 years old and waiting for Larry Butler, who’d had some records do well on Houston radio and was an established name in Gulf Coast music circles, to finish an afternoon band rehearsal at the popular Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway.

According to Joe Nick Patoski’s exhaustive 2008 biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Nelson was freshly arrived in Houston, then known as the murder capital of the entire nation, and had decided the bustling port city was the right one to further advance his own career. He had recently left the hard-knuckle honky-tonks of Fort Worth and had already networked enough to catch the attention of D Records, the most important country-music label in Houston, if not the entire region.

Nelson had signed a fresh contract with Houston music mogul George “Pappy” Daily ­before leaving Fort Worth that identified him as a D Records recording artist and a Glad Music songwriter. Daily had orchestrated East Texas hillbilly George Jones’s rocket ride to country-music stardom in 1957 with the release of “Why Baby Why” and, like others, Nelson figured Daily could do the same for him. This was an iffy deal at best, but it was as close to a solid future in the music business as Nelson had ever come.

Nelson’s goal from the beginning had been to become a songwriter and performing star, but back at the Esquire Ballroom, he was thirsty. Butler asked him if he wanted anything, and ­Nelson asked for a Coke and a pack of cigarettes. Butler had the waitress put them on his tab.

Johnny Bush, the author of “Whiskey River,” the song Nelson has used to open every show for four decades now, recalls driving from San Antonio to see Nelson at a gig in Waco.

“He told me he was moving to Houston,” Bush chuckles. “I was born in Houston and I know Houston. I’d just moved back to San Antonio, and I told Willie there was nothing happening down there. But he went anyway.”

Right there on the spot, Nelson set up a small reel-to-reel tape machine and played Butler a few demos, a term for usually rough, raw recordings of songs generally not meant for public consumption. The songs were “Family Bible,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Crazy” and “Night Life,” and Nelson’s asking price was $10 per song.

“I told him I wasn’t going to buy them; they were too good to just give away like that,” says Butler today from his home in Conroe, where he and wife Pat settled after leaving Houston. “And Willie, always the smooth-talking salesman, just smiled and said, ‘Well, I need the money right now and I can always write more songs’.”

Willie Nelson wasn’t always the Red Headed Stranger, king of outlaw country or a multi­platinum-selling national treasure. But his short-lived tenure in Houston in 1959 and into 1960, which lasted maybe 18 months, was one of the most important developmental milestones in what would become an enormous career.

Born near Waco in 1933, Nelson bounced around his early career like a pinball, working gigs as a sideman, radio personality, gas-station attendant, even Bible salesman. Whatever he did, he was always a dollar short, bill collectors on his trail. Not only did the future biodiesel advocate and marijuana-reform icon try Waco (1952), San Antonio and Pleasanton (1954), and Fort Worth (1955; again in 1958) for steady work, he even forayed as far north as Portland, Oregon  (1956), and Vancouver, Washington (1957), where he had a DJ gig as “Wee Willie Nelson.”

But when Nelson got to Houston, Butler says, he instantly recognized the slightly younger man was a gifted songwriter. Of the songs Nelson offered him at the Esquire Ballroom, he says, “I didn’t have any reason to take advantage of him just because he was having a tough time.”

These weren’t just any old run-of-the-mill two-steppers Butler was letting slip by, either. “Crazy” would go on to be the top-selling jukebox song of all time, and “Night Life” would be recorded by countless artists in several genres, particularly blues. “Family Bible” and “Mr. Record Man” would also figure large in Nelson’s catalog as time progressed.

So instead of grabbing his songs for a pittance, Butler loaned Nelson $50 and gave him a job in his band, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship. When club owner Raymond Proske balked at paying another musician — union scale in those days was $15 a night for band members, $25 for the leader — Butler offered to split his pay with Nelson, who started that very night.

Shortly after joining Butler’s Sunset Playboys, in which the charismatic young hustler was given the chance to perform a few of his own songs in the set and close the show with “The Party’s Over,” Nelson also landed a radio gig at Pasadena country station KRCT (650 AM). The pay was terrible, but he could use the air time to promote shows for Butler and other friends. With his radio job in hand, relates Patoski, popular local acts like Smilin’ Jerry Jericho would use Nelson as lead guitarist and pay him $25 per night in exchange for some radio push. Before long, he was on his feet enough to bring wife Martha and three children down from Waco to a tiny apartment in Pasadena.

Sleepy LaBeef, another musical transplant who was part of Pappy Daily’s talent roster and would eventually be inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, once lived in the same Pasadena neighborhood as Nelson, just blocks from the intersection of Southmore and Richey Road. He recalls falling in with Nelson and cutting several demos of Nelson’s compositions at his home.

“Willie’d come over with that little recorder of his — he took that thing everywhere — and we’d get set up in my living room,” LaBeef recalls from his home in Springdale, Arkansas. “I’d play upright bass and Willie would play acoustic guitar. I’ve got an old tape he left here somewhere of four brand-new tunes we laid down one night, and none of them have ever been recorded as far as I know.”

Frequently asked why he hasn’t cut one of the songs, the 77-year old LaBeef explains, “Willie was a good friend and I don’t want to be one of those people trying to make money off his back. If I ever locate those tapes again, I think I’ll just give ’em to Willie.”

Working on the west side and living on the east side, Nelson spent a lot of time in his car. The long drives across Houston allowed him time "to turn private thoughts into poetry." Here are 11 significant points on the map of his Houston history. (Click to enlarge)

Working on the west side and living on the east side, Nelson spent a lot of time in his car. The long drives across Houston allowed him time “to turn private thoughts into poetry.” Here are 11 significant points on the map of his Houston history.
“The one I really liked that’s stuck with me all these years was called ‘The Eleven-Oh-Three,’ he continues. “It went, ‘I’m catching the train at 11:03, that’s the last you’ll ever see of me.’ I always wondered why Willie never recorded it.

“Heck, I still might,” adds LaBeef. “But I’d call Willie first and make sure it’s okay with him.”

Nelson and virtuoso instrumentalist Paul Buskirk had become close friends when both lived in Fort Worth. A lightning-fast picker, Buskirk had spent time on the Grand Ole Opry and earned his bones playing with outfits like the Louvin Brothers. Prior to Nelson’s arrival, Buskirk had established himself in Houston; once Nelson got settled here, Buskirk hired his friend as an instructor at Buskirk Music Studios in ­Pasadena.

There are two versions of the Willie-as-­guitar-instructor story. Patoski’s book says Buskirk told Nelson to buy the Mel Bay book for guitar beginners and just teach that. Another version floating around the Internet says Buskirk would teach Nelson a lesson one day and Nelson would then teach the same lesson to his students the next day. Either way, the lessons were another small Band-Aid on his unstoppable financial hemorrhaging.

Whichever it was, everyone noted that Nelson’s guitar playing, which was already good enough to get him lead-guitar gigs in solid bands like Jericho’s, here took a quantum leap forward. Certainly part of that can be attributed to the training and discipline that went with teaching. But a larger impetus probably came from Buskirk’s working with Nelson on his technique, as well as introducing him to the music of European jazz master Django Reinhardt, who remains one of Nelson’s favorite guitarists to this day. In her book They Came to Nashville, songwriter and performer Marshall Chapman observes that Nelson and sister Bobbie make a habit of playing Reinhardt’s classic “Nuages” as a pastime on the tour bus. (“Nuages” also appears on Nelson’s brand-new album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance.)

LaBeef, singer Claude Gray and Butler all tend to tell one part of the Willie story a little differently from Patoski’s biography. Seconding Rich Kienzle, who wrote the extensive liner notes for the meticulous box sets of Nelson’s earliest works on the Bear Family label, Patoski speculates that the long drives across town from Nelson’s nightclub gig in far west Houston to his home and day jobs in the metro area’s easternmost reaches left Nelson time to “turn private thoughts into poetry.”

Patoski also writes that “Houston was an inspirational setting for some of his best songs,” and surmises that both Nelson’s personal-life turmoil as well as the chaotic Houston beer joint/dance hall scene became fuel for some of his finest lyrics. But there seems to be a slight contradiction between Nelson’s attempting to sell “Family Bible, “Night Life,” “Crazy” and “Mr. Record Man” to Butler when he first arrived in town and Patoski’s observation that during Nelson’s time in Houston, “songs flowed like never before,” among them “Night Life,” “Crazy,” “Mr. Record Man” and “I Gotta Get Drunk.”

“I’m pretty certain Willie came to town with all those except ‘I Gotta Get Drunk,’” asserts LaBeef. “And of course Willie was very musical, so he could have been tinkering with those songs, changing the way he played them or sang them. But he came to town with some good ‘uns.”

“As far as Houston having a big effect on Willie’s writing, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” LaBeef reasons. “I can’t recall what other songs he wrote there, but Willie just wrote all the time back then. He had so many ideas. And he didn’t just suddenly get talented because he moved to Nashville. He went there with a lot of skill and experience, most of it earned the hard way.”

Patoski makes a rational explanation of the seeming contradictions.

“Willie had been writing prolifically in Fort Worth, Vancouver, Portland, even in San Antonio,” the biographer says. “But none of the songs that mattered had come together in the form of a recording until Willie arrived in Houston. Really, that’s where all these disparate pieces came together.”

Pappy Daily may have been a music-­industry genius, but he committed a monumental blunder when it came to Willie Nelson. In fact, in the treacherous, fluid, highly competitive music business, this one is positively historic.

To help Nelson out of one of his continual financial binds, his buddy and mentor Buskirk bought “Night Life” for $100 and “Family Bible” for another $50. At the same time, honky-tonk singer Claude Gray, a native of Henderson, Texas, was working in Houston, selling cars at Perkins Auto by day and singing some gigs at night. Gray finally gave up on Houston and took a disc-jockey job in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1959.

But in mid-December of that same year, Gray swung back into town to do a D Records session for Daily at Gold Star Studios, today known as SugarHill. Buskirk put the session band together and convinced Gray to cut four of Nelson’s tunes: “The Party’s Over,” “Family Bible,” “Night Life” and “Leave Alone.”

...And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson's first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.

…And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson’s first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
He was a long way from the "Wee Willie Nelson" persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.

He was a long way from the “Wee Willie Nelson” persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.
As part of swinging the deal for Gray to cut the songs, the enterprising Buskirk sold Gray a share of “Family Bible” for $100, and for another $100 hired the session musicians and the studio. “I also had a contract with Paul, if you can call us signing a napkin a contract, to buy a piece of ‘Night Life,’” says Gray, who eventually had enough chart and touring success to relocate to Nashville. “The catch was that I only got to keep my rights if the song was actually released.”

But Daily didn’t care for Gray’s version of “Night Life.” Instead, he released D Records singles for “My Party’s Over” (a slight alteration of Nelson’s original title) and, subsequently, “Family Bible.” “My Party’s Over” didn’t do much, but “Family Bible” caught on and eventually climbed all the way to No. 7 on the country charts. Poor Willie didn’t realize a penny from the success of “Family Bible,” and it had to have hurt his self-esteem to have a national hit but be left out of the financial windfall.

Still, the song’s success was the first positive proof that he could write a hit. It certainly raised his profile, and would later serve as a good calling card and icebreaker when he moved to Nashville to try to sell songs in the big time.

Like Gray, Nelson also had a recording contract with D Records, and he cut his first single for the label, “A Man with the Blues” backed by “The Storm Has Just Begun,” during a 1959 session in Fort Worth. The single was released on both D and Daily’s sister label, Betty Records, but went nowhere.

Buskirk then arranged two sessions at Gold Star for Nelson in the spring of 1960. The superior quality of these recordings compared to that of the first tracks cut in Fort Worth is immediately obvious, but these sessions yielded only another mediocre single, “Misery Mansion” backed with “What a Way to Live.”

But even before that single had been issued, Buskirk and Nelson returned to Gold Star with a different set of musicians. There Nelson showed off his rapidly developing guitar chops on “Rainy Day Blues,” but the recording of “Night Life” makes this one of the most significant sessions in his career — and in Houston music history.

“Something had happened between the two sessions,” Patoski writes in An Epic Life. “‘Night Life’ was from another realm. Mature, deep and thoughtful, the slow, yearning blues had been put together in his head during long drives across Houston. At Gold Star, he was surrounded by musicians who could articulate his musical thoughts. He sang the words with confident phrasing that had never been heard on any previous recording he’d done.”

But Daily absolutely hated the track. He went so far as to tell Nelson that if he wanted to write blues, he should go work for Don Robey of Duke-Peacock Records, who had built the Fifth Ward-based company into the most important black record label in the South. Daily refused to release Nelson’s version of “Night Life,” just as he had Claude Gray’s.

Once again, opinions differ about what happened. Daily had made his bones in the murky jukebox business before adding recording, publishing and artist management to the enterprise, and had made George Jones a national smash with tunes recorded at Gold Star. He thought he had the best handle on what people wanted to hear, and was certain a jazzy song like “Night Life” would go nowhere with jukebox users or radio. Also, given the era’s racial prejudices, Daily in no way wished to be identified with so-called race records or their audience. His clientele was working-class crackers, plain and simple, and he felt “Night Life” was too fancy for them.

Bob Wills veteran and Western swing pioneer Herb Remington, the steel guitarist on this storied session, recalls Daily as a “smart guy, a good but cautious businessman.” Remington, who turns 87 in June, says he has “nothing but respect for Daily.”

“Paul Buskirk and I came up with the arrangement on the fly the day we cut the song,” recalls Remington. “Obviously it was a sophisticated lyric and meter, and we wanted the arrangement to really fit the subtlety of the song. We didn’t realize until much later how almost revolutionary the sound on that cut was. I guess it’s no surprise that away from our regular gigs, most of us on that session were into a lot of jazz and other types of music.”

As for how such an astute song-picker as Daily could miss so badly on “Night Life” and Willie Nelson, the guitarist laughs.

“Pappy had a good ear but he just wanted hits, and to him most hits sounded pretty much the same,” he says. “He hated ‘Night Life’ partly because he despised what he called ‘musician’s music.’ Nothing drove Pappy crazier than a bunch of us jamming. He didn’t like it or get it. And he sure didn’t want to pay for it.”

“I also think Pappy just didn’t get Willie’s singing,” he adds. “The way he phrases wasn’t like most other singers who were popular at that time. Willie heard a whole lot of people tell him he couldn’t sing.”

…And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson’s first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.

Whatever the reason, between selling away a hit song for peanuts while he was desperately broke and relinquishing most of his rights for the soon-to-be classic “Night Life” and Daily’s flat-out rejection of “Night Life” — which Nelson felt was his best musical accomplishment yet — Nelson soured on Houston. He made plans to head east.

Could Willie Nelson have also picked up his well-known taste for marijuana in Houston? Since achieving worldwide fame and recognition, he has become one of the sweet leaf’s highest-­profile advocates. Nelson has supposedly smoked a joint on the White House roof, filmed a smoke-out video with Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam and been arrested several times for possession, most recently at a West Texas U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in 2010.

He once admitted to former CNN talk-show maven Larry King on national television that he smoked just before he came on King’s show. With 110,000 Facebook followers on his Tea Pot Party page, Nelson has thrown considerable weight behind the nationwide movement to legalize pot.

According to Patoski, Chapman and others who have traveled on Nelson’s bus, he’s a quiet guy who likes scrambled eggs after a gig, a glass or two of white wine, a lungful of killer reefer and picking some Django Reinhardt with sister Bobbie. This is the Zen Willie of today, the one who wrote the koans collected in his 2012 book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.

But back in his Houston days, Nelson was a hard-partying little dude. Larry Butler recalls many nights when Nelson was too drunk to drive home, “so he’d just spend the night with us.”

“Willie loved a good party, and he’d drink right along with everybody else,” adds Butler. “Of course, that wasn’t helping his marriage any, but Willie’s always been Willie.”

The various biographies of Nelson have been quite frank about his hard drinking back in the day, and there are casual mentions of pills, which have always been around wherever musicians are working late hours. Butler was probably around Nelson more than anyone else, even Buskirk, during the Houston phase. Confronted with the question of whether Nelson was already smoking pot when he lived in Houston, Butler just giggles.

“Listen, fella, I think Willie was born with one of those things in his hand.”

Houston wasn’t all that kind to Willie Nelson. According to Pasadena Police Department records, he was arrested for speeding and driving without a license — going 85 miles an hour in a 40-mph zone at 3:52 a.m. — on Red Bluff Road in July 1960. Bond was set at $80, and his wife at the time, Martha, appears to have co-signed the property receipt for $9 in cash and a set of car keys.

By all accounts, at this time Nelson was accumulating debts much faster than he could pay them, and Patoski notes that when Nelson left town hoping to land a radio job in Mississippi at the same station where Claude Gray was working, he was four payments behind on his “ugly green ’46 Buick.”

Once again, Nelson had to park his family with Martha’s parents in Waco while he went off to chase the next rainbow. That turned out to be Nashville, after six seeks of hanging around Meridian didn’t turn up a radio job or anything else that would pay a decent wage.

Nelson certainly left Houston with more songs in his notebook, some decent demo tapes of his songs and considerably improved skills as a guitarist. He got his feet wet in the studio and, although it was shunned and overlooked at the time, he recorded one of the true classics of country music.

He also released two singles on D Records and Betty Records, and had a hit song he’d written that would open some industry doors. He gained even more experience in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonk world, and Houston’s joints had a reputation as being some of the toughest in the nation.

He even kept a few copies of his amazing take on “Night Life.” Following Daily’s rejection, he and Buskirk surreptitiously paid to have the song mastered, pressed and released as “Nite Life” on tiny Rx Records under the moniker “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson.” While it managed to get some airplay by Uncle Hank Craig on across-the-border superstation XEG, other interest in the recording was sparse.

That was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Nelson’s Houston stay. He began to feel that the situation here was both spiraling out of control and becoming increasingly untenable.

“I was into a lot of negative thinking back then,” Nelson tells Patoski inAn Epic Life. “I did a lot of bad things, got into fights with people. My head was just pointed in the wrong way.”

It was time to go. Herb Remington, who composed the famous Bob Wills instrumental “Remington’s Ride,” recalls meeting up with a handful of other local players to wish Nelson well the night before he left town.

“Hank Thompson was playing Cook’s Hoedown, and a bunch of us went down to see Willie off,” says Remington. “Everybody liked him and we really did hate to see him go. My main memory is that Willie was dressed real nice and we had a fine send-off.”

Most likely with a strong sense of failure, Willie Nelson kissed Houston goodbye the next day.

Willie Nelson 7th Recipient of Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (what took them so long)

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

keviny

photo:  Kevin Wolf

www.TexasMonthly.com
by:  Don Solomon

To describe Willie Nelson as a national treasure is to undersell it. Our affinity for Willie here at Texas Monthly is rather well-documented, but we’re pleased to report that his greatness is official: As the winner of the Library Of Congress’ seventh Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, there’s a national seal of approval on the man’s career.

Willie was awarded the prize on Wednesday night at a concert in Washington, D.C. that featured performances by the man himself, along with Paul Simon (another recipient of the award), Neil Young (Willie’s Farm Aid bro) and Cyndi Lauper (sure, why not?).

The Gershwin Prize was created to honor a performer and songwriter whose work “reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.” Willie certainly fits the bill as far as that goes, but what was so amazing about the previous prize recipients that took the Library of Congress so long to get to Willie?

The first Gershwin Prize recipient was Paul Simon in 2007. Simon makes sense—he’s had a decades-long career as both part of a duo and as a solo artist, he’s worked in multiple genres (including a truly spectacularly terrible Broadway musical), and nobody’s gonna argue with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Similarly, the second recipient of the award, Stevie Wonder, has been making music magic since he was 11-years old. From Little Stevie Wonder to the man who gave us Songs In The Key Of Life and Innervisions, to a single that helped get Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday honored as a national holiday to, okay, “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” it’s impossible for anyone with ears and a heart to say that Stevie Wonder doesn’t belong at the front of the line.

The third recipient, though, was Paul McCartney. No offense to Sir Paul, but he was kind of a curious choice, because: A) His solo output as a songwriter is not unimpressive, but it doesn’t exactly live up to the stuff that he shares a writing credit with John Lennon on; and B) It’s weird for the Library of Congress to bestow this award on somebody who isn’t American. (We’ll rescind this objection if the Queen of England grants knighthood to Willie Nelson.) Paul McCartney deserves most of the accolades he receives, to be certain, but we wouldn’t have bumped him to the top of the list ahead of Willie—or, say, Bob Dylan or Prince.

Following McCartney, Hal David and Burt Bacharach received the fourth Gershwin Prize. As lifetime achievement awards go, you could do worse than Bacharach and David—”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” and “I Say A Little Prayer” are all fairly perfect songs, and there’s a logic when it goes toward Hall of Fame-type awards that if you don’t honor people who haven’t been relevant in decades now, they’re never gonna get theirs. Bacharach and David’s oeuvre is relatively thin only when stacked against someone like Willie or Paul Simon, but it’s still kind of an iffy award.

The fifth Gershwin Prize recipient, though, was another front-of-the-line winner: Carole King is a no-brainer. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” being one of the best songs anybody ever wrote about anything, and like Willie Nelson, she was a prolific enough songwriter that it was probably the third timeless song she wrote that week (we’ll guess that the other two might have been “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” simply because that’s how deep her catalog is). Carole King is one of the most important songwriters in popular music, so A+ job, Library of Congress, good call.

Billy Joel followed Carole King to claim the sixth Gershwin Prize, which is on the iffy side again. The man hasn’t put out a record since 1993, and as a songwriter, he mostly wrote hits for himself and only himself (and, sure, countless people in karaoke bars around the world). Still, that may be regional bias at work—what Willie Nelson is to Texans, Billy Joel is to New Yorkers, so it’s possible that we just don’t get it.

Nonetheless, Willie Nelson taking the seventh prize does feel a little late. We couldn’t argue with Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, or Carole King, but it’s also possible that when awarding the prize, they delayed Willie simply because he was so obvious. (Bob Dylan still hasn’t received one, and he probably casts a longer shadow than any songwriter in the history of popular music.) If every award is just crossing names off of a list that reads “Bob Dylan: ?, Willie Nelson: ?, Carole King: ?, Stevie Wonder: ?, Prince: ?, Neil Diamond: ?” it would probably make the first several years that the award existed pretty boring.

So we’re glad to know that Willie got the prize, even if it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the man who wrote—well, you don’t need us to run down the list for you—come in later than Bacharach, Billy Joel, and the guy who wrote “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime.”  And the next time someone declares the man a national treasure, you can rest assured that it’s been vetted by the Library of Congress.

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