by: Joe Nicki Patoski
Paul English was talking about breaking someone’s legs, cheerily using the threat as a means to get to the punch line of a story. The four men listening to him in the back of the touring bus hung on every word—because it was Paul, because it was very difficult deciphering his nasal mumble filtered through a twang, and because whatever he said was likely to be true.
“I told Lana we could do something,” Paul was saying. “We could break his legs. We have to do something to him. We cain’t go and leave him walking. We’d of done that to him. That’s nothing.”
He was discussing the shoot-out at Ridgetop back in 1970, just outside of Nashville, when Willie Nelson and Paul English defended a house full of family against Willie’s daughter’s husband and his gun-toting brothers, one of many larger-than-life incidents that have been burnished into legend over the course of the career of Paul English’s boss and best friend, Willie Nelson. In this particular story, Willie’s daughter Lana’s husband, Steve, had hit her, prompting Willie to go over to their house and slap Steve, pissing off Steve so much that he and his brothers drove over to Willie’s house and started shooting. The altercation ended with Paul firing .380-grain bullets from his M1 rifle into the bumper of Steve’s car to “get him to go on, goodbye.”
When Steve returned to apologize the next day, Paul told him he was glad he had kept driving away. “Otherwise, I would’ve had to aim to kill, rather than shoot to miss,” Paul said in a low growl that suggested a ruthless predatory killer, followed by a sharp cackle. Everyone hearing the story laughed. But Paul wasn’t kidding.
For almost fifty years, Paul English has spent his nights literally watching Willie Nelson’s back, as his drummer. The rest of the time he has functioned as Willie’s more figurative back—a job that runs 24/7.
From the drummer’s chair, English sees everything, just like the catcher on a baseball team. His oversight goes far beyond maintaining the odd, minimalist beats that guide Willie’s music. For him, the drummer’s chair is the perfect perspective for running the most storied touring organization in country music. More important than being Willie’s drummer, or his best friend, is Paul English’s combined role as the road boss of Willie’s traveling company, tour accountant, protector, collector, and enforcer, roles embellished by his proud past as a hoodlum, pimp, and police character. For all the good vibes that the Red Headed Stranger imparts at his Fourth of July picnics, Farm-Aids, and wherever he plays “On the Road Again,” there’s an understanding shared by one and all in this band of gypsies: Mess with Willie Nelson and the next thing you’ll see is the wrong end of a gun held by the Devil himself, Robert Paul English.
Say what you want about economics, ethics, efficiencies, legalities, and proper ways of conducting commerce in the world of entertainment. Anyone who’s survived six decades in the music business understands the value of having a police character in your organization. As Willie explained to an associate who’d wondered why he kept an asshole like Paul on the payroll, especially when he couldn’t keep time as a drummer: “He’s saved my life.” More than once. Besides, as the singer Delbert McClinton has observed, “Everyone in this business needs an asshole.”
That sort of explains why the asshole drummer who can’t keep time was once the highest-paid sideman in the business, getting 20 percent of all of Willie’s action as well as a fat salary for drumming and for doing the books, which he has done since he signed on in 1966.
Those songs, such as “Nightlife” and “Family Bible,” that Willie famously sold for fifty bucks a pop, giving up his publishing rights? Paul got them back.
No telling what his method of persuasion might have been, but with Paul there is always, always—to this very day—the veiled threat of violence bubbling under the surface. Often as not, the perception is tied to Paul’s fondness for guns, at least one of which is always somewhere on his person.
Largely thanks to Paul, Nelson was able to survive on the rough and rowdy honky-tonk circuit traveled by Nashville recording artists in the 1960s. He was also instrumental in running the road part of the business when Willie ascended to one-name superstar status in the 1970s and 1980s.
At eighty-two, a year older than Willie and four years off a minor stroke, Paul has slowed down considerably. But in the musical subgenre known as outlaw music, where country and rock have mixed it up ever since Waylon and Willie and the boys stepped forward, Paul English is that rare bird who really is an outlaw, a hoodlum-made-good as sideman, sporting so much character for a character that his boss wrote not one but two songs about him: the autobiographical “Me and Paul” and “Devil In A Sleeping Bag,” complementing Leon Russell’s tribute, “You Look Like the Devil.”
As his son Paul Jr. observed, “If you’re writing songs about shooting people, it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.”
The high cheekbones, long sideburns, thin beard and goatee, the widow’s peak and slicked-back hair framed by designer glasses (whose tinted lens mask a glass eye) all telegraph Beelzebub, despite his age. Although he no longer wears the black satin cape with red lining that was once his trademark on stage, and he doesn’t appear to carry his “bidness” in his sock anymore, darkness shrouds Paul’s lanky frame—black shirt, black slacks, black hat, and black boots. It’s his favorite color, he’ll tell you.
Of all the characters in the merry-prankster rolling revue known as Willie Nelson and Family, no one—not even Willie—casts a shadow like Paul, Willie’s shadow for life. He first drummed for Willie on the fly in 1955, on Willie’s radio show on KCNC in Fort Worth, and he drums for Willie today, assisted for the past thirty years by his younger brother Billy, who also plays percussion.
Inside the Family, Paul is the ultimate authority. He’s the Judge. It’s the same role he played back in Fort Worth in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Dixie Mafia ruled the underworld. If two hoodlums had a beef that they couldn’t take to the police, they’d go to Paul. No matter what he decided, his word was accepted as law, because Paul English had the reputation among characters as a man who was even-handed, judicious, and demanded respect.
“I was a good street hustler because I treated it as a business,” he explained. (more…)