Willie Nelson — A Real Man and His Music
Dallas Morning News
August 10, 1975
by Bob St. John
“I live one day at a time.
I dream one dream at a time.
Yesterday’s gone; and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at a time” — Willie Nelson
You could call it a crowd or an audience. No matter, really, because the man and his fans are not bound by tags and labels and names that categorize them. The drifters are there, the denim crowd (real and dyed), the dreamers, the rednecks, the intellectuals who do not have stiff rods for backbones, and the suburbanites who have escaped the backyard tempo of flip-top beers and philosophical martinis.
“Willie!” somebody says, and everybody is picking it up. “Hello, Willie!” And the man, Willie Nelson, smiles and shakes hands which reach for him, and chats briefly as he moves across the floor, between tables. You see, Willie Nelson is touchable and touches. He is real. He has run the gauntlet of life’s deepest emotions and survived. And his fans, in him, have survived.
Now he is on the stage, talking to members of his group, his band. Blue lights, piercing, find him through the smoke-covered room with its beer smells, perfume — expensive and cheap. Now he has his guitar, worn like it’s owner, and the people begin shouting, stomping and cheering.
And he begins. “Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning, baby left me without warning, sometime in the night. So I’m flying down to Houston, with forgetting her the nature of my flight. As we taxi towards the runway, with the smog and haze reminding me of how I feel. Just a country boy who’s learning that the pitfalls of the city are extremely real.”
A man in jeans, a cowboy hat, gets up and walks toward the stage and Willie leans down and shakes hands. A young girl runs up and Willie takes her hand, leans over and she kisses him on the cheek. “All the night life and the parties, temptations decide the order of the day. Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning and I’m leaving baby somewhere in L.A…”
It is a loud, fast, foot-stomping song. But soon he will do something slower, sad, ballad-like. He will do them all. This is the Willie Nelson experience. On this night he went on at 10 and though the show is supposed to last a couple of hours, he sings and picks until almost 2 a.m. Willie is like that. He’s the only entertainer I’ve ever met who has been known to wear out audiences.
The people love it. So does Willie. Willie Nelson is not like so many top performers who give the impression they’re doing what they do as a favor to you, after you pay your money. Many seem to be looking for the quickest, most painless exit from the stage as they look blankly at the same faces in another town, another place. Willie Nelson enjoys himself.
Willie sings in a strong, clear baritone which can become very mellow and, at times, subtle. He has a person-to-person style, and his voice strikes chords in you if you have been lonely, happy, deserted, sad or under the compulsion of wanderlust. Some of his songs are fun, happy, some sad and haunting. Often when I listen to his lyrics and music I find in them a correlation to a truly good novel. You can read his song for a good story but, looking deeper, you find something more profound, allegorical. In one recent album, “Phases and Stages,” he takes a poignant look at the breakup of a marriage, one side of the album being form the woman’s viewpoint and the other from the man’s. Each is his own way goes through the stages of feeling hopeless and depressed, then becomes philosophical and, finally, rebounds. There are many different type songs, different eats, in the album, but together they paint a complete picture.
For years Willie was a word-of-mouth legend. Now, more than anybody, he is the catalyst of the current movement in music, a blending fo pop, country, rock, even some blues. It has been called “progressive country,” though Willie doesn’t care for that particular designation.
“I hate music labels,” willie was saying as we sat on the sofa of his office in the Willie Nelson Music Co. in Austin. “A label is just one man’s opinion and that doesn’t make it right. That’s this…this is that (he laughs). Labels put a bind on something, corner it and keep it from branching out.”
Willie was dressed as he often is, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes with no socks. His hair, shoulder length, was bothering him so he pulled off a piece of recording tape and tied it around his head, Indian style. Everybody is completely loose in the Willie Nelson Music Co., which publishes some of his music, and there seems to be a great deal of confusion, though it all produces success. I had the impression you might open a filing cabinet and find a potential hit song scribbled on a piece of paper, or maybe you’d find a piece of pizza. The office and the people who work for and with Willie reflect him.
One of Willie’s daughters, Lana, works in his office. When we walked in she jumped up and hugged his neck. Paul English, behind a desk in another room, is Willie’s drummer and longtime friend. After they greeted each other warmly, Paul began explaining a life insurance policy to Willie, who was putting on a tape of his new album, “The Red Headed Stranger.” Between phones ringing, conversations going on from all directions, I caught parts of the album. I heard enough of it to know he was doing something a little different.
University of Texas athletic director-coach Darrell Royal knows more about country-and-western music than anybody I know. Friends in the field say he’s a self-made expert. “Willie stays ahead,” says Royal, a close friend of Willie. “In recent years people are getting into what they’re calling progressive country. Willie was doing that 10 years ago. By the time people get into what he’s doing, he’s already gone on to something else. Willie stays a few years ahead of everybody.”
An extremely tall blond young lady with sharp features, a long, somewhat bent nose, was sitting in a corner of Willie’s office, which I learned is also an undesignated lounge area. She was staring at the wall. Near her a short, portly man was staring at the floor. While Willie talked over the telephone to his lawyer in new York I went toward them, looked at the woman, who was pretty but deadpan, and said, “Hello, how are you?” She looked right thorough me, then stared at the wall again.
When Willie got off the phone, the man got up and started telling Willie his problems, about his ex-wife and children. Willie listened sympathetically. I went into another room and Gene McCoslin, who used to manage KNOK radio station in Dallas and now works for Willie, told me the pair were entertainers. Willie had brought them from Las Vegas and put them on stage in Houston, using his band behind them. They had flopped and indicated to the band they felt the crowd might not like them. “Hell,” said English later, “I wasn’t worried about whether they liked them or not. I was worried about getting killed by irate fans.”
“I still think they are good,” said Willie. “The timing just wasn’t right.” Jody Payne, his guitarist, came in and greeted Willie like a long, lost friend. Later Willie was talking about his group — English, Payne, bass player Bea Spears, Mickey Raphael on the harmonica and Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, on the piano. “The thing we have going for us is that we like each other,” said Willie. “We sincerely like each other.”
Word was out. Willie was in town, at his office. The place became Austin terminal. Willie left the door open.
I watched him. His face is worn, somewhat craggy and surrounded by brownish-red hair and a beard, salted with white. Lines around his brown eyes show that he has both cried and laughed a lot. If possible, his face seems both younger and older than his 42 years.
“I really do believe you have to suffer and feel things deeply to write about them,” he was saying. “I’ve got a lot to write about because, well, a lot has happened to me. Some of the best stuff I’ve written came easiest. Usually, the harder I work on something the less I’m pleased. There are no really new ideas. Anything original is something you do different, maybe saying the same thing in a different way.”
Short years ago Willie Nelson wasn’t as big an entertainer and didn’t seem to get much credit as a writer. Continually, I find people surprised to learn that Willie wrote this or that old standby. His song “Funny How Time Slips Away” was recorded by 80 artists, including Bing Crosby. He has written other classics in the industry such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “One Day at a Time,” “Night Life,” “The Party’s Over,” “My Own Peculiar way” and “I’ll Walk Alone.” “Bloody Mary Morning” is one of his recent songs which seems most likely to become a standard.
His songs have been recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra, perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lawrence Welk, Stevie Wonder, Ray Price, Harry James, Patsy Cline, Al Green and Eydie Gorme. The music is adaptable to many styles, many versions, but the definitive recordings of Willie’s song are done by Willie, who understands them best.
“I like all kinds of people, all kinds of crowds,” he continued when I go thim away from all the people. “I like to see them all laid back and listening to our music. I do try to be touchable. A lot of guys hire bodyguards. This was especially true during the era of the big stars. But it’s bull. Nobody needs them. People who come to see and hear you aren’t going to hurt you. They’re your friends.”
“You know, I don’t think there’s much difference in people. They’re the same, though maybe in different wrappings.”
I told him something he already knew, that his cult, his followers, come from all groups. “I think some of the young people listen and enjoy our kind of music and so do dads and mammas,” he added. “I hope maybe we can help them find out their parents aren’t so bad and help the parents find out all the kids aren’t Charels Mansons. (He paused, looked out the back door of his office, which was open.) Kids are a heckuva lot smarter than we were. I think they were just born with more sense.”
His wife, Connie, phoned and he talked softly to her. Willie has three kids — Lana, Billy and Susie — by a previous marriage. He and Connie, a pretty blond, have been marrried for some five years and have two small children, Paula and Amy. “One time we were playing at a place called Cut and Shoot, Texas,” said Willie. “Connie was a fan. She and a girl friend came to see us play. She sat at the band table and I saw her and said, ‘I want her.’ One of the guys went over and got her. She’s a beautiful woman.”
“Willie and Connie had just gotten back from Hawaii. “We were just sitting around the house,” explained Willie, “and she asked when we might go to Hawaii. I said, ‘How about tomorrow?’ We went for a week to get into the sun. We got burned the first day and it rained the next four. Rain didn’t matter. We were too sunburned to get out anyway. No, I don’t like to plan things. Most plans don’t work out. I just like to get up and do things.”
The Nelsons did live on a 44-acre ranch outside Austin. But, even for Willie, the curious got to be too much. When they found out where he lived they continually came out — friends, strangers, everybody. “Some,” he said, “would come by and stay for two days. So we made another snap decision, to sell the house and move into the city.”
We drove to his new house, on a quiet, residential street lined with trees. Odd, I though, how you can live in the country and be surrounded and yet find more privacy in the city, crowded with people. I told him it was a nice house. “I think I might just stay a couple of days,” I added, and he laughed.
It goes against his grain for Willie to be the superstar that he is becoming. He had tremendous reviews after playing at the Trouboudour in Los Angeles. On learning Willie was in town, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney attended his performance there. After hearing Willie in New York, critic Loraine Alterman wrote in the New York Times he did “country music that can move even those of us who think we despise it.”
“I don’t want to be a superstar because I don’t like the way they have to live,” said Willie. “I wouldn’t want to be like, say, an Elvis Presley. Besides, I’m basically lazy. I just need enough money to get by, to exist. I don’t like tours. You have to be gone too long. Now we have it down to where we work five, six days a month. And we like it around here — Austin, Dallas, Houston, places close. No, I don’t worry about exposure. Hell, I’m overexposed now.
“People who work all the time, they get to where you dread the next day coming, dread being there. When I entertain I enjoy it. I enjoy people and don’t want to work so much that I get caught up in it and forget that. I also want to live a life, be myself, not somebody else. I like freedom.”
Once Willie was playing in this place and a big fight started. People and chairs were crashing everywhere but Willie just kept on playing. Willie’s cool. “I tell you how cool he is,” said English. “We used to travel around in this old bus. One day we were moving on down this freeway and Willie and some of the guys were playing card in the back. Suddenly, the universal joint fell out and cut the brake lining. The driver yelled back he couldn’t stop the bus. Everybody was in apanic. ‘What we going to do, Willie’ somebody asked. Willie never looked up. ‘Deal,’ he said.”
At Willie’s office that day, a number of things were going on at once, but the big plans were for his annual Fourth of July picnic. This generally referred to as the “Woodstock” of country music. It’s an all-day singing and picking session in which some of the top names in the industry visit their friend Willie Nelson. Two years ago in Dripping Springs they stopped counting the people at 50,000. Last year in College Station it drew near 100,000, and this year estimates of the number who attended ran as high as 95,000.
For his latest picnic Willie had rented a 500-acre site 30 miles northwest of Austin near the hamlet of Liberty Hill. He hopes to keep the picnic there. It ahs plenty of parking room, trees for shade and it’s bisected by the San Gabriel River. Willie drove a group of us out to the site and, as we were heading toward the soft, rollling hills, Willie was saiyng, “I like all kinds of music. Just all kinds. I also play a little golf, and I guess my other pastime is thinking. I think a lot.”
I remembered a story Royal told about once when they were playing golf in Brownville. Willie was in the trees and couldn’t get a cart near where his ball had stopped. He yelled at Royal, on the fairway, to toss him a two-iron. Royal slung the club. Willie lost sight of it as it came down through the trees. It hit him right on the head. “Willie, you okay”? yelled Royal. Willie’s voice came out from the trees. “I don’t know yet. I might be dead.”
Our drive through the countryside was pleasant. Bluebonnets carpeted both sides of the raod and we passed through a small town which seemed, as do many small towns in texas, to have stopped in a time long passed. Willie was raised in such a town, Abbott, which is just off Interstate 35 some 30 miles north of Waco. I had visited there earlier.
Farm road 1242 cuts under the main highway and runs through what is downtown Abbott, a small, bunched group of buildings, many boarded up and closed. Chruches seem to be on every corner. They are far from boarded up. “See that spot over there,” said Jimmy Bruce, a parttime clerk in the post office. “Willie used to live in a hosue right over there. I was a neighbor. Yeah, he was a pretty good kid. He comes back here sometimes and plays benefits.
“When he was here the Hill County sheriff came out and gave them a little trouble. They were afraid he might attract the wrong kind of crowd. Some folks around here talk about Willie, but I liked him. Yes sir, I did.”
Willie was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. The old folks were very religious, the firs and brimstone kind. His grandfatehr, a blacksmith, died when Willie was six, leavin ghim in the care of his grandmoter, a music teacher. “Times were hard during the Depression, but we grew our own food and had a cow for milk,” Willie once told me.
Back then, summer nights were still, lazy, with outdoor smells and sounds of crickets and sometimes frogs. Willie would rest on his bed near a window and listen to revivals and church services at the tabernacle nearby. “I also did a lot of listening on the radio,” he said. “I’d catch the Grand Ol’ Opry and the rhythm and blues program from New Orleans. My granddad had taught me a few chords on the guitar before he died. So I bought me a $6 guitar and a chord book. I taught myself to play by putting my fingers on those black dots in the book. My sister Bobbie was the real musician. My grandmother gave her piano lessons and I can remember them practicing beside a kerosene lamp.
“The first time I performed in public I was about five. My grandmother dressed me up in a sailor suit and took me to one of those all-day picnics. You know, singing and eating and praying, and praying some more. So I got up to recite this poem. My nose started bleeding. There I was reading the poem and holding one side of my nose with my hand. I think everyone was glad when I sat down. I know I was.”
Willie and Bobbie would entertain at school. When he was 12 he joined his first band, a Bohemian polka band, which was formed by his brother-in-law, Bud Fletcher. Willie played the guitar and sang, Bobbie was on the piano, the high school football coach played the trombone and Willie’s father, a musician who’d come back into town during is travels, the fiddle. “Bobbie was the only one who was any good,” said Willie. “We never played the same place twice. We usually played on a percentage and I remember one night we cleared 81 cents each.”
But Willie had begun to jog down lyrics on scraps of paper, and he also was entertaining at a nearby beer drinking establishment, the Night Owl, managed by a big, robust woman named Margie Lundy. The original Night Owl burned a few years ago. The new place, on the same site, is smaller. Margie has been handling it all herself, since her husband died a few years ago. “Yessiree, I kept it going, though it’s not easy,” she was saying.
Traffic in the Willie Nelson Music Co. was winding down. The blonde entertainer was gone. As I left I kept thinking: Willie is there, among people, touchable. He is somebody, yet has control because inside he is not trying to play a part, to be anybody but himself. He is one of us. And Willie is… well, Willie is Willie.