Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

“Mr. Record Man” – Houston Press (4/24/13)

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

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.“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.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 on the Cover of the Rolling Stone (August 2014)

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

Rolling Stone

Willie Nelson and family in Life Magazine (August 1983)

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

Life Magazine (8/83)
Photography: Harry Benson
Text: Cheryl McCall

“I’ve about forgotten what a private life is,” says Willie Nelson, padding around his kitchen with a mug of tea. “But when I really want to get away, this is the santuary.”

Here, 40 miles outside Denver, a contented Nelson is secluded with his wife, Connie, and their daughters, Paula and Amy. In the largest of four houses on a 122-acre spread. (One house is an office, the others for rare guests.) The Nelsons’ family life is anchored here; it’s where the girls go to school (public).

But they have another big house near Austin, Texas., site of the country superstar’s personal recording studio. During the summer, Connie and the kids adopt a gypsy lifestyle to keep up with the perapathetic. Willie., who, at 50, shows no sign of setting a more sensible pace. He logs over 200 days a year on the road for as much as $500,000 per concert, and often takes his family along in a customized bus.

“The kids don’t mind the traveling because it’s all they’ve ever known,” says Connie. When she married Willie in 1971, she recalls, “We had to search for pennies before we could go to the grocery store.” In the years since, the royalties form a dozen gold and six platinum albums have made them land barons.

Besides their two “hideouts,” they own a 400-acre ranch in Utah, a 200-acre farm near Nashville and two houses in Hawaii. Their holdings in the Austin area include a 44-acre ranch, an 80-unit town-house complex, the 1, 700-seat Austin Opry House, a motel and a small catfish restaurant called Mona’s.

“That’s a lot of doorknobs,” Nelson says with some satisfaction. What’s it all worth? “It would take a week of inventorying to figure that out,” says his business manager. Recently the Nelsons’s gave LIFE a first-ever look at their homes in Colorado and Texas.

“The most important thing I do for Willie is make sure he gets rest. He doesn’t even realize when he’s running himself into the ground,” says Connie, soaking with her old man in their king-size tub. “I keep the people to a minimum, or before we know it, our time together is gone.”

“When I have time off the road, I try to split it between Colorado and Texas,” says Nelson. To shuttle back and forth, he bought a $1.7 million, seven-passenger Learjet this winter. “The plane makes a difference,” says Paula. “Dad gets home more, and we go to Texas a lot when we’re not in school.”

West of Austin, the family as an eight-room house overlooking the 775 acre Pedernales Country Club, which Nelson owns outright and permits his band, staff and friends to use. His clubhouse office, filled with tapes, awards and a six-foot feathered headdress given him by an Oklahoma Indian tribe, is next to his state-of-the-art recording studio. “I like being able to go in there in the middle of the night,” he says. When fellow muscicians drop by, the beer and tequila flow.

“It can be a continuous party,” Connie sighs. “When one set of people gets worn out, there’s another set ready to go. But there’s only one Willie.” In Austin, Nelson also does some fatherly fence-mending with his children by his first marriage. (Lana, 29, Susie, 27, and Billy, 26, live nearby.) “I was too busy trying to pay the rent when they were small,” he says. “I spend more time with them and my six grandkids now than I ever did before. I like being a father.”

Willie Nelson at the Armadillo World Headquarters show (4/11/72)

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

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On April 11, 1972, Willie Nelson made his first appearance at Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin

 “In Nashville, I was taking advice from the experts — they were telling me what to do.  It wasn’t that they were wrong, it’s just that it was wrong for me.  Someone said one time that a leader is a guy who sees a lot of people going in one direction and then jumps out in front of them.  I don’t know if this is what was happening or not.  I might have seen the young people going for the kind of music that I played, so I went to that audience, to get the energy from those young people and it got the attention of the rest of the world.”

– Willie Nelson

Monday, July 27th, 2020

Willie Nelson on the cover of Maverick Magazine (July/August 2019)

Friday, July 24th, 2020

Willie Nelson Interview (Modern Screen’s Country Music July 1997)

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

One-on-one With America’s Greatest Singer/Songwriter… Willie Nelson
by Elianne Halbersberg
Modern Screen Country Magazine
July 1997

It’s raining in Mississippi, which means “too wet to play golf” for Willie Nelson.  Instead, he’s enjoying, as he says, “great food,” which, in this case, is organically grown spinach, turnip greens and potatoes. This is significant for the man in charge of Farm Aid, and he has decided to spend this day granting interviews…although in Nelson’s case, they’re mostly conversations — relaxed and open to any subject.  Asked if he always schedules interview based on the weather, he chuckles, “I hadn’t really planned on golfing today. I was sitting here and Evelyn [his publicist] sent me a list of phone numbers.  I thought today would be a good day to start talking.  It’s nice to have people who want to talk to you — that makes my day!

Elianne Halbersberg:  Your publicist told me you usually schedule only 15-minute interviews.  How much can you accomplish in such brief soundbites?

Willie Nelson:  I don’t know. It depends how good I am at using a few words to say a lot.  It also depends on the particular writer who puts it down on paper making it sound better than I said it.  I may need your help on this!

EH:  Do you ever lose patience with interviewers?

WN:  Oh no.  I get asked the same questions over and over, three or four times today, even.  I usually just answer it differently, try to make it colorful.

EH:  Does the press really understand, in your opinion, what fans want to know?

WN:  I doubt it, unless they’re fans too. You have an opinion and it’s more powerful because you’re the press.  It’s like me and a song — we have an edge on the rest of the people.  A fan can only get his message across by reading your articles and buying my records.  Hopefully, they do both.

EH:  What DO fans want to know?

WN:  Everything you don’t want them to — they want to know that first!

EH:  In order to succeed, you must have self-confidence.  What’s the difference between that and conceit?

WN:  Not much!  It’s a thin line.  That’s a good question.  Neither one, in and of itself, is totally negative.  Or positive.  I think confidence is good, but it is very similar to conceit.

EH:  How do you know when you’ve crossed that line?

WN:  Your best friends may tell you.  But better to have that than the alternative.  It’s kind of like halitosis — bad breath is better than no breath at all.

DH:  A couple of days ago Marty Stuart told me, “I believe in friends like Johnny Cash and Willie.  They make the trends look ridiculous, thin, and vain.”  Aside from knowing Marty’s in your corner, how does such a comment make you feel?

WN:  I knew I was in trouble when I heard someone say, “I wish they’d play the old guys like George Strait and Randy Travis.”  You know, music changes, fads come along.  Remember when Ray Charles released ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and brought millions of new fans?  Every time country goes through changes, it brings a lot of new people.  But it’s all phases and stages.  I never had that much radio airplay, never depended on it to make a living.  I depended on having a good band, doing a good show, and when you work clubs — which I still do because I enjoy them — you have the advantage of them being open every night, so with a poster, they can advertise who’s coming.  That gives a guy a chance to go to town without a record being played every day on the radio. 

Word of mouth is still the best advertising and if you do a good job, you’ll have a better crowd next time, then next year you play theaters, and so on.  The system fights the hell out of it and tries to tell you that getting played on their radio station is the only way.  There are several stations in any town, and if a guy really works and wants it enough, you can make your own record, sell it out of the trunk of your car, find a station who’ll play it, work a club, and work each town individually. 

A lot of people I know have put their futures in the hands of a record company and that’s not very wise, because you’re only as good a major label as your next record and they’ll drop you like a hot potato and then what do you do?

EH:  Sell your records out of the trunk of your car?

WN:  Right!

EH:  You’ve written so many classic country songs.  Do you appreciate your own compositions as much as country fans do?

WN:  Probably not.  I’m sure I take a lot of them for granted.  There’s a lot of my own songs I do every night, on stage that have the same special meaning to my audiences as certain songs (by other artists) that have touched me.

EH:  You’ve recorded approximately 100 albums!  Do you even remember all those songs.

WN:  I normally do. Some nights I forget “Whiskey River,” but we do 40 or so a night and they’re not always the same.  When I worked with Waylon, Kris and Johnny, I felt like I retired!  I was only working one-fourth of the time with my corner of the stage, my monitor, with the words — I felt like Frank Sinatra!

EH:  Do you ever play a song, the crowd goes notes, and wonder, “Why are they screaming for THAT one?”

WN:  No, because the ones they really like every night, I like, too, like “On the Road Again.”  Or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — I didn’t write it, but it’s still a great song.  “Always On My Mind” — I didn’t write that one, either, but I really enjoy singing it.  The audience knows that, and they like seeing somebody enjoying what they do.

EH:  Are you still in touch with President Jimmy Carter and his family?

WN:  Occasionally.  I talk to him about one thing or another, usually his Habitat for Humanity program.  We’ve done things together.  He’s a great man. He’d still have my vote.

EH:  Were you invited to Amy Carter’s wedding?

WN:  No, I wasn’t.  But, I move around so much, I’m sure [the invitation] is lying around somewhere!

EH:  I hear you’re cutting a reggae album.

WN:  I’ve already recorded it.  It probably won’t be out until the first of the year.  Island is using this year to still work Spirit.  It surprised me when Don Was brought up the reggae idea. I wasn’t sure how it would sound until we went to the studio and cut one of my obscure ’60s songs that i think only he remembered, with a reggae band.  It sounded so good, we thought maybe we should try to put out an album. So we went to Jamaica, talked to Island, I had Spirit with me, and we just did it.

EH:  Nashville still doesn’t get it, do they?

WN:  Not really, but Island does and that’s the big difference.  Label Chairman Chris Blackwell got it immediately, never hesitated.  It was completely produced, finished product.  All he had to do was put it out and advertise.  They’ve-done a great job.  I had been presented with problems with “Just One Love” and “Moonlight Becomes You” and fortunately there’s Justice Records.  If Island hadn’t gotten it, I’d have probably gone to Justice (in Texas) or kept looking.

EH:  Is it difficult coming to terms with people thinking you’re great?

WN:  No, but I used to think so. Now, thought, I can completely understand it.  Leon Russell — remember him? — once had people at a fevered pitch as only he can do.  It was right after he put together the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour for Joe Cocker.  The first time I saw him, playing to tens of thousands every night, he stopped and said, “Be careful of who you let get to you.”  It’s a responsibility, a highly electrical period with everyone’s emotions out there.

EH:  Farm Aid has a website.  Are you into the computer onling thing?

WN:  No, that’s beyond me.  There’s one on the bus, the house, the office and, fortunately, someone knows all about it. You can’t do that and golf! It’s like fishing — there’s no time to fish AND golf.  Computers?  That’s completely out of the question.  I’m not going for it.

EH:  You recently won the Living Legend Award.  What does that mean to you?

WN:  [laughs] After the show, I asked them, “How do you find someone every year?”  Do they go through a list and ask, “Who’s living?  Give me the legend list?”  I dont’ know.  I guess it means, “We’re glad you’re still alive.”

EH:  Will we see another Highwayman tour?

WN:  Probably not.  It’s not likely we’ll tour… this week.  We may all tour individually, the four of us, but not this year.  “Ever” is a long time, putting out the word that it’s over forever, but Waylon wants it that way.

EH:  Maybe Sinatra could stand in.

WN:  He’d be a good one.  Or Billy Joe Shaver.  Or Merle Haggard.  Or none of the above.  Give me that legends list!

EH:  Does it really matter to you what critics think?

WN:  Not really. For most of ’em, their daddy’s got ’em there jobs anyway.  Otherwise, they’d be out on the streets selling drugs.  Critics are like the Bitch Box we had in the Air Force.  Any complaints, you wrote them down, you put them in the box.  It wouldn’t help at all, but you could bitch freely.  That’s a critic.

Willie Nelson, Cowboys and Indians (July 2017)

Friday, July 17th, 2020

Photography: Rodney Bursi
by:  Jon Leydon

Willie Nelson arguably is the most energetic octogenarian in country music. But even he admits that aging into the role of gray eminence has its downside. Indeed, the celebrated Red Headed Stranger repeatedly addresses the subject throughout God’s Problem Child, his most recent album, which Rolling Stone writer Jeff Gage aptly and admiringly described as Nelson’s “stark, honest, sometimes bleak, and often funny look at mortality and the specter of his own death.”

In “Old Timer,” one of the album’s most poignantly melancholy cuts, Nelson sings: “One by one, your friends have crossed over. You pray for mercy and a few more days. Still got dreams inside your head. Some days it’s a struggle just to get out of bed.”

On the other hand: Don’t assume he’s looking to quit cheating the reaper anytime soon. Another album cut, “Still Not Dead,” which Nelson co-wrote with Buddy Cannon, comically insists that reports of his impending demise are way too premature. “The internet said I had passed away,” but pay that no mind. “I run up and down the road, making music as I go. They say my pace would kill a normal man. But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway. And I woke up still not dead again today.”

So there.

Listening to those lyrics, I was reminded of the day in April 2015 when I got to hang out in Luck, Texas?—?the faux Old West town Nelson maintains on his ranch near Austin?—?and watch while the Country Music Hall of Famer and occasional actor filmed Waiting for the Miracle to Come, a still-unreleased indie feature co-starring Charlotte Rampling. Even then, mortality was on Nelson’s mind. But not so seriously that he couldn’t shrug it off.

“Honestly, and I mean this sincerely, I do 150 shows a year or whatever, and we do some recording in there, and we do a movie here and there, or a video,” Nelson told me after wrapping up the day’s shooting. “And I’m always amazed that I wake up the next day feeling good and ready to go do it again. I’m 82 years old, so that’s kind of a miracle in itself.”

Nelson is now 84. And judging from a recent TV interview he did in Luck with veteran CBS newsman (and, not incidentally, longtime country music aficionado) Bob Schieffer, he continues to feel pretty dang miraculous.

“Everything’s going good,” Nelson told Schieffer. “I think age is just a number. It’s the way I’ve heard it all my life: It’s not how old you are, it’s how you feel. And I’ve been lucky with [everything], health-wise and career-wise.” Laughing, he added: “I haven’t really got anything to bitch about!”

In other words, life is good. And as anyone who knows anything about Willie Nelson can tell you?—?go ahead, cue the “On the Road Again” lyrics?—?the life he loves is making music with his friends. He’ll be doing just that, again, this summer as the headliner of the Outlaw Music Festival Tour, a multi-genre traveling concert that kicks off July 1 in New Orleans, and continues on to Dallas (July 2); Rogers, Arkansas (July 6); Detroit (July 8); Milwaukee (July 9); and Syracuse, New York (July 16). Among the rotating array of artists who’ll be joining Nelson: Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket?—?and Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, who’ll be performing with his father and his own band, Promise of the Real.

Lukas, whose group has also toured with Neil Young, says that he has learned from his father some invaluable lessons about sustaining his enthusiasm, and his sanity, while on the road for lengthy stretches. “Exercise is important,” he says. (Willie Nelson, it should be noted, celebrated his 81st birthday by earning his fifth-degree black belt in Gong Kwon Yusul, a Korean martial arts discipline.) “And having a routine that you stick to really helps you keep your head on straight. When you’re on the road, all your surroundings are changing all the time, and it can feel chaotic. You can lose your sense of balance. So you need to have a set routine: You wake up, you work out a little bit, you go to sound check, you kind of do the same thing every day. And that really helps.”

These days, Willie Nelson’s sons Micah (pictured in black) and Lukas (in plaid) often tour with their dad and play with him onstage. Photography: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

Also?—?and don’t try this at home, kids?—?there is an occasional indulgence that has famously worked for Willie Nelson.

“You try and keep it pretty mellow,” Lukas concedes. “And weed is pretty mellow. … But that’s pretty much the only thing he does. He doesn’t drink. And he also keeps his family around him. He makes sure he’s got good folks around him that don’t sap his energy too much. They give him inspiration.”

Another musically inclined Nelson offspring, Micah Nelson, also tours with Dad when he isn’t busy with his own endeavors. (In addition to sometimes playing with Promise of the Real, he divides his time between the group Insects vs Robots and, more recently, his “experimental musical identity,” Particle Kid.) Last year, when he recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” he updated the classic protest song with slightly altered lyrics to make it more relevant to contemporary events. It’s an approach, he says, partially inspired by his father’s willingness to keeps things fresh by mixing things up while on tour.

“For the most part,” Micah says, “it’s been kind of the same show for decades now. But at the same time, he never plays the same show twice. It’s always like he’s playing it for the first time. He’ll throw in new songs. He’ll kind of skip verses. He’ll extend things. He keeps it fresh every night.” If you’re performing with him, “You’re never allowed to just be phoning it in. He’s never going through the motions?—?even though he’s basically doing the same show.

“That spontaneity, that energy, that sense of anything can happen at any minute is not only what keeps an audience captivated, and keeps them coming to the shows night after night. It also keeps you engaged, and keeps the band engaged. It keeps every show fresh and different and unique.”

Echoing his brother Lukas, Micah says that, while on the road, his father “finds his routines. He likes to play chess and poker. He likes to smoke cannabis, and he likes to watch western films. He keeps the news on most of the time. He has his bike out on the road, so he’ll ride his bike around if he can and try to stay fit.

“I think there’s something that seems to be in our blood, where if we’re home long enough, we’re antsy and restless, and we need to get back on the road. Then, if you’re on the road long enough, it’s really great to come home and just chill and not think about playing shows for a minute. It’s kind of this symbiotic relationship between the road and being at home. They bleed into one another.”

Willie Nelson has told me that, yes, he truly does appreciate downtime on his ranch. On a typical day there, “I go look at my horses. I can look at the weather. There’s a lot of beautiful things out here to see.” But after a while, he can’t resist the siren call of the road because, well, he’s still not dead.

“There’s a certain kind of energy exchange that takes place in a concert no matter who it is, me or whoever,” Nelson believes. “People pay money to come see it, and for some reason, they usually all are clapping their hands, and they’re singing. And for some reason, I enjoy it too. When we can all get together and exchange that good positive energy, it makes for a good show.

“Yeah, you know, you look around and you don’t see too many guys out here as old as I am still doing one-nighters and still enjoying it. Still having good crowds. So, yeah, I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”

And he remains thankful to the folks who have made it all possible.

“Willie reminds me of Walter Cronkite,” Schieffer says. “When people used to ask me what Walter was really like, I always said, ‘He’s just the way you want him to be.’ He was without question the most famous and recognized man in America?—?but he always had time for the folks who wanted an autograph or a handshake. That’s Willie.”

Schieffer recalls that after wrapping up their Luck conversation, Nelson “didn’t know we were following him, but we wanted a picture of him leaving. So we went down to the place where the bus was waiting to take him to the next show. Now keep in mind: He had been up past midnight doing a show the night before, he was dead tired and had a six-hour bus ride ahead of him. But as he was getting on the bus, a guy appeared out of nowhere with three or four items to sign. And then he asked Nelson for a selfie. Most celebrities would have brushed the guy off. But as tired as he was, and as anxious as he was to get going, Willie stood there, talked to the guy, signed all the stuff, and took three or four pictures. Finally his wife made him get on the bus.

“I love the guy. When I asked him when he was going to retire, he said, ‘All I do is play golf and music. Why would I want to quit either of those things?’ Pretty good philosophy.”

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

Monday, July 13th, 2020 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 to 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? 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.

Texas Monthly publishing new issue on Willie Nelson in August (it’s their 13th)

Thursday, June 25th, 2020
by: Dan Goodgame

During a time of deep division, it’s reassuring to see that Texans of many stripes still share certain pleasures. One of those is Willie Nelson. Which is why we’re looking forward to publishing, in August, a special thirteenth issue of Texas Monthly devoted to the life and music of the red-headed stranger.

It will feature reflections on Willie from musicians such as Robert Earl Keen and music journalists such as Holly George-Warren, Nate Chinen, and one of our senior editors, Paula Mejía. It will also include classic articles from our archives—Texas Monthly published its first issue just a year after Willie returned to Texas from Nashville, and we covered him from the start.

We’ll be selling our Willie issue at H-E-B and Buc-ee’s and other fine establishments and are eager to send it for free, as a bonus, to any subscriber who requests it. So if you’re a Willie fan, please sign up here before July 15.

This project is the brainchild of senior editor John Spong, whom I’m embarrassed to admit I neglected to include in my recent introduction of new staffers. But I have a good excuse: it seems as if John has always been here. He joined the TM staff in 1997, after two unsatisfying years as a lawyer.

He started as a fact-checker and became one of this magazine’s finest writers, on topics ranging from dance halls to the life and death of his father, an Episcopal priest. John knows Willie and Willie’s friends and, it seems, almost everyone of note in our state. “Great reporters tend to be very social, and John has that in spades,” says deputy editor Jeff Salamon, who coedited the Willie issue with John. “People open up to him, including famous people who usually don’t talk to reporters.” Not many writers could get both Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall to return their calls on deadline, but John did last year for his appreciation of the late Lonesome Dove screenwriter Bill Wittliff.

John stepped away from TM for a couple of years but served me well as a sage counselor and source of introductions when I arrived at the magazine. It was a boon, in January, to lure him back onto our staff and get his laughter back into our corridors. Not to mention his resilience: he finished this Willie project while he and his wife and two sons relocated to temporary lodgings after a late-night fire destroyed their Austin home.

For the past few months, our staff has been scrambling to cover a pandemic, a recession, and, more recently, unprecedented protests for racial justice. Fast-moving stories such as these are challenging for us to write about in our monthly magazine, where we strive to take a step back and consider topics in a broader context (this month’s “What Lies Ahead” cover package, overseen by features director J.?K. Nickell, is a sterling example). But we’ve been covering breaking stories every day on under the leadership of the site’s editorial director, Michelle Williams. There, as in print, we leave news bulletins to others. We strive to uncover what the news means to our readers and bring to life the people and the forces behind it. You can find a sampling of our web stories here. I hope you’ll check them out and let me know what you think.

The Willie Charisma (Buddy Magazine, June 1975)

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

ma (Buddy Magazine, June 1975)

Buddy Magazine
June 1975
by Mike Rhyner

Who is this Willie Nelson and why is he hosting those giant music festivals?

What is this Willie Nelson charisma that has caused the redneck to make peace with the hippie?  That can get the cowboys to sit down in the dust and share a beer and a joint with a longhair?  That can make an outdoor festival in Texas in July the nation’s largest annual music event?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.  You have to experience for yourself the excitement of the Willie Nelson performance.  The energy of the crowd, generated by the man with the gut-string guitar with a hole worn right through the top of it from years of hard picken’.

Willie himself doesn’t understand it.  He just rolls with the punches, although it does give him a few anxious moments.  Like  few weekends ago at an outdoor concert in Dallas when a young lady, sans shirt, was hoisted above the heads of the crowd and demanded a kiss from Willie.  When he obliged she grabbed his guitar strap and wouldn’t let go.  Rather than be pulled off the 10-foot tall stage, Willie and some stagehands pulled her up and escorted her down the back steps.  After regaining his composure, Willie returned to sing for a few more hours.

Willie’s nationally famous outdoor country music spectacular, the Willie Nelson Third Annual Fourth of July Picnic, will happen this year at Liberty Hill, Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin on a green country slope where the South Gabriel River winds into the Texas hill country.

The site is more accessible than the site of the historic 1st Annual Picnic near Dripping Springs  and is covered with trees, two ponds and the winding fork of the San Gabriel River.

Appearing this year with Willie and his Family are the Pointer sister, the Charlie Daniel Band, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts, Doug Sahm, Billy C., Milton Carroll, Alex Harvey, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Bush, Floyd Tillman, and like all Willie Nelson performances, especially the Picnic, there will probably be a few artists appear unannounced.  Leon Russell was onstage at sunup at Dripping Springs singing gospel songs to the early arrivals and last year John Sebastian and David Carradine spent the Forth in front of Texas picnic freaks.

Willie Nelson Interview, Billboard Country Music Summit, Nashville (June 5, 2012)

Friday, June 5th, 2020

photo: Michael Seto
by Edward Morris

Willie Nelson arrived 37 minutes late for his scheduled question-and-answer session Tuesday (June 5) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville. But the crowd was patient and gave him a standing ovation when he finally walked onstage.

Nelson was in town to perform later that evening with the Nashville Symphony and Wednesday on the CMT Music Awards airing at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT and
Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans and with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, Nelson looked and sounded considerably younger than the 79 years the calendar has imposed upon him.

He sat in a chair opposite Billboard‘s Ray Waddell, who primed him with questions about his long and laurelled career as a singer, songwriter and political activist.
On the matter of performing with the Nashville Symphony, Nelson was modest.

“They’re really good,” he said of the orchestra members, “and I’m kind of faking it now and then.”

Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah, appear on his new album, Heroes, and sometimes perform during his concerts.

“Working with your kids — there’s nothing better than that,” he said. “All the kids really make you proud when you’re out there.”

Asked if he encouraged his children to get into music, Nelson responded, “I left a lot of instruments lying around and kind of waited to see what they would pick up. For a long time, they didn’t pick up anything. Then, after a while, I saw Luke pick up a guitar, and Micah jumped on some drums, and it kind of caught on from there.”
Waddell pointed out that Nelson has recorded songs from virtually every musical genre and asked what made him choose one song over another.

“It’s one of those instant things,” Nelson replied. “When you hear a song or a melody or something, it hits you. It’s really not anything you have control over. You hear a good song and you wonder where it’s been all these years.”

So what led him to cover Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on Heroes, Waddell wondered.

“Lukas brought that to the studio, and Micah brought ‘Come On Up to the House,’ the Tom Waits song [also on the album]. So the kids have kind of been supporting me.”

Flashing back to when he first knew he wanted to play music, Nelson said the first guitar he picked up was an old Stella with its strings sitting high off the neck.

“My fingers were almost bleeding, but I didn’t care. I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I was about 6 years old.”

Waddell asked if it had been difficult for him to leave his native Texas to try his hand at music in Nashville all those many years ago.

“I had been told all my life that this was the place to go,” he said. “This is where the music folks are, and if you had something to sell, the folks here might buy it. It sounds commercial, but that’s the way it was to me back in those days because I needed some help. I was doing pretty good in Texas, but I needed to branch out a little bit.”

It was in Nashville, Nelson acknowledged, that he established himself as a songwriter. Reciting his successes, he said, “Faron Young did ‘Hello Walls.’ Billy Walker did ‘Funny How Time Slips Away.’ Patsy Cline did ‘Crazy.’ Roy Orbison did ‘Pretty Paper.’ Ray Price did ‘Night Life.’”

While Nelson customarily wrote songs by himself, he said he did occasionally write with others.

Hank Cochran and I used to write some together,” he said. “I remember one night in particular we were writing at my house out in Ridgetop [a community located north of Nashville], and we wrote seven songs that night. The last song that we wrote was ‘What Can You Do to Me Now,’ and the next day my house burned.”

In those early days, Nelson continued, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Nashville’s Lower Broadway was a songwriters’ haven, located as it was directly behind Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

“I met Charlie Dick there, who was Patsy Cline’s husband. I brought ‘Crazy’ with me on a 45 [rpm record]. I had it on Tootsie’s’ jukebox. He listened and said, ‘I bet Patsy would like that.’ It was about 12 at night, and we’d had a couple of beers. He said, ‘Let’s go play this for Patsy.’ I said, ‘No, let’s don’t. Let’s wait until tomorrow.’ But he said, ‘No. Come on.’  “So I wouldn’t get out of the car. He went in and told Patsy that he had a song for her. She came out and made me come into the house. I sang the song for her. She loved it and recorded it the next week.”

Nelson next reminisced about his stint as a bass player in Ray Price’s band.

“First of all, Donny Young — or Johnny Paycheck [as he’d later call himself] — was playing bass for Ray, and he left the band. I was writing songs for Pamper Music, Ray’s publishing company.

“Ray called me and asked me if I could play bass, and I said, ‘Well, can’t everybody?’ So on my way up there on the bus [to meet Price], [steel guitarist] Jimmy Day taught me a few things on the bass. I played guitar and knew the top four strings were very similar.   “So I had something to go on, and he knew the Ray Price show. By the time I got there, I thought I knew it. Of course, I didn’t. I asked Ray years later if he knew I couldn’t play bass, and he said, ‘Uh huh.’”

Waddell next wanted to know what caused Nelson to leave Nashville after he had become a recording artist and return to Texas.

“My demo sessions were better than my records,” he said, “because I had the greatest musicians in the world [playing on the demos]. So I really loved my demos, but a lot of the time when [the labels] got through adding everything to it, I felt like it kind of watered it down a little bit. That was one of the problems I had with that kind of recording.”

Also, he noted, he had a big fan base in Texas and played there a lot. Often, it made it difficult for him to get back to Nashville in time to play on the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed regularly.

In Texas, he noticed the audiences looked a little different from those in Tennessee.

“I played a lot of places where there were longhaired cowboys and shorthaired cowboys, and the air was kind of smelling different,” he said. “And I noticed a lot of the people were getting along pretty good out there. So I said we might ought to try something different.
“This was just after Woodstock. So I thought we might try something in Austin or Dripping Springs. So me and Leon Russell and a few more of us gathered up and had a little show down there [in 1973]. . . . We had about 50,000 people.” Thus was born the first of a series of annual Willie Nelson Picnics.

On the recording side, Nelson had turned to making concept albums — including Shotgun Willie, Phases & Stages, Yesterday’s Wine and Red Headed Stranger — instead of the usual collections of unrelated songs.

“I don’t really know what made me think it would work,” Nelson reflected. But obviously it did.
Asked about the “outlaw” tag tacked to him after the release of Wanted! The Outlaws, the 1976 package of songs that also featured Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, Nelson said, “I loved it. I thought that was the best sales idea we came up with. . . . I thought it was ingenious.”

He noted that the term “outlaws” was coined by Hazel Smith, who now writes’s Hot Dish column.
Nelson also spoke fondly of touring with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen.

“Every night I got to hear my heroes sing,” he said. He added that there were 278 pieces of luggage they had to lug around on the Highwaymen tour.
Nelson said he didn’t realize in 1985, when he helped launch the first Farm Aid to call attention to America’s embattled family farmers, that it would develop into an annual event.

“I really thought that if we did one Farm Aid and all the smart guys in Washington saw what was going on, they would do something about it. But then I found out that they were part of the problem — that the big corporations had taken over the farms, and they were trying to squeeze out the family farmers. And they’re doing a damn good job of it.

“What’s really going to have to happen is we’re going to have to get our farmers back growing food and fuel and keep us from going around the world and starting wars over oil when we can have our own resources right here.”

This remark drew cheers from the crowd.

“One of our biggest problems,” he continued, “is that guns and drugs are going back and forth across our southern border. . . . It would save a lot of money and a lot of lives by decriminalizing some of the less harmful drugs.”

He later referred to marijuana, the drug with which he’s become associated and celebrated, as “the best stress medicine there is.”
Waddell asked Nelson why he is so open to meeting with and helping younger artists. That question took Nelson back to the days when he was a fan looking toward his own idols.

“I remember meeting [Western movies actor] Johnny Mack Brown when he came to Hillsboro [Texas]. I shook his hand and got an autograph. I realize how happy that made me. So if I can make somebody else that happy, that would be a good deal.”

Returning to his new record, Heroes, Nelson had nothing but praise for Snoop Dogg, who sings with him on the raucous “Roll Me Up (And Smoke Me When I Die).”

“He didn’t rap it. He really crooned it,” Nelson marveled.

He confirmed the rumor that in the hard times of his early career, he sold the rights to several songs that are now priceless, among them “Family Bible” (which went for $100) and “Night Life.” He said at the time it made sense and helped him pay his bills.

“I really don’t feel horrible about it, but I wish I hadn’t.”

Summarizing the way he looks at life now, Nelson concluded, “I’m just glad for the moment. That’s about all I can think about right now.”

“As long as I have my guitar, I’ll be fine” (Texas Monthly, May 1991)

Sunday, May 31st, 2020
by: Robert Draper
May 1991

Last November, while Internal Revenue Service officers in Austin made plans to auction off nearly everything he owned, Willie Nelson golfed in Hawaii. After flying to California to spend Christmas with relatives, Willie drove the long, leisurely road to Texas, stopping first to play poker with his pals in Hillsboro before arriving in Austin, where he jammed at the Broken Spoke, taped a television show with Jerry Jeff Walker, and got ready to shoot the TV movie Another Pair of Aces . With friends on the set he shared his favorite new joke: “What’s the difference between an IRS agent and a whore? A whore will quit f-ing you after you’re dead.” To folks in a hotel elevator who asked him for an autograph, Willie grinned and said, “Only if you don’t work for the IRS.” By the time he saw fit to saunter into the federal building on January 7 and meet his persecutors, anyone who didn’t write for the National Enquirer could see that Willie wasn’t going to commit suicide over this one.

Aboard his touring bus, Honeysuckle Rose II, surrounded by a gaggle of followers, Willie spoke of his $16.7 million tax debts as if it were just another busted guitar string. He would fix the matter, he explained, with Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, a collection of old recordings that he intended to release and market through an 800-number promotion scheme. “I think that if we give it enough publicity, there’s no limit to what we could sell,” said Willie as his followers listened intently. “Within four or five months, the whole debt could be wiped out. We’d take a negative thing and turn it into a positive thing for everybody.”

It was a classic Willie Nelson brainstorm, elegant in its simplicity and so wonderfully expressive of the belief that to any question—including a financial question—music was the answer. It was also a foolish notion. Neither Willie nor his managers had bothered to figure out just how many copies he would have to sell to relieve his debt. Nor did anyone seem willing to ask whether Willie Nelson, in today’s market, could achieve such sales. When I later relayed the IRS Tapes plan to an old friend of Willie’s, he shook his head and said, “That’s just crazy. Even Michael Jackson in his heyday couldn’t raise that kind of profit.”

But no one on the bus voiced that sentiment. Willie’s followers merely sat there, saying nothing, adrift in their leader’s calm but compelling melody, and roused only when my questions suggested skepticism, at which times they would stare at me darkly. O ye of little faith, their scowls seemed to say, just as their awed reaction to Willie’s solution recalled all the old bumper sticker slogans: “In Willie We Trust,” “Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way.” Willie needed their faith now. For all his public buoyancy, privately Willie Hugh Nelson was an angry and worried man. Until he could satisfy his debt, his money and his property belonged to the IRS. The dozens who depended on him—including practically everyone in the bus that afternoon—were now out of work and stood to lose their homes as well. Willie had heard somewhere that an IRS agent had been assigned to sit on one musician’s tour bus and shadow his every movement. “I’m not about to let that happen,” he told a friend, but the prospect obviously unnerved him.

“As long as I got my guitar, I’ll be fine,” Willie has often said, referring to Trigger, the legendary retooled Martin six-string he rescued from his burning Tennessee ranch house in the late sixties. Willie’s attachment to his old guitar was a bond that bordered on spiritual. “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit,” he has been heard to say. But what if the feds came after Trigger? They had done it before, he’d read somewhere—taken an entertainer’s guitar and auctioned it off for $45,000. It was one possibility that truly worried him. Two weeks before the IRS raid, Willie began to sense that negotiations with the agency were faltering. He asked the person he trusted most—his eldest daughter, Lana—to remove Trigger from the studio and personally deliver it to him in Hawaii. Lana did so, and Trigger was now in Willie’s hands—but for how long? Willie could manage without his recording studio, his golf course, and his Hill Country acreage. Without Trigger, though, all bets would be off.

How did Willie Nelson get into this mess? Three villains are commonly cited: the IRS; Neil Reshen, the manager during the mid-seventies who, according to Willie, left the Nelson organization in financial shambles; and Price-Waterhouse, the Big Six accounting firm that from 1980 through 1983 guided Willie’s money into several disastrous investments. All three have been sued or are currently being sued by Willie’s attorneys.

Amid the finger-pointing and the brief-filing, one curiously overlooked fact remains. Bad management and lousy investments notwithstanding, Willie Nelson had a golden opportunity to end the tax crisis several months ago, but he couldn’t pull it off. On June 6, 1990, Willie’s attorneys negotiated a settlement with the IRS. A tax order was signed that day, ordering the man with the greatest earning power of any country and western entertainer who has ever lived to come up with a mere $6 million.

But Willie couldn’t. He didn’t have six million. “He didn’t have one million,” said Lana Nelson. “He probably didn’t have thirty thousand.”

Short and wiry like her father but with her late mother’s dark Indian features, Lana has handled the family books for more than a decade. Stoically, she has done her father’s bidding, writing check after check, watching her inheritance dry up. And she has watched numerous financial managers try to halt the flow of reckless spending—to little effect. “Sometimes he’s his own worst enemy and simply will not take their financial advice,” said Lana.

The revelations of Willie’s da ughter aren’t altogether shocking. After all, Willie Nelson’s whole life has been testimony to the belief that a man should live for the moment, take what comes, and never look back. Financial planning? Never. “It’s more fun if we don’t,” he has assured one of his attorneys. Money? Spend it now. And Willie spent and spent. But his is not the familiar story of the eighties, of greed that has backfired. It’s instead a story of generosity to a major fault.

Infidelity, a poor record as a father, an affection for outlaws, and an unrepentant fondness for marijuana—Willie Nelson has his vices. But they aren’t what did him in. Rather, Willie fell prey to his own loyalties, which became greater than his pocketbook could bear. “You can’t buy a ticket,” Willie would say, to the never-ending joyride aboard the Nelson bus. Familial devotion was the price of admission. But implicit was the understanding that the devotion would be rewarded. You could stay on the bus forever. Willie would pay for the gas.

And Willie paid and paid.

Tim O’Connor was working the cash register at his Austin nightclub, Castle Creek, twenty years ago, when Willie Nelson strolled in and invited the 27-year-old barroom brawler to join his extended family. The proposition actually began with, “I’d like to play your joint,” but things got thick over a whiskey bottle. By the end of that evening, recalled O’Connor, “I’d already felt a deep sense of loyalty toward Willie.”

Loyalty was hard to come by in those days for Willie Nelson, who had just relocated to Austin after suffering a decade’s worth of disappointments in Nashville. He was a 38-year-old man on a downhill slope: a once-great songwriter who hadn’t penned a Top 10 single in ten years; a singer whose off-meter style rubbed his Nashville employers the wrong way (“That ain’t singin’,” they’d say, “that’s talkin’!”); a performer who lived a dissolute road life, while back home his marriages wasted away. The Abbot native was on his third marriage now, to the former Connie Koepke. They had a two-year-old daughter, plus children from Willie’s first marriage. Feeding all those mouths shouldn’t have been that difficult, since Willie continued to draw sizable royalty checks for such timeless classics as “Crazy” and “Hello Walls.” But he had fallen into the habit of immediately converting those earnings into hotel suites and booze and waking up the next morning broke again.

Willie was a lousy provider, much like his own parents, who had both left him before his third birthday to be raised by his paternal grandparents. Since those hard early days, he had never gotten a handle on the orthodox responsibilities of being a husband and father. But he deeply believed in trust and unconditional loyalty and yearned for others to have faith in those rare gifts. In that sense, Willie Nelson was a family man through and through.

Tim O’Connor learned this shortly after he had left his nightclub to join Willie’s road crew in 1971. One night O’Connor got frustrated with the unsteady routine of life on the road and demanded of his boss, “What the hell do you want me to be?”

Standing out in the rain, Willie Nelson told his newest roadie something he would always remember. “There’s three things I never want you to be. Cold, wet, and hungry.” O’Connor replied that he would thereafter follow Willie, into hell if necessary.

Hell is where Willie found most of his family. They were tough guys who had eaten their share of ground glass and seen both ends of a rifle-like drummer Paul English, who had made his cash off the whorehouse circuit in Fort Worth before joining Willie’s band; and promoter Larry Trader, who had been spilling whiskey with Willie since the early Nashville days. There was an indisputably wayward nature to these roadhouse warriors. It’s possible that they were unaware of how passionately they wished to believe in something until they found themselves believing passionately in Willie.

And so they slogged along together from one gig to the next, Willie and his Family, driving through the night until they ran out of gas, taking showers at truck stops, and enduring the cruel indifference of the road. Willie lived as the rest of them did, like peons. He wouldn’t forget the loyalty of men like Bo Franks, a radio ad salesman who quit his job to tour the country with Willie’s band and to sell Willie Nelson T-shirts out of his 1971 Malibu. “Several times throughout the seventies,” said Franks, “Willie had the opportunity to sell out my contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One fellow was particularly aggressive. Willie finally told him, ‘Where were you when we were sleeping in cars?’”

“Those were great times,” said Tim O’Connor, a sentiment echoed by Franks and other early cohorts. Willie’s Family was small then; the camaraderie was rich, their ambitions simple. The rewards, moreover, were slowly accumulating. In 1972 Willie ended his longtime association with RCA Records and signed with rhythm and blues producer Jerry Wexler and the new country division of the New York-based Atlantic label. His first Atlantic album, Shotgun Willie (which included the Nelson dance hall staple “Whiskey River,” written by Johnny Bush), was promoted aggressively and outsold all of his RCA records combined, but it still didn’t burn up the country charts. Willie’s next release, Phases And Stages , surpassed Shotgun Willie in sales.

The sound was catching on, and so was the persona. The man who once wore gaudy rhinestone-and-glitter Nudie suits as one of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys and then took to wearing a poncho after seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly now wore jeans and T-shirts and hair past his shoulders. While playing at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972, Willie squinted through the lights and saw more hippies than rednecks dancing to his music. A year later, he hosted his first Fourth of July Picnic, in Dripping Springs, and immediately became the patron saint of progressive country music. The succeeding picnics in College Station, Liberty Hill, and Gonzales were Woodstocklike affairs that drew upwards of 75,000 fans, as well as curious reporters from the national press. But Willie still wasn’t pulling in big bucks. Shortly after the first Picnic, he and Kris Kristofferson went for a drive. “I made a million bucks last year,” Kristofferson was grumbling, “and I paid three hundred thousand in taxes.” He turned to Willie. “You pay that much?”

Willie laughed. “When I make a million, I’ll let you know,” he answered.

By 1975 he was on his way. After Atlantic Records’ country division dissolved, Willie signed with CBS Records. With reluctance, the company released Red Headed Stranger , a concept album recorded in two days that featured a somber 1945 ballad by Fred Rose called “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The song rose to number one on the Billboard pop chart. That year Willie reported $581,000 in income. In 1978 Willie confounded CBS executives by recording Stardust, a collection of pop standards from the thirties and forties. Stardust went triple platinum, and Willie’s total earnings climbed to $2.1 million. All of a sudden he was the king of country, a Grammy perennial, and the highest-grossing concert act in America. For the first time in his life, Willie Nelson was making more money than he could possibly blow in one night.

Some of what followed Willie Nelson’s arrival is a story we’ve heard time and again, a story we’ve come to expect from entertainers who hit the big time. Property in the Texas Hill Country, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, Alabama, and Tennessee. Expensive cars, a private jet. Movie and endorsement deals. Photo opportunities with everyone from Prince Charles to Andy Warhol. Rumors of infidelity, hanging out with the First Family, messed-up kids. Drugs. With an eye cocked toward the wretched excesses, we could imagine what would come next. We were fully prepared to believe the worst about this latest in a long line of heroes gone grotesque with glamour.

But instead, there were numerous stories of how Willie Nelson spread his newfound wealth, and most of them were true. Stories about the houses and cars he bought for his friends and family. About how he began letting each roadie get his own hotel room. About how he returned every favor “in spades, with interest,” said Bo Franks: a $38,000 bull for Faron Young to cover a $500 loan in 1961; a nightclub with Larry Butler, who loaned Willie $50 in 1958. About how Tim O’Connor once asked Willie to cosign a bank loan for $50,000—and then gasped as Willie returned from his bedroom with a $50,000 royalty check that he happened to have lying around and signed it over to his former roadie. About how Paul English, who had gone into hock for Willie and lost a wife to suicide just as the hard years were ending, became recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest-paid sideman drummer.

Though now making millions, Willie kept little of it for himself—perhaps only 10 percent of his annual income, according to Lana Nelson. His touring luggage was still a single small bag containing two pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts, and a shaving kit. It’s true that rich friends gave Willie a $15,000 Rolex and a $5,000 pair of cowboy boots. It’s also true that he gave the gifts away, along with practically everything else, prompting the popular refrain among his Family: “What can you give him for his birthday that he won’t give away?” His most valued gift, music, he gave away constantly, playing more than one hundred benefits over the past dozen years, according to Nelson’s management. A few of these events received media attention, such as the three Farm-Aid benefits staged in the mid-eighties to bring financial relief and public awareness to the nations’ imperiled small farmers. But the vast majority were staged quickly and quietly, and always because someone—a Phoenix Indian school, a Texas air base, a maximum-security prison-had asked, “Willie, could you play for us?”

As Willie’s generosity spread beyond the Family, so did the news of it. When crew members talk about the crush of Willie-seekers outside concert arenas, they don’t talk about people asking for autographs and sex. No, these total strangers wanted money—money for wheelchairs, iron lungs, funerals. Willie had a standard reply: “Will a personal check do?”

In 1979 Willie Nelson purchased the defunct Pedernales Country Club, a 76-acre expanse of rolling hills in the village of Briarcliff, near Lake Travis and across the road from the ranch, nearly 700 acres where Willie had his movie set and a 5,400-square-foot cabin built. He converted the clubhouse into the Pedernales Recording Studio and spent hours on the beautifully situated nine-hole golf course. But the Briarcliff spread wasn’t so much an indulgence of Willie’s as it was a haven for his loyal Family. There, everyone who had stuck by Willie during the hard days got a slice of the pie. Larry Trader became the club’s full-time golf pro. The other plum job, that of managing the new studio, was awarded to a short, straight-haired, waifish-looking young woman who had left her job in New York in the early seventies to follow the Willie entourage from gig to gig, helping out wherever help was needed. Her name was Jody Fischer.

Fischer’s real job was to oversee the paradise at Briarcliff—to allot free studio time for Willie’s music buddies, to see to it that guests were comfortable, and to assist Lana Nelson in fulfilling the various charity requests that crossed her desk. Willie paid Fischer a salary and provided a car and a house near the golf course. Fischer’s neighbors included stage manager Poodie Locke, tour bus driver Gator Moore, pilot Marty Morris, lighting director Buddy Prewitt, bodyguard Billy Cooper, Willie’s half-brother, Willie’s nephew, Larry Trader’s brother, and a few musicians who didn’t play in Willie’s band but whom Willie was fond of all the same. Near the country club, in a

cabin situated in Willie’s Pedernales Fishing Camp, lived Ben Dorsey, a bent and bearded old fellow who claimed to have been John Wayne’s valet during the filming of The Alamo . Dorsey didn’t really have a job, but like Fischer and much of the rest of the entourage, he lived rent-free, courtesy of Willie.

For Willie’s Family, life wasn’t half bad. Every day was golfing day, the jamming at the studio lasted all night, and the bills went straight to the offices of Willie’s managers in Danbury, Connecticut. Fischer and Lana Nelson published a gossipy community newspaper, the Pedernales Poo-Poo . Up the road from the golf course, Willie built an $800,000 western movie set, where Red-Headed Stranger was filmed and where Willie’s cohorts frolicked. “We’d get drunk,” said Poodie Locke a little dreamily “and we’d ride horses through there—like kids! It was a fantasy: wind’s blowing, a quart of tequila in you, the Texas sky.…How many people can play cowboys like that?”

By the end of the seventies, Willie Nelson’s camp began to resemble the coterie of a heavyweight boxer. Around the faithful nucleus grew layers and layers of business advisers and attorneys and court jesters and con artists. More than once Lana tried to tell her daddy that some of the people on his payroll were taking him for a ride—even some of the old loyalists, who now realized that they could chisel here and there and ol’ Willie would never notice. “His immediate reaction, “ said Lana, “would be to turn around and give that person everything he asks for, just to prove me wrong, to prove he’s not making a mistake. And maybe I am wrong—or it appears I’m wrong. He doesn’t want to admit that someone has taken advantage of him, because it hurts his feelings, and he doesn’t want to deal with that hurt.”

Or perhaps, as Gator Moore suggested, “He doesn’t mind being conned.” No one could say for sure what Willie felt about these matters, and no one felt comfortable trying. This was one family that didn’t second-guess its patriarch. There were no doubters on the bus.

The fame, the fortune, the utopia on the Pedernales—all had come at a price years before. That price was Neil Reshen, a bullying new York entertainment manager who had secured Willie’s contract with Atlantic and, later, the seven-figure CBS/Lone Star Records contract that gave Willie full artistic control over his product and a custom label for his friends. Reshen’s clients included Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, fiercely independent talents whose quests for artistic freedom necessitated an equally fearless agent. Waylon Jennings, who first signed with Reshen in 1972, persuaded Willie the same day to sign on as well. In a 1975 interview, Jennings likened Reshen to “a mad dog on a leash.” Willie, in the same interview, said that Reshen was “probably the most hated and most effective manager that I know.”

With Reshen browbeating promoters and threatening to audit the record company, Willie and Family went places in a hurry. “Where we suddenly were was where we’d never been,” said Poodie Locke. “The most we’d made was a $5,000 New Year’s date. The next thing you know, it’s $10,000, then $25,000. Then we were going to Europe. I figured, ‘This guy’s taking care of us.’”

Someone had to mind the store, in any event, and it couldn’t be Willie. “I can’t be sure that taxes are paid and records are kept and also write songs and play music,” he said. “At some point you have to trust somebody. And that’s always dangerous.”

With Neil Reshen, it was disastrous. Jody Fischer, who was Reshen’s associate before leaving to become part of the Nelson entourage, said her former boss was someone who, “given the choice between telling the truth and telling a lie, even if the outcome was absolutely the same, would usually choose to tell a lie.” (“I absolutely deny that,” replied Reshen, “but I could be lying.”) In a 1980 suit, Willie said he was given the impression that Reshen was both a lawyer and a CPA, neither of which was true. What Reshen didn’t tell Willie was that he had pleaded guilty to embezzling stock from a Los Angeles bank. Nor, for that matter, did Reshen say that he wasn’t paying Willie’s taxes—Reshen’s responsibility, according to Willie, though Reshen has consistently denied this.

Willie had never been on the best of terms with the taxman. He had been hit for unpaid taxes for 1967, 1968, and 1969 and had been slapped with state and federal tax liens throughout the early seventies. Not that this was surprising at a time when, according to Tim O’Connor, “we collected the box office with a pistol and carried the dollars in a briefcase.” Back then, the road was meaner and the stakes smaller.

But now the numbers were very, very big. Of particular interest tthe dollars in a briefcase.” Back then, the road was meaner and the stakes smaller.

But now the numbers were very, very big. Of particular interest to the IRS were Willie’s Fourth of July Picnics, which drew tens of thousands of dollars in gate receipts. Perhaps, as Willie claimed, “That was when a lot of money changed hands. There weren’t the profits there that the IRS thought there were.” But the money had to have gone somewhere, and Willie couldn’t prove that it hadn’t gone to him. Besides, said IRS officers, showing Willie aerial photographs: There are 70,000 people here; why are there only 20,000 receipts? “They just weren’t aware of what really happens at those things,” said Willie, “where if you get one out of hundred to pay, you’re fortunate.”

After becoming convinced that Reshen was damaging his reputation and siphoning off more than the agent’s share of the profits, Willie fired him in 1978 and promoted his assistant, Mark Rothbaum. Like Reshen, Rothbaum was a sharp resourceful New York businessman. But more important, Willie felt he could trust Rothbaum, for he

had proven his loyalty the hard way. On August 22, 1977, the police had intercepted a package containing several grams of cocaine, which was on its way to a Nashville studio where Waylon Jennings was recording. Mark Rothbaum pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine, did time in 1978, then went straight to work for Willie Nelson—”a sign of the faith and loyalty Willie felt for this man,” said Tim O’Connor.

In 1979, Rothbaum and Willie met with representatives of Price-Waterhouse, the internationally famous accounting firm. By then, it had been discovered that all of Willie’s financial records for the period of 1975 through 1978 had been destroyed. The IRS wanted $2 million for those tax years, and soon they would want more. The meeting therefore focused on a central subject: How do we keep Willie out of tax trouble?

After the meeting, Price-Waterhouse partner Herb Haschke wrote in a letter to Rothbaum: “One fact of business life which Willie cannot escape is that without tax-oriented investments, he will pay substantial amounts of income to the IRS every year.” In a 1990 lawsuit, Willie would claim that Haschke urged him to defer taxable income by investing in government securities issued by First Western Government Securities, a San Francisco-based firm.

Financial planning, of course, had no place in Willie’s worldview. His belief that you should spend your way through life and die a pauper kept him forever at odds with his moneymen. “Willie’s sense of responsibility about his wealth was not what I thought it should be,” said Harvey Corn, an Austin accountant who briefly did business with Willie after Reshen was fired. “I wasn’t at the time concerned with paying his tax bills. I was concerned, though, about the intelligent management of the considerable amount of money that he was making, with particularly his young daughters in mind. The fact is that Willie just didn’t see the world that way. He wasn’t worried about providing $20 million trust funds for his kids. You just couldn’t get his attention. You’d be talking to him, and then he’d just drift off and start picking on a song. You got the message after a while.”

The Reshen-era skirmish with the IRS persuaded Willie that he would have to modify his thinking somewhat. But the Price-Waterhouse proposal seemed a little dubious to him—especially because he would have to borrow money from a bank to invest in First Western. If he was going to borrow, why not just use the money to pay his $2 million in back taxes? “I couldn’t see it at the time,” said Willie, “and I argued with the professionals around me that this is not making sense.”

Nonetheless, on December 22, 1980, Willie invested $30,00 in a margin account portfolio of First Western forward contracts. The next year, Willie’s suit alleged, Haschke recommended in a letter that Willie make an additional investment to shelter his income despite the fact that Price-Waterhouse had learned that other First Western investors had been questioned by the IRS in 1981. Willie put in another $165,000, and Rothbaum himself invested a total of $43,440.

Later, Jan Smith, one of the Price-Waterhouse representatives who handled Willie’s account, admitted, “There’s a lot about First Western that’s known that wasn’t known in 1980.” The suit alleged that in telephone conversations in August and September of 1980, Price-Waterhouse partner John Walsh assured one of Willie’s lawyers that he had personally visited First Western’s operations in San Francisco and found them legitimate. Yet by 1983, the IRS began a serious probe of First Western, especially its practice of determining margins on the basis of the tax loss requested.

Recognizing that, Haschke suggested that Willie and Rothbaum abandon First Western and consider investing in cattle and cattle feed. The plan was simple: Buy cattle and feed at the end of the tax year, deduct the cost of the feed, and then sell the fattened cattle for a profit that would cover the cost of both the livestock and the feed. And, said Haschke, the plan was risk-free, since Willie and Rothbaum could hedge against a drop in cattle prices by selling cattle futures.

It sounded too good to be true—and it was. The bottom fell out of the cattle market in 1984, and Willie and Rothbaum lost $2 million between them. They later alleged in the suit that Haschke did not advise them to sell futures—that while cattle prices plummeted, Haschke couldn’t be reached. To make matters even worse, the IRS ultimately disallowed Willie’s $3 million deduction for cattle feed on the grounds that only $64,000 of the feed was actually consumed in 1983.

Things continued to get worse for Willie. On October 15, 1984, an IRS Notice of Deficiency was issued to Willie and Connie Nelson and to the Willie Nelson Music company in the amount of $2.2 million. The notice said that Willie still owed money from the Reshen years: more than $25,000 for royalties, some $360,000 in income, and $720,000 to cover business expenses that had been disallowed. Willie’s attorneys contested the matter in tax court, to no avail.

On May 20, 1988, Willie received a second Notice of Deficiency, this time for the years 1980 through 1982. Because of the disallowed tax shelters, he now owed more than $1.5 million for each of those years, plus millions more in interest and penalties. The mess had started during the Neil Reshen years, but the advice of Price-Waterhouse had led Willie Hugh Nelson to the edge of financial ruin. He sought the counsel of Jay Goldberg, a New York attorney whose clients included Donald Trump and the late Armand Hammer. Goldberg saw his chance to help Willie in 1990, when the U.S. Tax Court held that First Western Government Securities had engaged in fraud by creating tax deductions without regard to the possibilities of profit—a scheme, the court held, that “no reasonable person would have expected . . . to work.” On August 15, 1990, Willie’s lawyers filed a RICO lawsuit

against Price-Waterhouse.

But it came too late for Willie. The IRS was quickly closing in.

It’s true that the IRS was legally empowered to seize the properties of Willie Nelson. It’s equally true that the action was drastic, a show of force that garnered enormous publicity, capturing the attention of middle Americans who might feel the urge to fudge on their taxes now and again. Perhaps the IRS was making an example of Willie Nelson. Had that crossed Willie’s mind?

“Sure it has,” he said, grinning. “But I have no facts.”

To hear Willie’s Family tell it, the seizure was a full-blown federal conspiracy. The feds regarded Willie as an outlaw, they say, a pot-smoking liberal whose Farm-Aid benefits embarrassed the government into canceling scheduled aid cutbacks. Only a few weeks before the seizure, Willie was in Kentucky, driving a bus with the word “Hempmobile” painted on it, in support of a fringe gubernatorial candidate who advocated the legalization of marijuana. That broke the camel’s back, say the loyalists. The last flaunting of Willie Nelson’s reckless spirit persuaded the feds to break Willie, once and for all.

But there is a far less hysterical explanation for the seizure of Willie’s property: The IRS took action not out of malice but because it had little choice.

By the spring of 1990, according to attorney Jay Goldberg, Willie’s tax tab had escalated to $32 million. When Goldberg successfully negotiated that sum down to $6 million in taxes, plus $9 million in interest and penalties to be held in abeyance, the message from the IRS was clear: Willie had to ante up a significant sum, say, $2 million, by September 6, ninety days after the June 6 tax order.

After electing not to pursue bankruptcy, the Nelson organization began to scurry around for cash. It was like chasing leaves in a hurricane, for Willie’s money flew in all directions. He continued to support his adult children from his first marriage (Lana, Billy, and Susan), plus two daughters from his marriage to Connie who was now divorcing him—an endeavor that carried heavy financial overtones. In the meantime, Willie had a new girlfriend, Annie D’Angelo, and had fathered two children by her. Then there was the extended Family, itself multiplying daily.

As Willie’s beneficiaries had proliferated, the entertainer’s earning power had declined steadily. According to Pollstar, a concert industry publication, Willie was the seventh highest-grossing touring act in 1985, taking in $14.5 million. In 1986, he was twenty-second, at $10.1 million; in 1987, twenty-seventh, at $7.7 million; and in 1989, forty-sixth, at $4.7 million. Excluding his performances with Highwayman (also featuring Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash), Willie’s concert earnings last year sank to a mere $3.3 million. And those were gross earnings, not net. “He had more expenses going out than he had concerts coming in,” confirmed Lana Nelson. “We’ve been living hand-to-mouth for the last couple of years.”

Record sales were equally discouraging. Since “Always on My Mind” had topped the charts in 1982, the old Nashville renegade had been supplanted by sexier turks like Dwight Yoakum, George Strait, and Randy Travis. His annual artist royalties hovered in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range—a fine income for anyone not supporting an entire community. In the meantime, Willie owed CBS Records more than $3 million in recoupable advances.

In August 1990, at the behest of his advisers, Willie Nelson sold his publishing company, Willie Nelson Music. All of his songs and the royalties they earned now belong to a company called Fuji Pacific. The notion of selling one’s music catalog in order to pay the taxman would horrify most songwriters. But the financial security that steady royalty checks had brought meant nothing to Willie, and he had already proved that he could live with himself after selling his hits for dirt. After all, he had pawned off two of his earliest classics, “Night Life” and “Family Bible,” for $150 and $50, respectively, in the fifties.

Willie Nelson Music had been earning about $225,000 annually in publishing royalties. Willie’s financial managers were therefore pleased with the Fuji Pacific offer, which totaled $2.27 million. Such a sum might have satisfied the IRS for a time. Unfortunately, $480,000 of the deal went to the tax agency to satisfy an entirely different tax claim concerning Willie Nelson Music. About $1.2 million went to pay off Nashville bank loans for which the publishing company had served as collateral. Another $360,000 went to Paul English, who owned 20 percent of Willie Nelson Music. At the end of it all, after the pot was split and all dealmakers were paid, Willie Nelson had sold off his birthright for a negative $35,000.

In the meantime, the IRS deadline of September 6 came and went. Admitted Jay Goldberg: “There were no substantial payments made.”

Many offered to help. Tim O’Connor suggested a Fourth of July fundraiser, but Willie—a man used to giving but never to receiving—quietly discouraged the idea. Others didn’t ask permission to declare themselves Willie benefactors. James White hosted a Willie-Aid benefit at his Broken Spoke in Austin, promising “very special surprise guests” and not volunteering the information that Willie had nothing to do with the concert—he was holed up in Hawaii and would not be among the night’s surprises. A West Lake Hills barber named Jim Hataway took it upon himself to establish a bank account for those who wished to contribute to Willie’s tax fund. Hataway didn’t know Willie, but he had shaken his hand once and was willing to talk at length to any reporter about the kind of guy Willie Nelson was. Sincerely intended or not, the effect of such schemes was to confuse rather than inspire the public. Was Willie behind all this? Was he trying to get fans to pay his taxes for him? In the end, IRS Tapes may not make a dent in his tax debt and in the end, Willie may not care. “Willie just didn’t want to be the object of any

charity,” said Larry Goldfein, Willie’s current financial adviser, and if nothing else, the recording proves that sentiment.

For now, the spread is safe. The IRS placed the Briarcliff property on the auction block at the end of January, but aside from the sale of a few souvenirs, no one had offered the minimum bid. Meanwhile, an Arkansas attorney representing several foreclosed farmers bought Willie’s ranch house, where Lana resides, and pledged to return it to the Nelson family. On March 5, former University of Texas football coach and longtime Willie crony, Darrell Royal, purchased the Pedernales Recording Studio, the country club, and the pro shop for a total price of $117,375 (its appraised value was more than $1 million). Royal didn’t say what he would do with all the property nor did he have to. Willie had told me during our conversation on the bus, “I have friends who’ve offered to buy the property for me and save it until I can afford to get it back from them. I was assured of all that months ago.”

In the first week of April, Goldfein (an adjunct professor of tax law at New York University and an ex-IRS attorney) persuaded the IRS to cut Willie some slack. Under this new agreement, 75 percent of the net earnings from IRS Tapes will be earmarked for tax repayment, with the other 25 percent to cover Willie’s legal fees for the Price-Waterhouse lawsuit. Willie will be allowed, according to Goldfein, “a very liberal sharing of the proceeds” earned on the road. The full band will be able to tour, and the IRS won’t send an agent along to tour with them. The show will go on. But the IRS will receive a full account, every month, of how the money is being parceled out. That means the party’s over.

A few, though not all, of Willie’s Family members have started to get this message. “I’m pretty frustrated personally by the outer layers of bark and moss that have grown around Willie’s tree,” said Tim O’Connor. “And I think it’s burdened the tree. As far as I’m concerned, this is a great shakedown. Everybody should give the man some room to breathe for once.”

They talk about that over in Briarcliff—about the changes: a smaller roster, maybe a few old hands cut loose, or maybe the whole Willie community gradually disintegrating. “This is a test for everyone involved to see how we can react to a crisis,” said Lana Nelson. “As for me, this isn’t the brokest I’ve been. I remember as a child how I’d sit in the middle of a room and watch my mother and my daddy packing things with the midnight moving company. We’d move every month, when the rent came due.

“As for Daddy—what’s wrong with him just going on the road with his guitar? You know, he hasn’t cleaned house in seven years or so. And one thing he talks about is that everything happens for the best, no matter what. If he listens to himself, then maybe the positive side he’ll see is: ‘I won’t have all this responsibility to keep all these people on my payroll.’

“Then he can start small again.” Lana laughed, just slightly exasperated. “And it’ll take him another twenty years to build it all up again. See, he’ll be the same. He’ll still be generous. He’ll still want to give more than he actually has.”

Jody Fischer still aches inside with the memory of the day the IRS came to find out just what Willie had. “Where’s the fleet of cars?” the agents demanded of her last November. “Where’s the vault?” From behind her desk, the small dark-haired woman with the plaintive face could only gape. They weren’t making any sense. This had to be some other Willie Nelson.

“We know all about Willie Nelson,” one of them had told her, waving a stack of government documents for effect. What Jody Fischer wanted to say in response was what anyone—not just those in Willie’s Family, but anyone with ears—would say: that any man who makes Willie Nelson’s kind of music will never be remembered for his tax liabilities. But the words just wouldn’t leave her heart. Faith can be such a clumsy language.

Willie Nelson Busted at 61 (Star Magazine) (May 24, 1994)

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

Star Magazine
by Alex Burton
May 24, 1994

Willie Nelson was arrested in Hewitt, Texas, on May 10, after police found him asleep in the back of his Mercedes and discovered a bag of marijuana in his car.

Nelson, 61, claims he was returning home after a poker game when he pulled off the road due to bad weather.

“I played all night and was driving back to Austin,” says Nelson.  It was foggy, so I pulled to the side of the road to sleep, and the policemen found me.”

A Hewitt police report says officers “saw a man lying in the back seat who appeared to be asleep.  While looking in the vehicle, officers observed a hand-rolled cigarrette in the ashtray.”

“The officers tapped on the window.  The subject sat up, opened the door and identified himself as Willie Nelson.”

The report adds, “The officers believed the cigarette in the ashtray to be marijuana, and Mr. Nelson was placed under arrest for possession of marijuana under 2 ounces.”

“Mr. Nelson advised the officers there was additional marijuana in the vehicle.  A bag was found which contained a substance believed to be marijuana.”

Nelson was taken to the McLennan County Jail in Waco and held for two hours before posting bail.

“Mr. Nelson was turned over to the booking officers there.  Standard procedure is to fingerprint and photograph the individual and collect the person’s property,” says Hewitt Police Lt. Wilbert Wachtendorf.

“After his release, he returned to the station here in Hewitt, and retrieved his car, credit cards and cash.

“I was in the station when Mr. Nelson returned.  He actually shook the hands of the two arresting officers.  He was in good spirits, and seemed to be a nice individual.”

The charge against Nelsion is a Class B misdemeanor and the case will be referred to the local district attorney.

People Magazine, “Inside Country Music” (May 21, 1984)

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

People Magazine
Inside Country Music
May 21, 1984
by Chet Flippo

When country’s greatest star, the late Hank Williams, went into the studio to record an album, he was treated like a serf.  Fred Rose, the autocratic producer and co-writer, had already decreed what songs would be cut and which musicians would perform on those cuts.  A true feudal system, Hank was the first  country superstar and never made much more than $100,000 a year.  He didn’t know that he could complain — though had he lived to see Kenny Rogers take in more than $20 million last year, he might have figured it out. 

The drastic change – that is to say, the commercial change — began early in 1976 with Wanted:  the Outlaws.  That was the first Nashville album to go platinum.  And it was strictly a patch job designed to pick up a few extra bucks with a handful of songs already in the can.  Jerry Bradley, then running RCA in Nashville, had a keen eye for packaging a concept.  He saw that Willie Nelson had abandoned Nashville for  Texas, and that Willie’s buddy, Waylon Jennings, was wearing not only leather and long hair but a fierce spirit of musical independence that was drawing a new, young multiclass audience. 

For the Outlaws album, Bradley put together some cuts by Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife) and Tompall Glaser, fronting the package with an album cover that looked like a Wild West wanted poster.  The songs were not among any of the artist’s finest work, but the album’s image was perfect.  After years of country stars singing syrup and looking like mannequins, here were some mavericks daring to get down and dirty, if need be. 

The surprise was that the music had not changed — Willie had always sung eclectic country blues and Waylon had played a hard, rock-tinged sound ever since his stint in Buddy Holly’s band — but that the audience had.  It was a weird mix of hippies and rednecks, stumbling over this “progressive country” after rejecting the soft country and soft rock that were the alternatives.  The outlaw phenomenon took off, and amazing thins happened. Urban cowboys sprang up all over the pace.  This was not such a country-to-pop crossover hit as a Certified New Thing.  Utopia reigned as rednecks grew their hair long and hippies cut there’s short, and everybody danced arm-in-arm with honky-tonks everywhere.

After years of slumber, Nashville was cashville.  Out went the violins, back were the fiddles, albeit mixed with ringing electric guitars and a solid rock beat.  Into town came the money merchants, sniffing a trend.  In 1977 former pop singer, jazz singer and folk singer Kenny Rogers tested country’s water with Lucille — and he found something he never had before:  a big career.  Country became a genuine big business.


“Then there’s Willie Nelson, who is in his own time zone and can do whatever we wants.” — Chet Flippo