Willie Nelson’s facebook page put out a nice tease today …
It’s the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rolling Stone…
I have always said that the Rolling Stone loves Willie Nelson, and this won’t surprise me.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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 in An 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.
A famous philosopher once said that adversity is the key to success. In the case of songwriters, that philosopher might have added-”adversity-plus talent-breeds success.” And in the case of Willie Nelson-all of the above certainly applies. Willie has proven-more than once-that he has enough talent for an entire neighborhood and he could write a book on adversity.
Most songwriters have a reason for writing their songs. A lot of songs are pages from the lives of writers-about his wife-or his ex-wife-his love life-or the lack of a love life-or a million and one other stories. But most of those stories-and songs—have to do with love-at some stage in their life—in one form or another.
Willie Nelson said he never really had a reason for writing “Crazy,” a song that became the signature song for Patsy Cline and a country music standard.Â But “Crazy” could have been a reflection of Willie’s place in life at the time he wrote it. It was one of those songs he wrote soon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee. And as the story goes in the business of songwriting, the first several artists Willie pitched to song to were not the least bit interested in recording it. Willie was in Nashville without his family and with very little money. He could barely afford to move himself-much less bring his family with him. He had hoped to make enough money from his music to relocate his family to Music City but things just weren’t working out.
In the eyes of his critics, Willie must have been “Crazy” to keep trying the “Crazy” music business! Soon after finishing the song, he gave a tape copy to Patsy Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick. Although Dick loved the song, Patsy did not and there was no way she’d ever record it.Â Later, Willie personally pitched the song to Patsy and again, she flatly refused to have anything to do with it.
But as in the music business-as in life in general-all things are subject to change and sometimes when you least expect it. “Crazy” was pitched to Patsy’s record producer, Owen Bradley, who thought the song was made for Patsy and he informed her that she WOULD record the song. As was he case of most Patsy Cline recording sessions, the battle between she and Bradley was on – but Owen being the boss – he had the final say – and he finally said that Patsy Cline WOULD record “Crazy.”
Patsy was unable to perfect her voice on the first record session, as she was still healing from broken ribs suffered in a car crash several weeks earlier.Â But a week later, she was back in the studio and this time her vocal version of “Crazy” was heard round the world! Willie Nelson said that “Crazy” went from being a song that he never really cared for to being his favorite of all the songs he’d written! And his critics no longer called him “Crazy” for sticking with songwriting.
“Crazy” entered the country music charts November 13th, 1961. It has been reported that it is the song most-played in any juke box.
“Willie Nelson is like a lighthouse, like a preacher. Every time I find myself in an emotional pressure situation, the first thought in my mind is what would Willie do? ‘Cause nothing seems to rattle him. I’ve had some problems here lately with my mind, like, ‘Oh, gosh, everything’s moving so fast, what gear should I be in?’ And Willie, he’ll tell me which gear.”
– Gary Busey
Copied from Music Times
Willie Nelson Will Release Two Albums: ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘December Day’
Looks as if Willie Nelson is in a writing mood…
Nelson has a new album coming out on June 17 titled Band of Brothers. He now claims that he’ll have another original-heavy record ready to be released this fall titled December Day.
To find his inspiration for getting back to writing original tunes, turns out the musician had to look no further than Band of Brothers producer Buddy Cannon.
Nelson recently told Billboard, “He produced the album, but he’s also a great writer and we’re good together.” The two, Nelson and Cannon, worked closely on nine out of the 14 tracks that appear on Band of Brothers.
The June 17 release will be the first issue in many years for Willie Nelson, who hasn’t dropped an album of original material in quite some time.
Read the entire article on Music Times
by: By Steve Uhler
By Steve Uhler
It’s called the Julian Lennon Syndrome— a peculiar malady visited on the sons of famous musicians. Symptoms include critics and audiences compulsively comparing the talents of the sons to the fathers. Notable cases include Julian and Sean Lennon, Ziggy Marley, and Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, twin sons of the late Ricky Nelson. Coincidently, it also afflicts another pair of siblings named Nelson: Lukas and Micah, heirs apparent to the kingdom of their dad, Willie.
On this particular day, the brothers are in a festive, rambunctious mood. It’s their dad’s 81st birthday, and later they’ll be celebrating by playing with him at his annual birthday party-cum-concert at The Backyard. Right now, though, they’re setting up shots at a photo shoot. Mugging, wrestling and trading quips, they’re driving the photographer to distraction, but having a good time.
Though only two years apart, Lukas and Micah Nelson don’t appear much alike. Twenty-five-year-old Lukas is compact and muscular, with a finely chiseled face and easygoing but outwardly wary demeanor that can effectively stave off the curious. When he speaks, the unmistakable inflections and twangs of his father’s voice pepper his conversation.
Younger brother Micah is tall and wiry, loose-limbed and loquacious with no discernible accent when he speaks, which he does with exceptional articulation and candor. On the surface, no one would assume they were brothers. Until someone brings up the subject of their dad. Then they blend in to one protective entity.
“I rarely tell people who I am ’cause it seems to make people act differently,” Lukas says. “I don’t mind introducing people to my father if they’re my friends, but I’m very protective of my family, of my dad’s privacy and my own.”
“There’s a lot of mosquitoes in the world,” Micah says. “It’s a small fraction of humanity, but when my brother and I were growing up in that world, we realized that when we met new people, it was better to have them get to know us for who we are, and respect and appreciate us as individuals before they knew who our family was. If our last name falls in to the picture, then a lot of times, there’s an agenda behind it. There’s a lot of fake people surrounding the music industry and entertainment business in general, people who just want to suck your blood and get what they can out of you.”
Both brothers are keenly aware of the unique position of having Willie Nelson as a father.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a textbook parent,” Micah says. “But he’s the greatest dad that anyone could ever have. Just by growing up around him and observing how he interacts with people and how he carries himself, the respect he shows for people and having that example to live by. He’s the best.”
“We have a family rule, which is don’t be an asshole. If you can master that, you’ll have a good time being alive,” Micah says.
“Our family doesn’t live the same way a lot of people do in terms of the kind of traditional values that some people would impose on others,” Lukas says. “We really believe that caring for others is the most important thing in the world. We forgive each other a lot of mistakes that we make because we understand that everybody’s got a light and a dark side, and those who pretend they don’t have a dark side are controlled by it. It’s the yin/yang thing. They both work together.”
The brothers were raised together, often spending summers on the road with their dad.
“We did a couple of tours with Bob Dylan,” Micah recounts. “My brother had picked up a guitar when he was about 10. I was younger, so I figured, ‘Well, I guess I’ll play drums.’ I was his rhythm section, basically. We learned by jamming with each other. That was a lot of our musical education, learning through observation and playing with each other.”
As time passed, each developed his own unique vision and talents, though they still collaborate frequently. Both brothers understand the slippery slope of celebrity, their father’s and their own.
“Whatever anybody thinks about me—or anybody else in the limelight—I’d caution them that you never truly know who they are; you never truly know why they do what they do,” Lukas says. “Like Miley Cyrus, for example. Everybody gives her a bad time. Nobody knows her the way she knows herself. When you’re in front of everybody, you’re never going to be safe from criticism. That’s just how it is. We’ve learned to deal with it.”
The two brothers’ respective artistic pursuits reflect their differences. Lukas is drawn to the grittier side of blues and country, and his finely honed guitar chops owe more than a little to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. He wrote his first song at 11, You Were It, which impressed his father so much that he recorded it. His band, Promise of the Real, has built a solid rep with audiences, tours constantly and has appeared on numerous late-night shows, including a memorable appearance on Letterman when Lukas’ glasses went flying off his head in mid-flail.
“I didn’t have ’em on tight enough,” he confesses. “Maybe I should’ve taped ’em to my head.”
“That’s kind of how I am,” he says. “I don’t like to be in one genre. I have no boundaries. The sky’s the limit. I’ve got 100 songs that I haven’t released or recorded yet, and they’re all in different styles.”
He lives to tour, calling the road his home.
“I’m in it for the rush, really,” he says candidly. “The rush of playing for people. It doesn’t matter if it’s 300 or 30,000, it’s the same. When the energy is flowing back and forth and everybody’s jumping up and down and dancin’…it’s like riding a big wave. Rock ’n’ roll, that’s what I love.”
While Lukas embraces the rowdier side of the musical spectrum, Micah is at once more introspective and diversified, taking his considerable talents beyond traditional song templates, incorporating animation, art, video and film in to his palette. His website is more of an interactive museum than a marketing tool, incorporating samples of his work. His animation and video work are particularly arresting, with surreal shades reminiscent of Edward Gorey and David Lynch.
“My mom will tell you some of the stuff I used to draw as a kid freaked her out,” he admits. “She brought in psychiatrists, thinking I may turn in to Jeffrey Dahmer or something. And they were like, ‘No, he’s just a creative dude. He’s OK.’ ”
His music is abstract and impressionistic, more informed by Brian Eno than Johnny Cash, and light years removed from his dad and brother’s. He’s also incredibly prolific, with a musical output that far outpaces his dad’s and his sibling’s, both as a solo artist and founder of his touring band, Insects vs. Robots. (When he tours alone, he’s sometimes billed as Particle Kid.) As a boy, he was heavily influenced by movie soundtracks.
“When I was in middle school, I’d get those CDs and be sitting at the bus stop listening to this music and seeing entire films inside my head,” Micah says.
Micah doesn’t place one artistic outlet above the others.
“To me, they’re all kind of one and the same thing,” he says. “They all inform each other and complement each other. I’ll see a film or painting and I’ll have an entire concept album pop in to my head. Or I’ll hear a musical piece and a whole body of paintings will come to me. They’re symbiotically linked together, and I’m always trying to explore different ways to explore those links, just trying to find the links between all of our senses, the way we’re receiving and putting out information. They’re all from the same place somehow.”
Therein lies the key link in the Nelson brothers: the desire to explore new means of artistic expression, whether through a shredding guitar solo or a surreal film of seemingly random images. Lukas and Micah Nelson are taking their own paths on their own terms, just like their father did.
“My dad, to me, is like a f**king superhero,” Micah says. “His whole story of doing it his way and succeeding. I make much different music from my dad—from different worlds almost—but at the same time, I connect with him on a much different level because we’re both doing what makes sense to us, regardless of anyone’s expectations or what the end goal is. The end goal is right now.”
“The July issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine features this cool close up photo that I took of Willie Nelson’s guitar.” — Jay Blakesberg,
At 66, Willie Nelson is Still on the Road, and Headed for Another Joint
by Bob Townsend
After the Yesterday’s Wine album came out a friend of mine got a call from a hippie fan in San Francisco who said, “I’m worried about Willie.Â He thinks he’s Jesus.”
I got a kick out of that. Just last year, one of those supermarket newspapers had a full page story about the face of Jesus suddenly appearing on the outside wall of a grocery store in South America after a dramatic rainstorm. Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus, and some of the sick went away cured. A few days later, following another thunderstorm, a new figure appeared on the wall beside Jesus. It was Julio Iglesias.
What happened, the rain had washed off the coat of whitewash that had covered a poster for “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
The supermarket headline said: THAT’S NOT JESUS – IT’S JUST OLD WILLIE
– Willie Nelson
It’s hard to say much about Willie Nelson without reverting to hyperbole, let alone spiritual metaphor.Â But the man is a cultural icon like few others — fiercely capable of maintaining his artistic integrity while somehow being all things to all people.
An idol beloved by bikers and hemp smokers, old ladies and babies and almost everyone in between, Willie has done time in Nashville and Hollywood, recorded over 200 albums and, in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, appeared in the guise of country-politan songsmith, redneck outlaw, rural folk hero, canny interpreter of sappy standards, savior of the family farmer, and David fighting the IRS Goliath.
An ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic wrote in the liner notes to the recent weirdo tribute Twisted Willie, he is the rare figure who ‘transcends genre and generation.” But unlike many big stars, his larger-than-life persona exudse a mellow, comforting quality.Â Willie is the wide-eyed, pothead rascal in red pigtails, T-shirt and running shoes, who seems to hold some cabalistic clue to the meaning of the universe.
“He has this presence that radiates out of him – an aura.” Emmylou Harris has said, “You can feel it even when he’s not in the room. If you want to understand what I’m taliking aobut, go to one of his concerts. People act like they’re in church, as if he fills a spirtual void for them.”
That commingling of the everyday and the ethereal even translates over the telephone wire. Calling from a stop in Albuquerque one afternoon, Nelson’s sonorous baritone fills the receiver like a familiar refrain. “This is Willie,” he says. And so it is.
Nelson is on the road again.Â But isn’t he always on the road, if only in his mind?Â Through he turns 66 this month – an age when most of his associates have retired, or set up shop in Branson — Willie is touring behind one of the most adventurous recordings of his career.
Teatro harks back to the turbulent early ’60′s, when Nelson sojourned in the wilderness of Nashville as a short-haired Music Row songwriter. That’s when he penned such jazz-bent masterpieces as “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls” and “Crazy” — songs that forever changed the sound of country music, and gained Nelson his first measure of success. But it was also a period when his personal life was disintegrating along with his first marriage.
With the help of producers Daniel Lanois and fellow traveler Emmylou Harrris, Nelson recalled those days in radical fashion on Teatro. Recording in a converted Mexican movie theater, Lanois delivered the kind of cinematic energy he made famous in his work with U2, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan and lately, Harris herself. But Nelson didn’t allow Lanois to go too far over the top, as he turned in one of his most battered and beautiful performances since the early ’70s, when he made Phases and Stages in Miracle Shoals with Jerry Wexler.
Nelson, who entrusted Lanois with nearly complete control of the Teatro sessions, is magnamimous in his praise for the shifting sonic textrues he conjured on the disc. “I felt like I was lucky to get him” he says. “I left it up to him, more or less, because his idea was to take the song, and the voice and the guitar and then build around it and enhance it. I was interested to see what he would do, so I let him have a free hand.”
Interestingly, Nelson says he even allowed Lanois to pick the songs for the album. “We started out with 100 songs, picked 20 of those, and then ten of those to record . I turned in new songs and old songs together. And I felt like maybe all the new songs would get reocrded, but I was going to let Daniel choose the ones he liked. He listened to the old ones and the new ones not knowing which was which, and he picked the songs that are on the album/ I left it enterely up to him.”
But there was one tune Nelson thought twice about: “The one where I choke the girl.” He says he thought the jealous murder ballad, “I Just Can’t Let You Say Good-Bye” was a tad too dark — even for an album that features, “I Never cared for you,” “I Just Destroyed the World” and “Darkness On the Face of the Earth,” in its exhibition of lovesick devastation. “I probably wouldn’t have put it in. But he liked it so well. I even argued with him. I said, ‘No. You don’t want to put that goddammed song in there.”
Of course, listeners who’ve only heard Willie crooning with Julio or pickin’ with Waylon may be surprised by how much he risks on Teatro. But longtime fans have seen Nelson through all manner of changes. And as his continuing spate of concept albums (he recorded his first, Yesterday’s Wine, in 1971), duet projects and musical tributes prove, he clearly likes shaking things up from time to time. “Maybe that’s what I do best,” he allows.
Nelson laughs easily when reminded of the grocery store Jesus story. “Pretty weird,” he says.Â But when it comes to accounting for all the fame, fortune and awards — such as being named a Kennedy Center honoree, and squeezing into a tux to stand alongside the likes of Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black — Willie cops the perfect Zen bastard blend of antic, irony and wistful awe.
“I guess I think, “Fooled ‘em again,’” he says. “Dazzled ‘em with fancy footwork.’ But I do, I wonder about it occasionally — how it all happened, and how it all got to where it is — until I just give up wondering about it.”
When he was born in 1933, in the town of Abbott, in the midst of the Great Depression, it would have been pretty hard to predict that Willie Hugh Nelson would amount to anything.Â It would have been nigh on impossible to foresee Red Headed Stranger, let alone The Electric Horseman, or Wag the Dog.
“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie recently told an Entertainment Weekly writer. “Because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer your’re going to hell. And by 7, I was gone.”
Willie found salvation in poetry and music: “I started writing poems when I was about 5. And when I learned to play guitar I was about 6, so I started putting melodies to the poems.” And he began embracing the whole wide world of sounds that emanated from the fields and churches of Abbott, and the air waves beyond.
“I listened to the radio a lot when I was growing up. I listened to all the stations, from jazz, to blues, to boogie woogie, to country to WSLM in Nashville — and we listened to WLS in Chicago, and we’d catch a station out of New Orleans — so I just listened to everything.”
As to his distinction Django Reinhardt meets Bob Wills style of guitar playing, Wilie has a rather surprising explanation: “I’ve always felt that I was about half Mexican. And I may be, because I really love the Spanish flavors, and Mexican mariachi, and gypsy type music. I was just born and raised around that kind of music and I love it. So I guess that’s why you hear a lot of that in my music, because that’s part of me.”
One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the way he goes about writing a song, “I guess it’s always been the same,” he ways. “I get an idea and I write it. But I have to have an idea to start with. The melodies aren’t that hard, once you get the lyrics.”
Nelson says his early years as a songwriter, which Teatro reveals in stark relief, were a kind of excruciating conundrum. “Nashvile was easy, really, because everything was formula. If you wanted to write commercial stuff and you were a professional writer, it wouldn’t be a problem to do it. I just wanted to write what I felt like saying. And then, if at the same time I could imagine someone singing that song, then I would write it with a melody, or a rhythm that I felt like that one perosn might be comfortable with.”
“For instance I wanted to hear Billy Walker do “Funny How Time Slips Away’ and I wanted to hear Faron young do “Hellow Walls’ and wanted to hear Ray Price do ‘Night Life’ – so I just had these little ideas of what I wanted to hear, and I would try to work in that direction.”
Confronted with the standard show biz query as to if there’s anyone he hasn’t worked with that he’d like to, Nelson pauses to think about it for a moment.Â “I would be sort of greedy and selfish if I said, “Oh I’d like to do this, and this, and this and this,” he says.Â “Because I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of things with a lot of great people.Â I’ve sung with B.B. King and Hank Williams and Ray Price and Faron Young and Lefty Frizell and Julio.Â What else could I want?Â I jokingly said the other day that I think Barbra Streisand and I ought to do something together.Â But after I think about it awhile, maybe we could.Â Like ‘A Star is Buried.’”
The Family, Willie’s legendary road band,Â is another thing that has remained fairly constant over time. His sister, Bobbie Nelson, can still be found on keyboards, offering an emotional and musical continuity that goes back to Abbott, where she and Willie learned to play through mail order courses taught to them by their grandparents. And then there’s long time sidekicks, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and drummer Paul English.
“We’re more acoustic than we used to be,” Nelson offers. “The instrumentation is a little different. The bass player now is playing acoustic bass. Paul is playing just the snare. So we’ve reduced the loudness of the rhythms - it’s a little more subtle.Â And I like that because it makes everything stand out a little better.”
Willie says the current show runs the gamut from old favorites such as “Whiskey River” to several songs form Teatro and even a set from the jazz flavored instrumental album Night and Day that’s due out in July.
Asked if the new acoustic bent to his live performances is a sing he’s finally slowing down, Nelson says simply, “Mother Nature hasÂ a way of doing that to you.Â But, he quickly adds, life’s too good, and he’s having way too much fun to ever consider retirement.
“I guess the best part of it is that I’m still here. Still out here having a good time playing music and hanging out with my friends and family and fans — hey, let me put a melody to that and I’ll call you back. But, seriously, that’s it. I just enjoy what I do.Â I don’t know why I’m still here. A lot of my friends are gone. And a lot of the guys that are my age decided long ago that they didn’t want no more of this stuff. But I’m lucky. I’m healthy and I enjoy what I’m doing. People ask, ‘Why are you still doing this? And I say, ‘All I do is play golf and music.’ And don’t wanna quit either one of them.Â I don’t really wanna quit nothin’”
Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson were photographed by Danny Clinch, as part of designer John Varvatos print campaign that appeared in several magazines. Willie and his sons also performed at John Varvatos’ 11th Annual Stuart House Fundraising concert, to help raise funds for disadvantaged children. For more information about Stuart House and their help for sexually abused children, and how you can help, visit the website.