Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Country Rhythms (September 1981) (UK)

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022

[Thanks so much to Phil Weisman for gifting me this great magazine from the UK. The country music magazines always have the best photos.]

Country Rhythms
September 1981

It takes three buses and two trucks to move Willie Nelson and his band and crew around the country for the over 250 performances that Willie gives each year. But for all it grueling aspects, life on the road never loses that sense of freedom and adventure so important to country musicians like Willie Nelson, who spent much of their early lives yearning to escape from backgrounds of poverty and rural isolation.

These photographs by Michael Abramson, courtesy of Columbia Records, tell the story of Willie’s magic caravan better than worlds could ever do.

Willie Nelson, Connie Nelson and daughters Amy and Paula


As unspoiled by his fantastic success as any one could possibly be, Willie Nelson is always available t his fans after a show. Although he values his privacy, Willie knows how important it is to maintain personal contact with the people to whom he means so much.


This ent

Willie and Waylon on Music City News (August 1995)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

Willie & Waylon – “From Outlaws to Good Guys”
Music City News
August 1995
by Lydia Dixon Harden

Together and alone, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson stand tall in the eyes of country music fans.  They each stepped out of the mainstream of country music to put their own indelible brand to the genre — Waylon’s music with its walking bass and his growling voice; Willie with his unique phrasing and trademark guitar licks.

In 1970s, the two teamed together for a series of duets which fused their long-standing friendship.  They urged people to “get back to the basics of love” and extolled the virtues of a good hearted woman.  They have been tagged as outlaws, but in reality, they are also good hearted.  Willie has raised more than $12 million for American farmers.  Waylon has made adult literacy his cause.  For all their efforts through the years, each earned an honor during this year’s TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Now Waylon and Willie will work again this summer with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the HIghwaymen.  The foursome released their third Highwayman collaboration in the past ten years.

Individually, Willie is making plans for another Farm Aid and has released a new album for Justice Records, “Just One Love,” and Rhino Records is releasing “A Classic & Unreleased Collection.” Waylon is still writing songs and working to follow-up his “Waymore’s blues Part II” album.

Music City News took time to catch up with these two busy artists during the TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Willie Nelson

‘I love Minnie Pearl to death,” says Willie about the woman for whom his award was named.  “She is a wonderful person and we have been friends for many, many years.  I was a big fan before I ever met her.  But then through the years, we became great friends.  This is a great award, and especially great because of Minnie Pearl.”

Willie was chosen for the honor due to his efforts with Farm Aid.  “We are talking about doing another Farm Aid, maybe in September.  I have heard Louisville mentioned a couple of times.  We’ll see.  I never thought we would have to do more than one,” he adds.  “I figured that maybe once people realized, that something would be done.  This is the tenth anniverary and things are worse now than they were, what with the environemental disasters like floods and those things.  It’s pretty bad out there.  The situation started out as one thing and now it has grown into another.  Now farm aid is trying to help all those peole who are going through all those different disasters much at the same time as their farm problems. Now they have all these environmental problems.’

Willie Nelson has a global outlook when it comes to his music.  He and his band recently returned from Europe.  The trip covered 23 cities in 12 countries in a span of 25 days.

‘It was a whirlwind tour, but a good one,” he says.  “There are a lot of fans over there.  I have been several times and each time I go back.  it seems to be growing a little bit more.”

Closer to home, Nelson has his own recording studio.  One of the real benefits of that is he gets to hear what other musicians are up to.  He was pleasantly surprised when he came home one day to find the members of his first band laying down tracks.  Willie joined in and they recorded a whole bunch of material.

“The Offenders is the name of the group that I first put together,” he tells.  “We went on the road and for some reason we decided to call ourselves the Offenders.  Johnny Bush, who has gone on to have a lot of record sales and hits on his own, played drums for me back then.  David Zettner played the bass and Jimmy Day played steel guitar.  I came home a few weeks ago and those guys were in the studio just recording this song.  We woujnd up doing a lot of the older songs and a couple of new things.  I’m trying to sell it to somebody.”

That project will be put to the back burner now that the Highwaymen tour is under full swing.  Does he think the Highwaymen concept would work with four other people?

“Would it work with any other configuration?  I didn’t think it would work with us!” he laughs.

“It is one of those miracles again.  Fortunately, we are not in control.  Each time it comes together, it is another miracle because we all come in from so many different directions.  But it is a good thing,” he states.  “Whether it could happen again with anybody else, I am sure it could.  There are four people around somewhere, I am sure, that they can get along a little while on the road. We get along amazingly well.

“It is a vacation for me.  I stand over there three-quarters of the time and listen to these guys sing and listen to a great band and usually a full house.  So I get to be entertianed.  The rest of the time, I get to entertain.  So I am having a big time.  It is not work.  All I have to do is show up.”

Willie Nelson – New York Times Magazine

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022
By Jody Rosen

Listen to article, or read it and see amazing photographs by Phillip Montgomery here.

Willie Nelson has a long history of tempting, and cheating, death. In 1969, when his home in Ridgetop, Tenn., caught fire, he raced into the burning house to save two prized possessions, his guitar and a pound of “Colombian grass.” He has emphysema, the consequence of a near-lifetime of chain smoking that began in childhood, when he puffed on cedar bark and grapevines, before turning to cigarettes and then — famously, prodigiously — to marijuana. In 1981, he was taken to a hospital in Hawaii after his left lung collapsed while he was swimming. He underwent a voluntary stem-cell procedure in 2015, in an effort to repair his damaged lungs. Smoking has endangered his life, but it also, he thinks, saved it: He has often said that he would have died long ago had he not taken up weed and laid off drinking, which made him rowdy and self-destructive. Now, in his late 80s, he has reached the age where getting out of bed each morning can be construed as a feat of survival. “Last night I had a dream that I died twice yesterday,” he sang in 2017, “But I woke up still not dead again today.”

Still, some close calls are closer than others. One evening in early March 2020, the singer and his wife, Annie, were sitting outside the sprawling log cabin residence at their ranch in Spicewood, Texas, in the Hill Country about 30 miles northwest of Austin. It was warm and clear. The sun was going down. “We were watching the sunset,” Annie recalled not long ago. “And these little lights started to zip across the sky. The first one kind of flashed past in the distance. Then there was a second, which went by a little closer. All of a sudden, the light went right past us — like, two feet over Will’s head.”

The couple scrambled into the house and got down on the floor. According to Annie, the neighbors were “having another one of their gun parties. Apparently they got drunk and left a bunch of kids with semiautomatic rifles.” The police, she said, explained that the lights came from tracer bullets. “I said, ‘Are those even legal?’ But of course, nuclear weapons are legal in Texas. I told the police to please just pass along this message: ‘Dude, you don’t want to be the one that kills Willie Nelson. Especially in Texas.’”

“Anyway,” she said, “that was the beginning of our Covid quarantine.”

Days earlier, Nelson played for a crowd of more than 70,000 at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Now cities were going into lockdown. Given Nelson’s age and underlying conditions, a deadly virus that attacked the respiratory system was a frightening proposition. So the Nelsons hunkered down in Spicewood, where they were joined by their adult sons — Lukas and Micah, both musicians — and Micah’s wife, Alex. For the first time in decades, Willie Nelson was staring at an empty calendar.

For several months, only Annie left the ranch, once a week, to buy groceries. Nelson and his sons played lots of poker, dominoes and chess. Nearly every evening, the three would gather in the living room with their guitars to sing Nelson’s songs and old favorites by the likes of Hank Williams and Roger Miller. “It kept us sane, sort of,” Lukas says. “My dad was bored. He was anxious. He was in a state of existential dread, fearing that this thing he’d done his whole life would never come back.” Nelson tried to keep busy, meeting with a physical therapist for online sessions, sitting for Zoom interviews and performing livestreamed benefit concerts. But his famous tour bus sat by the entrance to the ranch, uncharacteristically idle.

Nelson has spent much of his life on tour buses, answering the siren call of the Interstate and the concert hall. “I can’t wait to get on the road again/The life I love is making music with my friends,” he sang, decades ago. There are thousands of songs about roving troubadours, but “On the Road Again” must be the most joyful and unabashed. For Nelson, barnstorming the country with a hot band is pure freedom. There was a moment, in the 1990s, when he pulled himself off the road, signing a contract for a six-month residency at a theater in Branson, Mo. But his cabin fever grew so acute, he wrote in his autobiography, that he took to “pitching a big sleeping tent in my hotel room and pretending I was out in the woods.”

Now, during the pandemic, he was marooned again. “Every day,” he says, “it was more and more like a prison sentence.” Sometimes, he would sit in his parked tour bus, “just to pretend I was going somewhere.”

“At the end of every tour, Will talks about retiring,” Annie says. “?‘I think I might retire.’ But then we’ll have a conversation: ‘Well, what would you do if you retired?’ We both know the answer: Just lay down and die. It’s impossible to imagine him not being out there.”

For as long as anyone can remember, Nelson has been opening his concerts with “Whiskey River.” No one is certain when he started; when you’ve had a career as long as his, the math can get fuzzy. A newspaper reviewer once wrote that the song had been Nelson’s opening number “since the dawn of time,” a claim that stretched the truth, but not by much. The best guess is that it was installed as the set-opener around 1974, which would mean Nelson has sung it at the start of something like 6,500 shows. When you take your seat at one of his concerts, you know the scene that will unfold: A small man with a bandanna and braids will amble onstage, strap on a scuffed nylon-string guitar and launch into a famous chorus. “Whiskey river, take my mind/Don’t let her memory torture me/Whiskey river, don’t run dry/You’re all I’ve got, take care of me.”

That’s more or less what transpired this April 29 at Austin’s Moody Center, a new 15,000-seat arena on the campus of the University of Texas. Some 9 months earlier, Nelson’s pandemic concert moratorium had come to an end. That night, he was a warm-up act, opening for another legend, George Strait — at 70, a spring chicken compared with Nelson, and by some measures the most popular country artist of all time, with dozens of No. 1 singles and album sales of nearly 70 million.

But Nelson doesn’t play second fiddle to anyone, especially in Austin. The Moody Center sits less than a mile from the university building that, for decades, housed the soundstage for “Austin City Limits,” the live-music TV showcase indelibly associated with Nelson and the outlaw-country movement he spearheaded in the 1970s. Today, “Austin City Limits” is taped in a theater on Willie Nelson Boulevard, the downtown thoroughfare where you’ll find an eight-foot-tall Willie Nelson statue, cast in bronze. There are other works of Nelson-themed public art around town, including a giant “Willie for President” mural that is a magnet for Instagrammers. Shops are full of Nelson merchandise: bobbleheads, shot glasses, T-shirts emblazoned with song lyrics (“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”) and bad puns (“Austin is Willie Weird”). George Strait might be a megastar, but in Austin, and nearly everywhere else, Willie is a deity. In 2019, Strait recorded “Sing One with Willie,” a cheeky complaint about how Nelson — who has performed duets with countless artists, from Sinatra and Joni Mitchell to Snoop Dogg and Jessica Simpson — had never bestowed the honor on Strait himself.

It was just after 8 p.m. when the house lights dimmed and Nelson took the stage, wearing a straw cowboy hat and a T-shirt that read “I Stand With Ukraine.” Recently, he had switched to performing while sitting down, a concession to age. Video screens suspended from the ceiling captured close-ups of the singer: handsome, white-bearded, with a face as craggy and weather-beaten as a desert outcropping. He gave his usual greeting (“How y’all doing?”), hammered on a chord a half-dozen times and, sure enough, the strains of “Whiskey River” rippled across the arena.

When Nelson first recorded the song, in 1973, it was an outlaw-country anthem, a woozy blend of honky-tonk and funk and blues — a sound more redolent of weed than whiskey. Its lyrics sketched the story of a spurned lover with a death wish; it was the testimony of a drowning man. But at the Moody Center, Nelson delivered it with a sly twinkle, like a song about a pleasure cruise. It was a festive occasion, after all: Nelson’s 89th birthday, and also the release date for “A Beautiful Time,” his 97th studio album (give or take; there are conflicting counts). It was unclear how many of those in attendance were aware of these milestones, and Nelson didn’t call attention to them. He simply went to work, leading his four-man band through a set that featured hits (“Always on My Mind”), classics from his songwriting catalog (“Crazy”), jazz standards (“Georgia on My Mind”) and hymns (“I’ll Fly Away”).

A Willie Nelson concert is a study in efficiency. He packed 20 songs into an hour, dispatching with most in three minutes or less, while keeping the banter to a bare minimum. But those brief, brisk songs contained multitudes. “The reason Sinatra was my favorite singer was his phrasing,” Nelson told me. “He never sang a song the same way twice. I don’t think I do either.” Nelson is indeed one of music’s great iterators, with a Sinatraesque knack for daubing in different colors, rendering old songs in revelatory new ways. His gift is to make that art seem artless, camouflaging technique with naturalism. His unruffled vocal tone is unmistakable and unchanging; songs roll out as natural as speech, as if he were not singing so much as thinking out loud. These effects rest on Nelson’s rhythmic play: His vocal phrases and guitar solos glide over the meter, lagging behind the beat or charging ahead, bringing suspense to every note and syllable. There is a term for this kind of derring-do — rubato — but Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player in the road band known as the Family, puts it another way. “That’s Willie’s prerogative,” Raphael says. “He goes where he goes. Our task is to follow him.”

It’s not an easy gig. At the Austin show, Nelson’s regular bassist, Kevin Smith, was sidelined with Covid, so he had brought in Robert Kearns, who normally plays with Sheryl Crow. Kearns had less than a day’s notice; the band never rehearses and, “Whiskey River” aside, doesn’t have a set list. Nelson sometimes counsels musicians to feel, not count — to disburden themselves of metronomic ideas about tempo and go with the flow. But that’s easier said than done, and you could hear Kearns laboring to keep track of Nelson’s floating cadences and hairpin turns. “Willie pulled out every trick, every idiosyncrasy,” Raphael said later. “Robert’s a great, great bass player. But all he could do was, you know, just kind of hang on.”

Nelson finished the set with a jaunty rendition of an old Mac Davis number, “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” About 90 minutes later, he reappeared onstage, joining Strait for a couple of duets. They did “Sing One With Willie,” a goofy crowd-pleaser, and the Townes Van Zandt ballad “Pancho and Lefty,” featuring a searching guitar solo from Nelson. As Nelson made his way offstage, Strait told the crowd, “You know, it’s Willie’s birthday,” and then led a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Nelson boarded a golf cart, which whisked him through the audience and out of the arena. Soon he was on his bus, rolling through Austin, on his way out of town.

The careers of successful musicians tend to follow predictable patterns. You break through in your 20s and perhaps hit your prime in your early 30s. Talent knows no age limit, but inspiration often has a sell-by date. As midlife sets in, you may lose contact with the muse. Tried-and-true moves grow stale, sounds and styles that once brimmed with character curdle into caricature. The day-to-day demands on musicians exact a greater toll. The thrill of life on the road fades, and the bummers — loneliness, boredom, long hours, bad food — become harder to bear.

Willie Nelson is the exception that proves every rule. He hit his stride as a recording artist around age 40 and reached superstardom at 45. He has kept up a relentless pace ever since, recording thousands of songs while averaging more than 100 live dates per year, decade after decade. In 2022, his compulsion to sing and pick his guitar and ramble the roads is undiminished and, evidently, unappeasable. “Sometimes we’ll be off the road for three weeks or a month,” says Raphael, who has played with Nelson for 49 years. But then: “I’ll get a text from Willie, out of the blue, at some random hour of the day or night: ‘Let’s pick.’ The break might have just started, and he’s ready to get back out there.”

As Nelson has rounded the bend into old age, another unusual thing has happened: He has been making more music. He has had a very busy 21st century, producing a staggering 36 albums of new material since the turn of the millennium. He has recorded collections of children’s music and songbook standards and country-and-Western jukebox hits. He has released tribute albums to Sinatra, to George and Ira Gershwin, to the songwriter Cindy Walker. He has done album-length collaborations with indie rockers, with Western-swing revival bands, with Wynton Marsalis and members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He made a gospel-themed album with his sister and four of his children. He put out a reggae record, and it wasn’t embarrassing. He’s said to have hundreds more recent recordings in the can. The Willie Nelson of 2022 is an anomaly, perhaps unprecedented in popular music: His discography stretches back to the Eisenhower era, and he remains one of America’s busiest working musicians. “It’s a decent job,” he says. “Best one I’ve had, at least.”

In the past five years alone, Nelson has produced nine albums. On these records we hear more than the sound of a famous voice reinterpreting familiar material. Nelson’s catalog of original songs has been growing and taking on heft: Many new songs find him reckoning with the weighty matter of his own dwindling days. Death has always had a place in Nelson’s work. (A singer steeped in the earthy existentialism of country and blues could hardly avoid the topic.) But in recent times, it has become his Topic A.

This may be shrewd business. Albums of this sort are recording-industry mainstays; Nelson’s old pal and collaborator Johnny Cash won critical raves for a string of late-life releases that focused on his own impending demise. But where Cash’s mortality music was brooding and gothic, Nelson’s is Nelsonian: mischievous, droll, intrigued by cosmic conundrums and amused by the state of his own mortal flesh. The songs unspool in the voice of a man who has gazed into the abyss and come back drawling punch lines: “Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded/So I think I’ll just stay where I am.” Sometimes he allows himself a flight into the mystical, imagining his transmutation into a “blue star” in the night sky, or envisioning a jam session in the afterlife with departed musical comrades. Sometimes his jokes verge on metaphysical riddles: “I don’t go to funerals/I won’t be at mine.”

“Death is just a pretty good subject to write about,” he says. “It’s good material.”

When tracer bullets aren’t flying overhead, the land that Nelson christened Luck Ranch is a rather nice place to spend time. (“When you’re here, you’re in Luck,” he is fond of saying. “When you’re not here, you’re out of Luck.”) The ranch rolls across 700 acres, dotted with cedar and juniper trees. Like much of the region’s pastureland, the Nelsons’ acreage has been damaged by overgrazing and erosion, and the couple has undertaken a program of regenerative agriculture to restore the soil and revive the native flora. Dozens of horses wander the ranch; most are rescues, adopted so they wouldn’t be sent to the slaughterhouse. For years, Nelson was prone to wandering the property himself, usually at high velocity. “I liked to bust through those cedars,” he says, “either on a horse or in a pickup truck.”

The ranch is home to other animals too: sheep, pigs, chickens. This came in handy during the Covid lockdown. “If we were low on eggs,” Annie says, “I could go grab some from under a chicken butt.” She cooked the family meals, and to streamline the operation, the Nelsons came up with a menu they nicknamed the Pandemic Pantry: vegan meatloaf on Mondays, tacos on Tuesdays, etc. (“The deal was: If you want something else, make it yourself,” Annie says.) Tensions can creep in when you’re sequestering for long stretches, perhaps especially among strong-willed people with artistic dispositions. The Nelsons maintained harmony with a set of rules that have become famous among fans, reproduced on swag for sale at shows:

1. Don’t be an [expletive].

2. Don’t be an [expletive].

3. Don’t be a goddamn [expletive].

“They’re good rules, but we’ve all broken them,” Nelson says. “I’ve definitely broken Rule No. 3. My loved ones will confirm that.”

Annie is Nelson’s fourth wife. She is also, he has often said, the love of his life. They met in 1986, in Arizona, on the set of the made-for-television Western drama “Stagecoach,” where she was working as a makeup artist. They first bonded over the question of Nelson’s hair, which they agreed he did not need to cut short in order to play the role of Doc Holliday. But a relationship seemed unlikely. Ann Marie D’Angelo was 30, Nelson was 53. She had vowed never to date celebrities or get involved with men who had messy marital backgrounds or children. Nelson was separated but not yet divorced from his third wife; he had five kids, one of whom was born to the woman who would become Wife No. 3 at a time when he was still married to No. 2. But Nelson and D’Angelo were both quick-witted, tough-minded and warm — a good match. He pursued her ardently; they fell in love. Lukas Autry Nelson was born on Christmas Day 1988; Jacob Micah Nelson arrived in May 1990. Willie and Annie were married in 1991.

Nelson considers Luck his true home, but the Nelsons raised their sons far away, in an oceanfront house on the northern coast of Maui. Nelson, of course, was often gone, on the road up to 200 days a year. Lukas and Micah grew up surrounded by musical equipment and taught themselves to play, bashing out classic-rock songs in a band room near the little building in the rear of the house where Nelson gathered with friends when he was not on tour. While Nelson got high and played poker, he followed his sons’ increasingly tighter and more assured renditions of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd songs. “I always looked at music as a way to get closer to my dad,” Lukas says. “There was never any pressure about it. But I knew that he loved music so much, and that if I did it, too, I’d make him happy, and we’d be able to spend more time together.”

Today Lukas, 33, is a star in his own right: a gifted songwriter and guitarist with a reedy vocal tone reminiscent of his father’s. His acclaimed roots-rock quintet, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, has released eight full-length albums and served as Neil Young’s backing band. (They were also the backing band for the fictional singer played by Bradley Cooper in the 2018 “A Star Is Born” remake, whose soundtrack includes eight songs co-written by Lukas.) Micah, 32, is a sometime Promise of the Real member himself, joining the band on its tours with Young; he also records solo work, which tilts toward the noisy and experimental, under the moniker Particle Kid. The nickname was coined one day when he was 14 and his (very stoned) father tried and failed to say the phrase “prodigal son.”

Nelson has played and recorded with his daughters Paula, 52, and Amy, 49. Now Lukas and Micah have become his musical right-hand men, with an intimate view of his late-life creative burst. “He’s been making some of the best music he’s ever made,” Micah says. “He’s singing and writing songs now that he couldn’t have written at 30 or 40. He’s decorating the story of his life, and he’ll continue to do it till he’s no longer breathing.”

A theme that has run through Nelson’s songs from the beginning is his hunger for the road. It was there, obliquely, in his very first single, written and recorded in 1957, a lament about a failed romance whose refrain is a nomad’s itchy motto: “This is no place for me.” Perhaps his most intriguing disquisition on the subject is “Still Is Still Moving to Me” (1993), one of his signature songs, a kind of koan set to a backbeat and spaghetti-Western guitar. “I can be moving or I can be still,” he sings. “But still is still moving to me.” Precisely what he’s getting at is uncertain; in the song, he concedes he is straining to express elusive and ineffable ideas. “It’s hard to explain how I feel/It won’t go in words but I know that it’s real.”

“He wants to move,” Lukas says. “He needs to move. He needs to roam the land and play his music and be free. He’s been moving since he was a very young kid. He’s been in the hustle of the times ever since he left the cotton fields in Abbott, Texas.”

Abbott, a small town about 25 miles north of Waco, is where Nelson was born, in 1933. When he was 6 months old, his young parents split up, leaving Willie and his 2-year-old sister, Bobbie, in the care of their paternal grandparents. Nelson sees this as a stroke of good fortune. His grandparents, Nancy and Alfred — “Mama and Daddy Nelson” — were devoted and conscientious caretakers. They were also musicians. Mama gave singing lessons from home; Daddy, a blacksmith, played guitar. By the time Willie was 6, he had his first six-string and was learning to play chords and write songs. Bobbie was a piano prodigy who seemed to instantly assimilate new styles; she would become her brother’s enduring musical collaborator and “closest friend for a whole lifetime.”

To grow up in rural Texas during the Depression was to know an existence defined by struggle and want. But musically, Abbott held riches. Willie basked in the hymns at the United Methodist Church. The radio transmitted enthralling sounds, too: the Western swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Tin Pan Alley hits like “Stardust” and “All the Things You Are.” Willie was also captivated by the music he heard at movie matinees, especially the drifter anthems sung by Hollywood cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And he worked alongside his sister and grandmother in the cotton fields, where other songs rang out. “There were a few of us white people out there,” he says. “But over here, there’d be Mexicans singing mariachis. And over there, you’d hear a Black guy singing the blues.” The trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis recalls a revealing backstage moment. “It was me, Willie, B.B. King, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton,” he says, all shooting the breeze — “and Willie said: ‘Well, gentlemen, I think I’m the only one here who actually picked cotton.’” Everyone burst into laughter. “Willie has had some profound experiences,” Marsalis says. “His music, his knowledge, comes from a long, long way.”

At 10, Nelson joined a Czech polka band that played beer halls; when he and Bobbie were teenagers, they formed a dance band with Bobbie’s young husband. He graduated from high school in 1950, served in the Air Force for nine months (he received a medical discharge for a bad back), then tried college at Baylor University in Waco before dropping out to pursue music. He married his first wife, Martha, at 19, and had three children in short order. For the next several years, he bounced around the country while working a series of jobs (saddle maker, dishwasher, door-to-door salesman) and honing his craft.

Eventually he made his way to Nashville, where he gained a reputation as an uncommonly gifted songwriter. Had he never succeeded as a performer, the handful of hits he wrote in the late 1950s and early ’60s might have secured his legend anyway. Songs like “Family Bible,” “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” were miracles of concision, speaking volumes in spare words while smuggling in melodic and harmonic twists. The torch song “Crazy,” a hit for Patsy Cline in 1961, poured out heartache in a swooping tune that sounded more jazz than country. “Night Life,” a hit for Ray Price two years later, showed Nelson’s genius for poetic plain-speaking: “The night life ain’t no good life/But it’s my life.”

“He’s one of those extraordinary songwriters who embodies a genre and transcends it,” Elvis Costello says. “He’s got an ear for changes, for passing tones, that aren’t found in country songs at all. I think I knew ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ for 20 years before I realized the ‘Nelson’ on the songwriting credit was Willie Nelson — I assumed it was an old jazz ballad.”

Nelson got a record deal with RCA Victor in 1964 and released a string of LPs, but he bridled under the label chief, Chet Atkins, who favored the ornate production of the so-called Nashville Sound. In 1969, Nelson bought a new guitar, a nylon-string Martin N-20, which he fitted with a pickup to produce a tone reminiscent of one of his musical gods, the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He named the guitar Trigger, after Roy Rogers’s horse, and before long his fingers had worn a hole in the soft spruce above its bridge. His music was getting more scraped and scarred, too, its Music Row sheen peeling away as he sought a starker sound. In 1971 he recorded “Yesterday’s Wine,” a concept album about the life and death of an “imperfect man.” He thought it was the most honest LP he’d ever made; an RCA executive called it “some far-out [expletive] that maybe the hippies high on dope can understand.”

Nelson had run his course in Music City. He moved back to Texas and considered taking up pig farming. But while visiting Nashville in 1972, he attended a house party where songwriters were playing their tunes and, late at night, offered some of his own new material. Among the small crowd still present was the Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who astonished Nelson by offering him both a contract and creative freedom. (Forget commerce, Wexler said: “You’re going for art.”) What followed was groundbreaking: The LPs “Shotgun Willie” (1973), “Phases and Stages” (1974) and “Red Headed Stranger” (1975) cleared a path forward for country music by looking to the past, combining the attitude and ambition of album rock with the raw, rootsy sounds of honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk and gospel.

Nelson’s new direction reflected the ferment of his home in Austin, where hippies and rednecks rubbed shoulders and a funky new species, the hippie-redneck, emerged. The figureheads of this scene were Nelson and the band he assembled after moving to town in 1972. The Family — Bobbie Nelson (piano), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Bee Spears (bass), Jody Payne (guitar) and Paul English (drums) — wore long hair and thick beards, jettisoning Grand Ole Opry rhinestones for jeans and T-shirts. The look was anti-establishment, with a hint of menace. English was the group’s muscle, ready to straighten things out when club owners stiffed the band; he was rumored to carry two guns at all times. (Nelson immortalized their relationship in one of his most beloved songs, “Me and Paul.”) A platinum-selling 1976 compilation, “Wanted! The Outlaws,” gave the movement a name and established its commercial bona fides: “Outlaw country” would prove a sales juggernaut, minting new stars (Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson) and invigorating the careers of renegade veterans (Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard).

The biggest success was Nelson. “Red Headed Stranger” was his first true hit album. Then, in 1978, came a blockbuster, “Stardust,” a collection of standards that stayed on the country album charts for a full decade, establishing the cowboy warbler as an interpreter of the American Songbook on par with the greatest jazz vocalists. In the years that followed, Nelson reached superstardom, attaining a presence in popular culture that arguably no other country singer has, unless Taylor Swift counts as a country singer. He starred in motion pictures. He visited the White House on numerous occasions. (On one visit, he got high on the roof with President Carter’s son Chip.) He did a public service announcement for NASA alongside Frank Sinatra and had a huge international hit with Julio Iglesias, the oily and absurd “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” He was one of few country artists to join the pop, soul and rock demigods on the charity single “We Are the World.”

Nelson’s renown is bound up with his image as a rebel, a reputation enhanced by his yearslong showdown with the Internal Revenue Service (which seized a good share of his assets in 1990) and his multiple busts for marijuana possession. A decent case could be made that he is history’s most famous pothead, the man whose likeness should be carved into the golden bong of posterity. For decades, he has been an advocate for legalization, and in 2015 he launched the cannabis company Willie’s Reserve (tagline: “My stash is your stash”). You can hear a stoner sagacity in both his lyrics and the way he sings them — in the freedom of his rubato, his gliding excursions through musical space-time.

Nelson is a scrambler of categories. He’s down-home and urbane, countercultural and traditional, a political progressive who occupies the loftiest perch in America’s most conservative musical genre. (Presumably, many fans in his home state take issue with his endorsement of Beto O’Rourke and his call to support Texas Democrats in their fight against voter suppression.) It’s impossible to name a white performer more steeped in qualities we associate with Black music — syncopation, improvisation, blue notes, the push and pull between sacred and earthly yearnings — yet not a trace of minstrelsy can be detected in his sound. He is always — indubitably, irreducibly — Willie Nelson.

The most striking feature of his career is not length but breadth. There appear to be no songs he can’t sing and few he hasn’t. Though nominally a country artist, he is really more like an American musical unconscious, tapped into the deepest wellsprings of popular song. He has a way of making everything he sings — from “Amazing Grace” and “Danny Boy” to “Time After Time” (the Cyndi Lauper song) and “The Rainbow Connection” (the Kermit the Frog song) — sound Platonic and primordial. The only comparable figures, according to Marsalis, are Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. “To be great in all the forms that Willie is great in — it’s extremely rare,” he says. “He has whatever that spiritual thing is, that thing you can’t describe. It’s like a shamanistic type of insight into the nature of all things. From that place of understanding, he can play anything he wants to play that comes out of the American tradition.”

For a guy who makes so many records, Nelson doesn’t spend much time in recording studios. He is a legendarily speedy worker. “He records fast because he has zero patience,” says Micah Nelson. There are tales of sessions in which Nelson materialized to make a guest appearance on someone’s record, laid down a vocal track or guitar solo in a single spotless take and then left as quickly as he’d come, roaring off on his tour bus.

Pedernales Recording Studio, which Nelson built in the early 1980s, sits one mile from Luck Ranch, adjacent to a 9-hole golf course Nelson also owns. Buddy Cannon, 75, is a veteran Nashville songwriter and producer who has overseen much of Nelson’s recent work there. The two first met in the late 1970s in Amarillo, Texas, at a promotional concert, when a mutual friend asked Cannon if he wanted to smoke a joint with Nelson. (“It’s a pretty good way to meet Willie Nelson, smoking a joint in a broom closet,” Cannon says. “I probably wasn’t the first guy to meet him that way.”) They met again three decades later, in Nashville. Cannon was producing a 2007 Kenny Chesney session for which Nelson had agreed to sing a duet. Nelson liked the sound of the recording so much that he hired Cannon to produce his next album, “Moment of Forever.” They’ve gone on to make 15 more albums, with Cannon assuming not only mixing-board duties but also a role as Nelson’s songwriting partner.

Their working relationship is one neither could have envisioned when joints were passed in broom closets: They write via text message, volleying lyrics back and forth. Usually Cannon will arrive at the studio with a rough outline of a tune, but it is Nelson who does the finishing work, improvising while the tape rolls. As a producer, Cannon’s goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible, offering the cleanest view of what he calls Willie World. “I try to treat his music the way it treats us,” Cannon says. “I just try to capture the Willie vibe.”

Sometimes the vibe arrives unbidden, overnight, in Cannon’s iPhone. On the morning of July 29, 2020, he awoke to a text from Nelson, the first verse of a prospective new song.

Imagine what you want then get out of the way
Remember energy follows thought so be careful what you say
So be careful what you ask for
Make sure it’s really what you want
Because your mind is made for thinking
And energy follows thought

“Write a verse,” Nelson added. “If you like it.” Cannon came up with some lines about how wisdom is dispensed in dreams and through the intercession of spirits, and the songwriters traded messages until Nelson was convinced they’d done the job.

The result, “Energy Follows Thought,” is the emotional — or cosmological — centerpiece of Nelson’s latest album, “A Beautiful Time.” It’s a stately ballad, crooned by Nelson in confiding tones over shivering, echoing production. A kick drum beats out a low, steady pulse; Nelson’s guitar rumbles and probes. The sound is both intimate and gigantic, like a lullaby sung in an amphitheater on the moon. Nelson says the song is “one of my philosophies.” To Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player, it “scratches on quantum physics.” But with its talk of ghostly visitors that speak through dreams, “Energy Follows Thought” may well be another lion-in-winter anthem, one more shadowy rumination on what lies beyond. The cover of “A Beautiful Time” shows Nelson striding, guitar in hand, into a blazing sunset.

“He’s lost so many people, so many loved ones,” Annie says. In 1991, Nelson’s son Billy, one of the three children from his first marriage, committed suicide at age 33. Those close to Nelson say that he’s been hit hard by the deaths of friends and fellow travelers, like Cash and Haggard and Ray Price. Recently he has endured the losses of even closer musical compatriots. Paul English passed in February 2020. On March 10 of this year, Bobbie Nelson died in hospice care in Austin. “I don’t want to be the last man standing/On second thought, maybe I do,” Nelson sang in 2018. It was a good line, another wisecrack at Pale Death’s expense. But truth lurks behind the quip. It is hard to be the last man standing. And he really doesn’t go to funerals.

On May 4, less than a week after Nelson’s 89th birthday, Willie and Annie were in Nashville. The singer woke up in the middle of the night, on his tour bus, struggling to breathe. A health care worker was summoned. A rapid PCR test was administered. Nelson was Covid positive.

“I had a nebulizer on the bus,” Annie says. “I started everything I could at that point, including Paxlovid. He had the monoclonal antibodies. He had steroids.” They drove through the night and made it home to Spicewood, where Annie got a mobile medical unit out to the ranch. “We turned the house into a hospital,” she says. “There were a couple of times when I wasn’t sure he was going to make it.”

“I had a pretty rough time with it,” Nelson allows. “Covid ain’t nothing to laugh at, that’s for sure.”

Six days after taking ill, he was out of the woods. Two weeks after that, he was back on tour, playing a pair of shows in New Braunfels, Texas. From there it was on to Little Rock, Ark.; Oklahoma City; Camdenton, Mo.; Wichita, Kan.; El Dorado, Ark.; St. Louis; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Noblesville, Ind.; and Franklin, Tenn.

On the afternoon of June 29, the Honeysuckle Rose — the fifth custom-designed Willie Nelson tour bus to bear that name — pulled into a parking lot outside a hotel in Louisville, Ky. His bandmates and road crew usually stay in hotels, but Nelson himself only ever sleeps on the bus. He has spent many nights there — many years, if you crunch the numbers. There are occasions when he has chosen to sleep on the bus even when it was parked in the driveway of one of his palatial homes. “There’s everything you need right here,” he said, from the kitchen area. “Good food to eat. Two bathrooms. A shower. A nice bed. If I felt like writing a song, I bet I could find a guitar in here somewhere.”

The Honeysuckle Rose looms large in Willie lore. Vast sums have changed hands on the bus, in games of poker and dominoes. A president has visited (Carter), as have innumerable musicians, movie stars, journalists and members of law enforcement, like the Louisiana State Police officers who paid a visit in 2006 and extracted 1.5 pounds of marijuana and 3 ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. Many have boarded the Honeysuckle Rose with a spring in their step and, sometime later, staggered off, having taken too many hits of Nelson’s powerful weed. Often one hit was too many.

The scene these days is less freewheeling. Nelson is supposed to have given up smoking marijuana in favor of an edibles-only regimen. (“It wasn’t good for my lungs,” he says.) The pandemic has also brought changes to his touring routine. With occasional exceptions, like the birthday show at the Moody Center, he plays only outdoors. Daily Covid tests are mandatory for everyone in the band and crew; masking is obligatory backstage. Onstage, musicians are instructed to give Nelson at least six feet of room. The most zealous enforcer of these protocols is Annie Nelson. “If I have to be the bad guy to keep him safe, I’ll be the bad guy,” she says. “A virus doesn’t care who you are, what you believe, how famous you are.”

Health concerns have forced Nelson to scale back his touring schedule. His concerts are carefully spaced, with far fewer dates stacked up, giving the singer time to rest and recuperate. He’s on the road again, but he may never again hit the 100-show-?per-year marker that was, for years, the bare minimum.

Mark Rothbaum, Nelson’s manager, does not regard his 89-year-old artist as a legacy act. “I want everyone to know him, everyone to see him,” he says. “If he’s playing and it’s 3,000 people, well, I’d rather it be 300,000 people.” Nevertheless, legacy management — getting an official history on the record — is a priority. Live recordings are being exhumed from archives. A multipart documentary in the works aims to chronicle Nelson’s “extraordinary life and career.” The singer himself has co-authored a number of books — memoirs, folksy works of fiction, collections of essays and aphorisms. The latest, “Me and Paul: Untold Stories of a Fabled Friendship,” will be published in September.

And there are the new records. The next studio album — No. 98, give or take — is a tribute to the Nashville songwriting ace Harlan Howard; it will probably be out early in 2023. “My attitude always is: What’s next?” Rothbaum says. “What’s the next record? Where’s the next show? Where’s the bus headed? Willie likes to keep things rolling forward, and so do I.”

A priority is “getting Willie out with his people”: not just putting him on tour, but booking special shows with artists who are his heirs and disciples. The concerts are logistically trickier than ever, what with the Covid precautions, but there is no thought of stopping. Younger musicians are eager — ecstatic, usually — to work with Nelson; he, as ever, is up for a picking party, and seems to enjoy the adulation. Sometimes these events take place, literally, in Nelson’s backyard. In 1985, a replica Old West town was built on Nelson’s property for the filming of the motion picture “Red Headed Stranger,” loosely inspired by his 1975 album; Nelson preserved the set and eventually installed an outdoor stage and sound system. This became the setting for occasional one-off concerts and special events, including the Luck Reunion, a festival held each March that draws thousands. There are also the birthdays, big occasions in Willie World. For Nelson’s 90th, next year, Rothbaum is planning the largest celebration yet, perhaps stretching over two days, maybe at the Hollywood Bowl. The guest performers, he says, will include “everyone you can think of.”

Another staple is Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, a daylong concert, headlined by Nelson, that has been going since 1973. This year’s edition — the first since 2019, because of the pandemic — took place in Austin, at the 20,000 seat Q2 Stadium, home of the city’s Major League Soccer franchise. The supporting acts on the bill included Jason Isbell, Allison Russell and other young stars representing country music’s progressive wing. The paying audience was a typical Willie crowd: a cross section of humanity that seemed to represent every gradation on the local social spectrum, from hick to hipster. It was multigenerational, overwhelmingly but not entirely white and fashion-forward, in its way. There were cowboy hats and lots of American-flag-themed apparel, worn with greater and lesser degrees of irony. A sizable number of those in attendance were men and women in their 20s and 30s decked out in period-perfect redneck-hippie chic: big boots, big belt buckles, big beards, lots of hair. At a Willie Nelson concert, it’s always 1973 in spirit.

The man himself arrived onstage wearing his own version of patriotic garb: an oversize U.S. men’s soccer team jersey bearing the uniform number 420. Walking is difficult for Nelson, especially after his bout with Covid. He gets winded quickly; a few steps can leave him gasping. When he sings and plays, though, the signs of strain ease. “According to the doctors, singing is the best exercise for the lungs,” he says. “I think that’s true.”

At the picnic he was in robust voice, pushing out his songs with power, agility and flair. “Whiskey River” came first, of course, delivered in an insolent purr. Ballads unfurled in whispers and croons; livelier numbers were sung with snap, sometimes in a thick twang that Nelson seemed to have dragged out of the 1930s for the occasion. Seated to his left was the Particle Kid, Micah, who played rhythm guitar and got a star turn on a number whose lyrical hook — “If I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven” — came from a quip by Nelson at the dominoes table during Covid lockdown. (When Micah told his dad that the phrase would make a great song, Nelson said: “You write it.”) Early in the set, the band cued up “On the Road Again,” and Beto O’Rourke dashed onstage with his own 11-year-old son to strum an acoustic and shout along.

Nelson played some fine guitar. During “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” one of his most lustrous love songs, he took a solo that gusted between genres and across borders, flowing past in a blur of swinging syncopations and block chords and hard strumming that pulled in Gypsy jazz, Texas blues, mariachi, even flashes of surf rock. The performance brought whoops from the crowd and, when he reached Bar No. 16, drew an impressed head shake from Nelson, in the split second before he sang the next line — a fond farewell to a lover that, on this occasion, sounded more like a guitar hero urging himself on. “Fly on,” he sang. “Fly on past the speed of sound.”

Willie Nelson at the Armadillo World Headquarters (8.12.72)

Sunday, August 14th, 2022

50 Years Ago, Willie Nelson United Cowboys and Hippies at the Armadillo World Headquarters
by:  Michael Corcoran

With the Vietnam War still raging in the summer of 1972, there was a cultural chasm that seemed too wide to cross in Texas: Longhairs weren’t welcome in honky-tonks, and cowboys didn’t mingle with “peaceniks.” But five words built a bridge.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Willie Nelson!”

On Aug. 12, 1972, a short-haired, clean-shaven Nelson stepped onto the stage of a counterculture haven and changed country music. Roughly half the crowd of 400 came to the Armadillo World Headquarters that night to see opening act Greezy Wheels, a local favorite, while the other half was split evenly between hardcore country fans who usually saw Willie at the Broken Spoke and the hippies in cowboy hats curious to see the country Bob Dylan.

“Willie seemed a little nervous before he came out,” recalls Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels. “Nobody knew what to expect, but as soon as he started singing ‘Hello Walls’ and all his other songs that had been hits for others, it was complete adoration from the crowd.”

Country acts usually played for their contracted amount of time— between an hour and 90 minutes—but Willie, bassist Bee Spears, and drummer Paul English played for almost three hours. And nobody left. As the divergent groups of people filed out together post-show, drenched in the sweat of satisfaction, they realized they had more in common than they thought.

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Willie’s first concert at the Armadillo—50 years ago this Friday—was the Big Bang of Austin being known as a music mecca. The word on this groovy bohemian cowboy scene got out via dispatches in Rolling Stone from Chet Flippo, a grad student attending UT on the G.I. Bill.

Eleven months after his ’Dillo debut, Nelson and friends drew 40,000 to his first Fourth of July Picnic in Dripping Springs, just west of Austin. “Outlaw country,” “cosmic cowboy,” “progressive country”—whatever you called it—had become a national fascination. Everyone was singing about “Willie and Waylon and the boys,” from No. 1 single “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” by Waylon Jennings, who followed Willie to the Armadillo.

But the groundwork for the comingling of good ol’ boys and hippies was laid years earlier by Kenneth Threadgill, who played every Sunday night at the Split Rail Inn from 1965-72. A country beer joint on South Lamar, the Rail was “where the heads meet the necks,” an unofficial slogan.

Threadgill was a hardcore country singer, a throwback to Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, but he often had longhairs in his band. He was known, after all, as the guy who mentored rock star Janis Joplin at his Threadgill’s Tavern on North Lamar in 1962.

After his Armadillo bow, Willie became the main force and spiritual guide of what this new musical movement has become. He was always a different kind of Nashville artist, singing around the beat and playing gypsy jazz guitar. But after years of wearing a suit, trying to fit in, Willie moved to where his true audience was. His new best friend Leon Russell, a former studio musician who had gone through a similar cultural transformation, was a model for the country outlaw look.

When Armadillo honcho Eddie Wilson heard that Willie, wife Connie, and the kids had moved into an apartment in Austin in July 1972, he made it his mission to book Nelson into his hippie beer barn. It wasn’t hard. Willie stopped by the Armadillo not long after his utilities had been turned on. As detailed in Wilson’s Armadillo World Headquarters memoir, Willie just showed up one afternoon. “I’ve been looking for you,” said Wilson. To which Nelson replied, “Well, you found me.”

Willie Nelson, Rolling Stone (August 2014)

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022
Rolling Stone

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

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022
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.

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 8th, 2021 at 7:28 pm and is filed under Interviews, Magazines. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. Edit this entry.

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One by Willie, by John Spong, with David Hood

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

John Spong

This week’s OBW: Legendary Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood talks about backing Willie on what Texas Monthly ranked his greatest album, “Phases and Stages”, getting into who Jerry Wexler was, why Wexler hooked Willie up w/the Swampers, and the weird moment when Willie first walked in the studio.

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Oh and we also listen to a bootleg of the alternate, “more commercial” mix of Phases cut in Nashville.

Spoiler alert: Thank god Wexler released the Swampers’ version.

It’s here:

Willie Nelson, New Traditions, Country Heroes

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

Willie Nelson in Easyriders, (December 1979)

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

Bikers and Texas — An Interview With Willie Nelson
December 1979
by Tex

When I got the call from our wandering photographer, Billy Tinney, I was skeptical.  He was in Las Vegas and ran down some off-the-wall story about bumping into Willie Nelson and mentioning this rag.  Willie actually knew of Easyriders and volunteered to pose in front of his Texas flag for a cover.  He also volunteered to do this interview — blew Billy away.  But Billy’s been known to get a little blurred aound the edges after a fifth of ta-kill-ya or so, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention, at first figuring he’d been talked into a scam by some silk-suited cokespoon and had slipped over into fantasyland.

But damned if it all wasn’t true, and the next thing I knew I was sitting next to the Cub, or resident photog, in a propeller driven crate flying to Lake Tahoe to interview Willie.  The Cub quickly drank himself into a stupor and was thus able to take the plane’s constant shuddering and rattling in stride.  I spent the time trying to go over the questions I wanted to ask Willie; but it’s hard to write when yur white-knuckled fists are locked to the armrests and you’re begging the stewardess for a parachute.

Eventually, we found ourselves wandering the posh casino of Harrah’s Hotel, where WIllie was playing.  Our grubby jeans and stained T-shirts looked out of place among the high rollers, but the pit bosses knew we were big shots when the Cub dropped three whole bucks plaing the nickel slots.  We had to operate on Willie’s schedule the entire time we were there, which meant things never got started before 2 a.m., when the second show ended.  Every morning would find me and the Cub clinging to our barstools, drinking our breakfast, adding additional stains to our T-shirts, and wondering if we could get thorugh another day on a diet of booze, toot, and no sleep.

The interview took place in Willie’s packed dressing room between shows.  It was a glitter, star-speckled party atmosphere at first — Jane fonda loved the Easyriders T-shirt the Cub laid on her.  But I had to pull him over into a corner and talk him out of asking her to strip for an Ol’ lady Contest photo.  WIllie was gracious as always, and after excusing himself from the party, he gave us his undivided attention.

When I spoke to him, Willie had just finished one movie and was about to begin another.  His records continue to sell millions, he had just completed a Christmas album, and he still found time to maintain a personal appearance schedule that would kill most entertainers.  The story of Willie’s career and success is too familiar to need retelling here, so the talk turned to motorcycles — the only thing I know shit about — and proceeding from that subject.

Easy Rider:  You used to ride a motorcycle, right?

Willie Nelson:  Yeah, I’ve owned a bunch of bikes — everything from Harleys to Hondas.

ER:  Did you start riding early, when you were a kid?

WN:  No, I started later on in life, after I was grown.  I’d always wanted one, even as a kid.  But I could never afford one then.  I was grown before I had any money.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to ride much anymore.

ER:  When Paul Newman or Steve McQueen want to ride their motorcycles or drive their race cars, they have to face the opposition of entertainment executives who are uptight about the risks.  Like them, you’re valuable property — if you wanted to ride, would you face the same thing?

WN:  Not with executives.  I’d face it from my family, though.

ER:  You’ve been called an outlaw and the name has stuck — both to you and to an entire movement in country music.  The same term, as you know, has been applied to a segment of motorcylce riders — the sort of hardcore Harley riders we write for and about in Easyriders.  Do you think there’s any parallel to be drawn between the two?

WN:  Definitely.  I think that all bike riders are like pickers in the sense that they’re both sorta looked down on by the community.

ER:  Why is that?

WN:  Well, a musician has always been a second class citizen.  I say always, actually, not so much now, but a long time that was true.  He couldn’t  get credit, he couldn’t anything.  He had no visible means of support, no regular job.  A lot of bikers aren’t nine-to-fivers, so they and musicians are are treated the same — they’re called loafers, troublemakers, everything.

ER:  Is that why both groups to one degree or another, feel alienated form society?

WN:  Well, I think there’s a freedom that certain people insist on having  –like the cowboys, that type of person.  Bikers have that same kind of image.  Pickers have that image.  A lot of people feel that way and want that freedom, but these people actually go after it — they try to live a free life.

A guy who has an eight hour job where he punches a clock five days a week is generally a little envious of somebody who rides around on a motorcycle having fun.  The same goes for the guy who rides around on a bus with a bunch of musicians playing music.  You know, it’s something the clock-puncher would like to do.

ER:  So there’s a mixture of envy in society’s disapproval?

WN:  I think so.  The average person has mixed emotions about us.

ER:  Easyriders has a substantial readership in prisons.  You seem to be as popular with guys in the joint as you are with the public.  Have you ever done any prison shows?

WN:  Yeah, I’ve done a few shows in different prisons around the country.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done one.  I think the last time I played was down in Texas, at Sugarland.  I plan to do them as long as I can fit them into my schedule — I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so it’s not easy.  But I do a few benefits each year for causes I’m in favor of.

ER:  At your July Fourth Picnic this year we met some Bandidos who are fans of yours.  Do you have personal friends in motorcycle clubs or are they primarily just fans?

WN:  I have friends in a lot of bike clubs.

ER:  The audience you played to in Austin was young and hip.  The poeple who came to see you here are somewhat older and obviously more affluent, but you do essentially the same show for both groups.  What explains the fact that you cut across so many social and economic levels and are so popular with such a broad spectrum of people?

WN:  I believe that people are people – period.  They may dress differently and do everything they can to look different, be different, or act different, but as far as music is concerned they’re all the same.  Good music is appreciated by most people, regardless of how they look or how old they are or how much money they have.  If you produce a sound that’s pleasing to the ear, it doesn’t matter how long the hair is.  Whether it’s over the ear or not, the same ear is there to appreciate the sound.  Also, we play all kinds of music in our show.  We haven’t done anything — just play a lot of different kinds of music.  And by doing that you attract a wide a wide variety of people, all different ages and form all walks of life.

ER:  You come form a religious background, a Baptist upbringing.  What role, if any, did that play in accounting for your popularity?

WN:  It had a lot to do with my learning people — learning what people want to hear and how to get their attention and what they respond to.  You see, when you go to church every Sunday for most of the early years of you rifle, you learn how the preacher gets the congregation’s attention and how he holds it.  A preacher is a professional speaker, an entertainer, really.  He’s not usually regarded that way, but it’s true nonetheless.  He has to be a showman to sell is product.

ER:  So you’re saying that the religious influences played more of a part in your ability to project a performer than in the nature of the songs you write?

WN:  I think you could say that.  I owe a lot to those preachers I watched do their act all those years.

ER:  So there’s a touch of evangelism in the manner in which you relate to an audience.

WN:  Or maybe there’s a touch of show business in evangelism — or at least salesmanship, which is also show business.  It all involves selling your product not matter what you’re trying to sell or get across to the people.  If it’s religion, you’ve got to be good.  Billy Graham is a great salesman.  He used to be a door-to-door salesman.

ER:  As you did, too — right?

WN:  That’s right.  When you go from house to house and knock and you don’t know who’s behind that door, you learn a lot.  Do that for a long period of time, and you learn a helluva lot.

ER:  Were you good at it?

WN:  Yeah, I was good at it.

ER:  Would you agree that ther’s a religious thread running through the songs you write — a tradional morality?

WN:  Well, I don’t write immoral songs, so I must write moral songs — at least songs that I think have a moral.  In my mind I write songs that mean something to me, songs I hope will say waht I want to say.  Being apositive thinker, I’m not going to write anything negative.  So a lot of the things I write have what you might call a semi-religous effect on some people.

I believe that none of my songs present life as being hopeless.  There’s humor — wholesome stuff — in my mind when I write them.  Even if the song is on a tragic subject, I try to say something about the lighter side of it.

ER:  Do you think there’s a ‘lighter side’ to songs like “Hello Walls,” and “Bloody Mary Morning,” and “Half a Man’?

WN:  Well, yeah.  Like in "Hello Walls,"  — when you put it in the blues rhythm, then you take it away form being too depressing and you add a little jump beat.  That’s what the blues is — depressing lyrics with a driving beat.  The negativity is countered with a positive drive and the feel behind it.  So people cry in their beer and listen to the blues but still don’t despair.

ER:  To what extent would you say drugs, including alcohol, have played a role in your life?

ER:  I think drugs are medicines.  In the Bible it says, "Physician, heal thyself."  In other words, a person knwos what’s wrong wtih him and sometimes he knows what it’s gong to take to relieve that condition temporarily, until he can work it out.  It’s the same thing a doctor is going to do for him.  A doctor is going to charge him for an office visit to do the same thing.  If the patient knows what to do himself and is sure he knows, then he should do it himself.  For most people drugs serve as a kind of self-medication.

ER:  Does being from Texas mean something special for your music and your popularity?  Is there something unique about being from Texas?

WN:  Evidentally there is today — it hasn’t always been that way.  We Texans are boastful and we brag a lot, so over the years we’ve gotten a reputation for being big mouths, bragging about this state we claim has everything in the world — which it does, you know.  But for a long time they didn’t believe us.  I think now they say, “Those sonsabitcheswereright after all — Texans are okay.”

ER:  About Austin itself — recently you said that you really never thought there was anything special about the music scene there.

WN:  Again, people are people.  I think a lot of good people gathered in Austin and I got a chance to go down and play some music for them.  A lot of good people are gathered in every town I’ve ever been in.  In fact, I think you can pick a town and throw a dart at a map and we can get an auditorium who will enjoy good music, if we can get them out of the house.  In Austin, having a college there and having access to all those young people and all that peak energy made everything possible.  It just happened to all come together there.  That’s where I happened to find the audience.

ER:  Would you mark the 1972 Dripping Springs Picnic as where everything started to happen?

WN:  I think that picnic was probably the first big indication that there were a lot of young people who were into rock and roll but who were also able to enjoy another type of music as well.  People love an underdog, and the Picnic has always been an underdog.  There’s always been a lot of reasons why there should not be a Picnic or couldn’t be this time, and so forth.   So each time we had it, it was like, “Well, I’ll be damned; we did it again.”

ER:  One of the reasons your music hits home to so many people is he way you articulate difficulties and disappointments everyone has known.  That experience comes form those lean years you spent before you were so successful and well-recognized.  Do you ever worry that success will make you complacent and cause you to lose that connection with your audience?

WN:  Absolutely.  It’s dangerous because it can happen to anybody in my position.  And it would be easy, once you get a little bit of money, to quit work.  But in order to stay ahead in the record business, in order to keep selling records, you need to keep putting on these shows and doing those one-nighters and working across the country and letting people know that you’re still on the scene and still working and still enjoying having having a big crowd come out and hear you. People will go where they know they’re appreciated.  And it works form the musicians’ end, too.  I think there’s something built into most musicians and pickers — you know, it’s their egos or they’re hams or something.  They enjoy an audience.  They get off seeing other people enjoy what they do — and that’s what keeps us all on the road.

ER:  How much are you on the road these days?

WN:  I don’t know exaclty.  We’re wroking more now than we ever were.  I don’t know how long that is going to go on, but right now we’re doing over 200 days a year on the road.

ER:  In a magazine article you were described as always carrying yoruself “with a kind of fierce innocence.”

WN:  I think it’s probalby a fierce “So What?”

ER:  Is that “So what” attitude responsible for yoru down-to-earth quality?  You seem very genuine, very real, to people, and that has to mean a lot to them.

WN:  Yeah, but I might be riding a trend, you know.  I might realize it’s a big audience out there with a bunch of longhairs in it and I might just be taking advantage of that opportunity.

ER:  You’re saying that you might have suckered a lot of people into believing in Willie Nelson.  You might have run a scam on them, but even if it’s fake, a lot of people are responding.

WN:  Well, if I did anything, let’s just say I crashed a party.

ER:  You’ve achieved so much success that it’s as if you don’t have any worlds left to conquer.  beyond records and movies, is there anything that you haven’t been able to do that you still want to achieve?

WN:  Oh, something will come up — I really don’t know what, but it will come up. I’m not bored at all with waht I’m doing.  Things are happening every day — I have to do double-takes all the time at what’s going on in my life.  But the future is always interesting.  It’s like riding  motorcycle — you always want to see what’s over the next hill.

ER:  Thank you, Willie.

WN:  Thank you.

Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly (December 2005)

Monday, December 13th, 2021

Willie Nelson
The 72-year-old singer on growing up in Abbott, playing in public for the first time, what he listens to on the bus, and why he doesn’t hate the music business

by Evan Smith
Texas Monthly
December 2005

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without an Abbott?

WN:  I doubt it.  I’ve always felt like Abbott was a special place.  It was the perfect place for me to grow up because it was a small town and because everybody knew everybody.  Everybody there was friends or family or worked together or went to school together.  There was something real positive about that.

ES:  In a lot of small towns, everybody gossips about everybody else; there’s nothing positive about that.  But not inAbbott?

WN:  If it’s gossip that bothers you, you’re in trouble, because there’s gossip everywhere, in little towns and big towns.  I was a elephone operator in Abbott back when they had telephone exchange operators.  My sister was really the one who had the job.  Whenever the oerpators would take a vacation, they would hire her to run the board, and I would ocme in and help her.  All the time I was sitting there, I’d be listening in to the conversations going on all over Abbott.  I tapped every phone in town!  I knew everything about the whole county.

ES:  What’s your earliest memory of Abbott?

WN:  Playing in the mud and the creeks and the water and the cotton patches.

ES:  Did you have any sense back then that there was a while other world out there, and were you intersted in seeing it?

WN:  No, I didn’t think there was a lot out there for me.  I was surprised when I left Abbott that there was another world out there, because I thought we had it all right here.  In a way, Abbott was a littlebitty picture of the whole world.  You had nice people, you had assholes, and you learned to live with them and like them and work with them.  I thought it wa a good education growing up there.

ES:  tell me about the house your family lived in.

WN:  the first one was down at the edge of town.  We had a house with a well where we got our water.  We had a garden we grew vegetables in. We had a hog pen where we raised hogs and cattle.  We had a barn where we fattened up calves.  I was with the Future Farmers of America, so every year I had a project.  I loved being outside.

ES:  Big house or small house?

WN:  Very small house.  My parents were divored when I was six monts old, so it was my sister and my grandparents who raised me.  My grandfather was a blackmith. I hung out with him every day in his shop.  After he died, we mvoed to another house just a couple of blocks to the north, and my grandmoterh started teaching school and cooking in the school lunchroom.  The house wa a little bigger and a little nicer.  It was right next to the church tabernacle, so we got religous services through the summer.  We were pretty well soaked in religion.

ES:  Did it take?

WN:  Yeah.  I realized there’s a highter power.  There’s somebody smarter than I am out there, and I’m not picky about who it is.  It’s like Kinky [Friedman] says:  “May the God of your choice bless you.”  If you’ve got one, you’re all right.

ES:  You’ve been back to Abbott a bunch of times over the course of your life, right?

WN:  I still go back a lot.  I just bought another house there — the doctor who delivered me used to own it — and we fixed it up a little bit.  That’s where I spend some time every now and then.

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without a Texas?

WN:  I don’t think so.  Texas suits me so well.  I love the freedom, the wide-opened spaces.  Now, a lot of people out there might say, “That’s a load of horseshit, because I live in Oklahoma, and we’re just as crowded as you are.”  I’m sure that’s true.

ES:  Is Texas a good place to make country music, or do you have to go to Nashville?

WN:  I went to Nashville becasue that’s where I thought you went to sell your product.  Maybe it still is.  Maybe you take care of your business in Nashville becuase that’s where the store is — that’s where they pay you off, that’s where your publisher and your record company are.  In my day, Nashville was were you needed to go to get some recognition, so I did.  And then, when my house burned up there in Ridgetop, Tennessee, I thought it was a good time to go back home.

ES:  Did it every occur to you while you were in Nashville that Tennessee had become your home, or was it always just another stop along the way?

WN:  Well, I have a lot of friends in Nashville and all over Tennessee, so it really was my home for a while.  But I always thought I’d probably go back to Texas one day.  I didn’t realize it would be sooner rather than later.

ES:  Do you respect the popular strain of country music that comes out of Nashville now?

WN:  I respect songwriters and musicians probably more than anybody.  It’s difficult dealing with the record company.  You’re supposed to be commercial today and tomorrow.  That was always one word I couldn’t get along with, “commercial.”  I never could fall into any of the categories that they would say were commercial.

ES:  Was there ever a point in your career when you thought, “I need to get with the program and figure out a way to be more radio friendly or album friendly or I’ll never be successful?

WN:  Never.  I always thought that If was having fun doing what I was doing and making a living doing it, then I was already successful.  I didn’t have any idea I’d be this successful, but the first night that I made money making music, I knew that I had succeeded.

ES:  Do you remember when that first night was?

WN:  I played rhythm guitar in a bohemian polka band in West, Texas.  It was John Rejcek’s band.  There’s no way he could have heard anything I did, but I would just sit there and play, make my mistakes ad move on.  I made $8, so I’ll never forget that.

ES:  How did you get the gig?

WN: He was from around Abbott, and he was a blacksmith, like my granddaddy.  We had a lot in common, I guess, and I think he just liked me.  I grew up playing with his kids.  He had sixteen kids, and they were all musicians.  Every one of them could play horns or drums or something.

ES:  Could you ever imagine having sixteen kids in your life, Willie.

WN:  There probably would have been sixteen wives and one Willie.

ES:  Who taught you to play the guitar the first time?

WN:  My grandfather taught me some open chords and taught me to play a couple of songs.  After that, I picked it up from various people listening to the radio and hanging out with other guitar players who happened to come by.

ES:  Do you remember the first song you learned?

WN:  The first song I learned was “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”  You ever hear that song?  [singing] “Show me the way to go home/I’m tired and I want to go to bbed.”  You remember a song called “Polly Wolly Doodle”?  That was another one I learned.

ES:  How old were you?

WN:  I was six when I started playing guitar, but I started writing songs when I was about five.

ES:  And your grandfather gave you your first guitar?

WN:  Yeah.  It was a Stella guitar, from Sears,Roebuck.

ES:  When was the first time you played by yourself?

WN:  I started a band when I got to high school.  It was me and my sister — she was a junior then — and a guy named Bud Fletcher, who she eventually wound up marrying.  I had my football coach in it; he played trombone.  My dad played fiddle, and we had a guy named Whistle Watson, out of Hillsboro, to play drums.  We were probably pretty bad.

ES:  And the name of the band was?

WN:  Bud Flether and the Texans.

ES:  Why not Willie Nelson and the Texans?

WN:  I was the guitar player and the singer, but I wasn’t really old enough to go out oand book the jobs. We but Bud’s name on it because we was the front man.

ES:  Was there ever a time when you thought you would end up dong anything other than this to make a living?

WN:  I always thought I would figure out a way to do it with music.  I knew I might have to do other things along the way.  Of course, I have had to do other things.  I was disc jockey, a vacuum salesman.  I got a pretty good education in that respect.

ES:  At what point did you no longer have to do those odd jobs to make enough money to live on?

WN:  When I started playing in clubs all the time.  It was harder to do a day job as well as play six nights.  So it kind of eliminated itself. I drifted over into the nighttime and got away from the salesman stuff that you have to get up early in the morning to do.  I couldn’t do them both for very long, so I finally gave up the salesman part.

ES:  What do you like about what you do?

WN:  I love to play.  I love to play to an audience. I love having good musicians around me.  I love the fact that we travel from one place to another.  That keeps it new and fresh every day.

ES:  You’re on the road an extraordinary amount of time.

WN:  Almost all the time.

ES:  What sort of music do you listen to on the bus?

WN:  I listen to XM satellite radio a lot because I can pick it up all the way across the country.  When you travel as much as I do, satellite is the most dependable thing.  You hear a song and think, “Wow, that takes me back.”  That’s the joy in listening to traditional music.  It’s like Trisha Yearwood said in her song:  “The Song Remembers When.”

ES:  Since you mention traditional music, there ought to be a Willie Nelson channel on satellite radio, if there isn’t one already.

WN:  Well, I do a radio show on XM channel 171 every Wednesday.  They call it Willie Wednesday.  I’m on with Bill Mack, my old disc jockey buddy from years and years ago.  When he was in Fort Worth, he was the Midnight Cowboy, but now that he’s on XM, he’s the Satellite Cowboy.  A guy named Eddie Kilroy also has a show on channel 13. I listen to that a lot, because you can hear Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and all that good stuff 24/7.

ES:  What happened to that kind of music?  Why has it been forgotten by so many people?

WN:  The bottom line is whatever’s commercial today, whatever’s selling.  And, you know, Hank Williams is dead, and Bob Wills is dead, and they can’t make any money off of them.  They move on to somebody else.

ES:  Do you have the bad feeling about the music business that a lot of people have?

WN:  No.  You might think, “Whoever is running this record coming is going to run it into the ground and ruin music” or “Whoever’s doing all these radio stations, they’re going to ruin music,” but I don’t think so.  I don’t see it.  I know a lot of guys who are doing it a different way.  In Austin there’s Sam and Bob.  They have a radio show in the morning over there on KVET, and they play great music.  And they’re at a Clear Channel station.  It just depends on the personalities.  Some stations will play good music and some won’t.

ES:  How hard must it be to play good music?

WN:  There are a lot of politics going on with a lot of those records you hear played.  The word “payola” has been around since I can remember.  I don’t remember anybody giving me any say, and I don’t remember paying anybody any, but I knwo it happens. Payola ain’t dead. It ain’t even sick.

ES:  Does it make a difference, really, if Willie Nelson moves product anymore?  Don’t they just want to have you on their label? You must get an exemption.

WN:  I don’t think anyone has an exemption.  I think maybe there might have been a time, years ago, when they carried you for a while even if you weren’t selling, but I don’t think that’s true today.  Even with the great guys, at some point the record companies say, “That’s it for you.”  They’re pretty cold-blooded; they’ll drop you in a second.

ES:  I bet you’ve probably been dropped at least once in your life.

WN:  Oh, I’ve been dropped and drop-kicked.  but I don’t mind it.  I’m just looking for a good label. I’m just looking for a fan.  If I can find somebody in the executive branch who’s a fan, then I don’t really are what label it is. I can figure out a way to make it happen.

ES:  Am I remembering correctly that you’re about to be 73?

WN:  Born in ’33.

ES:  A lot of people much younger than you would have already said to themselves, “You know something?  I’ve had a god career, I want to sit in a lawn chair and drink a beer.”

WN:  Well, I don’t like lawn chairs, and I don’t drink beer.

ES:  So you’re not tired of this life of yours?

WN:  I’ve been home [outside of Austin] now for a few days, and I’ve had a lot of fun.  I played some golf and rode my horse, but now I’m ready to go back out and play, ‘Whiskey River.’

ES:  How’s your golf game?

WN:  I lie so much that I don’t really know.

ES:  Can you get out there and beat the average person?

WN:  I really don’t like to play people I can’t beat.

ES:  Probably the same with chess.

WN:  The same with chess and dominoes. I love to play all those games.  I’m not a horrible golfer, but you know, the really good golfers can have their way with me.

ES:  Speaking of golf, you’re about to play in a tournament to raise money for Kinky’s campaign for governor.  Are you totally on board with his running as an independent?

WN:  I like what he says about himself.  He says, “I might not be worth a dam, but I’m better than what you got.”  I’m a farmer and a rancher, and I want to see agriculture do well.  I haven’t seen any help from either Democrats or Republicans on that front.  There’s plenty of blame all over the place.

ES:  Kinky has made so many joke about what your job will be in a Friedman administration that I can’t keep track of them.

WN:  The last offer I had was to be head of the DEA or the Texas Rangers. I’m not sure.

ES:  this is not the first time you’ve been involved in politics.  You campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during the last presidential race.

WN:  Right, I did back him.  I didn’t have any idea if he could win, but we felt the same about the war and oil.  I had to go with the guy I believed in.

ES:  You don’t cut George Bush any slack because he’s from Texas.

WN:  Hell no.  Being from somewhere doesn’t give you any rights.  I don’t have anything at all against the president personally.  In fact, I understand he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s said a couple nice things about me.  I’ve got nothing derogatory to say about him, but I do think he’s getting a lot of real bad advice.  The people around him who whisper in his ear all the time?  They’re not his friends.

ES:  I’m imagining what a kid — say, six years old or a little bit older — must think walking down the street in Abbott, and here comes Willie Nelson riding his bike.  It must be a total shock.

WN:  It’s not exactly like I sneak into town.  The last time I was there, we had two buses parked in the driveway with the generators going.  I’m sure everyone knew I was home.

Willie Nelson going strong (and fans can’t get enough)

Sunday, November 28th, 2021

At 88 years old, Willie Nelson is still going strong… and music fans around the world still can’t get enough.

A fixture of pop culture’s landscape since he helped lay the foundation of modern country music in the late 1950s—penning hits for the likes of Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Faron Young, and more—Nelson has become a “living legend” of sorts. Then, moving to Texas after becoming disillusioned with the Nashville scene in the early ‘70s, he forged a style and sound that remains beloved by folks from all walks of life—hippies, hillbillies, blue collars, and white collars, all alike… and now, you can even add “digital-age Zoomers” to that list of admirers.

That’s because Nelson’s work has a certain timeless quality that’s continued to resonate through all these years. Still touring, he frequently sells out multi-thousand-seater venues, often holding his own as the lone guitarist on stage (in fact, the only other harmony instrument in the group is usually piano, which is played by his 90-year-old sister, Bobbie Nelson). Beyond that, his records still do well too—with 5.6 million monthly listeners, his top tracks alone have accumulated hundreds of millions of streams… and that’s not even counting all the folks who listen to his songs on old CDs, vinyl records, and downloaded tracks from the pre-streaming days.

All this combined, it’s clear that there’s something about Willie Nelson that just makes him loveable… and maybe one of the biggest factors playing into that is his songs themselves. 

Tunes like “Always On My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” both capture a sense of love, passion, loss, and longing that, in a way, speaks to the currents of American culture at large. With unabashed candidness and sentimentality, Nelson embraces the image of the rugged country man while conveying an emotional and powerful sense of humanity. To that end, the dual nuance and simplicity of the tunes make them nothing short of works of brilliance. 

On the flip side, songs like “On The Road Again” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” accomplish the same feat, but from an entirely different angle. Embracing the rowdy, honky-tonkin’ tradition of his Texas roots, his more upbeat tunes have an air of inimitable humor, while still carrying a deeper meaning—a celebration of sorts of the culture from which he hails. 

And while Nelson is obviously a world-class songwriter, when he covers someone else’s tune, he can transform it into a wholly new entity, straddling the context of the original composition and his own canon of tune-smithing (as demonstrated by “Mamas,” “Blue Eyes” and “Always On My Mind”). Another one of his most beloved cuts is his version of “Rainbow Connection,” which came about as a tribute to Nelson’s own daughter, Amy.

Amy Nelson isn’t the only Nelson kid in the public eye, however—in fact, his sons, Lukas and Micah, are often the first to come to mind when thinking about Nelson’s grand musical family (in part thanks to their appearances at the majority of Nelson’s high-level shows). Lukas, 32, has made waves in Americana circles as the frontman and songwriter for Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real; Micah, 31, has made a name for himself as a proprietor of psych-y, alt-country with his project, Particle Kid. Both boys have joined their dad on stage numerous times over the years, mostly filling in the guitar parts with blazing solos and tasteful rhythm playing. 

With his dynasty of talented kin lined up and ready to carry the torch onward, it’s clear that Nelson’s legacy will continue to reverberate for years and years to come… but that’s not slowing him down while he’s still here. Playing shows and still recording new records, he hasn’t stopped pursuing his craft… and he hasn’t stopped his legendary use of cannabis either (though he did quit smoking in 2019).

“Willie does what he wants when he wants regarding smoking—there are numerous ways of consumption, he has not given up cannabis,” his publicist, Elaine Schock, told USA Today. In the same article, Nelson is quoted talking about how marijuana helped save his life: “I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old. I think that weed kept me from wanting to kill people. And probably kept a lot of people from wanting to kill me, too—out there drunk, running around.” 

And who knows—with his smoking days behind him and more musical projects ahead, Nelson could have a whole lot more time to continue growing his already massive legacy. At 95, Tony Bennett is still a household name and recently earned 6 Grammy nominations for his latest record with Lady Gaga. 

What’s definitely clear, though, is that there’s only one Willie Nelson, and no matter what, he will be a treasured icon of American music forever. 

Read article here.

Vintage Guitar Magazine (November 2017)

Sunday, November 14th, 2021

by: Ward

Mark Erlewine’s 40 Years with Willie Nelson’s Trigger

For a decade, Willie Nelson chased fame as a performer in the Nashville mold of the ’60s – hair coifed, striding to center stage at the Grand Ole Opry in sport coat and tie. Nelson had become one of country music’s most valued songwriters; Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is a Willie song, as are Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – a 1961 hit for Billy Walker but also recorded by Elvis Presley, George Jones, The Supremes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, and even as a duet by Linda Ronstadt and Homer Simpson.

photo: Lyn Goldsmith

In 1970, Nelson – 37 years old, freshly divorced, financially drained by tours, weary of culturally conservative Nashville, and having watched a fire destroy his house – moved back to his native state of Texas and a year later “retired” from music in a contract dispute with RCA.

In ’72, though, he moved from the small town of Bandera to Austin, where a new musical movement was taking shape. That August, he played the Armadillo World Headquarters club, a converted armory that had opened as a concert hall run by hippies who welcomed all types of music. Nelson was arguably the highest-profile player it had seen to that point, and his performance provided a considerable boost to the club – and the cause.

The effect was mutual. The appearance rejuvenated Nelson professionally and spiritually as he became one of the town’s musical “outlaws.” A counterculture version of country music, outlaw country used rhythms, instrumentation, and lyrical sensibilities that borrowed far more from rockabilly, honky tonk, and folk than Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers. Earthy and honest, it also countered Nashville’s glitzy “product” piloted by producers like Chet Atkins.

But even before fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser, and Kris Kristofferson were helping forge the path, an oddly repurposed guitar was helping Nelson forge his unique sound.

For years, Fender and Gibson had been giving guitars to Nelson – Strats, Teles, 335s, etc. – but things changed when, before a gig in Houston in 1969, a rep for piano maker Baldwin (which had also bought Gretsch in a decidedly late rush to become a player in the “guitar boom”) gave him one of its 800C acoustic/electric classicals and C1 Custom amp. A devout fan of guitarist Django Reinhardt, Nelson had taken to emulating the Gypsy-jazzer’s sound and style, and the Baldwin pairing – marketed for its ability to produce true acoustic tone – fit the bill.

The magic of Baldwin’s Prismatone pickup lies in a ceramic sensor under each string. Regarded as perhaps the best pickup of its kind ever made, it offers a full, warm tone that rarely feeds back.

After a couple years of bonding, tragedy struck when a fan (lore has it, inebriated) at a show in the San Antonio suburb of Helotes stepped on the guitar while it was laying in its case. Two members of Nelson’s band drove the guitar to Nashville for a once-over by pedal-steel ace and guitar repairman Shot Jackson, owner of Sho-Bud Music. After Jackson deemed the Baldwin crushed beyond repair, Nelson asked for advice on a replacement. With only minor modification, Jackson said the Prismatone would fit on a $475 Martin N-20 hanging in his shop, enabling Willie to keep using the Baldwin amp through its proprietary stereo cord. The installation set Nelson back an additional $275.

In their 47 years together, Nelson and Trigger have performed more than 10,000 concerts on stages around the world and recorded nearly 70 studio albums (beginning with My Own Peculiar Way  and including Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust) featuring an unequaled range of material – pop, country, Western swing, reggae, along with singer/songwriter gems like “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain.” Along the way, the guitar has been autographed by more than 100 artists who’ve shared stages with them, beginning with Leon Russell and including Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Gene Autry.

These days, they tour two weeks at a stretch and by the end of any given year play about 150 shows.

The task of keeping Trigger ready to ride has, for the last 40 years, fallen on Austin-based luthier/repairman Mark Erlewine, whose love for music started one day in 1958 when he and his brother took their pooled pennies to Moe’s Records and Candy store in Downers Grove, Illinois, to buy the Everly Brothers “Wake Up Little Suzy.” The rest of the summer was spent singing along and playing air guitar.

The boys’ father, John, worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and in 1961 moved the family to Brussels, Belgium. The cultural shift didn’t damper his sons’ love of music; instead of the Everlys, they listened to Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and later, The Beatles.

“There was music dribbling in from the U.S. – The Ventures, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and more,” said Erlewine. “And by the time we got back to the States in ’64, I was into soul and R&B like the Four Tops, psychedelic stuff like Jefferson Airplane and Jimmy Hendrix, along with urban blues by Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and Junior Wells.

Photo: Dianne Erlewine.

Having stuck with piano and clarinet lessons since age seven, at 14 his parents let Mark start learning guitar on a rented Stella archtop. Though it was the sort of instrument that discouraged many a beginner – poorly constructed, with cheap tuners and nearly unplayable string height – it spurred his knack to tinker.

“It was so hard to play that I was pretty much forced to lower the bridge and nut slots,” he said. “That sparked my interest in guitar work.”

Within a couple years, he’d bought a new Martin D-18 that stayed with him through high school. At 21, he jumped to pedal-steel and has played it since, including for years in traditional country and Western-swing bands. Today, he plays mostly in church and for benefits.

We recently spoke with Erlewine to get the details on the path that led to his place as a revered builder and tech.

Because Vintage Guitar readers are so familiar with your cousin, Dan, through his “Guitar Rx” column, we should describe the role he has played in your life.

Dan and I got to know each other as kids, when our families spent a few summers at our grandmother’s cabin in rural Indiana. Those were such great times, and I remember having so much fun running around and playing in the river with my five cousins including Dan and his brother, Michael, who were several years older than me.

Years later, when they formed The Prime Movers and started hanging with heavy-hitter musicians, their lives became a source of fascination for me; I looked forward to hearing about their exploits.

Beyond the experience with that cheap Stella, what spurred your interest in working on guitars?

It was born out of simply trying to find my way. I’d decided college wasn’t for me, so at 19 I moved to Ann Arbor to spend time with Michael, Dan, and their brothers Stephen, Phillip, and Tom. I went to work in their family’s store, Circle Books, and did odd jobs until I approached Dan about doing an apprenticeship. My father was a woodworker and I learned a lot from him, but when I started working on guitars, I felt like I’d found something I was good at, and enjoyed.

I apprenticed under Dan for about a year, then we became partners. After a couple years, he went back to work at Herb David’s music store, so I bought out his interest in the shop. In ’74, I moved it to Austin after my friend, James Machin, had moved there for a job and told me I needed to experience the “hippie country music mecca” – Armadillo World Headquarters, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, ZZ Top, and others.

What were those early days like in Austin?

I rented shop space on Guadalupe Street, by the University of Texas, and spent a few nights on the floor before finding a place to live. I’d plaster the street with small posters about my services. Part of my motivation for moving to Austin was that Gibson had approached me about starting a warranty service for them in the Southwest; Dan and I had friends in the repair shop at their factory in Kalamazoo. After I set that up, Martin, Fender, and Ovation asked me to do factory authorization work, which helped build my business.

Who were some of your first clients?

Initially, it was local players like B.W. Stevenson and Doug Sahm. When Albert King started playing the Armadillo, and later, Antones, I’d be called to do maintenance on Lucy, the Flying V copy that Dan had built for Albert while I was an apprentice with him; my role back then with Dan was mostly grunt work like sanding and rough shaping, but he let me help on Lucy and other guitars he made for Jerry Garcia and Otis Rush.

After “Austin City Limits” started filming up the street from my shop, I started seeing more high-profile players who needed quick fixes.

When were you introduced to Willie Nelson?

Poodie Locke, the road manager for B.W. Stevenson, had me keeping B.W.’s guitar in working order. When Willie hired Poodie, he started bringing Trigger for me to fix. In 1977, I was invited to meet Willie at a backstage bar in the Austin Opry, where he and the Family were holding court during a week-long stint. That was when he told me, “As long as this guitar keeps going, I’ll keep going.”

So, no pressure (laughs)!

While I’m honored to help keep Trigger up and running, I think of Willie as a unique force of nature in the world of music. He’ll outlive us all, one way or another (laughs).

What was the first repair you did to Trigger?

As I recall, it was trying to address the hole he was picking through the top. I started using various braces to shore it up.

What’s the most significant thing you’ve done to it?

Maintaining the top has been much of the focus, but all of the parts have needed work at some time. There’s damage to the body and neck from life on the road, and many of the frets are razor thin, but Willie doesn’t want those fixed. If he can plug it in, tune it, and play it, he’s happy.

Do you see it regularly?

Willie’s crew is charged with keeping it usable on the road, then they bring it in as needed when the band is on break. It most often just needs cleaning and re-sealing the top, and from time to time I have to glue loose parts, replace tuners, or fix the pickup, preamp, or jack.

Is that hole the simple product of a million strums, or is there something about Willie’s style or technique that contributed to it?

Willie loves Django Reinhardt’s music and plays aggressively to get that sound – it’s just from his fingernails and pick hitting the top.

Read article, see more photos at Vintage Guitar site here.

Country Music: Willie Nelson (October 1980)

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

by Bob Allen

After national exposure in a film with Robert Redford, and more recently, in a starring role of his own in Honeysuckle Rose, the quiet days are gone forever for the Red Headed Stranger… but who’s complaining?

Several months from now after the picture of Willie Nelson sitting on a wooden fence in front of a pastoral Texas outdoor scene has appeared as part of the promotional campaign for his recently released feature film, Honeysuckle Rose, only a few people will know where it was really taken: in the parking lot of a non-descript beachfront motel in the suburban outskirts of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But that is the reason why Willie is perched on a small “portable” Hollywood facsimile of a wooden fence on a patch of grass next to a busy dual-lane thoroughfare, in front of a Best Western Motel in this rather early, but very hot Sunday morning in Southern Florida.

The theory is that Willie Nelson doesn’t have time right now, in the middle of a tour, to come to Hollywood for this photo, so instead, Hollywood has come to him: A contingent of photographers and executives have flown in the night before and brought with them the pieces of the ready-to-assemble fence on which Willie is sitting. Later, back on the West Coast, through the wonders of modern photography, the photo of Willie will be touched up slightly; a bucolic scene of hay bales, moo-cows, horses and cowboys and cowgirls will be superimposed over what is now mere asphalt and parked cars. More fence will be stripped in, until it looks like that one little section on which he’s sitting stretches all the way to the Texarkana border.

Even though it’s only about 10:00 a.m., a small crowd quickly gathers. Cars that pass on the busy street honk their horns and the drivers lean precariously out with huge smiles on their faces, giving ol’ Willie the universal power sign of the raised fist.

“Hhhheeeeyyyy Willieeee!!!!!”

Willie smiles quietly at them and returns their acknowledgements with his own clenched and raised fist. It’s obvious he doesn’t mind being recognized like this. In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it.

But still, there’s something slightly incongruous about it all:Â dear old Willie, his slender, well-carried frame perched with a Best Western Motel behind him, cars whizzing by in front of him, and the hot Florida sun beating down causing beads of sweat to form on his brow, and under his freshly pressed cowboy shirt he’s wearing, while his air-conditioned tour bus sits idling a few yards away, ready to whisk him off to his next show, clean across the state in St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast.

Perspiration is also forming in the brows of the two young photographers. One of them appears to b uneasy about something. His camera stops clicking. He looks up at the sun, then looks at the ground and then looks at Willie. He is not happy with Willie’s tennis shoes.

“I think you should have boots on,” he decides after a long pregnant pause.

Willie, whose movements are slow and deliberate anyhow, looks down from his perch at the ground, then looks up at the sun. His eyes narrow into slits and he locks the photographer in a scowl that would send Charles Bronson running for cover.

“What makes ya think that?” he asks ever so softly.

The photographer backs off, throws up his hands in a conciliatory jester, “Well, it’s uh… it’s fine with me… It’s great…. if you’re comfortable with the image.”

“I am.”

Far from ever being replaced by cowboy boots, Willie Nelson’s blue sneakers will probably some day be set in bronze. Because here lately, travelling the road with him, one gets the distinct impression that the whole world is now waiting to embrace him just the way he is — blue jogging shoes and all. To steal an applicable phrase from the late John F. Kennedy, the quiet days are gone forever. When Willie’s on the road anymore, it’s nothing like the tours of earlier years when he could check into a hotel under his own name, and walk around outside the club before the show to kill time. Nowadays, as soon as he signs him name to a room service tab, it’s all over. Word spreads through the hotel that he’s cloistered away on the grounds and a quiet, hushed excitement spreads through the lobby.

And funny things happen. Like the time on an earlier date of this particular swing through the Southeast when Willie happened to check into the same motel where two busloads of kids from a high school marching band were staying. the students and their instructors got word from the hotel management that Willie was on the premises, and then proceeded to roll out their instruments on the front lawn and play a command performance just for him. Willie was so amused and delighted by it all that he returned the favor by sticking around to pose for snapshots and sign autographs.

Things like that just seem to happen to Willie everywhere he goes these days: give him the key to his city. (He was recently presented the key to one good-sized Southern metropolis by the mayor, only to later pass it on — with equal formality — to the nine-year-old sister of one of his soundmen who had come to see his show.) People line up to get their photos snapped with him and offer him the use of their houses for the weekend. During his stay at the beachside motel in Fort Lauderdale, a large speedboat called the “Hot Lick” was quitely placed at the disposal of Willie and his travelling Family. Several times when he set off to take his daily run down the beach, he was waylaid by well intentioned fans bearing joints and cold cans of beer.

Except for some weird scenes in the parking lot — where crowds inevitably gather around the four tour buses that haul Willie’s Family around the country as soon as they pull in — and backstage, where the “lunatic fringe” sometimes congregate. Much of the adulation for Nelson still remains more of a reasonably calm veneration than a dangerously heated frenzy.

Nelson’s own appraisal of his new role as a latter-day cultural hero is amazingly realistic — almost self-effacing. “It’s a big responsibility to know that maybe just one person might be influenced just a little bit by what I do,” he told me in his usual soft speaking voice one afternoon sitting in his tour bus as it carried him and his band through the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale on the way to a one-nighter at an auditorium in a town somewhere out near the Florida Everglades. “But to think there might be thousands is a little bit scary… especially when I don’t consider myself as that much of someone to pattern their lives after… But,” he adds. “I feel like I’ve made all the mistakes and I hope I’ve learned from them.”

An objective look at the present state of Willie Nelson’s nearly three-decade-long musical career indicates that he’s not only learned from the errors of his ways, but he’s in fact, gone a step further and turned them all into triumphs. For at least the last three years some journalists have been sublety predicting that his career was bound to peak any second now, and that it would be all downhill form there. But, the fact is, it just seems to be gaining more and more momentum — almost by the day.

In fact, throughout Willie’s entire organization, there is a strange new feeling during this late Spring tour. It is a feeling that things had reached a new level that everyone involved is just learning how to deal with. Security is tighter and the whereabouts of Willie at any given time is a well-kept secret. (Some members of his crew even wear t-shirts insisting, “I DON’T KNOW WHERE WILLIE IS!”)

Calculated strategies now have to be developed to get Willie swiftly through the choking backstage crowds and into his bus after the show. there seems to be shades of Elvis Presley everywhere, there are now hulking security men who keep watch over him from the shadows in back of the stage, all through his performances.

The point is, things have changed. Members of the band now find themselves being chased through hotel lobbies by teenage girls, and inside the auditoriums during the shows, there is a tense, restless electricity that just wasn’t there a couple of years ago.

“Goin’ out and openin’ for Willie on a show sure ain’t the easiest thing in the world,” singer/songwriter/comedian Don Bowman, a long-time Willie Nelson sidekick signs as he sits in the air-conditioned comfort of his hotel suite complete with a picture window over-looking the ocean, the morning after one such concert in West Palm Beach. “This tour’s been the wildest of all. It’s like…the crowds… Well, you saw ’em last night, up standin’ on the chairs before he even hit the stage.. The only thing there is to compare it to is Elvis.”

The electricity of his live shows, though, is merely the more obvious evidence of the fact that Willie Willie Nelson is in high gear, and clearly on his way to becoming a household word. He’s walked away with both the Country Music Association’s and the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year awards in recent months, and he’s selling more records than ever before. All of his recent albums, including Willie and Family Life, Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson and One For the Road (with Leon Russell) have reached either gold or platinum (million sales) status. His two most recent, San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price) and the soundtrack from Honeysuckle Rose, both headed right for the top of the country charts. During the mid-summer of this year, he had six different albums simultaneously in the charts.

Steve Brooks, artist, featured in Advocate Magazine

Thursday, October 7th, 2021
by: Rachel Stone

The Lee Park “massacre” launched Steve Brooks’ career.

Brooks, who grew up in Oak Cliff and now lives in Kessler Park, was still a student at what is now the University of North Texas in April 1970 when he made a poster to commemorate the clash between “hippies” and police at an afternoon concert that resulted in dozens of arrests.

His poster caught the attention of Jerry Schultz, the owner of the Gas Pipe, who hired him to make art and advertising for his business. Not long after, a Dallas ad firm hired him as an art director.

“I decided I didn’t need to be a student anymore since they made me an art director,” he says. “But that was short-lived because they went out of business a few months later.”

He eventually finished his degree, but not before landing a job as an artist for Concerts West and launching his own company, S. Brooks Graphics, in the summer of 1971.

Brooks produced hundreds of posters and handbills for concerts at a time when every major rock ’n’ roll outfit had to play Dallas because it was a hub of the vinyl record industry for the whole Southwest.

Concerts West, which still exists as part of AEG, closed its Dallas offices a few years later, but by that time, Willie Nelson was requesting Brooks. He’d seen the Lee Park Massacre poster too. Beginning in 1974, Willie Nelson and The Family became Brooks’ biggest client.

One of the first jobs he did for Willie’s company Me and Paul Productions was a minimalist poster for the Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs, depicting a pair of sneakers with spurs.

Brooks designed Willie’s logos, personal stationery, tour passes, IDs, ads, posters and basically anything that said Willie Nelson on it besides an album cover for years. He spent several months in Austin for the filming of Honeysuckle Rose, and he made all the props with Buck Bonham’s name on it for that 1980 movie, including the bus, T-shirts and posters.

“Those were some of the best times of my life, working on that movie,” he says. 

He traveled to Colorado with The Family band around the same time and painted a teepee for Willie.

“Willie Nelson was awesome,” Brooks says. “He always paid with cash out of his pocket.”

His boss at Me and Paul Productions was Paul English, Willie’s drummer and protector who handled most of the business for some 50 years. English, who lived in Dallas for about 40 years when not on the road, died in February 2020.

“He was a true gentleman,” Brooks says. “I miss him terribly.”

Besides his work for Texas’ quintessential singer, Brooks also made a place for himself in Dallas history with his work in Buddy Magazine and The Iconoclast, two publications founded by Brent Lasalle Stein, aka Stoney Burns.

For the early ’70s alternative newspaper The Iconoclast, Brooks drew, “hippie stuff,” he says. “Black and white cartoons. Sometimes advertisements for clients.”

Buddy started in 1973, and Burns wound up catching hell from the justice system for his journalism, but that is another story. He died in 2011.

Brooks says Buddy, a publication that’s still around, was a great place to work because it was like working for The Rolling Stone of Texas in the ’70s.

“He was a real character,” Brooks says of Burns. “Kind of like a Hunter Thompson, but a lot more tame.”

Musicians and music-industry people came through all the time, “and we threw some really great parties,” he says. “It was good times.”

Brooks is retired now, but he still does some work for the Gas Pipe, which he says has been one of his best clients over the years. He created the logo and signage and all the advertising you’ve ever seen for it.

He has donated some of his work to the UNT libraries, which has a collection under his name. And he supplements his retirement by selling some of his personal stash to serious Willie Nelson collectors.

Brooks graduated from Sunset High School in 1967. He and wife Deborah have an adult son, Bryan. Brooks’ dad, LaVere Brooks, was an architect who designed several homes and commercial buildings in our neighborhood.

He says he owes his career to the Gas Pipe and Willie Nelson, and he’s grateful to them both.

“The two major players in my life as an artist,” he says.

Willie Nelson – the Top Balladeer (New York Times) (September 9, 1981)

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

WHY is Willie Nelson, who wears his long, graying hair in braids, dresses like a hippie and was singing honky tonk music in Texas roadhouses as long ago as the l950’s, America’s most admired pop balladeer?

Kenny Rogers sells more records with his saccharine love songs and stagey whisky-rasp, and Frank Sinatra is certainly still a force to be reckoned with, but it is Willie Nelson who has turned chestnuts like ”Georgia on My Mind,” ”Stardust” and ”Mona Lisa” into recent pop hits, and Mr. Nelson draws a more diverse audience than either Mr. Rogers or Mr. Sinatra. The last time he performed in New York, pot-smoking rock fans were sitting next to middle-aged businessmen and their wives and a few grandmothers, and all of them were hanging on to Willie Nelson’s every word.

The release this week of ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” (Columbia records) offers some clues, both in the music it includes and in what it omits. On first hearing, Mr. Nelson’s dry, reedy tenor can sound deceptively thin, but listening to his hits back to back, one soon notices a sinewy strength that’s barely hidden behind his apparently vulnerable sound and casual delivery. One also notices that most of his hit records have used a sound, a kind of musical formula, that refers to several traditions, including country music, rock, folk and middle-of-the-road pop, without really belonging to any of them. Their most characteristic sound is a softly strummed acoustic guitar, a wailing harmonica played by his band’s most prominent soloist, Mickey Raphael, and Mr. Nelson singing, straightforwardly and with just a hint of melancholy, about faded loves, rejection in love, and men who are drawn to the open road and can’t seem to help themselves, men who live like cowboys not because they want to but because that’s what they are. A Land of Cowboys

Cowboys – there’s a clue. America needs its cowboys. There’s a cowboy in the White House, a cowboy who likes living on his ranch and gives press conferences with his boots on. There were latter-day cowboys in ”Urban Cowboy,” one of the most successful films and record-album soundtracks last year. There are more and more countryand-western clubs opening, and more and more city slickers in western shirts and boots to go to them, even in Manhattan. And Willie Nelson is a cowboy.

He’s still a convincing cowboy at the age of 48. He crisscrossed Texas for years, playing in roadside honky tonks. He peddled his songs in Nashville, and some of them, most notably ”Crazy” and ”Funny (How Time Slips Away),” became country standards. But record producers in Nashville didn’t think he could sing, and when he did get a chance to record, he was saddled with string orchestras and inappropriate material. By the time he finally became a full-fledged country star, in the mid-70’s, he had been branded an ”outlaw” by Nashville’s conservative country-music establishment, and although he has long since become a pop star, with a fistful of platinum albums and singles and several film roles to his credit, he still projects that outlaw image.

This is a curious thing. What one sees is an outlaw – a cowboy gone wrong. What one hears, especially on Mr. Nelson’s recordings of ”Stardust” and other standards, is a weathe red but reassuring voicesinging the old songs as if they really matte r to him, against a simple, folksy musical backdrop. Apparently, American pop consumers won’t buy records of songs like ”Stardust” when they are performed by entertainers who project an old-fashioned, sophisticated showbusiness image, but they will buy them wh en the singer is a longhaired, pot-smoking rebel.

The counterculture of the 60’s has become the mainstream culture of the 80’s, an d Mr. Nelson is the one American popular singer who gives the impress ion of being part of both the counterculture and the mainstream at the same time. Back to Honky Tonk

Interestingly, ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits,” a double album that includes two previously unreleased performances, has only one of his performances of pop evergreens on it -his hit version of ”Georgia on My Mind.” The rest of the album concentrates on hits that are clos er to country music and to country rock. There are several live performances recorded with his wonderfully idiosyncraticband, which l ayers electric guitars and back-country church-style piano over he avy bass and the two-beat cowboy drumming of Mr. Nelson’s long time sidekick, Paul English. There are tributes to Mr. Nelson’s honk y-tonk roots, including a fine reworking of Lefty Frizzell’s ” If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” and two numbers, ”Fa ded Love” and ”Stay a Little Longer,” that were associated wi th the late Bob Wills, ”King of Western Swing” and probably the most popular Southwestern entertainer or all time. Mr. Nelson’s most celebrated duet with his fellow country ”Outlaw” Waylon Jennin gs, ”Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” is here, too.

So ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” is really the best of Willie Nelson, country singer, an album for his hard-core fans. Perhaps he feels that with his albums of pre-World War II pop standards and his movie appearances, he has been neglecting the people who made his reputation in the first place. At any rate, he is still a winning country stylist.

And it is somehow reassuring, at a time when most country entertainers can’t wait to get that first pop hit and start wearing tuxedos and playing Las Vegas, to find one who knows who he is and what he comes from. Maybe that’s why his fans accept the long hair and the rumpled clothes; they are outward indications that no matter how successful he becomes, the inner Willie Nelson is not about to change.