Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Country Music (October 1980)

Saturday, October 10th, 2020

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.

Texas Monthly, “One By Willie” podcast

Saturday, October 10th, 2020
photo: Micah Nelson
by: John Spong

Read article here.

In our inaugural episode of “One by Willie,” a podcast celebrating the life and music of Willie Nelson, Grammy-nominated Americana singer-songwriter Margo Price takes a look at Willie’s number-one country hit from 1980, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” With senior editor John Spong, she explores the difference between writing a sad song and feeling the need to just sit and listen to one. From there, she goes on to describe what it was like to record a duet with Willie one of her own sad songs—and relays a dirty joke she learned from Willie himself. 

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Willie Nelson, landlord in Austin

Friday, October 9th, 2020
Photo: Scott Newton
by: John Spong

Read entire article here: Texas Monthly

This essay is part of a special project devoted to Willie Nelson where you’ll find more essays about the Red Headed Stranger, our new podcast “One by Willie,” and ranking of his 143 albums. Learn more about the special issue, too.

Most Willie Nelson fans know at least a little about his idyllic Hill Country world headquarters, home to his ranch, his golf course, his recording studio, and his Old West movie set, Luck, Texas. But lesser known in the lore is Willie World’s gritty urban prototype, a sprawling fourteen-acre complex Willie owned for much of the eighties in the heart of Austin’s city limits.

The property ran along South Congress Avenue near the now-famous Continental Club, barely a half mile south of what was then called Town Lake, stretching east from the intersection at Academy Drive. He’d bought it on the cheap, in 1977, when the strip was a no-man’s-land, light-years away from the tony tourist spot it is now; back then its main commerce was gun shops and streetwalkers. It was the perfect place for an outlaw to build an empire.

The anchor of the property was the Austin Opry House, a 1,700-seat hall run by the complex’s co-owner, Tim O’Connor. A onetime Willie capo who was bumped up to sweat-equity partner when Willie acquired the vast parcel of land, O’Connor was a music promoter from the old school, a gun-carrying hard case who turned the Opry House into Austin’s best eighties-era concert venue, a foundation for the Live Music Capital of the World moniker that the city would adopt in the nineties. The property also featured some empty South Congress storefronts, a roomy bar and grill favored by bikers and stray-dog guitar pickers, and, perhaps weirdly, some 230 flophouse apartments known unofficially as the Willie Arms. Many of the units were in two-story limestone-and-shingle structures that actually looked like apartment buildings, others were in dingy red-roofed bungalows ringed by live oaks, and all were occupied by exactly the kind of people you’d expect. Willie’s road crew—men with names like Poodie and Snake—had places to crash when Willie left the road. The Opry House staff got gratis abodes. Broke musicians dug the $65-a-month rent. Everyone there was a hippie, a misfit, or both, and none were afraid of a little dope. Some made their living off it.

Read entire article here: Texas Monthly

Willie on Weed (High Times, Oct. 2005)

Monday, October 5th, 2020

Willie on Weed
High Times Magazine
October 2005
by Richard Cusick

When it comes to grass, Willie’s fans divide into three distinct camps:  stoners like myself who view Willie Nelson as a sterling example of humanity; politically conservative country folks who dislike the pot thing but cry in their beers whenever he sings “Crazy”; and finally, fans who don’t smoke and don’t care, but remain mildly amused by Shotgun Willie’s outlaw ways.  So, unlike most marijuana activists, Nelson doesn’t preach merely to the converted.  Arguably, on the strength of his art and his living example, he’s helped change more minds about marijuana than any other American.

“They’re watching me,” Nelson acknowledges.  “I’m like the canary in the coal mine.  As long as I can remember the words to my songs and do a good show, they say:  “Well, it may not be affecting them so much.”

And so, despite incessant interview request, HIGH TIMES has always been treated like a red-headed stranger by the managers, press agents, record companies, road managers and assorted family members who get paid to look out for Willie Nelson’s best interests.  Frankly, I don’t think the man himself gave a shit one way or the other.  We were all waiting for the right moment to make it happen.  The release of Willie’s long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman, turned out to be the right moment.  One look at the cover art proved that.  There are actually two covers:  “One for Wal-Mart,” Willie noted, and one for every fan of the singer’s favorite plant — with a big pot leaf commanding the center.

It’s the hottest day of the year.  The temperature on the field of Prince Geroge’s Stadium in Bowie, MD, reaches triple digits, but the Bob Dylan – Willie Nelson show has attracted a particular rugged type of music fan willing to roast for hours in the sun to secure a good seat on the general admission lawn.  I’m scheduled to meet with the American music legend for an hour and a half, but a family member’s illness delays Willie by nearly an hour.  How to stuff 30 years worth of interview into 30 minutes?  My strategy involves breaking the ice by bringing the musician’s old friend Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, along for the ride.  Willie has been a member of NORML’s advisory board for 22 years, and so I assumed their reputations would precede me…

The familiar sound of his guitar floats softly from a state-of-the-art sound system shelved above our heads on board one of the world’s most widely travelled and legendary tour buses.  A copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography sits on the soft brown-leather couch in the front, while Willie holds court from a corner booth.  We will talk for the next 40 minutes without interruption — save for one very unusualy exception.

HT:  You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album.  How did that happen?

WN:  Ten years ago, I went to see Chris Blackwell when he was the head of Island Records in Jamaica, and we talked about putting out a reggae album, Chris loved the idea, but I also played him a CD I produced called Spirit, and he said, “I love Spirit.  Let’s put that out now and y’all go finish the reggae and then we’ll put it out.”

But they had a shakeup, and he left the label.  So for 10 years it kinda laid there, until the good folks after at Lost Highway picked it up and ran with it.

Keith Stroup:  Does the title Countryman refer to the ganja growers up in the mountians?

WN:  Yeah.  That’s right.

HT:  I’ve always thought reggae and country gospel are very similar, not in sound so much as in spirit.

WN:  The way the musicians tell me, reggae took off – Peter Tosh, Toots and those guys — was that reggae came basically from country music, from listening to the radio in the United States and hearing WSM play ’em some Grand Old Opry.  When they told me that, I started thinking about how country songs just naturally lend themselves to a reggae rhythm.

HT:  Does marijuana help your songwriting?

WN:  I wrote most of my good songs before I ever heard of marijuana or used it, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t slow down your writing.

HT:  Really?

WN:  Well, if you’re hungry or on edge and you’re writing, you could always just sit down and smoke a little joint and not worry about it.  But some things you need to worry about.

HT:  So taking that edge off sometimes isn’t a good thing.

WN:  Yeah.  You need that age.

(Bob Dylan quielty enters the front of the bus — Yes, really.)

WN:  Hey! Bob! (rising from booth)  C’mere.  (A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)Â

Bob Dylan:  They gotcha trapped.

HT:  We got him now.

BD:  I’ll come back.

WN:  All right.

(exit Bob Dylan)

HT:  You know, I named my daughter after than man!

WN:  You did?

HT:  We figured the name works for either a boy or a girl.

WN:  Yeah, that’s true.  Well, he’s a good guy.  Believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve seen him this tour.  We’ve been out two weeks.  He was gonna play some chess.  He asked me if I want to play some chess, so we can do it tomorrow or the next day.

HT:  I believe we were talking about songwriting.

WN:  I started writing songs a long time before I started smoking.  Well, I started smoking cigarettes when I was 4.  I started smoking something when I was 4.  Cedar bark, Grapevines, Cotton leaves, Coffee leaves.  I even tried Black Drop one time.

HT:  Black Drop?

WN:  It was an old laxative in powder form.  Cedar bark, I smoked that.  And then I used to raise hens, so I would trade a dozen eggs for a pack of cigarettes back in those days.  About 18 cents, I think.  About 18 or 20 cents for a pack of cigarettes.  Lucky Strikes.  Camels.

HT:  In your autobiography, you said that marijuana got you off cigarettes and drinking.

WN:  Yeah.  I knew I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided.  “Wait a minute!  You know, do what you can do.”  In the early years, I drank all the time.  Mainly before pot.  Up until then, I was into whiskey and uppers.  You know, that’s the deal.  Truck drivers had the bennies when they made those LA turnaounds, and all that stuff was going around.  All the guitar players had it.

HT:  Fred Lockwood.  He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?

WN:  Yeah. A Fort Worth musician.  That’s right.

HT:  Fred Lockwood was not only the first person to give you a joint, as I understand it, he’s always the guy who gave you the line.  “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure do Regret It.”

WN:  There was two.  There was Fred Lockwood and there was Ace Lockwood.  They were brothers.  Fred was the one who gave me the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I sure Do Regret It” and his brother Ace went and gave me a itty bitty little snuff can full of pot one time.

HT:  So that was your first ime around the block?

WN:  I played a club there, and we played together.  These guys were musicians, so we went over to their house, and Fred and I were playing dominoes.  That was the first time I ever smoked it.  I think I smoked it about six months before I ever got high.  And then, all of a sudden:  “Oh yeah –that’s what that is.”

HT:  Willie, you’re a musician known for making political stands.  Not every musician does that.

WN:  I’ve let my beliefs be known and they turned out to be political.  I didn’t start out taking any political stands — just taking stands.

HT:  You just think a certain way and…

KS…groups like NORML start using you politically.

HT:  You’ve also been out front about your use of cannabis for a long time.  Have you taken a lot of flak for it over your career.

WN:  Zero that I know of.

HT:  It’s amazing how you get buy.

WN:  Well, I got busted.

HT:  750,000 people got busted for marijuana last year.

KS:  Yeah, but none of them got busted because they slept on the side of the highway and then raised the “hand-rolled cigarette defense.” Which I don’t believe has worked for anybody else — wasn’t that it?

WN:  You can’t assume that a rolled-up cigarette in an ashtray, looking through the window, is a marijuana cigarette.

KS:  In Texas, in particular!  I think of that as the Willie Nelson Defense.

WN:  I thought it was brilliant.

KS:  I did, too.

HT:  I hope you don’t mind my blazing, but I’m about to see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan play.

WN:  You’ve gotta get there.

HT:  Well, I know you recommend moderation.

WN:  Moderation is always the key, even for pot.  You can over-do pot.  And it’s not for the kids… After they get 18, 21 years old, they’re going to try whatever they’re gonna try…

HT:  What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?

WN:  It costs more money.

HT:  People say it’s better now, but I don’t remember not getting high 25 years ago.

WN:  No, I don’t either.  You know, it’s kind of like sex — there’s none bad, but there’s just some that’s better.  I think our tolerance is pretty good, too.

HT:  I ususlaly stop for a month every year or so.

KS:  I usualy stop for a few days every now and then — because I run out.

WN:  I intentionally let myself run out every now and then.

KS:  A couple of days into that, I usually say, “Let me rethink that decision.”

WN:  Either that or one of the guys’ll bring me one and say, “Here, don’t you think it’s time?

Bringing It All Back Home

Sunday, September 20th, 2020
by: Al Reinert

This night life ain’t no good life, But it’s my life.” *

Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” more than fifteen years ago—before he’d even moved to Nashville let alone returned—and sold it for $150. Of all the songs he’s written—literally hundreds, including some great ones—it’s probably been recorded by the most performers, more than seventy at last count, ranging from B.?B. King to Rusty Draper to Frank Sinatra. A classic barroom lament, the sadly proud confession of a loner’s desperation, it touches everyone who’s ever clung to night in despair of the day.

Aretha Franklin’s version, Willie’s personal favorite, has a desolate uptown sound, bluesy yet brave, an affirmation reeking of pain and expensive gin. You can almost see her, all satin and ice, standing haughtily in the middle of Lenox Avenue and praying to the streetlights. Willie sings it from the roadhouse parking lot, empty gravel by the highway’s edge, wailing back at the neon challenge. He’s more defiant but less confident, his voice raw and a little dangerous, too many straight shots of bad liquor. In their different ways, you can tell, both performers have been there.

Willie, in fact, had been there all his life. Born a mere gospel shout south of Waco in 1933, raised by grandparents and assorted aunts, he played his first dance hall at the age of ten in a band with his sister Bobbie on piano and the local football coach on trumpet. It’s been night life ever since. He peddled Bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, pumped gas, joined the Air Force, scrubbed floors, disc-jockeyed, and dishwashed: the days, then, the days were barren and demeaning, forgettable failures one after another, a life to be denied. It wasn’t till the sun flared out and the neon flickered up, with Bob Wills calling everyone to “Dance all night, dance a little longer,” that life truly began.

By the mid-fifties Willie was living in Fort Worth and playing for beer or occasional whiskey in Jacksboro Highway honky-tonks. A regular Sunset Boulevard for rednecks, the Jacksboro strip is a single frenzied, five-mile-long barfight behind a facade of honky-tonks. Located just outside the city limits, far afield of law and property, it was a place where, in the years Willie Nelson was around, the management put chicken-wire fences in front of the stage so performers wouldn’t get hit by flying beer bottles. This was night life with a vengeance.

As the man said, though, it was his life—and he reveled in it. Aside from minimal aerial security he wanted his audiences as raucous and alive as he was, maybe even a shade reckless, as he also was. Willie Nelson was pure, unrefined redneck, and the honky-tonk is the vital focus of redneck culture—what the saloon was to an earlier Texas—the center of energy because of the very tensions it excites. If the honky-tonk world seems darkly colored with loneliness and loss—if it oftentimes ain’t no good life—then it’s only the moonlit image of the larger culture. And if anyone wanted to dance all night, then Willie was ready.

He started to write in the early Sixties, sold his first song, “Family Bible,” for $50, and saw Patsy Cline make it a huge success. He quickly followed with “Night Life,” a hit for Ray Price, then it was off to Nashville in a battered old ’41 Buick. In the next ten years Willie Nelson wrote some of the finest music in the country repertoire—“Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Yesterday’s Wine”—and commanded yearly royalties in six figures and a niche in the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

The crowd at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic in Gonzales in 1976.

His songs for the most part were typical country numbers on typical country themes, plaintive evocations of daily sorrows and sorry days, as simple and disquieting as classical tragedy. But subtleties emerge: there was never any pity in a Willie Nelson song, none of the banal hand-wringing so common to Nashville music; there might be anger, grief, confusion, even defeat, but never the surrender that pity implies. Nor is there any blame, another cheap refuge for small minds and bad art; Willie Nelson was, is, forever will be a rank male chauvinist, yet even his most painful divorce songs refuse to throw stones. He is a songwriter of grace, sensitivity, and compassion, qualities as rare in that profession as in any other.

He is not what you’d call sophisticated, either in his lyrics, his melodies, or his ideas, but sophistication has never been a hallmark of the country tradition—or, for that matter, of American art in general. On the surface Willie’s styling is relentlessly ordinary and everyday like a Japanese haiku, but the real measure of his songs is the truth of perception and the depth of our recognition. Any metaphor, however commonplace, that can vault cultures with a single insight, that can intersect Lenox Avenue with the Jacksboro Highway, is nothing less than powerful art.

It was Willie’s flawless misfortune, though, to arrive in Nashville just when the Snopeses took over and the grits turned to mush. Hankering after the torpid but lucrative pop market, country music abandoned honky-tonks for Harrah’s in Tahoe: it became “easy listening music,” shallow vocals floated in vanilla arrangements, all strings and no sting.

Willie’s songs made the transition of course. They seemed to work everywhere—not even Andy Williams could ruin a song like “Funny How Time Slips Away”—but Willie himself never made it. He was just too rowdy and real to ever make a credible nightclub act. Over a dozen Willie Nelson albums were released during his Nashville years, usually showcases for new songs, and they all disappeared as soon as a few “stars” had covered the tunes. He’d had a modest hit when he first got to town, his own “The Party’s Over,” but that was the only one. And it was a dozen years before he’d have another.

Willie casting his footprints and handprints during an in-store appearance promoting Red Headed Stranger at Peaches Records, in Atlanta, on October 28, 1975.

And all the while it was on the road, restlessly migrating to the next inevitable honky-tonk in a long stoned blur of neon BEER signs, freeze-frames in the night life. There were bad debts, deals, dreams, failed promises and marriages, and lots of folks who wanted to dance all night.

It’s been rough and rocky traveling
But I’m finally standing upright on the ground,
After taking several readings
I’m surprised to find my mind’s still fairly sound,
I guess Nashville was the roughest
But I know I’ve said the same about them all.
We received our education
In the cities of the nation,
Me and Paul 

I met Willie Nelson on a Saturday afternoon in March 1970 when I wandered into Roy Evans’ living room in Austin and found this quiet little man perched on the back of an armchair, his feet on the cushion, strumming an apparently prehistoric guitar. He was wearing gabardine slacks, a tacky yellow Robert Hall’s shirt, and seemed terribly shy. I’d been told he was a “famous country songwriter,” which didn’t impress me—I was a graduate student then, very young and superior—but I liked him from the moment we shook hands and he smiled at me: it’s what everybody first responds to in Willie, that tremendously embracing smile. His hair was still pretty short in those days, no beard yet either, and his face was plain bad luck and lumps. He looked to be the quintessential cedar-chopper except, I noticed, for the tiny gold ring piercing his left ear.

His home in Nashville had burned down a few months earlier, the only things rescued with a mad dash into the flames being his guitar and his dope stash. Willie was passing the winter on a deserted Bandera dude ranch with his family and The Family, his odd coalition of flunkies and friends. He did a lot of writing that winter, some of the best he’d ever done, including the sharply introspective roadsong “Me and Paul,” about himself and his twenty-year sidekick, soulmate, and drummer, Paul English. Drawn irresistibly and practically nightly to Hill Country dance halls and honky-tonks, he was slowly rediscovering Texas, taking some readings, finding himself.

He found himself in Roy Evans’ living room because Evans, then the state AFL-CIO president, had recruited his old buddy Willie to play a benefit concert for Ralph Yarborough, the labor-backed U.S. senator who was campaigning for reelection. And I was there to help promote the benefit. I’d never heard of Willie Nelson, but Evans assured me his fans were legion within the ranks of organized labor.

This was a somewhat exaggerated claim, I suspected, but it proved sufficiently accurate to surprise me. George Meany couldn’t have attracted a better crowd. None of the union members had to pay, however, and since not much of anyone else came, the benefit was sort of a loser. There definitely weren’t any “hippies” in attendance, not with all those hard hats around. The hottest single on the country charts that winter was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s cheap broadside against dope-taking, free-loving, flag-burning hippies. Virtually a redneck anthem, the song was everything a Willie Nelson song was not: petty, self-righteous, strident, the musical version of a Spiro Agnew speech. Though in certain respects a more talented musician than Willie, Haggard lacked all those personal graces that make the difference between talent and art. Without the sensitivity to achieve insight he relied instead on posturing and pretense, his song such a parody of itself that barely six years later it’s already become a nostalgia item, and probably an embarrassment. Willie’s songs, by contrast, invariably carry the same power of perception as they did when they were written.

But what really struck me about Willie Nelson, that first time I heard him, was that he’s one helluva guitar-picker. Not a virtuoso in the manner of Chet Atkins, say, or numerous other Nashville technicians, he’s rather a stylist possessing an original, identifiable signature. Closer to blues than standard country, more fluid and less rhythmic, it’s a richly intoned sound with a faint upbeat embellishment, almost a flamenco trill, a hint of anomalous whimsy like the ring in his ear. Willie was still pretty much of a honky-tonker back then, but his concert generated all the energy and intensity of the best rock ’n’ roll with generally greater spontaneity, and it trashed all my smug illusions about country music.

They were obsolete illusions in any case. The official Nashville brand of country music was quickly fading into pale, languid stupor, suitable for funerals or the Johnny Carson show. When Willie went back that summer he attempted to stir up some excitement, or at least some trouble, but Nashville keeps its stars on short leashes and his kept getting jerked. Johnny Carson just wasn’t Willie’s idea of night life, so after a fruitless, frustrating year he decided to quit Nashville entirely—about the most radical decision you can make in the country music business—and moved to Austin where his sister Bobbie lived.

Playing around Texas he began to notice occasional, presumably audacious longhairs infiltrating his familiar honky-tonk crowds and became intrigued. He looked around some more, played for and with some of them, and sent word back to his fellow Nashville troublemakers that these kids might have the makings of a fair country audience. An unlikely alliance was about to be joined.

The basic cultural distinction between rednecks and hippies, Willie once observed, is that “whiskey makes you feel like fightin’, and marijuana makes you feel like listenin’ to music.” And so long as that’s all there was to it, Willie figured he could handle things: he was a recognized authority, after all, on the whiskey-and-fightin’ scene, and he’d been fairly well acquainted with the marijuana scene ever since helping his folks plant it in the cornfields south of Waco. It was merely one more approach to all-night dancing, and that was OK by Willie. He even started letting his hair grow.

And when he showed up in New York to record an album for his new label, he brought his road band along with him. It was the customary practice for a rock ’n’ roll band but a brash departure for a country singer, whose backup support virtually always is provided by studio musicians. It was the first album Willie ever enjoyed any degree of personal control over, and it came out sounding more raucous and rowdy, more like his live performance than any recording he’d done before. The album was Shotgun Willie and it was a runaway hit.

Willie in a recording session with backing vocalists Larry Gatlin, Sammi Smith, Doug Sahm, and Dee Moeller in New York City in February 1973.

He celebrated the album’s release, and also his fortieth birthday, with a full-dress performance at Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin’s answer to Caesar’s Palace, in April 1973. Three months later came Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, and within the year there were landmark albums from Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Michael Murphey, Doug Sahm, Kinky Friedman, and a veritable studio-full of Austin sidemen. It was the beginning of something.

“Well I’m wild and I’m mean,
I’m creatin’ a scene, I’m going crazy.
Well I’m good and I’m bad,
And I’m happy and I’m sad,
And I’m lazy.
I’m quiet and I’m loud
And I’m gatherin’ a crowd . . . ”

It’s all happened so quickly: “redneck rock,” “progressive country,” “Austin music,” “Texas music”; whatever it is, it sure got here in a hurry. Austin hasn’t had a unifying obsession like this since 1969, when the Longhorns were national champs. Of course there’s a lot of posturing and pretense involved, silly mooning over Outlaws and such, the embarrassments of parody. But there’s also a lot of vitality in Austin right now, and vitality is the essential ingredient for producing new art. And Willie’s in the forefront, the vanguard. His latest single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a 1945 tune reworked from his boyhood band days, recently became the biggest crossover country hit since Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” And The Red-Headed Stranger, the album it came from, won a Grammy for best country album in 1975. The Fourth of July Picnics are front-page news, and the national journals, musical and political, have tried to figure out who Willie is and what his music means. Texas has always provided the cutting edge of country music, nothing new about that, but it took Willie to transcend Nashville and bring it back where he started.

Willie Nelson interview in Entertainment Weekly, (September 18, 1998)

Friday, September 18th, 2020

photo:  Laura Farr
by:  Jeff Gordinier

Willie Nelson reaches across the table and whispers four soft words: “It’s good for you.” His brown eyes are shining like sunlight on the Rio Grande. His voice is rustling like wind through a wheat field. And between those burlap knuckles of his, well, he’s got a joint as fat as a rope.

It all feels like Luke Skywalker taking the lightsaber from Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can’t say no.

So I don’t. I inhale. Deeply. Which probably isn’t the smartest journalistic strategy in the world, considering that my life’s experience with ganja consists primarily of a couple of pathetic coughing fits in college. The thing is, there’s something so gentle about Willie Nelson, so utterly blissful and reassuring, that climbing into his tour bus feels like stepping into the lost ashram of a Himalayan mystic. Just the sound of his laugh can lower your heart rate. Besides, it’s late in the afternoon, and Willie’s tiny office on the bus, the Honeysuckle Rose II, is already so banked with sweet herbal fog that a plane wouldn’t be cleared for landing. A puff or two won’t make any difference, right?

It’s a busy day, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Willie’s supposed to ride the highway up to Boulder, Colo., to play songs from his haunting new album, Teatro, for radio station KBCO and a packed house at the Fox Theatre. Plus, he’s just been named a Kennedy Center honoree, alongside entertainers like Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black, so people keep calling the bus to congratulate him.

If anyone deserves an official blessing from the United States government, why not Willie Nelson? He wrote national anthems like “Crazy” and “Night Life” and “On the Road Again.” He’s saved Nashville from its cheesiest impulses with albums like Red Headed Stranger and Spirit and Stardust. His voice is seared on the American landscape as indelibly as the voices of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. Besides, he’s done a guest spot on King of the Hill. “For me, Willie is what you’d imagine an elder would be like in native mythology,” says Daniel Lanois, Teatro’s producer. “Without saying too much, he projects an aura that just makes you feel good to be around.”

But there’s a fantastic irony here, too, when you think about a bunch of Beltway Babbitts squeezing into their tuxes and clinking their champagne flutes to the original Nashville outlaw, a man who’s wrangled with drug laws and the Internal Revenue Service, who’s crisscrossed miles of conservative highway with his beard and ponytails and beatific smile intact, who’s spent a large portion of his 65 years whispering four soft, subversive words to the stress-battered American people: It’s good for you.

“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie is saying, “because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer you’re going to hell. And by 7, I was gone.” Thus resigned to eternal damnation, Willie came up with the only spiritual approach that made sense: There’s nothing to hide, and nothing to get too upset about. “If you get up thinkin’ everything’s gonna be wonderful, you’re gonna find out somethin’ happened that wasn’t that wonderful,” he says. “And if you think everything’s gonna be terrible, then you’re gonna miss what was good. So there is a little bit of Zen in there: You shouldn’t be too elated at the good things, and you shouldn’t be too depressed at the bad things.” Not since Butch Cassidy has somebody so defiant been so laid-back about it.

You can ask Willie anything, good or bad, and he’ll respond with that sagebrush laugh and a flash of those muddy-river eyes. The night in 1970 when he dashed into the flaming eaves of a burning house to rescue a pile of pot? “A guitar and the pot,” he gently corrects me. The night when he walked out of a Nashville bar and stretched his bones in the middle of a busy road? “I was pretty drunk, but I do remember it,” he says. “It was one of those Russian roulette things, you know? You really didn’t give a damn, and yet you did. Just before the truck woulda hit me, I’d have said, ‘Why did I do that?’”

I ask whether it’s true that the first of Willie’s four wives tied him up and beat him purple as punishment for a drunken binge. Willie not only verifies the story, he muses over the method of bondage. “I think there were sheets stitched together, and then jump ropes to secure them,” he says. “Then she packed all of my clothes and left. So when I finally got out of the sheet, all my clothes were gone.”

The father of seven (and grandfather of seven more) waves toward a beautiful woman sitting toward the back of the bus. “This is Lana, my daughter,” he says. “Her mother was the one in that story you asked about.”

“I might’ve been 4 or 5,” says Lana, now 44. “She left us in the car waiting while she hit him with the broom. And she came runnin’ out and threw the broom on the porch and jumped in the car.”

And…how did you feel?

“Well, I hated to see Daddy get beat up with a broom!” she laughs whimsically. “But if my husband came home drunk, I might do the same thing.” “And,” Pop chimes in, “if he’d done it on more than one occasion.”

Willie gave up booze years ago—”To me, alcohol is not positive,” he says–but he’s been smoking weed since 1953, when a fiddle player in Fort Worth first passed him a joint. “It wasn’t a big deal back in the early days in Fort Worth,” Willie insists. “Most of the law enforcement agents were smokin’ pot. They’d bust other people, get the pot, and we’d sit around and smoke it. They realized it was a bad law, but they were makin’ the best of it.”

Texas troopers may be a bit more zealous these days, but whenever there’s a head-on collision between Willie and various statutes and ordinances, it seems like Willie’s the one who comes out unscathed. Four years ago he was arrested when police found him and a joint cuddling in the backseat of a Mercedes; pretty soon the charges were dropped. “There was no cause to give me any problems there that night, because I wasn’t botherin’ nobody,” Willie explains. “When it’s foggy and you’re tired, you pull over and go to sleep. You shouldn’t be harassed by the police department.” Eight years ago the IRS saddled him with a massive burden of back taxes—$32 million—but Willie struck a deal with the feds to whittle down the debt, paid off the rest, and moved on.

It’s been that way since Abbott, the lean Texas town where he baled hay and picked cotton as a kid. “We had no law in Abbott. There was nothing illegal,” he recalls as the Honeysuckle Rose II rolls through the strip malls and cheeseburger troughs of the New West. “I’ve kind of brought Abbott with me.”

In the front of the bus is a TV. CNN is blasting the news that Bill Clinton has bombed outposts in Sudan and Afghanistan—an event of weird significance for one of the stars of Wag the Dog. Willie asks if I want to watch a video. I suggest he might prefer to catch up with the military showdown instead. “The war’s about over, probably,” he laughs. “We’re gonna miss the whole f—in’ war, just goin’ to Boulder.”

Willie may come across as the un-Clinton—he’s inhaled, he’s fooled around, he doesn’t lie about it—but he’s actually quick to forgive Slick Willie his amorous misadventures. “I think any male on the planet will have sympathies for where he’s at,” he says. “Most of us can withstand everything but temptation. And a guy who’s bombarded as much as he is, as president? Most presidents are too old to worry about s— like that!” As for his own battles with temptation on the road, Willie and his crew long ago came up with an official policy: “We leave town early.”

Keeping on the move has always been a Willie trademark. Daniel Lanois is such a sonic perfectionist that it often takes him months to cut an album, but when the Grammy-winning producer of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball hunkered down in an old California movie theater to record Teatro, it took…four days. Which is not to say it feels tossed off: A spooky flamenco hayride of a record, Teatro proves that after 213 albums over the course of four decades, Willie Nelson is hitting another moment of creative fervor. “I’m so used to making records where one has to labor, it sort of caught me by surprise,” Lanois marvels. “Willie really trusts first takes.”

Eventually Willie and I do watch a movie, an upcoming made-for-CBS Western called Outlaw Justice. My critical faculties are fairly warped at this point, but I think Willie and Kris Kristofferson play old gunslingers who team up to avenge the death of a fellow desperado, played by Waylon Jennings.

After a few minutes Willie picks up the phone. “Hey, Waylon,” he says. “I just watched you die again in that movie.”

Maybe it’s the thin Colorado air, but by now the phrase mile-high has taken on a new meaning. Suddenly I have come to believe that Willie Nelson is a great American sage, that sculptors should carve his saintly visage into Mount Rushmore, that Outlaw Justice is a cinematic masterpiece, that…er…uh, dude, could you pass the potato chips?

People Magazine (September 1, 1980)

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

People Magazine
September 1, 1980
by Cheryl McCall

Before he ever imagined the high life, the whiskey nights and the Bloody Mary mornings to follow, Willie Nelson yearned for the road and its promise of freedom.  As a Texas school boy, chopping cotton for $1.5o a day, he listened to the gospel songs of the field hands and daydreamed about moving on.  “I didn’t like picking cotton one bit,” he recalls.  “I used to stand in the fields and watch the cars go by and think, ‘I want to go with them.’”

Today, nearly four decades and a million miles later, Willie, 47, continues to heed the call of the highway.  Overtaken by success a mere five years ago with the release of his album Red Headed Stranger, he simply picked up the tempo and put his foot to the floor.  Once branded an outlaw by Nashville’s rhinestone-encrusted music establishment, Nelson has lately become an inadvertent and unassailable national monument.  No one really objected when Willie dropped a lyric from The Star-Spangled Banner at the recent Democratic National Conveniton.

Since Stranger went platinum in 1976, Nelson has added two more platinums, two double platinums, four golds and a whole atticfull of Grammys and Country Music Association awards.  Currently, with seven LPs on the charts plus his new double LP Honeysuckle Rose, Willie has taken his guitar and his low-key persona and is trying his hand at being a movie star.

As he tells it, his starring role as Buck Bonham in Honeysuckle Rose is one he could play almost from memory.  “I never did know you had to the trained to have your picture made,” drawls Willie.  “Maybe that’s the whole point — not knowing anything is maybe better than just knowing a little.  Besides, I can sympathize with Buck,” he adds. “He’s a married guy who succumbs to temptation on a potholed highway.  I’ve been that route myself.”

It shows.  On-screen, Willie projects the same earthy sex appeal and relaxed masculinity that give his life performances tension.  His face is as brown and creased as a walnut, the reddish hair and beard dusted with gray.  But the camera dimisses the etchings of age and lingers instead on the soulful brown eyes and the effortless smile.  When Nelson is teamed with Dyan Cannon, who plays his lusty wife, Viv, in Honeysucke Rose, the movie crackles with high voltage.  “Willie does it like a real person, which is what an actor is supposed to do,” says the film’s director, Jerry Schatzberg.  “He’s very natural in the love scenes because he’s had a lot of experience there.  The man’s been married three times and he knows what he’s doing.”

While Honeysuckle Rose borrows freely from the singer’s nomadic, loosely plotted existence, the unabridged script of Willie’s life story is part Grapes of Wrath, part contrified Battle of the Sexes.  Children of the Depression, Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, were raised by their paternal grandparents in dusty little Abbott, Texas after Ira and Myrle Nelson divorced.  While Bobbie learned piano from her grandmoteher, Willie was given his first guitar at 7 by his grandfather, a blacksmith who took mail-order music lessons.  When the old man died the following year, Willie kept his ear to the family’s wooden Philco radio, learning as many Grand Ole Opry songs as he could.  “He’d pick up things just like that,” says Bobbie.  “His ear is so fantastic, he doesn’t even know how good he is.”

Graduating from high school at 16, Willie left the cotton fields for a job as a disc jockey.  “When I found myself singing over the radio, I didn’t think life got much better than that,” he recalls.  For a while it didn’t.  He joined the Air Force in 1950, but was discharged with a back injury.  Afterward he enrolled at Baylor University, but spent most of his single semester there playing dominos.  

Dropping out, he was earning as little as 50 cents a night with a local band when he met and married Martha Matthews, a 16-year-old Waco carhop, in 1952.  “She was a full-blooded Cherokee.”  Willie recalls, “and every night with us was like Custer’s last stand.  We’d live in one place a month then pack up and move when the rent would come due.”  By 1958 Willie had three children to support.  He made ends meet, after his fashion, as a plumber’s helper and a door-to-door salesman, while working nights playing his songs in the honky-tonks.

The Nelsons drifted to Nashville in 1960, about the time their stormy marriage was nearing its end.  Martha resorted to bartending, while Willie hawked his satchel of songs on Music Row and drank up the profits at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge.  In what turned out to be her final gesture of compassion, Martha had to rescue Willie from a drunken suicide attempt when he sprawled in the street outside Tootsie’s and waited for a car to run him over.

 The last night of their marriage was even more garish.  “I came home drunk,” Willie remembers, “and while I was passed out, she sewed me up in a sheet.  Must’ve taken her two hours.  Then she got a broomstick and started beating the hell out of me.  I woke up in this strait jacket, getting pounded like a short-order steak,” he continues.  “By the time I got loose, she’d lit out in the car with the kids, her clothes and my clothes.  There was no way I could follow her naked, and that was kind of the end of it.”

That was about the time his intensely personal, offbeat laments began turning into hits for better-known singers.  Night Life (which Willie had sold for $150), Crazy, Hello Walls and Funny How Time Slips Away all cracked the country Top 20 by 1963, and soon he was earning $600 a week in composer royalties.  (His own renditions weren’t selling then, because producers kept smothering his reedy baritone in syrupy strings.)  Over the years Nelson has composed more than 1,000 songs, while successfully avoiding the old Nashville formulas.  “I’d say that 99 percent of what I write has come from my own experience,” he says.  “A person could probably start from my first song and go all the way to my last and — if he knew what to look for — write my autobiography.”

Several painful chapters were inspired by his second marriage, to country singer Shirley Collie.  Husband and wife sang, recorded and traveled together until settling down on 200 acres near Nashville in 1964.  There Willie blew a small fortune fattening hogs (“I bought them for 25 cents a pound and ended up selling for 17”) while performing at the Grand Ole Opry.  When Willie hit the road again to recoup his losses, he left Shirley at home to take care of his kids.  Both drifted into smashing up cars, drinking, drugs and infidelity until the marriage simply died of neglect.

Still, Willie wasn’t destined for bachelorhood.  Even before the divorce from Shirley was final, he had gone ahead and married his present wife, Connie Koepke Nelson, 36, a factory worker whom he’d spotted during a club date in Cut and Shoot, Texas.  “When Willie came out to sing,” she remembers, “he looked down and smiled.  It wasn’t a flirty look, just a warm, neat feeling.  Before the night was over he asked for my phone number, and the next time he came through Houston he called.  I went to the show and that was it.”

By 1970 Shirley had moved out and Connie had moved in, but Willie’s career was going nowhere in Nashville.  Then his house caught fire.  “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” Willie remembers, “but I had this pound of Colombian grass inside.  I wasn’t being brave running in there to get my dope — I was trying to keep the fireman from finding it and turning me over to the police.”  Willie saved the grass, but lost more than 100 tapes of songs he hadn’t yet recorded.  Still, out of the ashes came a sense of relief and a determination to abandon Nashville for Texas.  Installing his family in Austin, Willie bought a used Greyhound bus and began touring the county fairs, dance halls and violence-prone bars where he was known and loved.

Just as Merle Haggard was topping the charts with his hippie-baiting Okie from Muscogee, Willie — never a slave to fashion — began sporting long hair, a beard and and earring.  With fellow outlaws like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker, he began forging the gritty Austin sound that finally brought him success as a singer.  Within six months of its release in 1973, the LP Shotgun Willie outsold all his previous albums combined; he was inducted int Nashville’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame; and his first Fourth of July picnic draws 50,000 rockers and rednecks to the little hamlet of Dripping Springs, Texas.  Creative control over his recordings brought Willie a string of hit LPs that hasn’t been broken, and later led to his first movie role — as Robert Redford’s manager in The Electric Horseman.  Five more film commitments await, at a reported $1 million per roll, but Willie insists he’s not going Hollywood.  “I like making movies,” he said, “But it’s confining, and I don’t like to go too long without playing concerts.”

Willie and his extended family of 25 musicians and roadies average 250 days a year on tour, traveling in a convoy of three customized buses and two semis of sound gear.  Though he could comfortably afford to fly to his concerts, the bus is a kind of spiritual haven.  “I rest better because there’s no phone,” he explains, “and traveling is a big part of my life.  I haven’t seen much of the country, but I’ve been all over it a thousand times, just laying in the back with the blinds drawn.  I guess it’s the perpetual motion I like.”

Backed by what may be the highest paid band in country music (members earn $750 a night — $1,000 for cutting an album), Willie’s roistering performances always start on time and usually run through 54 songs.  Then he shrugs off his battered Martin guitar to sign autographs for perhaps another two hours.  Whether he’s playing Caesars Palace (where he’s paid $1.5 million a year) or a little Bible Belt fair, Willie’s accessibility is his immutable trademark.  “He just can’t say no to anybody,”  Connie says.  “I’ve seen Will so tired he can’t go any further.  Then someone will ask one more thing from him and he’ll do it.  He doesn’t ever want anybody to think that success has changed him.”

In some ways, of course, Willie has changed.  Though he and his sidemen continue to graze on $3, 500-a-pound Arkansas grass (“Most people smoke to get high,” says a friend.  “Willie smokes to get normal”), he has sworn off pills and cut back on his whiskey.  He offers no apologies for the marijuana (“I think most sensible human beings know it’s not something you send people to the penitentiary for”) but forbids the use of any other drugs — especially cocaine — by his band.  “If you’re wired,” he says simply, “you’re fired.”

Despite his new found willingness to set commonsense limits, Willie’s most powerful addiction is to life on the road.  “It’s been a strain on Willie and me to an extent, but we’ve never had trouble between us, ever,” reports Connie.  “I don’t worry about the women.  I trust Willie completely.  But sometimes I feel that he doesn’t need me.  He’s got the road and he’s got his life.  It’s real easy to feel pushed aside.”  This summer Connie and the kids have been touring with Willie — a visible rebuttal to stories linking Willie with actress Amy Irving, his adulterous interest in Honeysuckle Rose.  “Amy and I were friends during the movie and I hope we’re still friends.” says Willie.  “Anything more is only what people wanted to write about.”

There was a time when Willie’s definition of a successful performer was “anyone who got to play music and eat.”  Today he says, “I have all the material things I need and a couple I don’t.”  When their life in Austin became oppressively public, he, Connie and their two children moved to Colorado in 1977.  There Willie can hang his hat in a three-story chalet on 60 acres near Denver or at the family’s 64-acre Pedernales Country Club outside Austin, an 80-unit apartment complex, the 1,700-seat Austin Opry House and the previous Nelson residence — a 44-acre spread with $750,000 limestone ranch house hidden behind a wall topped with electrified barbed wire.  Around Nashville, his holdings include a music publishing company and 200 acres outside town.

Inevitably, becoming a man of property, as well as the father of five, grandfather of six and paterfamilias to a musical entourage, has given Willie a sense of responsibility that is occasionally burdensome.  “I’m not worried about the next car payment,” he says, “But I am worried about income taxes.  A lot of families (including numerous ex-in-laws) depend on me, and it’s a lot of pressure in some ways.  But we’re making more now than we ever did, so at least if I decide to hang it up for a couple of months, nobody’s going to starve to death.”  Shouldn’t his success entitle him to be a little more sanguine?  “Maybe,” he says.  “But I still get knocked off my feet like anybody else. I’ve had so many ups and down in the last 30 years that I’ve learned to live with both.  The successes are great, but they’re not going to last forever.  And I’ve come back from a lot of failures.”


Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly

Friday, August 28th, 2020

Good job, Janis from Texas! Prioritizing the Texas Monthlys with Willie Nelson ont he cover. It’s really the only magazine they need to carry this month.

Texas Monthly

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

Willie Nelson, on the cover of Utne Reader (August 2013)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

We should all be this cool

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020

Willie Nelson on cover of Texas Monthly (again) (August 2020)

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

When Texas Monthly set out to create a special issue celebrating Willie Nelson, we knew it wouldn’t be enough just to assign new stories, comb our archives for favorite old profiles, or even rank and review all 143 of Willie’s albums. So we reached out to some two dozen of Willie’s longtime friends, fans, and collaborators and asked them to share one favorite Willie story. From “Whiskey River” writer Johnny Bush’s memory of a portentous moment on tour with Willie back in 1962 to current producer and songwriting partner Buddy Cannon’s description of what it’s like to work with Willie right now, this collection of anecdotes offers an inside look at what Willie’s like when the spotlight shuts off.

Johnny Bush

is a singer-songwriter from San Antonio who played drums with Willie’s road band in the sixties and later wrote “Whiskey River,” which became Willie’s signature show opener.

Willie had really come into his own as a songwriter [by the early sixties], and he put a band together to go out and play. It wasPaul Buskirk on guitar, Jimmy Day on steel, Shirley Collie singing with him—before they got married—and myself on drums. And we were going to play two weeks at the Golden Nugget in Vegas. This was the big time.

The guy running the Golden Nugget at the time was named Bill Green, and he sent his flunky down to the motel. I was sitting on the floor in Willie’s room when he came by, and he said, “Mr. Green wants the big guitar player”—that’s Buskirk—“to play on the right side of the bandstand. And he wants the girl singer onstage at all times; he doesn’t want you calling her out.” And he had several other changes he wanted Willie to make. When he was finished, Willie said, “Are you through?” And the guy said, “Yes.” And Willie said, “Then go tell Mr. Green that my show is going to stay like it is, and my career will survive—with or without the Golden Nugget.”

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I nearly fainted. This was our big break, the Golden Nugget. I’d already gotten to thinking about all the money we were fixing to make, and it was flying right out the window. Had it been me, I would have agreed to every one of those changes. They weren’t that bad. But that’s just Willie. It’s the way he is now, and it’s the way he was when we were driving around the country in a ’46 green Ford with the gas tank on empty.

Jeannie Seely and Willie during a recording session in Nashville, circa 1999.

Jeannie Seely

is a singer-songwriter whose biggest hit, “Don’t Touch Me,” won a Grammy in 1967. Her weekly radio show, Sundays with Seely, airs on Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM, Channel 59.

When Willie was recording for Liberty Records in L.A. in the early sixties, I was working as a secretary at the record label. One of my jobs was to rent out office space in the building, and Willie took some because he wanted to open a West Coast publishing office. I’d go up there on my lunch hour and tell him where all the studios were, answer any questions, help him any way I could.

Years later, he was working on a movie script—he still insists he’s going to get it done one of these days—and he read a part to me that was set in that old office. I just looked at him; I was so surprised. And he said, “Well, you didn’t think I’d forget, did you?” No, Willie Nelson doesn’t forget anything.

About ten years ago, I lost my home, my car, and everything in the big flood in Nashville. The Opry was flooded too, so really, I lost two homes, and I ended up being all over the news. The Associated Press came down and talked to me, and so did some TV reporters. They showed my beautiful Martin guitar, just destroyed, on top of a pile of stuff.

One of the first calls I got was from Willie. He said, “Well, I saw on the news that the flood floated your mailbox away. So where do I send my check?”

Willie and Charley Pride at the Soap Creek Saloon in Austin, in 1976.
Willie and Charley Pride at the Soap Creek Saloon in Austin, in 1976.

Charley Pride

is recognized as country music’s first African American superstar. According to legend, when the two men played a show together in Texas in 1966, Willie moved to preempt any hostility from the audience by walking onstage and planting a kiss on Pride’s mouth. Pride went on to have 29 number one country singles and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

I don’t know of any artist who was against me because of my uniqueness in the business.The thing that caused me a lot of harm back then was that club owners were afraid to book me. They said they didn’t want any incident. I’d tell them, “I’m in complete agreement with you on that.” Eventually, they decided they could put me on shows with bigger artists like Ray Price or Buck Owens, and just push me out there. At first, the audiences would be shocked. RCA hadn’t released any pictures of me; the audience didn’t know what I looked like. But the minute I started singing, it didn’t make any difference.

Willie was big in Texas, so we booked some package shows down there, and that’s when he gave me The Kiss. He always says it was at Dewey Groom’s Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, but I remember it being at a Rodeway Inn down near Austin. And to be honest, I don’t know if it helped with the audience or not. I know nobody got mad about it. But I told him at the time, “I’m going to get you back one day.”

And he just kept telling the story everywhere, to everybody. “I kissed Charley, and he liked it.” Well, I don’t remember it being that good. But you know Willie. He throws all those little things in there like that. Finally, I got even. Years later, we were playing Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, and I said, “I’ve been waiting for this,” grabbed him, and kissed him. Then on his birthday this year, April 29, I sent him a present with a note that said,“Happy birthday, but I don’t think I need any more kisses.”

Don Roth and Jan Reid

The Coming of Redneck Hip,” adapted from the archives: November 1973

Ten years ago Willie Nelson wore business suits for his national television appearances; for the April 7, 1973, Armadillo World Headquarters audience in Austin he was a little looser: boots, beard, cowboy hat, and gold earring. Nelson may look different, but except for the addition of some rock licks and lyrical references to Rita Coolidge’s cleavage, his music hasn’t changed all that much. His old songs—“Hello Walls,” “The Party’s Over,” “Yesterday’s Wine”—still evoke memories of beery nights and jukeboxes, but they blend nicely with the newer, more upbeat numbers. Onstage, Nelson accepts praise with an irresistible smile, yet never lets audience enthusiasm interfere with his standard act, a nonstop, carefully rehearsed medley of his own tunes.


As remarkable as Nelson’s act that night was his audience. While freaks in gingham gowns and cowboy boots sashayed like they invented country music, remnants of Willie’s old audiences had themselves a time too. A prim little grandmother from Taylor sat at a table beaming with excitement. “Oh lord, hon,” she said, “I got ever’ one of Willie’s records, but I never got to see him before.” A booted, western-dress beauty drove down from Waxahachie for the show, and she said, “I just love Willie Nelson and I’d drive anywhere to see him . . . but you know, he’s sure been doin’ some changin’ lately.” She looked around. “I have never seen so many hippies in all my life.”

The crowd kept pressing toward the stage, resulting in a bobbing, visually bizarre mix of beehive hairdos, naked midriffs, and bare hippie feet. An aging man in a sport coat and turtleneck stubbed out his cigar and dragged his wife into the madness, where she received a jolt she probably did not deserve: a marijuana cigarette passed in front of her face. A young girl, noticing the woman’s discomfort, looked the woman in the eye, and took another hit.

But Nelson’s music relieved any cultural strain that developed beneath him. He played straight through for nearly two hours, singing all his recorded songs, then starting over. They handed him beer, threw bluebonnets onstage, yelled, “We love you, Willie”—a sentiment he returned when he finally called it quits: “I love you all. Good night.” A night that for many had been a sort of hillbilly heaven, though Tex Ritter would have undoubtedly taken issue with the form.

Don Roth is the executive director of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, University of California–Davis. Jan Reid is a longtime Austin journalist and author of the 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, among others.

Richie Albright

is Waylon Jennings’s former drummer.

When Waylon played the Armadillo for the first time, all these hippies and cowboys were just screaming. We had never had a response like that. Waylon turned around and said, “Somebody go get that little redheaded son of a bitch. What’s he got me into?”*

*Excerpted from “That ’70s Show,” by John Spong (Texas Monthly, April 2012).

Ray Wylie Hubbard on stage with Willie Nelson during a set at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in Luckenbach in 1999.
Ray Wylie Hubbard on stage with Willie Nelson during a set at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in Luckenbach in 1999.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

is a singer-songwriter who lives in Wimberley. He has released eighteen albums, starting with 1976’s Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies.

Geno McCoslin was a promoter in Dallas who booked Willie in the Western Place in the early seventies. But when Willie grew his hair out, the Western Place fired him. It was right about the time Shotgun Willie came out, and pretty soon, Geno opened a place called 57 Doors. About eight blocks from there, he had a house where he’d put bands up and have parties. I’d never met Willie, but I knew Geno, so I was at that house one night—with a dancer in one of the bedrooms. All of a sudden, the window opens, and this guy comes crawling through. He says, “I forgot my key,” and just walked on through. Well, I came out a little bit later and saw him, and he said, “Man, I’m sorry,” and I said, “Wait, you’re . . . ” And he said, “Willie Nelson.” And I said, “Oh, okay. You’ve grown your hair out.” That’s the first time I met him.

After that, I started hanging out with him. I had an apartment in Dallas, with one of those deals where visitors would call from the gate, and you’d buzz them in. About three o’clock one morning, it starts going off. So I say, “Who is it?” and then I hear, “It’s Paul English, Poodie Locke, and Michael Gene Schroeder, let us in.” Paul, of course, was Willie’s drummer. And Poodie and Michael Gene were part of the road crew. But if you asked them what they did, they’d always say, “We’re Willie’s liaisons.”

Against my better judgment, I let them in. They came up and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, nothing.” They said, “We’re going to a beer fest in Milwaukee. Butfirst we gotta meet Willie and the bus in Garland at six a.m. We got three hours to kill, so we thought we’d come visit.” Then at about five a.m., Paul says, “Come on, Ray, come with us to Milwaukee.” I said, “Man, I can’t. I’ve got tickets to see the Eagles. There’s this girl I’m trying to sleep with who loves the Eagles.” And Paul goes, “Ah, you don’t want to see the Eagles. They sound just like their records.” Next thing I know, Michael, Gene, and Poodie pick me up, carry me down the stairs, take me out to Garland, and we get on this old bus.

It was Willie’s first bus. He called it the Time Tube because, as he explained it, “When you get on there, time passes somewhere else.” So now I’m on my way to Milwaukee, and I noticed this stick, about the size of a pencil, hanging on twelve inches of string from the ceiling. Willie goes, “That’s our magic stick.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. It tells us what we need to know. If it’s wet, it means the bus is underwater. If it’s on the roof, that means the bus is upside-down.” I said, “Okay.”

It was a pretty wild ride. The term back then was roaring. Bee Spears [Willie’s bass player] or somebody would say, “Let’s roar, Hubbard!” and that’s what we’d do. So we roared all the way to Milwaukee, they played the beer fest, then we started roaring back home. And it got so crazy that when we hit Chicago, I saw that Jerry Jeff was playing a club there. So I told Willie, “Let me out here. I need to go hang with Jerry Jeff. You guys are killing me.”

Steve Earle

is a San Antonio–born singer-songwriter, author, actor, and political activist.

Willie Nelson moving back to Texas saved my life. I used to get my ass kicked pretty much every day in high school. I had long hair and cowboy boots. I got my boots stolen a couple times because the rednecks didn’t think I was supposed to have them. I got my hair cut with a pocketknife. I was a target for people like that. But when Willie moved back, suddenly I was standing in a cow pasture with guys who used to kick my ass, listening to the same band.

I knew who Willie was before a lot of them did because I went to Holmes High School, which is about eleven miles from John T. Floore’s Country Store [where Willie played regularly during the sixties and seventies]. And my high school biology teacher was George Chambers, who had one of the best country bands in San Antonio. He never got a major label deal, but whenever he went to Nashville, he would stay with Willie at his place in Ridgetop. And Bee Spears was from Helotes and went to Marshall High School, which was about five miles from Holmes. I knew Bee. I knew all those guys. So I knew about Willie.

But Shotgun Willie was when I focused in and realized I needed to have that stacked on my record changer with ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. And I was at the Dripping Springs Reunion. I was at the first Fourth of July Picnic. I hitchhiked to the Abbott Homecoming show.

I saw him play a dance hall in Pasadena when I was eighteen, in 1973. This was relatively early in the whole thing with hippies and rednecks being in the same place to see Willie. And Pasadena was rough. The local Ku Klux Klan clubhouse—and it was a clubhouse with a f—ing sign on it—was in Pasadena. The Klan was famous in those days because they blew up [Houston community radio station] KPFT’s transmitter twice. I think they’d decided KPFT were communists or pro-Jew or something.

The rednecks got to the show first, and they sort of hung back for a while. Then the hippies came in and sat on the floor to listen. When the music started, the rednecks start dancing, and they’re kicking those kids sitting in front. Willie stopped the show in the middle of a song and said, “There’s room enough for some to dance and some to sit.” That chilled it out.

And that’s Willie. Whatever else is going on, he’s serene. He knows he’s Willie Nelson, and he’s pretty comfortable with that. That gets a lot of s— out of the way.

Chet Flippo

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Willie,” excerpted from the archives: September 1975

Country music, if you believe all the critics who have misread a recent movie called Nashville, is made up entirely of smarmy concoctions of drink, divorce, Fundamentalism, and other cheap, unchic subjects. Country musicians, if one subscribes to Nashville’s credo, are perhaps one generation removed from cave dwellers. Their primitive musical instincts reveal themselves in cretinous tunes that parallel their wretched lives lived out in an alcoholic daze.

Country music sometimes may reflect such a life—but it is much, much more in the hands of its few truly gifted songwriters. The best of them is a man named Willie Nelson who has recently recorded an album so remarkable that it calls for a redefinition of the term “country music.” The difference between Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and any other current C&W album is astounding. What Nelson has done is simply unclassifiable; it is the only record I have ever heard that strikes me as otherworldly. Red Headed Stranger conjures up such strange emotions and works on so many levels that listening to it becomes totally obsessing. The world that Nelson has created is so seductive that you want to linger there indefinitely.

Chet Flippo was the first stringer for Rolling Stone to be stationed in Austin.

Bobby Earl Smith

played bass in Austin’s original progressive country band, Freda and the Firedogs, and is a former criminal defense attorney in Austin.

Joe Gracey [program director at Austin’s KOKE-FM] and I went by [sound engineer] Phil York’s studio in Garland. As we pull up, Bee Spears walks out looking all beat-up. He’d been living in there with Willie for days. He said, “I’m going back to Austin.” We walk in, and Phil says we’ve got to hear what Willie cut. Now usually, when you’ve just wrapped something, you’re sick of it, you don’t want to hear it for a while. So we said sure. He said, “Let me back it up. You have to hear it from the beginning. It tells a story.” When it got to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” I almost fell on the floor. I thought, “God, that’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Gracey started playing the s— out of it on KOKE, especially “Blue Eyes.” And that song started getting played all over the country. Here comes the legitimacy that’s always been just out of reach. Willie’s got a hit. A monster hit. Everybody loved “Blue Eyes”—in farming communities, everywhere. Suddenly it didn’t matter who had long hair.

Mickey Raphael

has been Willie’s harmonica player since 1973.

Red Headed Stranger was recorded live. Willie said, “I wrote this album, this concept record.” And we hadn’t heard it till we went in there and he started playing it for us. I mean, the tape machine’s rolling the whole time. That’s really why it’s so sparse, because we’re just kind of listening and learning the songs. I don’t think we played them but a couple of times, and we did it in two days. We were all just mesmerized by what he was doing.**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!,” by Michael Hall (Texas Monthly, May 2008).

Rodney Crowell

is a Houston-born singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville.

I remember being at a guitar pull at [UT football coach] Darrell Royal’s house not long after Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic in 1973. I was just a shy 22-year-old with a few songs that were pretty good, and I think Mickey Raphael goaded Coach Royal into asking me to play something. So I played “Till I Gain Control Again.” Willie didn’t really indicate what he thought at the time, but a couple years later, I heard he’d started playing it in his live show. I felt like I was knighted as a songwriter.

Flash forward to early 1978. Willie was recording at Studio in the Country, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and I was living in Los Angeles. One day, a plane ticket came in the mail, with a note that read, “Come on down to Bogalusa and help us record ‘Till I Gain Control Again,’ Willie.”

So I flew down to New Orleans and got picked up and taken to the studio. It’s pretty far out there, down at the end of a long gravel road with open fields on either side. And as we drive up, I see this Camaro out in the middle of this field, just cutting doughnuts and spinning around as fast as it could. I said, “God, what’s going on out there?” The driver said, “Guess who’s driving that car?” I had no idea. “Bee Spears, maybe?” He said, “No, that’s Stevie Wonder.” And I said, “Oh, this is gonna be fun.”

It wasn’t long before we recorded my song. Willie sang it so beautifully, and he played this breathtaking guitar solo. I added some harmony and that was it. It was like, wow . . . I don’t know what could be any better than that.

I took a reel-to-reel tape of it back to L.A. and played it for all my friends. I told them, “This is going to be Willie’s next big thing.” But time went by, and it wasn’t released. His next record was Willie and Family Live, and he did a version of “Till I Gain Control Again” on that. Frankly, it wasn’t nearly as nuanced as what we did in the studio, but that version never did come out. And I’ve lost my reel-to-reel copy.

But that’s just the way Willie rolls. I’ve never known anyone who was so in-the-moment.

[Editors’ note: The album Willie recorded in Bogalusa was, in fact, released in 1991 as The Hungry Years by Sony Music Special Projects. Texas Monthly sent a copy of that version of “Till I Gain Control Again” to a very grateful Crowell.]

Waylon Jennings, with wife Jessi Colter, holding the braids that Willie gave him in celebration of his sobriety, circa 1984.Courtesy of Jessi Colter

Jessi Colter

is a singer and Waylon Jennings’s widow. She had a number one country hit in 1975 with “I’m Not Lisa.”

I’ve got so many Willie and Waylon memories that it’s hard to weave them into one story. Willie came over for a songwriting session at Southern Comfort, our old home in Brentwood, Tennessee, one day in 1978. Our basement had just flooded, and a geologist had determined the house had been built on top of a spring, so a contractor was jackhammering the patio to dig twelve feet down and reroute the water. Willie just sat in the living room, unfazed and smiling, like he didn’t even notice the demolition crew blasting away. And then he and Waylon wrote “I Can Get Off on You.”

In October 1982, Waylon and I had taken a house in Malibu for a month. He went out for a walk on the beach and about an hour later returned with Willie. There was no mention of how he just happened to find Willie out there, but they came in and Waylon said Willie was staying for lunch. Waylon left the room for a few minutes and came back, didn’t see Willie anywhere, and asked, “Where’d he go?” I said, “He is sitting on the kitchen floor coloring with [our son] Shooter.”

There were so many great moments like that. At the sobriety party that Johnny and June Carter Cash gave Waylon when he got off drugs, Willie had cut off his pigtails and sent them to Waylon for his sobriety gift.

George Strait

is George Strait.

I played golf with Willie a couple times. The first time was at the tournament he hosted each year with Coach Royal, the Darrell and Willie Invitational. It was at Barton Creek Country Club and it was me, Coach Royal, Willie, and [legendary pro golfer] Chi Chi Rodriguez in a foursome. Willie went first and hit a bad drive, so he immediately took a mulligan—which was funny, because there were no mulligans. But hey, it was his tournament. So, we got to the green and Willie had a really long putt for maybe a six. He asked Chi Chi to give him a read. Chi Chi looked at it from both sides then walked over, picked the ball up, tossed it to Willie, and said, “It’s too hard. You can’t make it.”

Ray Benson

is the founder and leader of Austin western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

Once, we were out playing golf, and I said, “Man, you oughta go take a lesson. Your golf swing sucks.” And Willie said, “If there’s a right way to do things, I’ll try the wrong way first. Every time I did it the right way”—like in Nashville—“nothing happened. When I finally did what I thought was the right way”—and here he was talking about “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which everyone else thought was the wrong way—“everything fell into place.” So, you know, just trust yourself and follow your instincts.**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Bee Spears

grew up in Helotes and was Willie’s bass player from 1968 until Spears’s death in 2011.

We play golf anytime we have a day off. We plan our bus routes around the golf courses. The only reason we’re playing music now is to support our damn golf habit.**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Neil Young, Willie, and John Mellencamp at the 1985 Farm Aid.

John Mellencamp

is a rock star and a member of the Farm Aid board of directors.

In 1985, before the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois, Willie and I rode together in his tour bus to the press conference a couple of days before the show. There were hundreds of reporters there, and we spent a long time talking and answering questions. I felt like the press conference was over, so I went back to the bus; Willie stayed and talked and signed autographs. I waited for about an hour. When he finally showed up at the bus, I said, “Nelson, what have you been doing?” He told me, “Something you should think about doing: paying attention to the public and your fans.” It was a teachable moment.

Michael O’Brien

is an Austin photojournalist who shot the photograph of Willie that appeared on the cover of the May 1991 issue of Texas Monthly.

I got to know Willie when he was shooting Red Headed Stranger at his ranch in Luck in 1986. Life magazine sent a writer, Cheryl McCall, and me down there to document him making this movie, and we stayed for thirty days. Every morning, Cheryl and I’d go pick him up at his ranch house. It had a wraparound wooden porch, and he’d always be sleeping out there, in a ratty old sleeping bag, in his running shorts. We’d honk, Willie would rub the sleep from his eyes, invite us in for a cup of coffee, and then ride with us down to the set. He was always incredibly generous with us.

A couple years later I needed to shoot him for National Geographic, and that’s the image that was used for the Texas Monthly cover. When I asked if I could take his picture, he said, “Well, I don’t think we’re doing anything tomorrow afternoon.” I’d told him I wanted to do it at sunset. And he said, “Oh, I love watching the sun go down.”

I set up on a little plateau right below the ranch house. I’m always nervous before shooting someone, and when he showed up—right on time—I told him, “I don’t want to screw this up.” But he was completely relaxed. He wanted to know what I’d done since Red Headed Stranger. Then we started talking about one of his roadies, Ben Dorcy, who I’d met on the movie set, and what a great storyteller Dorcy was. Willie asked if Dorcy’d told me about working for Johnny Cash. He said that once, when Johnny left his hotel room, Dorcy took all the furniture out of Johnny’s room and brought in furniture from a completely different room to freak Johnny out when he came back. For a good while, we just talked and laughed like that.

And then I shot his portrait. He was already a mythical American figure, so I needed to make a portrait that had the intensity and stature of the man. I wanted to keep the focus on his face. It’s almost like a landscape, with mountains, canyons, valley, shadows, and darkness. There are a lot of miles on that face. And really, nothing more was needed than having Willie completely focused into the lens.

Willie and Bill Wittliff on the set of Red Headed Stranger in 1985.Michael O’Brien

Sally Wittliff

is the widow of Austin writer Bill Wittliff, who wrote the screenplays for the Willie movies Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarosa, and Red Headed Stranger.

After the IRS had come in and taken over Willie’s studio, put locks on the doors and all that, Bill called Willie and said, “I am so sorry.” And Willie said, “Oh, I don’t care about any of the stuff in there.” Bill said, “Well, there’s that Indian headdress that the Hopi tribe gave you.” And Willie said, “That’s in there?” And Bill said, “Yeah, it’s over in the back corner.” Then Bill said, “And that great guitar that so-and-so gave you?” Willie said, “That’s in there?” And Bill said, “Yeah. It’s over on the counter.” And then Bill went through about five or six other things, and got the same reaction from Willie each time: “That’s in there?”

Next day, we open the paper and there’s been a break-in at the studio. And the things that were taken were the Indian headdress, the guitar, and all the things Bill had mentioned to Willie.

Willie and Kimmie Rhodes performing at a Fourth of July Picnic in the 1980s.

Kimmie Rhodes

is a singer-songwriter who lives near Pedernales Studio in Briarcliff.

After Willie bought the country club outside Austin [in 1979] that became Willie World, a bunch of us—Willie’s friends and folks who worked for him—ended up living out there. My husband, Joe Gracey, and I built a house just down the hill from the studio that Willie put in the old golf course clubhouse. David Zettner [Willie World’s resident visual artist and utility string player] had a house on the river. And there were also some condos near the studio, with people in them like a guy we called Computer Bob, who taught us all how to turn on computers, and another named Bucky Meadows. His job was to look after the studio, but when Willie was in town, he liked to pick with Bucky and Zettner. Bucky played guitar like Charlie Christian. He was brilliant. Willie always said Bucky was “between hits.”

Willie had a condo, and he had Zettner paint a big oak tree on a wall that stretched out onto the ceiling. Willie would pitch a tent in there to sleep under the tree.

It was just so much fun, especially when Willie’d drag us into whatever he was up to. Like the Cowboy Channel [a satellite-television channel that Willie started in 1990, which broadcast fifties- and sixties-era country music shows, along with old Hollywood westerns and original programming produced in Willie’s studio]. It was all very organic. We had all this wood that had been brought down from Willie’s old barn in Abbott, and one day we nailed a bunch of it up on the wall in the living room of one of the condos to be a backdrop for broadcasts.

So one night I had a gig at the Broken Spoke [the Austin honky-tonk]. It was my birthday, which happens also to be the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, so Zettner had painted this giant Alamo mural to put onstage during my show. I finished the gig and got everybody paid at around one a.m., at which point we—me, Gracey, Zettner, and Bucky, who were all in my band—got word that Willie was up to something back at the condos.

We got there around three a.m., and Willie and Computer Bob had started up the satellite truck, and Willie was hosting a late-night call-in TV show live from the condo with the barn wood. He had a phone in there, and people were calling in from all over to request songs. Only, it was just a regular, landline phone, so you couldn’t hear the callers. You just heard Willie talk to them, and then he’d play their requests.

We show up, and Willie says, “We’re going to take a break, and we’ll be right back.” But, of course, there were no commercials, so the screen just went to black while we got that Alamo mural and set it up. Then the show came back on, with us all sitting there around the phone, taking requests and playing songs. And we went until six-thirty or seven in the morning. I was literally falling asleep on the air.

Finally, this lady calls in, and her name is Irene. Willie talks to her for a little while, and then he turns to me and says, “Kimmie, do you have anything you’d like to say to Irene?” And I said, “Yes . . . good night, Irene!” So Willie hung up the phone and we all sang [the old Lead Belly standard] “Goodnight, Irene,” unplugged the satellite, and went to bed.

Paul Franklin

is a steel guitar player and one of Nashville’s premier session musicians. He has appeared on five Willie albums.

I’d just ended a tour with Dire Straits in the fall of 1992 when [producer] Don Was asked me to play on a Willie album, which ended up being Across the Borderline. Don was a new producer for Willie, and he hired this unique band and brought in all these iconic artists, from Paul Simon to Bob Dylan to Bonnie Raitt. But Willie was the glue. They all had this personal connection to him, had all been influenced, inspired by him. As a session player, I’m a fly on the wall, and all these heavyweights were telling Willie, “Hey, I had this record of yours,” and “Wow, Willie, you did this.”

We recorded the album in New York, and all of us stayed at this five-star hotel. It was an awesome place. Each morning, we’d all get together downstairs for a great breakfast. And I remember asking Reggie Young, who played guitar on the record, “Is Willie going to come down and eat? You think he’ll come hang?” And Reggie said, “He’s sleeping in a sleeping bag on his bus.”

Willie Nelson, Don Was and Lyle Lovett during VH1's Willie Nelson and Friends at The Roxy in Hollywood, CA on July 27, 1993.
Willie Nelson, Don Was, and Lyle Lovett during VH1’s “Willie Nelson and Friends” at The Roxy in Hollywood, California, on July 27, 1993.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc via Getty

Lyle Lovett

is a singer-songwriter from Klein who has been nominated for seventeen Grammys and won four.

Willie recorded two of my songs for Across the Borderline—“Farther Down the Line” and “If I Were the Man You Wanted,” which was just a tremendous honor. And when the record came out, he did a showcase at the Roxy that was broadcast live on Westwood One, and they invited me to come in and sing harmony on those songs. At the end of the show, we were all out onstage doing “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” which was also on that record. That song—even just its title—is such a perfect encapsulation of Willie Nelson. I mean, “Still Is Still Moving to Me?” You bet it is!

So we’re singing it, and I look at the monitor and see that it’s flashing ten more minutes. And I know for sure this is the last song. But they’re telling Willie there’s ten more minutes. He gives me a glance, and I think, “Am I supposed to do something?” We both look at the monitor again, and then he looks back over at me, and I’m thinking, “No, no way.” We’re getting close to the end of the song. He looks at me again and I’m thinking, “Don’t, do not, please.”

When the song’s finished, Willie walks over, pulls Trigger over his head, puts it on me, and says, “Play something.” And my very first thought was, “What in the world can I possibly play without a capo?” So I started into “The Church Song.” It’s in the key of G, and the changes are insignificant enough that the band just played the one chord all the way through. It was truly a moment of terror, me standing there, onstage, with Trigger. But I can still picture Willie pulling that red, white, and blue guitar strap over his head and putting it over mine. I felt like somebody was hanging a medal on me.

Kinky Friedman

is a singer-songwriter and author who lives in Kerrville.

I had this girlfriend who was about six feet tall, and I brought her on [Willie’s] bus. We stood back-to-back to see who was taller, me or [her], and I said her ass is higher than mine. Willie said, “My ass is higher than both your asses.”**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Dan Winters

is a photojournalist based in Wimberley who shot Willie for the April 1998 cover of Texas Monthly.

That was the first time I ever shot Willie. It was in Bakersfield, California, out in front of Buck Owens’s dance hall there, the Crystal Palace. It’s kind of a destination for country music fans, and Willie was playing that night with Leon Russell. I remember while we were setting up, my producer told me that Buck Owens once said that Willie didn’t get famous until he got ugly, which is pretty funny.

There was a Walmart about a thousand yards away, with a big, empty field in between that would give a good, clean background, so we set up there. I’d seen Willie earlier, standing outside the bus in his civvies: flip-flops and a T-shirt. But then he showed up with that sweater and hat on, totally set for a photo shoot. He was amenable to everything I asked, but I tried not to control things too much. I just wanted to get him within his own thoughts and give the viewer something to connect to, some pensive moment. Thirty minutes later, the shoot was over.

Afterward, Mickey Raphael said, “Willie and Leon are on the bus, why don’t you go in there?” So I go in and they’re at this little table. I sit down and start debriefing with Willie about the shoot, and I look over and see Leon rolling a joint. And then he lights it. Well, I’d gotten stoned way back in the day, but I didn’t smoke weed at all at this point. But I thought, I’m at Willie’s table, and this is Willie’s weed; I’m not turning this down. So Leon hands it to me, I take a hit and hand it to Willie, who takes a hit and hands it back to Leon, and then it’s back to me and back around, and finally I say, “That’s three hits, I’m good.” And they go on talking, reminiscing some, getting ready for the show that night, discussing somebody I didn’t know, maybe somebody in the band or something . . . and pretty soon my head is spinning, and I’ve got to leave. I was a zombie. It was the strongest weed I’ve ever experienced—and the last time I ever smoked.

Paul English

was Willie’s drummer from 1966 until his death in 2020.

Used to be the biggest problem [Willie] had was drinking. Back when he drank, the first thing he’d want to do was drive a car. I would chase him down and try to get the keys away from him. He’d get dishes and throw ’em over the balcony, punch holes in walls, tear up rooms. He don’t drink anymore. He changed over to weed slowly. When he smokes weed, you can’t even tell it. He says, “I don’t smoke weed to get high. I smoke weed to get normal.”**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Evelyn Shriver

was Willie’s publicist from 1991 to 1998 and serves on the board of Farm Aid.

I think that the relationship between him and [his sister] Bobbie is the real constant in his life. I’ve spent a lot of time with them, and they both read a lot, and they’re both very curious about different spiritual things and philosophies. I think that on long road trips they’ve had some really interesting conversations that have given them both that kind of serene touchstone that most people don’t have.**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Jimmy Carter

was the thirty-ninth President of the United States.

When I had my most difficult times [during my presidency], I would go in my private study and tie flies for fly-fishing and listen to Willie’s music.**

** Excerpted from “Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”

Billy Joe Shaver and Willie at the Luck Reunion in Luck on March 16, 2017.

Billy Joe Shaver

is a singer-songwriter from Corsicana. His son Eddy played lead guitar in his band from his early teens until his death at 38.

My son Eddy died of a heroin overdose in 2000. I got to the hospital and said, “I’m here to see my boy,” and they said, “He’s dying.” Sure enough, he was. I managed to get his boots on him, but he died downstairs there. They took him upstairs and brought him back to life—and then he died again. He always had a saying that he didn’t like to rehearse. But I guess he did this time, because he died twice.

We had a show scheduled to play at Poodie’s that night, and none of my band showed up. They’d been with Eddy when he overdosed, and I think they thought I’d kill ’em all. And I probably would have. But Willie came with his band and took over. And you know how he is—so damn cool and calm, his whole spit-in-the-devil’s-eye thing—that’s how he did the show. I’d get up every once in a while and sing what I could, but it was hard. I’m not a very emotional guy; it’s hard for me to cry. But I did have one of those that night, way out back, off by myself.

And of course, Willie’s son Billy had died a few years before. I’d been real close with Billy—both of us were borderline crazy—and Willie knew that. But he never gave me any advice about Eddy. He just showed up for me. And then he paid for the funeral.

Peter Cooper

is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and music journalist who works for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

I was writing for the Nashville Tennessean in 2002, when Willie’s The Great Divide album came out. The album was ultra-glossy—Rolling Stone’s review aptly noted the abundance of “adult-contemporary production goop”—and it’s probably my least favorite Willie album. But I was quick to take the rare opportunity to interview him on his bus just prior to release. I knew Willie eschewed negativity in any form, so I hemmed and hawed when I asked about The Great Divide’s goopy nature.

Finally, I said, “Your ascent to superstardom came in the seventies with Red Headed Stranger. Do you think someone who loves the spare, sparse sound of that album would like The Great Divide?”

His eyes flashed, and he stared through me for a half second before saying, “No, I don’t.” Then he half-chuckled and said, “But my fans know that when I put out an album they don’t like, I’ll have another one out in fifteen minutes that they might really enjoy.”

Lucinda Williams and Willie at the “Outlaws and Angels” show in Los Angeles, on May 5, 2004.

Lucinda Williams

is a singer-songwriter who has been nominated for fifteen Grammy awards and won three.

In 2004 Willie and I did a song together that I wrote, “Over Time,” for his album It Always Will Be. We were both signed to Lost Highway, which may be why that happened, but when it first came up, I was completely floored, humbled, honored—all of the above. I did think it was a perfect song for him, kind of country-slash-jazz, like the stuff he does so well. It sounds like something Ray Price might have recorded.

They had already been working for a while when I got to the studio. And I remember being worried to no end, because everything had been cut except for my vocal—and the song wasn’t in the right key. It was too high. I thought, “Damn it, I’m going to have to do this somehow.” But Willie was there. I think he said, “Oh, honey, it’s going to be fine,” and offered me some whiskey. It still wasn’t the most comfortable thing. I had to stretch my voice to its upper reaches; it doesn’t have that edgy thing it usually does. But it came out kind of airy and soft, so the song sounds sweet.

A few months later we did it live at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles [as part of a concert that was later released as Outlaws and Angels]. I asked him before the show, “Do you mind if we do it in a little lower key?” And he said, “That’s fine, whatever key you want to do it in,” re-tuned his guitar, and that was it. So when you hear that live version, it sounds more like me because Willie let me sing it my way. And his sweet nature shines through. I listened to it again recently and it just made me cry.

Miranda Lambert

is a country star from Lindale and a seven-time winner of the CMA’s female vocalist of the year award.

I performed at the Kennedy Center Honors Merle Haggard tribute in 2010, and before I went onstage, I ran into Willie and he asked, “How are ya?” It took everything within me not to jump up and down and say, “This is the best moment of my life!” But I just smiled and said, “Right this minute I’m doing mighty fine.” Something about Willie makes you feel calm and okay just being you.

Willie and Toby Keith accept the video of the year award for their song "Beer for my Horses" at the 39th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on May 26, 2004.
Willie and Toby Keith accept the video of the year award for their song “Beer for my Horses” at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, on May 26, 2004.

Toby Keith

is a country star who has had twenty number one singles.

I was at an after-party following an award show. It was at the Palm restaurant in Nashville. My longtime guitar player, Joey Floyd, was with me, and he’d played Willie’s son in Honeysuckle Rose. We saw Willie as we walked in, and Joey said, “Hey, Willie.” I’d met him a few times with Joey, so I said hey, too. And then I said, “I’ve got a song I wrote, a western-themed tune. Would you consider singing on it?” He said, “Send it to me so I can hear it.” I said, “Okay, I will.” A few minutes later he came back and said, “What is the name of the song, so I’ll know when I get it.” I said, “It’s ‘Whiskey for My Men, and Beer for My Horses.’?” And Willie said, “Hell, I don’t need to hear that. I’m in.”

Later, after “Beer for My Horses” had gone to number one, I ran into Willie in New York City. I said, “Our song did real good, didn’t it?” He said, “It did?” I said, “Yep. Six weeks at number one.”

“Well, damn,” he said. “I guess I should add it to my show.”

Joe Nick Patoski

Entertainer of the Century,” adapted from the archives: December 1999

When you ride shotgun with Willie Nelson around the back roads of Willie World, the self-contained universe he created for himself and his extended family in the Hill Country west of Austin, you realize what it is that makes him such an icon. It’s his Willie-ness. It hits you while watching the old guy in black with the scraggly beard and the puppy-dog eyes undo a braid on his pigtail. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a 66-year-old veteran of a profession that eats its young. The goofy grin he flashes conveys the vibe that he really and truly likes what he’s doing.

As he tools around in his pickup truck in a state of herbal bliss, he’s locked in a zone of his own and right in sync with the master plan hatched at age eight. “I started out watching Gene Autry and Roy Rogers every Saturday on the movie screen in Hillsboro [ten miles north of Abbott, his hometown],” he says in his relaxed drawl. “I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a singing cowboy, ride my horse, play my guitar, shoot my gun. So here we are.”

Four dogs with wagging tails are waiting for him on the porch as he parks the pickup next to the World Headquarters in Luck, an old-timey saloon with a satellite dish on the roof, a fully stocked bar, and a movie screen with church pews for seating. The walls are adorned with Willie posters, Willie album covers, and snapshots of Willie with friends like Richard Pryor and Johnny Bush. There’s even a photo of Willie with his cowboy hero Gene Autry.

His buddies, a casual, semigrizzled bunch partial to gimme caps, jeans, and running shoes, gather around the J-shaped bar while their boss eats his eggs and beef bacon. And when he’s done, he vanishes out the side door by the back of the bar, just like Autry used to do in the movies. “Well, here I go,” Willie says. “It’s time for my favorite thing to do: gotta go get my picture taken.”

He tries to make it sound like a burden, but his complaint rings hollow. He walks a hundred yards to the Opera House, where a photographer and his assistants are waiting. He sits on a stool in a makeshift studio, quiet, patient, occasionally flashing that goofy grin, doing what needs to be done, giving the photographer all he wants. The photographer looks like he’s having the time of his life, and so does Willie, and so does everybody else milling around Luck. It’s the Willie Way.

Wimberley-based writer Joe Nick Patoski is the author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.

Annie Nelson

has been married to Willie since 1991.

When Willie and the Dalai Lama get together, they’re like a couple of eight-year-olds. They’re laughing and talking and they crack each other up, and you know it’s a mutual exchange. I’m not saying he’s on the level of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but there’s a recognition in each of them when they’re together. They can relate.


is a photographer who was born in Greece, raised in England, and lives in New York. He shot Willie for the May 2008 cover of Texas Monthly.

There’s an album Willie made called Spirit. When I first arrived in New York in 1998 with nothing but a suitcase and a camera bag, starting my life over in America at thirty, that CD got me through the first few weeks. I played it to death. And the reason it was so meaningful is because the songs are rooted in an American tradition of storytelling, but the ideas—dealing with love lost, missing someone—are universal. It’s a bit lonely when you’re on your own, no connections, not sure if you’re going to get an agent, if you’re going to get a chance to show the world what you’ve got. But what do you do when you’re lonely? You fall back on art to inspire you to move forward. And Willie supplied that perfectly. His stories about longing for someone reminded me of my family. I did not know if it would work out, and in those situations, you’ve got nothing but hope. That’s the currency. And that’s what’s embedded in that album.

For this shoot, we rode together to his ranch. I remember asking when we arrived, “Willie, why is your town called Luck?” And he said, “Sometimes, you’re in luck. Sometimes, you’re out of luck.” That’s his genius; he’s joking around, but if you think about what he just said, he’s talking about life. He called his town Luck because we all go through this. We all have our little winning streaks and losing streaks. It’s actually very philosophical.

I did think, though, that I may be reading into things because America’s not my natural culture. And Luck was about as American as anything I’d ever experienced. I mean, I’m an Englishman; I’d never seen anything like this. He had built a cowboy town. There’s a saloon. There’s a jail. It’s all there, covered in dust, horses everywhere. It was like stepping into a movie. It was like being in High Noon.

That’s where we did the pictures. I set up my white background in this building on High Street, his saloon, and started waiting. And it took him a while. His bus was parked on the outskirts of the block, and he was in there with some friends. Eventually he sort of staggers out with his guitar case in this cloud of smoke. And he seemed pretty stoned.

He comes in and sits on this apple box that everyone sits on in my pictures. Putin has sat on it, all our living American presidents have sat on it, Gadhafi has sat on it. And now, Willie Nelson sits on it. But it’s got no back. It’s just a box, right? He was a little unsure of his balance, and he almost fell off. So I say, “We need something for him to hold on to.” Without saying anything, he gets up, opens his guitar case, and takes out his guitar. And it’s all a bit wobbly. He gets back on the apple box and holds onto his guitar to keep his balance. And as he’s clinging to his guitar, he actually nods off and has a snooze.

And that’s the picture: this man with his arms around his treasured guitar. And it became famous in America because people felt it’s the quintessential American artist embracing his art.

Willie, in Luck, on November 4, 2013.

Buddy Cannon

has produced thirteen of Willie’s last fourteen albums and co-written dozens of songs with him.

I was hanging out on Willie’s bus before one of his New Year’s Eve shows in Austin when someone brought on a lady who Willie and Annie both got up to greet and hug, so I gave her my seat across the table from Willie and sat on the couch. She started talking about somebody who had recently passed—I presume her husband—and Willie was listening intently. She was still very sad and troubled. I remember her saying, “I just don’t know how I’m gonna ever get over this.” And Willie said, “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.”

I didn’t write that line down, but it stayed with me, and I thought about it every day for two years. Finally, I sat down and wrote some lyrics and sent them to him in a text message. And he added some stuff and texted it back. That’s how we write. And I love writing with Willie. He’s not chasing radio; he can sing whatever he wants. There’s a great sense of freedom in that. It deepens my thinking.

The song ended up being “Something You Get Through,” and it’s been viewed 37 million times on Facebook. And almost three million more on YouTube. It’s kind of crazy. But I guess there are people who need it, who have loss. It’s very gratifying to think that this little, eight-line song is giving people comfort.

We recorded it the same way we record most all of them. I get the basic tracks down in Nashville and bring them to his studio in Pedernales. Willie always walks in, says “Hi” to whoever happens to be around, then walks over to his spot in the corner just outside the control room door. There’s a chair there for him—it’s just a folding chair—by a window that he can look out of onto a lake, off in the distance.

Sometimes he’ll sit there three or four hours before he gets up. He’ll go song by song, giving each one three or four vocal passes, and then pick up his guitar and play on a couple passes. Sometimes he’ll pick and sing at the same time, you don’t ever know. And my main job is to read him, make sure he doesn’t get bored, keep things moving—and to just be ready to capture whatever he does.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

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

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

William Michael Smith won awards for “Best Print Article 2013) for his article.
One of Our Own Wins VMG Music Writing Award

Mr. Record Man
The Houston Press
by: William Michael Smith
April 24, 2013

WILLIE NELSON was dead broke.

The American music icon, who turns 80 years old on April 30, was once just another starving musician looking for his next gig. In early 1959, he was 26 years old and waiting for Larry Butler, who’d had some records do well on Houston radio and was an established name in Gulf Coast music circles, to finish an afternoon band rehearsal at the popular Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway.

According to Joe Nick Patoski’s exhaustive 2008 biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Nelson was freshly arrived in Houston, then known as the murder capital of the entire nation, and had decided the bustling port city was the right one to further advance his own career. He had recently left the hard-knuckle honky-tonks of Fort Worth and had already networked enough to catch the attention of D Records, the most important country-music label in Houston, if not the entire region.

Nelson had signed a fresh contract with Houston music mogul George “Pappy” Daily ­before leaving Fort Worth that identified him as a D Records recording artist and a Glad Music songwriter. Daily had orchestrated East Texas hillbilly George Jones’s rocket ride to country-music stardom in 1957 with the release of “Why Baby Why” and, like others, Nelson figured Daily could do the same for him. This was an iffy deal at best, but it was as close to a solid future in the music business as Nelson had ever come.

Nelson’s goal from the beginning had been to become a songwriter and performing star, but back at the Esquire Ballroom, he was thirsty. Butler asked him if he wanted anything, and ­Nelson asked for a Coke and a pack of cigarettes. Butler had the waitress put them on his tab.

Johnny Bush, the author of “Whiskey River,” the song Nelson has used to open every show for four decades now, recalls driving from San Antonio to see Nelson at a gig in Waco.

“He told me he was moving to Houston,” Bush chuckles. “I was born in Houston and I know Houston. I’d just moved back to San Antonio, and I told Willie there was nothing happening down there. But he went anyway.”

Right there on the spot, Nelson set up a small reel-to-reel tape machine and played Butler a few demos, a term for usually rough, raw recordings of songs generally not meant for public consumption. The songs were “Family Bible,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Crazy” and “Night Life,” and Nelson’s asking price was $10 per song.

“I told him I wasn’t going to buy them; they were too good to just give away like that,” says Butler today from his home in Conroe, where he and wife Pat settled after leaving Houston. “And Willie, always the smooth-talking salesman, just smiled and said, ‘Well, I need the money right now and I can always write more songs’.”

Willie Nelson wasn’t always the Red Headed Stranger, king of outlaw country or a multi­platinum-selling national treasure. But his short-lived tenure in Houston in 1959 and into 1960, which lasted maybe 18 months, was one of the most important developmental milestones in what would become an enormous career.

Born near Waco in 1933, Nelson bounced around his early career like a pinball, working gigs as a sideman, radio personality, gas-station attendant, even Bible salesman. Whatever he did, he was always a dollar short, bill collectors on his trail. Not only did the future biodiesel advocate and marijuana-reform icon try Waco (1952), San Antonio and Pleasanton (1954), and Fort Worth (1955; again in 1958) for steady work, he even forayed as far north as Portland, Oregon  (1956), and Vancouver, Washington (1957), where he had a DJ gig as “Wee Willie Nelson.”

But when Nelson got to Houston, Butler says, he instantly recognized the slightly younger man was a gifted songwriter. Of the songs Nelson offered him at the Esquire Ballroom, he says, “I didn’t have any reason to take advantage of him just because he was having a tough time.”

These weren’t just any old run-of-the-mill two-steppers Butler was letting slip by, either. “Crazy” would go on to be the top-selling jukebox song of all time, and “Night Life” would be recorded by countless artists in several genres, particularly blues. “Family Bible” and “Mr. Record Man” would also figure large in Nelson’s catalog as time progressed.

So instead of grabbing his songs for a pittance, Butler loaned Nelson $50 and gave him a job in his band, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship. When club owner Raymond Proske balked at paying another musician — union scale in those days was $15 a night for band members, $25 for the leader — Butler offered to split his pay with Nelson, who started that very night.

Shortly after joining Butler’s Sunset Playboys, in which the charismatic young hustler was given the chance to perform a few of his own songs in the set and close the show with “The Party’s Over,” Nelson also landed a radio gig at Pasadena country station KRCT (650 AM). The pay was terrible, but he could use the air time to promote shows for Butler and other friends. With his radio job in hand, relates Patoski, popular local acts like Smilin’ Jerry Jericho would use Nelson as lead guitarist and pay him $25 per night in exchange for some radio push. Before long, he was on his feet enough to bring wife Martha and three children down from Waco to a tiny apartment in Pasadena.

Sleepy LaBeef, another musical transplant who was part of Pappy Daily’s talent roster and would eventually be inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, once lived in the same Pasadena neighborhood as Nelson, just blocks from the intersection of Southmore and Richey Road. He recalls falling in with Nelson and cutting several demos of Nelson’s compositions at his home.

“Willie’d come over with that little recorder of his — he took that thing everywhere — and we’d get set up in my living room,” LaBeef recalls from his home in Springdale, Arkansas. “I’d play upright bass and Willie would play acoustic guitar. I’ve got an old tape he left here somewhere of four brand-new tunes we laid down one night, and none of them have ever been recorded as far as I know.”

Frequently asked why he hasn’t cut one of the songs, the 77-year old LaBeef explains, “Willie was a good friend and I don’t want to be one of those people trying to make money off his back. If I ever locate those tapes again, I think I’ll just give ’em to Willie.”Working on the west side and living on the east side, Nelson spent a lot of time in his car. The long drives across Houston allowed him time “to turn private thoughts into poetry.” Here are 11 significant points on the map of his Houston history.“The one I really liked that’s stuck with me all these years was called ‘The Eleven-Oh-Three,’ he continues. “It went, ‘I’m catching the train at 11:03, that’s the last you’ll ever see of me.’ I always wondered why Willie never recorded it.

“Heck, I still might,” adds LaBeef. “But I’d call Willie first and make sure it’s okay with him.”

Nelson and virtuoso instrumentalist Paul Buskirk had become close friends when both lived in Fort Worth. A lightning-fast picker, Buskirk had spent time on the Grand Ole Opry and earned his bones playing with outfits like the Louvin Brothers. Prior to Nelson’s arrival, Buskirk had established himself in Houston; once Nelson got settled here, Buskirk hired his friend as an instructor at Buskirk Music Studios in ­Pasadena.

There are two versions of the Willie-as-­guitar-instructor story. Patoski’s book says Buskirk told Nelson to buy the Mel Bay book for guitar beginners and just teach that. Another version floating around the Internet says Buskirk would teach Nelson a lesson one day and Nelson would then teach the same lesson to his students the next day. Either way, the lessons were another small Band-Aid on his unstoppable financial hemorrhaging.

Whichever it was, everyone noted that Nelson’s guitar playing, which was already good enough to get him lead-guitar gigs in solid bands like Jericho’s, here took a quantum leap forward. Certainly part of that can be attributed to the training and discipline that went with teaching. But a larger impetus probably came from Buskirk’s working with Nelson on his technique, as well as introducing him to the music of European jazz master Django Reinhardt, who remains one of Nelson’s favorite guitarists to this day. In her book They Came to Nashville, songwriter and performer Marshall Chapman observes that Nelson and sister Bobbie make a habit of playing Reinhardt’s classic “Nuages” as a pastime on the tour bus. (“Nuages” also appears on Nelson’s brand-new album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance.)

LaBeef, singer Claude Gray and Butler all tend to tell one part of the Willie story a little differently from Patoski’s biography. Seconding Rich Kienzle, who wrote the extensive liner notes for the meticulous box sets of Nelson’s earliest works on the Bear Family label, Patoski speculates that the long drives across town from Nelson’s nightclub gig in far west Houston to his home and day jobs in the metro area’s easternmost reaches left Nelson time to “turn private thoughts into poetry.”

Patoski also writes that “Houston was an inspirational setting for some of his best songs,” and surmises that both Nelson’s personal-life turmoil as well as the chaotic Houston beer joint/dance hall scene became fuel for some of his finest lyrics. But there seems to be a slight contradiction between Nelson’s attempting to sell “Family Bible, “Night Life,” “Crazy” and “Mr. Record Man” to Butler when he first arrived in town and Patoski’s observation that during Nelson’s time in Houston, “songs flowed like never before,” among them “Night Life,” “Crazy,” “Mr. Record Man” and “I Gotta Get Drunk.”

“I’m pretty certain Willie came to town with all those except ‘I Gotta Get Drunk,’” asserts LaBeef. “And of course Willie was very musical, so he could have been tinkering with those songs, changing the way he played them or sang them. But he came to town with some good ‘uns.”

“As far as Houston having a big effect on Willie’s writing, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” LaBeef reasons. “I can’t recall what other songs he wrote there, but Willie just wrote all the time back then. He had so many ideas. And he didn’t just suddenly get talented because he moved to Nashville. He went there with a lot of skill and experience, most of it earned the hard way.”

Patoski makes a rational explanation of the seeming contradictions.

“Willie had been writing prolifically in Fort Worth, Vancouver, Portland, even in San Antonio,” the biographer says. “But none of the songs that mattered had come together in the form of a recording until Willie arrived in Houston. Really, that’s where all these disparate pieces came together.”

Pappy Daily may have been a music-­industry genius, but he committed a monumental blunder when it came to Willie Nelson. In fact, in the treacherous, fluid, highly competitive music business, this one is positively historic.

To help Nelson out of one of his continual financial binds, his buddy and mentor Buskirk bought “Night Life” for $100 and “Family Bible” for another $50. At the same time, honky-tonk singer Claude Gray, a native of Henderson, Texas, was working in Houston, selling cars at Perkins Auto by day and singing some gigs at night. Gray finally gave up on Houston and took a disc-jockey job in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1959.

But in mid-December of that same year, Gray swung back into town to do a D Records session for Daily at Gold Star Studios, today known as SugarHill. Buskirk put the session band together and convinced Gray to cut four of Nelson’s tunes: “The Party’s Over,” “Family Bible,” “Night Life” and “Leave Alone.”…And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson’s first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.He was a long way from the “Wee Willie Nelson” persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.As part of swinging the deal for Gray to cut the songs, the enterprising Buskirk sold Gray a share of “Family Bible” for $100, and for another $100 hired the session musicians and the studio. “I also had a contract with Paul, if you can call us signing a napkin a contract, to buy a piece of ‘Night Life,’” says Gray, who eventually had enough chart and touring success to relocate to Nashville. “The catch was that I only got to keep my rights if the song was actually released.”

But Daily didn’t care for Gray’s version of “Night Life.” Instead, he released D Records singles for “My Party’s Over” (a slight alteration of Nelson’s original title) and, subsequently, “Family Bible.” “My Party’s Over” didn’t do much, but “Family Bible” caught on and eventually climbed all the way to No. 7 on the country charts. Poor Willie didn’t realize a penny from the success of “Family Bible,” and it had to have hurt his self-esteem to have a national hit but be left out of the financial windfall.

Still, the song’s success was the first positive proof that he could write a hit. It certainly raised his profile, and would later serve as a good calling card and icebreaker when he moved to Nashville to try to sell songs in the big time.

Like Gray, Nelson also had a recording contract with D Records, and he cut his first single for the label, “A Man with the Blues” backed by “The Storm Has Just Begun,” during a 1959 session in Fort Worth. The single was released on both D and Daily’s sister label, Betty Records, but went nowhere.

Buskirk then arranged two sessions at Gold Star for Nelson in the spring of 1960. The superior quality of these recordings compared to that of the first tracks cut in Fort Worth is immediately obvious, but these sessions yielded only another mediocre single, “Misery Mansion” backed with “What a Way to Live.”

But even before that single had been issued, Buskirk and Nelson returned to Gold Star with a different set of musicians. There Nelson showed off his rapidly developing guitar chops on “Rainy Day Blues,” but the recording of “Night Life” makes this one of the most significant sessions in his career — and in Houston music history.

“Something had happened between the two sessions,” Patoski writes in An Epic Life. “‘Night Life’ was from another realm. Mature, deep and thoughtful, the slow, yearning blues had been put together in his head during long drives across Houston. At Gold Star, he was surrounded by musicians who could articulate his musical thoughts. He sang the words with confident phrasing that had never been heard on any previous recording he’d done.”

But Daily absolutely hated the track. He went so far as to tell Nelson that if he wanted to write blues, he should go work for Don Robey of Duke-Peacock Records, who had built the Fifth Ward-based company into the most important black record label in the South. Daily refused to release Nelson’s version of “Night Life,” just as he had Claude Gray’s.

Once again, opinions differ about what happened. Daily had made his bones in the murky jukebox business before adding recording, publishing and artist management to the enterprise, and had made George Jones a national smash with tunes recorded at Gold Star. He thought he had the best handle on what people wanted to hear, and was certain a jazzy song like “Night Life” would go nowhere with jukebox users or radio. Also, given the era’s racial prejudices, Daily in no way wished to be identified with so-called race records or their audience. His clientele was working-class crackers, plain and simple, and he felt “Night Life” was too fancy for them.

Bob Wills veteran and Western swing pioneer Herb Remington, the steel guitarist on this storied session, recalls Daily as a “smart guy, a good but cautious businessman.” Remington, who turns 87 in June, says he has “nothing but respect for Daily.”

“Paul Buskirk and I came up with the arrangement on the fly the day we cut the song,” recalls Remington. “Obviously it was a sophisticated lyric and meter, and we wanted the arrangement to really fit the subtlety of the song. We didn’t realize until much later how almost revolutionary the sound on that cut was. I guess it’s no surprise that away from our regular gigs, most of us on that session were into a lot of jazz and other types of music.”

As for how such an astute song-picker as Daily could miss so badly on “Night Life” and Willie Nelson, the guitarist laughs.

“Pappy had a good ear but he just wanted hits, and to him most hits sounded pretty much the same,” he says. “He hated ‘Night Life’ partly because he despised what he called ‘musician’s music.’ Nothing drove Pappy crazier than a bunch of us jamming. He didn’t like it or get it. And he sure didn’t want to pay for it.”

“I also think Pappy just didn’t get Willie’s singing,” he adds. “The way he phrases wasn’t like most other singers who were popular at that time. Willie heard a whole lot of people tell him he couldn’t sing.”…And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson’s first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.

Whatever the reason, between selling away a hit song for peanuts while he was desperately broke and relinquishing most of his rights for the soon-to-be classic “Night Life” and Daily’s flat-out rejection of “Night Life” — which Nelson felt was his best musical accomplishment yet — Nelson soured on Houston. He made plans to head east.

Could Willie Nelson have also picked up his well-known taste for marijuana in Houston? Since achieving worldwide fame and recognition, he has become one of the sweet leaf’s highest-­profile advocates. Nelson has supposedly smoked a joint on the White House roof, filmed a smoke-out video with Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam and been arrested several times for possession, most recently at a West Texas U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in 2010.

He once admitted to former CNN talk-show maven Larry King on national television that he smoked just before he came on King’s show. With 110,000 Facebook followers on his Tea Pot Party page, Nelson has thrown considerable weight behind the nationwide movement to legalize pot.

According to Patoski, Chapman and others who have traveled on Nelson’s bus, he’s a quiet guy who likes scrambled eggs after a gig, a glass or two of white wine, a lungful of killer reefer and picking some Django Reinhardt with sister Bobbie. This is the Zen Willie of today, the one who wrote the koans collected in his 2012 book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.

But back in his Houston days, Nelson was a hard-partying little dude. Larry Butler recalls many nights when Nelson was too drunk to drive home, “so he’d just spend the night with us.”

“Willie loved a good party, and he’d drink right along with everybody else,” adds Butler. “Of course, that wasn’t helping his marriage any, but Willie’s always been Willie.”

The various biographies of Nelson have been quite frank about his hard drinking back in the day, and there are casual mentions of pills, which have always been around wherever musicians are working late hours. Butler was probably around Nelson more than anyone else, even Buskirk, during the Houston phase. Confronted with the question of whether Nelson was already smoking pot when he lived in Houston, Butler just giggles.

“Listen, fella, I think Willie was born with one of those things in his hand.”

Houston wasn’t all that kind to Willie Nelson. According to Pasadena Police Department records, he was arrested for speeding and driving without a license — going 85 miles an hour in a 40-mph zone at 3:52 a.m. — on Red Bluff Road in July 1960. Bond was set at $80, and his wife at the time, Martha, appears to have co-signed the property receipt for $9 in cash and a set of car keys.

By all accounts, at this time Nelson was accumulating debts much faster than he could pay them, and Patoski notes that when Nelson left town hoping to land a radio job in Mississippi at the same station where Claude Gray was working, he was four payments behind on his “ugly green ’46 Buick.”

Once again, Nelson had to park his family with Martha’s parents in Waco while he went off to chase the next rainbow. That turned out to be Nashville, after six seeks of hanging around Meridian didn’t turn up a radio job or anything else that would pay a decent wage.

Nelson certainly left Houston with more songs in his notebook, some decent demo tapes of his songs and considerably improved skills as a guitarist. He got his feet wet in the studio and, although it was shunned and overlooked at the time, he recorded one of the true classics of country music.

He also released two singles on D Records and Betty Records, and had a hit song he’d written that would open some industry doors. He gained even more experience in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonk world, and Houston’s joints had a reputation as being some of the toughest in the nation.

He even kept a few copies of his amazing take on “Night Life.” Following Daily’s rejection, he and Buskirk surreptitiously paid to have the song mastered, pressed and released as “Nite Life” on tiny Rx Records under the moniker “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson.” While it managed to get some airplay by Uncle Hank Craig on across-the-border superstation XEG, other interest in the recording was sparse.

That was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Nelson’s Houston stay. He began to feel that the situation here was both spiraling out of control and becoming increasingly untenable.

“I was into a lot of negative thinking back then,” Nelson tells Patoski inAn Epic Life. “I did a lot of bad things, got into fights with people. My head was just pointed in the wrong way.”

It was time to go. Herb Remington, who composed the famous Bob Wills instrumental “Remington’s Ride,” recalls meeting up with a handful of other local players to wish Nelson well the night before he left town.

“Hank Thompson was playing Cook’s Hoedown, and a bunch of us went down to see Willie off,” says Remington. “Everybody liked him and we really did hate to see him go. My main memory is that Willie was dressed real nice and we had a fine send-off.”

Most likely with a strong sense of failure, Willie Nelson kissed Houston goodbye the next day.

Willie Nelson on the Cover of the Rolling Stone (August 2014)

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

Rolling Stone

Willie Nelson and family in Life Magazine (August 1983)

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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