photo: Gary A. Miller
Here’s the entire issue; Willie Nelson article on page 36
photo: Gary A. Miller
Here’s the entire issue; Willie Nelson article on page 36
The movie is good, but the video is really good.
photo: Ebet Roberts
by: Robert Crawford
A member of Willie Nelson’s band since 1973, Mickey Raphael has become one of the most celebrated harmonica players in country music, bending notes for everyone from Chris Stapleton to Jason Isbell along the way. Talking with podcast host Chris Shiflett during this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, he shares highlights from more than four decades of countrified close encounters, from the Texas picking party where he first met Shotgun Willie to the California tour stop that found him sitting in the backseat of Neil Young’s Cadillac, chauffeured around San Jose by the Crazy Horse front man himself.
Theatre, hours before a Willie Nelson performance this past October. Stream the entire conversation below. We’ve also rounded up several highlights, from the name of Willie Nelson’s next record – an album that has yet to be officially announced – to unknown guests on the country legend’s tour bus.
Mickey Raphael was introduced to Willie Nelson not by a fellow musician, but by Coach Darrell Royal, who led the Texas Longhorns to nearly a dozen Southwest conference titles between 1957 and 1976.
The year was 1972. At the time, Raphael was gigging with B.W. Stevenson, whose “My Maria” would eventually become a Grammy-winning hit for Brooks & Dunn. Stevenson’s tour schedule often took the band through Austin, where Coach Royal – a genuine music fan, apparently – caught wind of Raphael’s talent. One day, the coach reached out, inviting Raphael to a picking party that he was throwing in his hotel room after a weekend game.
“I was 20 years old,” remembers Raphael, who brought along his harmonicas. When he arrived, Nelson was already at the party. The two played several songs together that afternoon, with Raphael earning a crucial invitation – “Willie said, ‘Hey, if you ever hear we’re playing somewhere, come sit in,'” he remembers – before the picking party was over.
Nelson never officially hired Raphael to play in his band. He just never asked him to stop showing up.
As early as 1973, Raphael was traveling in his own car to Nelson’s gigs, sitting in with the band whenever he could. He was just a guest at first, although he quickly became an indispensable part of the band’s sound. Even so, the harmonica wiz never received any sort of grand introduction into the inner circle of Nelson’s touring lineup.
“One day,” he remembers, “Willie says to Paul [English, the singer’s longtime drummer], ‘What are we paying Mickey?’ And Paul goes, ‘Nothing. He’s just coming to sit in.’ And Willie goes, ‘Double his salary.’ I tell people I wasn’t officially hired; I was just never asked to leave.”
Raphael first joined Nelson in the studio for 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, an album that was so sparse, the executive at Columbia Records thought it was a demo.
“[Nelson] basically had these songs written on a napkin,” says Raphael, who took the band to the same Dallas studio where he’d been doing regular work as a session musician, “and we just set up in a circle in the studio, and he’d be playing them, and that record is so sparse because we’re really just hearing them for the first time. There’s barely anything. . . The label said it was a good demo, and they wanted to put strings on it, and Willie said, ‘No, this is the record.'”
Producer Dave Cobb deserves credit for first introducing Raphael to Chris Stapleton, whose live shows often feature the harmonica wiz.
Raphael had already played harmonica on several of Cobb’s projects when the producer asked him to join a relatively unknown songwriter named Chris Stapleton in the studio. Those sessions spawned Traveller, Stapleton’s blockbuster solo debut. They also landed Raphael one of his most high-profile touring gigs. Now, whenever holes arise in Willie Nelson’s touring schedule, Raphael generally hits the road with Stapleton, although he readily admits the band sounds just fine without him.
That said, don’t expect Willie Nelson’s touring schedule to slow down anytime soon.
“He loves it,” says Raphael, who still plays more than 100 shows a year with Nelson. “He likes the connection with the audience. Somebody asked him one time, ‘When are you gonna retire?’ And he said, ‘All I do is play golf and play music. Which one am I supposed to quit?’
Nelson continues releasing new albums at a rapid rate, too, with a new record – the unannounced, unconfirmed God’s Problem Child – apparently in the can. That said, with all the commotion generated by a consistent touring schedule and, presumably, a healthy cannabis intake, there’s still plenty of room for the unexpected.
“There was a guy that rode our bus years ago that nobody even knew,” Raphael remembers with a laugh. “It was like, ‘I thought he was with you.’ ‘No, I thought he was your friend!'”
Mother Earth News
Farm Aid’s Founder: Willie Nelson
It’s midwinter in Tampa, Florida, and as usual the weather is warm going on stifling. Willie Nelson really needs the air conditioner humming peacefully in his mobile home away from home, the Silver Eagle Honeysuckle Rose.
In his own, quiet, careful way, Willie’s all business today. Waiting in the cool, dark comfort of the bus for the horde of people his presence will draw to town tonight, he’s working hard: poring over snapshots of himself and his sister Bobbie outside the Abbott, Texas, church in which they learned to sing, for the cover of a genuine hard-core Christian mail-order gospel album; making little decisions about the set he and his band of honky-tonk gypsies will play tonight; ordering up a carefully nutritious chicken dinner from the kitchen bus that travels with his five-vehicle caravan, then forgetting to eat it; talking business with little haste or waste of words or energy, on the radio telephone at his elbow.
The business concerns the usual megastar matters — movie promotion, investment opportunities, the touring schedule, a $1.5 million book contract — but also something seemingly out of place in this context: the Farm Aid cause, Mr. Nelson’s foray into public service. Cocooned amid Tampa’s concrete consumerism, the former Bible salesman, and latter-day multimillionaire is taking time to help the family farmers of his country fight back against government policy, big business and the economics of scale.
There is something rather special about Willie Nelson. It was he, after all, who united the rednecks and the hippies and the surburbanites of the 1970s in appreciation of a style of country music considered both archaic and impossibly uncommercial by the Nashville powers-that-were. Likewise his image — a lovely blend of longhair, cowboy, rebel, hardcore party legend and wise old man — is suggestive.
It’s no wonder he’s such an institution. You can look up to some entertainers (Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Paul McCartney), but Willie invites involvement, not distance. The dominant element of his stare — a thoroughly savvy serenity — is mighty trustworthy.
That invitation to trust must have been part of his image all along. Certainly it was during his late teenage years, when he was already trying to get ahead in the world by promoting dance concerts throughout east Texas, earning his percentage from acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and the Brownies, Spade Cooley, and the legendary Ernest Tubb while he watched from the wings and learned the ropes. It also impressed the folks in the Nashville big leagues after Willie had decided to forgo his studies for the Baptist ministery in favor of a full-time career in the hillbilly highway nightlife; you need a lot more than even the kind of devasting song-writing talent Willie possessses to become a primary source for the Music Row hit machine the way he did in pretty short order.Â And when eventually his ambitions outstripped what Nashville was willing to offer and he made his legendary end-run around Music Row, his aura so impressed the college hippioes of Austin, texas, that not too long after he’d been among them they began to buy posters proclaiming, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie,” and to enshrine them in their places of fun and meditation.
A Nashville executive describes his experience: “It was amazing, just wonderful,” says the Nashville executive. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Neil Reshen (Willie’s manager) was so bad — I mean, you really wanted to have the man arrested; the secretaries used to run for the bathroom when he showed up. But when you talked to Willie, it was like negotiating with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and you were so relieved you didn’t have to deal with Neil that you gave Willie whatever he wanted. But, of course, what Neil wanted and what Willie wanted were the same things. They were working the good cop, bad cop routine, the oldest con in the world, but they did it so well you didn’t realize what was going on till it was all over. And by then you’d done a deal you’d never have even dreamed of otherwise. Willie just outplayed me, and he ended up getting what he really deserved. And all that means is he’s smarter than I am. He just has to turn that smile on you, and you’re hooked. But now I take him seriously. He may be beautiful, but he’s not dumb.”
Such a man — with his hard-earned combination of country compassion, common sense and carefully honed business skills – would have been the perfect choice if American farmers had gone looking for a leader in their hour of need. That’s not how it happened, though. It was Willie who went unbidden to the farmers.
September 1985 was when it began, in Champaine, Illinois, as a notion kicked around between Willie and his crew in the wake of Bob Geldof’s Life Aid marathon. As Willie recalls, in the low-to-vanishing key for which he is renowned, “I have no idea how it got started. I was just sitting in the bus….”
Like a large proportion of the projects Willie judges worthy, the 14-hour Farm Aid benefit moved from the idea to action with little further ado. It was set up with minimum fuss and executed with slightly less toll and craziness than usually attends a mammoth outdoor music festival featuring multiple major entertainers. (Which figures. After more than a decade of organizing and hosting his legendary Fourth of July picnics, Willie is perhaps the world’s premier mastermind of such events.) When it was all over — when Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Alabama, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferosn, Bon Jovi, Joni Mitchell, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Cougar Mellencamp and some 45 other acts had done their thing and the TV viewers who watched them had sent in their donations — Willie and his crew suddenly found themselves in temporary possession of a great deal of donated money.
That came as something of a shock. “I figured people would respond,” says Willie, “but not nearly as well as they did, and as all that money started rollin’ in, I had to rethink my position. I realized I had to do a lot more than make some calls and go out and sing. My name was attached to that money, so by necessity I had to take responsibility and decide that I would be the one who writes the checks. So that’s what happens, nothing goes out without my signature on it. And so far, I know that every quarter of that money has gone to benefit the family farmer in some way.”
After Farm Aid One in Illinois and Farm Aid Two, held in Austin on the Fourth of July, 1986, the approximate total for which Willie has taken responsibility is $14 million.
And Willie doesn’t just sign the checks, he approves them.
“He makes the final decision,” says Caroline Mugar, the director of Farm Aid (Willie is Chairman of the Board). “We just do the research on what’s going on, who’s doing what where, what they hope to do and how they’ve used the money they’ve already gotten, and we make recommendations. Then Willie decides.”
Thanks, Phil Weisman, for this cool magazine from your collection.
Country Song Round Up
The Country Music Association’s Award Winning Songs
What is the Country Music Association?
The Country Music Association is proud of its part in helping guide the growth of country music to one of the greatest influences on society today. Country music affects the way we dress, what we eat, the movies we see, and how we dance. The Country Music Association has served as an untiring aid to the composers, artists, publishers, disc jockeys — anyone affiliated with the country music field.
Founded in 1958, CMA was not the creation of one specific person or group, but rather an idea generated by some of the leading figures in the music industry. The objective of the organization, which originally consisted of 233 members, was to promote and develop country music throughout the world; to demonstrate it as a viable medium to advertisers, consumers and media, and to provide a unity of purpose for the country music industry.
Presently, CMA’s membership is over 7,500. Country music has become one of America’s most diplomatic ambassadors to the world through CMA. Industry leaders readily admit that CMA has won global recognition as a trade association and has earned its title of “the world’s most active trade organization.”i
Some Country Music Association Activities
The formulation of the CMA Awards. These are given to the top country acts annually, voted on by CMA members. The awards were first given at the ninth banquet and show in 1967.
The origination of Fan Fair. A festival held in Nashville each year enabling the fans to meet their favorites.
Establishment of the Country Music Hall of Fame (1961. to honor country music greats.
The creation of International Country Music Month. It began as Country Music Week in 1962 and is now recognized throughout the world.
A code of ethics for country artists.
Selecting the Song of the Year
The Song of the Year award is made to a songwriter(s). Any country music song with original words and music is eligible based on the song’s country singles chart activity during the eligibility period. In this category, the membership is first asked to nominate a song they believe deserving of the award. The second ballot will contain the nominations receiving at least five votes from the membership, and the top five songs from the tabulation of the country singles charts from Billboard. Cash Box, the Gavin Report and Radio & Records. From this group the membership will vote for the top five.
In the final balloting, the song receiving the most votes is named Song of The Year.
Since the award begin in 1967, eighty-five different songs have been nominated for Song of the Year on the final ballot.
Like a small handful of artists, Willie Nelson has become a virtual weather vane of musical force. He communicates to his huge and diverse following a distillation of the many musical forms that have shaped him over the years of turmoil and hard work and now success and hard work.
Once considered a Nashville renegade for wanting to have more than a passing input into his music. Willie fled to Texas in the early Seventies, leaving behind a wealth of songs, an abundance of recordings and a legion of stories, some true.
Like a phoenix, Nelson rose form the ashes and came back from his Texas base to capture airwaves, not to mention the hearts of millions of devoted followers.
Ironically, the fundamentals of Nelson’s music have changed very little since his rather desperate and formative years in the early 1950s., when he was eking out a living in the rough-and-tumble bars and dance halls around Ft. Worth, Texas. His appearances today, of course, draw huge crowds who’ve come to listen and share in the experience.
Throughout his rise to prominence and his successful foray into motion pictures. Nelson has never forgotten or been distracted form his first and last love: writing, singing and performing music. In the past years his efforts have won the highest accolades and wealth, yet for all the adulation that has been lavished on him and all the perquisites that have come with his immense popularity, Willie’s head has not been swayed from the deep-rooted traditions of his musical heritage. He hasn’t essentially changed or compromised his music to get where he is today. He has struggled for nearly three decades and has finally succeeded in getting the world t listen to what he’s been saying all along.
Willie is always quick to emphasize that it is his music that got him to where he is today, and it is his music on which he will continue to concentrate. He points out that ultimately, the purpose of his venture into films is music. “I want to call attention to the singing, to the music in these films,” he explains.
Unlike many who have achieved success, Nelson’s commitment to music is evidenced by the fact that he still thrives on the excitement of the road and live audiences, and still gets in 200 plus personal appearances a year.
Nelson’s stormy career reads and tells much better than most novels that are on the shelves. He has been everywhere and possibly seen and done everything within the scope of his life.
As a songwriter he has always been admired. His early compositions — Family Bible, Night Life, Hello Walls, Crazy and on and on — were part of the national growth of country music through the Sixties. His second career, as a traveling independent artist leading up to the classic Red Headed Stranger album, is the stuff of legends.
From Red Headed Stranger forward to today, Nelson has singly and in duets with many of the people who befriended, taught and nurtured him along the way created a body of work that has been instrumental in freeing the boundaries of music for old and new country fans alike. It is said that the crowd at a Willie Nelson show is like no other crowd in the entertainment business. But you have to see one to understand it.
Between touring and making films, Nelson lives in Texas and occasionally in Colorado. In Texas he is the proud owner of a country club, a restaurant, a recording studio and the Austin Opry House.
But beneath it all, Willie Nelson continues to pick and sing, let his hair hang down in brainds and be Willie as only he can.
Always on y Mind, recorded by Willie Nelson, was nominated for Song of the Year and won that award both in 1982 and 1983. Luckenbach, Texas, recorded with Waylon Jennings, was nominated for Song of the Year in 1977.
Country Music Magazine
by Patrick Carr
We begin with an ending of sorts. We are in Nashville on a drizzly night, packed into the Municipal Auditorium like so many high-rent sardines approaching the strung-out finale of the Disk Jockey Convenion 1975.
Taken together tonight, we are perhaps the most professional audience any of these Columbia/Epic acts are likely to play for at least another year: all of us are Somebodies in the country music business, and we’are all hip to the score. The Columbia/Epic actes bounce on stage and do whatever thing they do, three numbers each, one after the other. Tammy Wynette, Mac Davis, Barbara Fairchild, David Houston… it’s very democratic but pretty soon it becomes obvious which artists are getting corporate nod right now because all you really have to do is watch the company personnel pay or not pay attention. Nevertheless, it’s a subtle affair.
But when Willie Nelson and his band of gypsies make their entrance backstage, looking for all the world like some flying wedge of curiously benign Hells Angels, subtlety goes by the board and it’s plain that this year’s Most Likely To Succeed slot has just been taken with a vengeanance: a great shaking of hands begins.
The impression is confirmed when Willie proceeds to get up onstage with his full band (all the other acts were backed by the Columbia band) and play a 40-minute set that, except for a qute seemly absence of illegal drugs and teenage nudity among the audience, might just have well be happening in Texas on the 4th of July. This is the ending of sorts, and what it means is that after telling the Nashville powers-that-be to get lost and leaving town just three short years ago, Willie Nelson has become the country music wave of the future and is now accepting Nashville’s praise and promotional efforts on his own terms.
There is a postscript, though. Three or four hours later — after another couple of hundred handshakes, after attending a very high-rent Columbia party to which his band was not invited, and after behaving like a perfect gentleman through it all — Willie gets himself down to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store and plays for two hours while most every other star in town is out at Opryland all gussied up to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry amid great pomp and ceremony of the By Invitation Only Kind.
It isn’t that Willie couldn’t have shown up at the Opry — with his current Columbia-backed status, that’s a silly notion — and it isn’t that he’s trying a reverse-chic move like one of Nashville’s several dozen I’m-so-hip-isn’t-this-earthy tipes might attemps. It’s just that his old friend and musical hero Ernest was gracious enough to invite him, and that Ernest Tubb’s Record Store is still the best place in town to get down and play straight honky tonk music for the friends and neighbors.
Apart from being a rebel against Nashville’s creative restrictions, a culture hero, a real sweetheart, a person blessed with a highly sophisticated sense of humor, and the man who first made it possible for hippies and rednecks to co-exist under the protection of his music — all of which he is — Willie Nelson has always been one other thing. He has always been a wrtier and singer of the classic country honky tonk song, which is to say that he has always had a very precise, lonely, realistic understanding of the hard ways of this vale of tears in which we all live and suffer form time to time. This is the juke box Willie.
Historicallly, this music came out of more or less, his whol career up to today (which seems somewhat more optimistic when you consider the conclusions of the Red Headed Stranger album). It’s the kind of stuff — like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t It Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Pretty Paper,” “Touch Me” and all those other perfectly songs — that really say it to you when you’re down and getting kicked. Willie wrote most of it in Nashville when he was a highly-reputed songwriter trying to be a singing star, simultaneously going through the usual business of divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage and consequent craziness (or is that vice versa?) and running with the likes of Faron Young, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and other distinguished crazy people.
A segment of my Willie Nelson interview:
Willie (laughing): “I think a lot of people got to thinking that everybody had to do the same thing Hank Williams did, even die that way if necessary. And that got out of hand. I always used to think George Jones got drunk because Hank Williams did, like he really thought that was what he was uspposed to do.”
Me: “You ever do that?”
Willie: “‘Course I did. That’s the reason I know it’s done.”
Me: “You still do it?”
Willie: “I still get drunk, but I’m not really mimicking anybody now. I have my own drunken style.”
These days, see, Willie won’t talk about the personal agonies of those Nashville years without humor, but it’s all there in the songs which made him one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, and it came to a head during the years — his last year in Nashville — that gave rise to his Phases and Stages album. That year was a turning point, and it is chronicled in Phases and Stages. The album is an excruciatingly universal account of the way one man and one woman deal with their divorce (”That was the year I had four or five cars totalled out and the house burned down,” says Willie), but it ends with a very significant song called “Pick Up the Tempo.” It goes like so:
People are sayin’ that time will take
care of people like me
And that I’m livin’ too fast, and
they say I can’t last for much longer
But little they see that their
thoughts of me is my savior
And little they know that the beat
ought to go just a little faster,
So pick up the tempo just a little,
and take it on home….
For a man hitting the crucial age of forty, those are important lines. They speak of an affirmation of life and a determination to triumph over its emotional problems, and they represent Willie’s decison to leave Nashville, move back home to Texas, and finally realize his potential which is, in fact, exactly what he did. “I knew I only had a few years left to do what I was gong to do, and I had to make a move,” says Willie. “I wasn’t going down there to quit. I was going down there with a purpose.” the purpose, quite simply, was first to make himself a national recording star, and then to use that power base to make damn sure that people like him could be free to make their own music their own way without having to starve in the process.
Remember, Willie has a history in this department. It was he who first chaperoned Charley Pride into the country music concept scene, bringing him on stage in Louisiana — actually kissing him right there in the spotlights – and risking God only knows what kind of backlash in the process. The risk, once taken, paid off: Charley was accepted because Willie was behind him. Similarly, Willie, used his high prestige and general likeability in country music artist circles to ease Leon Russell into the Nashville scene by surrounding him with Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Jeanne Pruett and a whole galaxy of main-line performers when he was cutting the sequel to his “Hank Wilson” album.
Willie can get away with heresy because more than any other artist occupying the often-queasy ground between because more than any other artist occupying the often queasy ground between country and something else, his country credentials are in order — more to the point — he has never betrayed his roots.
So Willie arrived in Austin (where he was already a star), formed his present band around himself and his old compadre drummer Paul English (of “Me and Paul” fame), began booking his own dates and managing himself, set up that first media-shocking Picnic at Dripping Springs, connected with the local power elite in the person of Darrell Royal (coach of the University of Texas football team and a very influential citizen), and quickly assumed the role of main Godfather in the Austin scheme of things. That, incidentally, is some gig: you don’t know what a loyal crowd is until you’ve been to Austin and watched a whole clubful of liberated young things worship the ground good ol’ Willie walks on to quite embarrasing excess.
Along the way — just before that first Picnic, in fact — Ritchie Albright of the Waylors suggested that he get in touch with Neil Reshen, a New york manager and fixit person who at the time was looking to consolidate his country music holdings. Reshin already had Waylon as a client, and Willie followed suit. This action signified the arrive with the neccessary teeth for the coutlaw allliance Willie had been pondering for years, and it became a classic Beauty and the Beast operation that continues to this day.
An example of the dynamics of that Beauty and the Beast relationship:
Willie on Neil Reshen: “He’s probably the most hated and the most effective manager that I know of. He enjoys going up to those big corporations and going over their figures. He’s so sadistic, he loves to do it.”
And once again, Willie: “At least you know where you’re at with Neil. Nowhere.”
And again: “Anyone who can learn to like Neil can like anyone. It’s a challenge to like Neil.”
“Willie, how are you doing on that?”
“I’m coming along, I’m coming alone. I can stay around him a little while now.”
Althought the mere mention of Neil Reshen’s name has been known to send secretaries to the bathroom and turn grown executives into violent monsters (”He’s another of those guys I don’t understand how he lived so long with somebody really hurting him,” says Willie),Â you have to admit that while Willie and Waylon (”It’s like having a maddog on a leash,” says Waylon) may have been able to get out of Nashville’s grasp without him.Â It’s only through this man’s unspeakably vicious yet effective manner of dong business, that the outlaw bid for independent power on country music has avoided bankruptcy and actually shown a profit.
So, with the active assistance of New York Neil, Willie has established the power base he was after. It is now possible for Willie to record with Waylon or Kris or Leon (he’s planning a whole Willie/Waylon joint album), and what’s more, with the formation of Lone Star Records, he can get people like Jimmy Day, Johnny Darrell, Floyd Tillman, Billy C., Bucky Meadows, his sister Bobbie and other Texas worthies into the recording studio and, since Columbia Records pays for promotion and distribution under a joint Columbia/Lone Star deal, actually get the finished product before the public. Like Willie says, “We’re all togethe
hr, and we have the same idea about what we wnat to do, which is to do our thing our own way. I’m trying to get these guys to do for themselves what they’ve been bitching about people not doing for them.”
Willie’s long affair with the business of honky tonk music represents one considerable side of his character which may be traceable to the fact that he and his sister Bobbi (”it’s alwyas been me and her”) were raised without parents. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson divorced when Willie was a baby and Bobbi was there, and so for the first six eyars of his life Wilile was with his grandparents. For the next tne year, he was raised by his grandmoter alone, grandfather having passed away. That of coruse is a vast oversimplification, but the roots of his two divorces and highly creative loneliness must lie buried somewhere in there, just as the roots of his present, almost uncanny serenity must be located in the emotional steps he took to overcome his personal problems. Whatever, it is an absolute fact that the presnet-day Willie Nelson is most definitely not an individual still in conflict with himself.
In a sense, Willie Nelson now is in some sort of still-perceptive, still creative cruise-gear, moving through a world of incredibly high pressure with almost perfect equilibrium. You can hear this feeling on the Red Headed Stranger album (a concept suggested and assisted by his wife Connie, with whom he does in fact seem quite happy) and you can see it when, dead center in the eye of one of this nation’s strangest cultural hurricanes, he drifts through the absolute mayhem of his Picnic and somehow manages to be a rock-like source of calm and competence for (literally) thousands of the most outrageously uncalm, incompetent hustlers, freaks and assorted weirdos ever assembled under one patch of Texas sky.
It also shows when, in the middle of yet another night of pushing his ragged band through a set of half-tragic, half-boogie music and watching with a smile as his audience stumbles and whoops its way towards unconsciousness, it comes down to just him and his Spanish-style, gut-string amplified Martin, and for a while the most carefully emotional, beautifully balanced little collection of mood notes in the world go soaring through the rancid air.
This is the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt, Grady Martin and the other psychological gypsy guitar pickers from whom Willie developed his style; it is also the mark of a man who has really seen it all and can still look it straight in the eye.
Atlanta, Georgia: Willie is on a First Class trip. Laid out in the back of the limousine behind his big spade shades, he is relaxing into the ways of being a star with records on the charts. There’ll be no more no-money dives to play, and for a while there won’t even be any songwriting unless the fancy takes him. Willie explains that he’s not one of those poeple who get headaches when they’re not writing, and since his next two albums — a Gospel album and an album of Lefty Frizzel songs — are already in the can, all he really has to do is keep on showing up for Willie Nelson concerts.
There are also some interesting projects in theÂ wind, and they might even get done.Â there’s the issue of a Red Headed Stranger movie, for instance (”If I had the money and any idea about how to do it, I’d be somewhere doin’ it right now”,) and the almost equally interesting notion of Willie, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush getting together to do a couple of original Cherokee Cowboy dates.
Tonight Willie’s nose will be back on the grindstone as once again he takes the stage with his gypsies and plays for the sticky young drunks and dopers of Atlanta. Tonight, once again, he’ll be up there doing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Eileen Goodnight” with whoever wants to join in (this time it’s Tracy Nelson and Linda Ronstadt and Mylon LeFevre), and tonight there’ll be another endless hillbilly amnesia session up in the hotel room.
Tomorrow there’ll be another bloody mary morning when Paul, bless him, has paid the bills and checked us all out and onto the road again.Â But now, just for a while, Willie is thinking about his Gospel album and remembering that he was asked to quit teaching in Sunday School when they found out that Little Willie played the local Texas beer joints at night.
“Were you a good preacher, Willie?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “I really was.”
“Are you a religious man?”
“Yes,” he says, “Probably more than I ever was. Y’know?”
Somehow, when you really get serious about Willie Nelson, the answer is not at all surprising.
The 1970s built on the 1960s. The Bakersfield Sound inspired the Outlaw Movement, and the Nashville Sound paved the way for the Rhinestone Cowboys. In hairstyles, Willie Nelson lived up to the name of his 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger and let his hair grow long and his beard get burly. Women wore everything from naturally long locks (Emmylou Harris and Crystal Gayle) to larger-than-life teased styles (Tammy Wynette) or wigs.
In Duvall’s new book, Country Music Hair, the author and former CMT Radio producer interviews singers, hairstylists, and makeup artists to span the decades—complete with dozens of photographs—of the iconic bouffants, bobs, wigs, and, yes, mullets that have crowned country music’s chart-toppers.
The 1960s: Clean-cut or Curled
The 1960s straddled the line between the prim-and-proper 1950s and the wild-and-free 1970s. Musically, country saw two styles emerge: the more natural Bakersfield Sound, and the sleek production of the Nashville Sound. Hairstyles reflected the dichotomy. Bakersfield artist Buck Owens opted for a clean-cut crop. “Even Willie Nelson had his hair cut short at that time,” Duvall says. “The men weren’t really stepping out of their social norms.”
There are any number of adages about walking in another man’s shoes one could apply as a means of introducing the story of Willie Nelson’s New Balance shoes. I assure you Mr. Nelson himself has a handful of lyrics that would lend themselves nicely to such an introduction. Instead, I’d like to begin by explaining how I came upon this post.
My twin uncles Mark and Matt were two of the first guys I idolized as a little kid. My dad’s younger brothers were cool. Artists with a passion for hunting elk, there’s this story they tell of Hank Williams, Jr. offering to buy one of their bronze statues of an elk or of a cowboy on a bucking bronco or something like that. My first memories of Willie Nelson are wrapped around hearing his voice pour forth from factory-issued speakers while my legs dangled from the front bench of one of my uncles’ pick-up trucks.
Since then, Mr. Nelson’s music has been a part of mine and my family’s life — a part I largely disregarded until I re-discovered his brilliant songs in early adulthood.
Then there’s the running. Growing up, I recall sneaking around in my dad’s closet and finding this old pair of blue New Balance 320s which he told me he wore when he ran 5ks and 10ks in the 1970s. Around the time of my dad’s running exploits, Willie Nelson left Nashville in a cloud of dust (among other things) and returned to his home state of Texas, and threw his sizable, embellished ten-gallon-hat into the ring of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement beginning to crest there. And underway was this massive running boom. The hippies were hitting the trails with nothing but a bandana around their heads, some fitted shorts and simple, synthetic and leather shoes on their feet. And with a relentless tour schedule (Mr. Nelson has a song about it. Maybe you’ve heard it.) taking its toll, Willie Nelson found running — or perhaps better stated, running found Willie Nelson.
“For a health kick, I ain’t on one. But… I find that running makes me feel better. It had gotten to the point where I was killing myself at night, so I had to do something in the daytime to make up for it. Now that I run, I don’t stay out as late as I did. I don’t drink much anymore, and I don’t even smoke cigarettes…. It’s not that I’m all that strong willed. It’s just that when you’re done running five miles you don’t want a drink or cigarette. All you want to do is flatten out,” courtesy of Texas Girl, December, 1979.
“More than once, I’ve gone jogging in a town I don’t know and had to knock on a stranger’s door and ask directions to get back to where I started.” from the Tao of Willie.
Running became such an integral part of Mr. Nelson’s life that he began to run races. For a time, at his Pedernales Country Club outside Austin, he hosted the “Willie Nelson Distance Classic.” I was lucky enough to find a vintage t-shirt online from the race that was held in June of 1980. According to one source at the time, “More than 1,000 runners entered the race which Nelson hopes to make an annual event. Nelson (47) finished the hilly 6.2 mile course in one hour, seven minutes and 45 seconds.”
And I’m surprised his running/golf hybrid game has not as yet taken off.
“Willie is very big on fitness and the fact that he is still putting in the miles on the road and working around the clock lends some fact to this. He used to enter road races and I’m not sure if he invented a golf game for fitness folks, but it is different than the one we watch on television. The winner is the person that can run 18 holes the fastest and by adding the number of strokes and the running time determines the winner. Fastest runner with the fewest strokes is the winner and gets to buy the beer.” from Moe Johnson of the San Marcos Record.
And though, early on in his running life, Willie Nelson wore the same 320s my dad wore, as can be seen in this photo from inside the fold of the 1978 album Willie Nelson and the Family Live and on the cover of 1981’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, at some point he discovered the unparalleled comfort and durability of the 496, a walking shoe. On a recent trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, I took an abundance of detailed photos of a pair of Mr. Nelson’s custom 496s currently on display in the lobby.
And earlier in the year, I reached out with some questions to the folks at New Balance, who were kind enough to humor me with the following statement.
We make them at our Lawrence, Massachusetts manufacturing facility. We knew Willie was a New Balance fan so when we were presented with the chance to work with him on a running event in Austin, Texas with one of our retailers to benefit Farm Aid – it was a great opportunity. I believe it might have also been timed to our newfound ability to do personalized embroidery at our factory in Lawrence when we added new machinery – which was around that same time. Our manufacturing team members have enjoyed making Willie his 496 New Balance shoes and over the years have added different special embroidery elements on them such as a guitar or his name or Farm Aid. – Amy Dow, New Balance
Thanks to Ms. Dow at New Balance, to Linda Lee Banks, the author of the authoritative Willie Nelson fan site, Still is Still Moving, to my good friend Adam Geremia, author of the inspiring Tumblr which explores that early running boom, They Call Us The Seekers, and to those of you who found your way to the end of this lengthy headlong dive into the world of Willie Nelson’s footwear choice. I saw this as something of a tribute to this year’s running of the Boston Marathon and to Mr. Nelson as he approaches his 81st birthday at the end of this month. If you’re still hungry for more, there are plenty of photos in this Flickr album that didn’t make the cut. Let’s end it with some inspiring thoughts from the man himself.
“I just try to exercise. I try to do enough in the morning to make up for what I did, detrimentally, the night before. I try to make it even out, but you know, we don’t live the greatest lifestyles out here traveling on the road and eating whatever we can get a hold of. So, any kind of exercise we can do daily is good, and I try to get in a run or a bike ride or something every day.”
“I enjoy running around Austin. I enjoy going downtown and running on the rivers and lakes down there, and you see just loads and loads of people doing it every single day. There’s not a more beautiful place to run and Austin has so many great roads and trails.” – Willie Nelson, courtesy of Still is Still Moving.
Willie Nelson is featured on the cover of September’s Cowboys and Indians magazine, which features an article about Willie by Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote: “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.”
He’s a cowboy and an Indian. Maybe the ultimate Cowboy and Indian, even. Of the many things I’ve learned about Willie Nelson over the course of three decades of writing about him, those two qualities say a whole lot about the musician and the man. His cowboyness came both naturally and through fantasy.
He grew up in the town of Abbott in rural Hill County, Texas, just north of Waco and a few miles east of the Chisholm Trail. In Abbott, even poor town people like the Nelsons raised stock, although in their case, the Nelsons were so poor, little Willie Hugh rode the family cow, Reddy, before he rode a horse. As a boy he was active in Future Farmers of America, where he learned to castrate bulls and twice won the FFA Sweetheart of the Year award in high school. He even briefly pondered a career in agriculture.
More significantly, like most other kids of his age, he was smitten with watching cowboy movies at the picture show, in his case the Best in West or the Ritz in Hillsboro.
[Thanks so much to Phil Weisman for gifting me this great magazine from the UK. The country music magazines always have the best photos.]
It takes three buses and two trucks to move Willie Nelson and his band and crew around the country for the over 250 performances that Willie gives each year. But for all it grueling aspects, life on the road never loses that sense of freedom and adventure so important to country musicians like Willie Nelson, who spent much of their early lives yearning to escape from backgrounds of poverty and rural isolation.
These photographs by Michael Abramson, courtesy of Columbia Records, tell the story of Willie’s magic caravan better than worlds could ever do.
Willie Nelson, Connie Nelson and daughters Amy and Paula
As unspoiled by his fantastic success as any one could possibly be, Willie Nelson is always available t his fans after a show. Although he values his privacy, Willie knows how important it is to maintain personal contact with the people to whom he means so much.
photo: Gary Miller
by: Andy Langer
This is not the chorus Alejandro Rose-Garcia, a.k.a. Shakey Graves, expected to fill the room the first time he met Willie Nelson. And he never dreamed those sounds would come from carving his name into Trigger, Willie’s famously battered and autographed Martin N-20 classical guitar. But, indeed, earlier this month, at Willie’s recording studio in Pedernales, Willie handed Rose-Garcia to Trigger and told him, “Go ahead. Take that ballpoint and scratch your name in there.” And so he did.
“Obviously, I’m not worthy,” says Rose-Garcia, a born-and-raised Austinite who supported his critically acclaimed 2014 album, And The War Came, with an almost non-stop two-year run of high-profile festival gigs and sold-out headlining shows in mid-size clubs and theaters across the country. “I’m still trying to process it.”
Rose-Garcia met Willie October 3 as a guest host of Other Voices, an Irish television show often compared to Austin City Limits that recorded a series of episodes last week in Austin at Arlyn Studios and utilized a swath of acts playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival, including Mumford And Sons, Cage The Elephant, and Margo Price. The show’s session with Willie was the only one taped outside of Aryln.
Rose-Garcia says that for as many times as he’d seen pictures of Trigger, he’d never noticed the autographs until Willie handed him the guitar to inspect. But indeed, the signatures carved into the wood are a storied part of a storied guitar. Willie’s been collecting autographs on Trigger for the better part of four decades, ever since Leon Russell asked Willie to sign his guitar. Flattered Russell had asked him, Willie figured a swap was in order and had Russell sign Trigger at the same time. From there the collection grew. As Texas Monthly’s own Michael Hall wrote in a December 2012 profile of Willie’s guitar:
Some were famous musicians—Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson—and others were members of Willie’s band or crew: Paul English, Poodie, Budrock Prewitt, and Tune’n Tom, a.k.a. Tom Hawkins, who had become the guitar’s caretaker on the road, changing strings every three or four gigs and tuning it up. Some signed the guitar in Magic Marker or Sharpie, and their names were soon lost in the blood, sweat, and beers of the nightlife. Others scratched them in with a ballpoint pen but didn’t push deep enough, and their names too slowly faded. Soon Willie lost track of exactly who had signed his guitar.
“I know how it felt when Leon asked,” Willie said backstage last Thursday night at Austin City Limits’ Hall of Fame event. “So I try to pass that feeling along when I meet someone who I think would appreciate it. And Trigger knows I’m not going to hand him to nobody that’s gonna hurt him.”
John Selmen, Willie’s road manager, says prior to Rose-Garcia, the last time somebody signed Trigger was at a April 2013 celebration of Willie’s eightieth birthday. Just before taping CMT Crossroads: Willie Nelson & Friends From Third Man Records at Jack White’s record shop in Nashville, Willie asked both White and singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson to etch their names into the guitar. White’s signature is clearly visible at the very bottom of Trigger’s front side. Rose-Garcia’s now sits above and a few inches to the right—a place Willie chose for him.
Last week, we spoke to Rose-Garcia about the autograph he’d never dreamed of signing:
When did you know you’d be interviewing Willie?
I was in Los Angeles closing a round of shows with Gary Clark Jr. The Greek Theater was our last gig with Gary and my last night of touring for a while. I was supposed to go home after and get back to the drawing board. So it was kind of an emotional night, to end things at the Greek Theater playing with a dude I went to high school with in Austin [both Rose-Garcia and Clark went to Austin High School, a few grades apart]. Meanwhile my manager is there and says the Other Voices people hit us up and someone else was supposed to interview Willie Nelson but had some travel problems and got stuck in Europe. “Can you fly back early?” he asked. I said yes without hesitation.
So I land back in Austin at 1 p.m. the next day, and I’m supposed to start working for Other Voices at 2 p.m. I talked to the director and he said Willie is recording an album right now out at his home studio and we’re not even sure if he’ll talk to us. Nobody likes being busted in on when they’re recording. That’s sacred time. So there was a lot of doubt it would happen. But if it did, I figured I’d ask some questions about Ireland [where Other Voices is broadcast] and get out of there. I was down to fly by the seat of my pants.
Once you’re at Willie’s, he indeed agrees to stop the session and play some songs for the show?
Exactly. And it’s beautiful. Willie is just sitting there, smoking and playing music. His band are all in isolation booths. From our vantage point, the only person you can see in the room and hear is Willie- we’re only hearing his side of the songs. I’ve seen him play live only once—at Luck, on his property—and this time I’m in his space. And from ten feet away I watched him play “Always on My Mind.” It really shook me up. It was a really surreal experience. I love Willie. But I’m not a Willie Nelson historian. I have some albums I really love. But I’ve never gone down the well too far.
Is that because you grew up in Austin? Is it almost a rejection because it’s so expected that Willie would be the soundtrack of your life?
It’s not that at all. It’s that I don’t have to work too hard to listen to Willie Nelson. I feel like if you were from a different place and sought it out, you’d be more encyclopedic. But I have a good grasp on it. I love what he does and what he represents. But then he played “Always On My Mind” and my brain started turning. That song was written before I was born. And Willie’s version is from 1982. To me, it’s always just sort of existed. And it’s never been humanized in that way for me. And here, I’m watching him as an 83-year-old man working in a studio—something I also do for a living—sitting with headphones, a vape pen and a cup of coffee. And people are freaking out around him and he’s completely unphased by it. And here is this song I’ve heard so often in my life, but I’m really listening to it for the first time because he’s right here and I was only hearing his track. It freaked me out. I welled up. And while I’m still dealing with that, my mind and emotions reeling, they pull out a folding chair and put me in a seat next time him. I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life and didn’t know where to start.
He’s good with small talk. And jokes.
He was so easygoing. And so funny. We talked a little about Ireland. The show is taped in Dingle, and we laughed about it being where the berries come from. I think he might have sensed my nervousness, and he asked, “Do you pick?” I said, “Um. I do. A little bit?” With no hesitation he hands me Trigger. I genuinely didn’t feel the urge to touch it. At all. That’s his. But recently, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic guitar, the SRV1, on display at the Texas State History Museum. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t care about it. But it’s similar to Trigger in that people have carved their initials in it—it’s a gnarly guitar. A guitar like that at some point stops being a guitar and becomes an artifact. This is that person’s life in a guitar. SRV1 took my breath away. And Trigger was obviously the same thing. I thought to myself, I’m not going to play a song. I don’t even want to handle it. I played really tentatively. And he asked, “What did you say your name was?” I said, “I’m Alejandro. But I play music as Shakey Graves. It’s a little confusing. I played your Fourth of July picnic.” Maybe it rang a bell. Maybe it didn’t. Right about then, I flipped Trigger up and took a minute to look at it. I saw the signatures all over it. So I pointed it out and said,”This is crazy. It feels like a lover’s lane—like Jesse + Francine = Love Forever.” And without hesitation he asks, “Does anyone have a ball point pen.” The room got real quiet real quick.
What’s going on in your head?
Part of me is thinking, ‘please let this go down. Do I have anything in my pocket? Am I maybe carrying a knife?’ I kind of see where this going, but it’s also not really believable A gentleman in the back—a photographer—threw out a ball point pen, Willie caught it, and he turns to me and says, “Scratch your name on in.” And in my head, I’m saying ‘What? No.’ I hesitated and he said, “Find yourself a good spot.” And then he pointed out a piece of real estate. I tried to be ginger and he said, “No. Really get in there. Your really have to scratch at it.” So I drew this little signature I’ve been doing before I was really a musician—a skull with an arrow through it with heart on the end of the arrow. And drew a little S and a G by its side. I said, “You like making people nervous, don’t you?” He laughed.
And yet your name is on Trigger. Forever.
Right after it happened I felt like I was in a car accident—my ears kind of popped. I went outside and couldn’t really fathom what just happened. Freddy, Willie’s nephew and one of the reasons Other Voices was in Austin, told me that kind of thing simply does not happen. He said over and over, “Did you just sign Trigger?”
And you know that at some point Trigger is headed to the Smithsonian. With your name etched in it.
What’s beautiful about the whole things is how illustrative it is of Willie’s generous spirit. And in my own personal sense, I’d really love to have a reason that my name is on that guitar. It makes me want to write something or create something that’s as lasting and enduring as my signature on Trigger. I’d like to be more than a local scratch-mark. But even if I am, I’ve made it, baby. I’d be fine with that.
Willie Nelson — A Real Man and His Music
Dallas Morning News
August 10, 1975
by Bob St. John
“I live one day at a time.
I dream one dream at a time.
Yesterday’s gone; and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at at time” — Willie Nelson
You could call it a crowd or an audience. No matter, really, because the man and his fans are not bound by tags and labels and names that categorize them. The drifters are there, the denim crowd (real and dyed), the dreamers, the rednecks, the intellectuals who do not have stiff rods for backbones, and the suburbanites who have escaped the backyard tempo of flip-top beers and philosophical martinis.
“Willie!” somebody says, and everybody is picking it up. “Hello, Willie!” And the man, Willie Nelson, smiles and shakes hands which reach for him, and chats briefly as he moves across the floor, between tables. You see, Willie Nelson is touchable and touches. He is real. He has run the gauntlet of life’s deepest emotions and survived. And his fans, in him, have survived.
Now he is on the stage, talking to members of his group, his band. Blue lights, piercing, find him through the smoke-covered room with its beer smells, perfume — expensive and cheap. Now he has his guitar, worn like it’s owner, and the people begin shouting, stomping and cheering.
And he begins. “Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning, baby left me without warning, sometime in the night. So I’m flying down to Houston, with forgetting her the nature of my flight. As we taxi towards the runway, with the smog and haze reminding me of how I feel. Just a country boy who’s learning that the pitfalls of the city are extremely real.”
A man in jeans, a cowboy hat, gets up and walks toward the stage and Willie leans down and shakes hands. A young girl runs up and Willie takes her hand, leans over and she kisses him on the cheek. “All the night life and the parties, temptations decide the order of the day. Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning and I’m leaving baby somewhere in L.A…”
It is a loud, fast, foot-stomping song. But soon he will do something slower, sad, ballad-like. He will do them all. This is the Willie Nelson experience. On this night he went on at 10 and though the show is supposed to last a couple of hours, he sings and picks until almost 2 a.m. Willie is like that. He’s the only entertainer I’ve ever met who has been known to wear out audiences.
The people love it. So does Willie. Willie Nelson is not like so many top performers who give the impression they’re doing what they do as a favor to you, after you pay your money. Many seem to be looking for the quickest, most painless exit from the stage as they look blankly at the same faces in another town, another place. Willie Nelson enjoys himself.
Willie sings in a strong, clear baritone which can become very mellow and, at times, subtle. He has a person-to-person style, and his voice strikes chords in you if you have been lonely, happy, deserted, sad or under the compulsion of wanderlust. Some of his songs are fun, happy, some sad and haunting. Often when I listen to his lyrics and music I find in them a correlation to a truly good novel. You can read his song for a good story but, looking deeper, you find something more profound, allegorical. In one recent album, “Phases and Stages,” he takes a poignant look at the breakup of a marriage, one side of the album being form the woman’s viewpoint and the other from the man’s. Each is his own way goes through the stages of feeling hopeless and depressed, then becomes philosophical and, finally, rebounds. There are many different type songs, different eats, in the album, but together they paint a complete picture.
For years Willie was a word-of-mouth legend. Now, more than anybody, he is the catalyst of the current movement in music, a blending fo pop, country, rock, even some blues. It has been called “progressive country,” though Willie doesn’t care for that particular designation.
“I hate music labels,” willie was saying as we sat on the sofa of his office in the Willie Nelson Music Co. in Austin. “A label is just one man’s opinion and that doesn’t make it right. That’s this…this is that (he laughs). Labels put a bind on something, corner it and keep it from branching out.”
Willie was dressed as he often is, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes with no socks. His hair, shoulder length, was bothering him so he pulled off a piece of recording tape and tied it around his head, Indian style. Everybody is completely loose in the Willie Nelson Music Co., which publishes some of his music, and there seems to be a great deal of confusion, though it all produces success. I had the impression you might open a filing cabinet and find a potential hit song scribbled on a piece of paper, or maybe you’d find a piece of pizza. The office and the people who work for and with Willie reflect him.
One of Willie’s daughters, Lana, works in his office. When we walked in she jumped up and hugged his neck. Paul English, behind a desk in another room, is Willie’s drummer and longtime friend. After they greeted each other warmly, Paul began explaining a life insurance policy to Willie, who was putting on a tape of his new album, “The Red Headed Stranger.” Between phones ringing, conversations going on from all directions, I caught parts of the album. I heard enough of it to know he was doing something a little different.
University of Texas athletic director-coach Darrell Royal knows more about country-and-western music than anybody I know. Friends in the field say he’s a self-made expert. “Willie stays ahead,” says Royal, a close friend of Willie. “In recent years people are getting into what they’re calling progressive country. Willie was doing that 10 years ago. By the time people get into what he’s doing, he’s already gone on to something else. Willie stays a few years ahead of everybody.”
An extremely tall blond young lady with sharp features, a long, somewhat bent nose, was sitting in a corner of Willie’s office, which I learned is also an undesignated lounge area. She was staring at the wall. Near her a short, portly man was staring at the floor. While Willie talked over the telephone to his lawyer in new York I went toward them, looked at the woman, who was pretty but deadpan, and said, “Hello, how are you?” She looked right thorough me, then stared at the wall again.
When Willie got off the phone, the man got up and started telling Willie his problems, about his ex-wife and children. Willie listened sympathetically. I went into another room and Gene McCoslin, who used to manage KNOK radio station in Dallas and now works for Willie, told me the pair were entertainers. Willie had brought them from Las Vegas and put them on stage in Houston, using his band behind them. They had flopped and indicated to the band they felt the crowd might not like them. “Hell,” said English later, “I wasn’t worried about whether they liked them or not. I was worried about getting killed by irate fans.”
“I still think they are good,” said Willie. “The timing just wasn’t right.” Jody Payne, his guitarist, came in and greeted Willie like a long, lost friend. Later Willie was talking about his group — English, Payne, bass player Bea Spears, Mickey Raphael on the harmonica and Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, on the piano. “The thing we have going for us is that we like each other,” said Willie. “We sincerely like each other.”
Word was out. Willie was in town, at his office. The place became Austin terminal. Willie left the door open.
I watched him. His face is worn, somewhat craggy and surrounded by brownish-red hair and a beard, salted with white. Lines around his brown eyes show that he has both cried and laughed a lot. If possible, his face seems both younger and older than his 42 years.
“I really do believe you have to suffer and feel things deeply to write about them,” he was saying. “I’ve got a lot to write about because, well, a lot has happened to me. Some of the best stuff I’ve written came easiest. Usually, the harder I work on something the less I’m pleased. There are no really new ideas. Anything original is something you do different, maybe saying the same thing in a different way.”
Short years ago Willie Nelson wasn’t as big an entertainer and didn’t seem to get much credit as a writer. Continually, I find people surprised to learn that Willie wrote this or that old standby. His song “Funny How Time Slips Away” was recorded by 80 artists, including Bing Crosby. He has written other classics in the industry such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “One Day at a Time,” “Night Life,” “The Party’s Over,” “My Own Peculiar way” and “I’ll Walk Alone.” “Bloody Mary Morning” is one of his recent songs which seems most likely to become a standard.
His songs have been recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra, perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lawrence Welk, Stevie Wonder, Ray Price, Harry James, Patsy Cline, Al Green and Eydie Gorme. The music is adaptable to many styles, many versions, but the definitive recordings of Willie’s song are done by Willie, who understands them best.
“I like all kinds of people, all kinds of crowds,” he continued when I go thim away from all the people. “I like to see them all laid back and listening to our music. I do try to be touchable. A lot of guys hire bodyguards. This was especially true during the era of the big stars. But it’s bull. Nobody needs them. People who come to see and hear you aren’t going to hurt you. They’re your friends.”
“You know, I don’t think there’s much difference in people. They’re the same, though maybe in different wrappings.”
I told him something he already knew, that his cult, his followers, come from all groups. “I think some of the young people listen and enjoy our kind of music and so do dads and mammas,” he added. “I hope maybe we can help them find out their parents aren’t so bad and help the parents find out all the kids aren’t Charels Mansons. (He paused, looked out the back door of his office, which was open.) Kids are a heckuva lot smarter than we were. I think they were just born with more sense.”
His wife, Connie, phoned and he talked softly to her. Willie has three kids — Lana, Billy and Susie — by a previous marriage. He and Connie, a pretty blond, have been marrried for some five years and have two small children, Paula and Amy. “One time we were playing at a place called Cut and Shoot, Texas,” said Willie. “Connie was a fan. She and a girl friend came to see us play. She sat at the band table and I saw her and said, ‘I want her.’ One of the guys went over and got her. She’s a beautiful woman.”
“Willie and Connie had just gotten back from Hawaii. “We were just sitting around the house,” explained Willie, “and she asked when we might go to Hawaii. I said, ‘How about tomorrow?’ We went for a week to get into the sun. We got burned the first day and it rained the next four. Rain didn’t matter. We were too sunburned to get out anyway. No, I don’t like to plan things. Most plans don’t work out. I just like to get up and do things.”
The Nelsons did live on a 44-acre ranch outside Austin. But, even for Willie, the curious got to be too much. When they found out where he lived they continually came out — friends, strangers, everybody. “Some,” he said, “would come by and stay for two days. So we made another snap decision, to sell the house and move into the city.”
We drove to his new house, on a quiet, residential street lined with trees. Odd, I though, how you can live in the country and be surrounded and yet find more privacy in the city, crowded with people. I told him it was a nice house. “I think I might just stay a couple of days,” I added, and he laughed.
It goes against his grain for Willie to be the superstar that he is becoming. He had tremendous reviews after playing at the Trouboudour in Los Angeles. On learning Willie was in town, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney attended his performance there. After hearing Willie in New York, critic Loraine Alterman wrote in the New York Times he did “country music that can move even those of us who think we despise it.”
“I don’t want to be a superstar because I don’t like the way they have to live,” said Willie. “I wouldn’t want to be like, say, an Elvis Presley. Besides, I’m basically lazy. I just need enough money to get by, to exist. I don’t like tours. You have to be gone too long. Now we have it down to where we work five, six days a month. And we like it around here — Austin, Dallas, Houston, places close. No, I don’t worry about exposure. Hell, I’m overexposed now.
“People who work all the time, they get to where you dread the next day coming, dread being there. When I entertain I enjoy it. I enjoy people and don’t want to work so much that I get caught up in it and forget that. I also want to live a life, be myself, not somebody else. I like freedom.”
Once Willie was playing in this place and a big fight started. People and chairs were crashing everywhere but Willie just kept on playing. Willie’s cool. “I tell you how cool he is,” said English. “We used to travel around in this old bus. One day we were moving on down this freeway and Willie and some of the guys were playing card in the back. Suddenly, the universal joint fell out and cut the brake lining. The driver yelled back he couldn’t stop the bus. Everybody was in apanic. ‘What we going to do, Willie’ somebody asked. Willie never looked up. ‘Deal,’ he said.”
At Willie’s office that day, a number of things were going on at once, but the big plans were for his annual Fourth of July picnic. This generally referred to as the “Woodstock” of country music. It’s an all-day singing and picking session in which some of the top names in the industry visit their friend Willie Nelson. Two years ago in Dripping Springs they stopped counting the people at 50,000. Last year in College Station it drew near 100,000, and this year estimates of the number who attended ran as high as 95,000.
For his latest picnic Willie had rented a 500-acre site 30 miles northwest of Austin near the hamlet of Liberty Hill. He hopes to keep the picnic there. It ahs plenty of parking room, trees for shade and it’s bisected by the San Gabriel River. Willie drove a group of us out to the site and, as we were heading toward the soft, rollling hills, Willie was saiyng, “I like all kinds of music. Just all kinds. I also play a little golf, and I guess my other pastime is thinking. I think a lot.”
I remembered a story Royal told about once when they were playing golf in Brownville. Willie was in the trees and couldn’t get a cart near where his ball had stopped. He yelled at Royal, on the fairway, to toss him a two-iron. Royal slung the club. Willie lost sight of it as it came down through the trees. It hit him right on the head. “Willie, you okay”? yelled Royal. Willie’s voice came out from the trees. “I don’t know yet. I might be dead.”
Our drive through the countryside was pleasant. Bluebonnets carpeted both sides of the raod and we passed through a small town which seemed, as do many small towns in texas, to have stopped in a time long passed. Willie was raised in such a town, Abbott, which is just off Interstate 35 some 30 miles north of Waco. I had visited there earlier.
Farm road 1242 cuts under the main highway and runs through what is downtown Abbott, a small, bunched group of buildings, many boarded up and closed. Chruches seem to be on every corner. They are far from boarded up. “See that spot over there,” said Jimmy Bruce, a parttime clerk in the post office. “Willie used to live in a hosue right over there. I was a neighbor. Yeah, he was a pretty good kid. He comes back here sometimes and plays benefits.
“When he was here the Hill County sheriff came out and gave them a little trouble. They were afraid he might attract the wrong kind of crowd. Some folks around here talk about Willie, but I liked him. Yes sir, I did.”
Willie was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. The old folks were very religious, the firs and brimstone kind. His grandfatehr, a blacksmith, died when Willie was six, leavin ghim in the care of his grandmoter, a music teacher. “Times were hard during the Depression, but we grew our own food and had a cow for milk,” Willie once told me.
Back then, summer nights were still, lazy, with outdoor smells and sounds of crickets and sometimes frogs. Willie would rest on his bed near a window and listen to revivals and church services at the tabernacle nearby. “I also did a lot of listening on the radio,” he said. “I’d catch the Grand Ol’ Opry and the rhythm and blues program from New Orleans. My granddad had taught me a few chords on the guitar before he died. So I bought me a $6 guitar and a chord book. I taught myself to play by putting my fingers on those black dots in the book. My sister Bobbie was the real musician. My grandmother gave her piano lessons and I can remember them practicing beside a kerosene lamp.
“The first time I performed in public I was about five. My grandmother dressed me up in a sailor suit and took me to one of those all-day picnics. You know, singing and eating and praying, and praying some more. So I got up to recite this poem. My nose started bleeding. There I was reading the poem and holding one side of my nose with my hand. I think everyone was glad when I sat down. I know I was.”
Willie and Bobbie would entertain at school. When he was 12 he joined his first band, a Bohemian polkia band, which was formed by his brother-in-law, Bud Fletcher. Willie played the guitar and sange, Bobbie was on the piano, the high school football coach played the trombone and Willie’s father, a musician who’d come back into town during is travels, the fiddle. “Bobbie was the only one who was any good,” said Willie. “We never played the same place twice. We usually played on a percentage and I remember one night we cleared 81 cents each.”
But Willie had begun to jog down lyrics on scraps of paper, and he also was entertaining at a nearby beer drinking establishment, the Night Owl, managed by a big, robust woman named Margie Lundy. The original Night Owl burned a few years ago. The new place, on the same site, is smaller. Margie has been handling it all ehrself, since her husband died a few years ago. “Yessiree, I kept it going, though it’s not easy,” she was saying.
Traffic in the Willie Nelson Music Co. was winding down. The blonde entertainer was gone. As I left I kept thinking: Willie is there, among people, touchable. He is somebody, yet has control because inside he is not trying to play a part, to be anybody but himself. He is one of us. And Willie is… well, Willie is Willie.
by: K. Shapiro
Marijuana is obviously having its most major moment. And with it comes an entirely new culture — one where it’s more acceptable than ever to wear weed on your sleeve. Here at The Cannabist, we are setting out to shine a light on those who define the style of cannabis culture — past or present, real or fictional. We’re looking to those who embody the spirit of what marijuana means, through art, music, fashion and film.
It is our honor to start this series on weed icons with the original outlaw, Willie Hugh Nelson (b. April 29, 1933; Abbot, Texas). In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Patrick Doyle dubbed him “one of America’s greatest songwriters, a hero from Texas to San Francisco, a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” We will also add that he’s a stoner’s stoner.
Willie Nelson’s new memoir goes on sale Tuesday, May 5.
In the book, Nelson also reflects on finding inspiration in the counterculture of the 1960s — the time when he first experienced and soon adopted the hippie lifestyle.
“I liked that (the kids) had courage to look and act any damn way they pleased,” he writes. “The new world represented by the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane was new only in appearance. (It) appealed to me because it was bold and creative and said to the world, ‘To hell with what you think. I’ll dress any way I please.’”
And he always has. Nelson’s signature style is anti-establishment, anti-fashion even. A black hat, bolo tie, cowboy boots (now New Balance), T-shirt and a bandana headband are all a part of Nelson’s enduring look. Oh, and the braids. Hell, they fetched $37,000 at auction in 2014. When classic cowboy is matched with rockstar authenticity — it’s inimitable. He doesn’t try, and he doesn’t have to. He’s just that fucking cool.
High fashion too, looks good on Nelson. Designer John Varvatos, who has a deep connection to music, celebrated Nelson’s style in his fall/winter 2013 advertising campaign featuring the star alongside his sons Lukas and Micah.
Watch Willie Nelson and family perform:
Soon you can channel the style of the inhaling icon. Plans are in the works to open“Willie’s Reserve” stores in 2016, which will carry his own strains of marijauna as well as like-minded products “reflective of his passion” in each recreationally legal state.
May 22, 2006
This photograph of a tantalizingly familiar face will be forever on your mind! The picture of this redheaded stranger was snapped in the late ’50’s, just as he started to head out on the road. Still stumped? Turn to page 44.