During Willie Nelson’s time in Vancouver in the late 1950s, he was a “cotton-pickin’, snuff-dippin’, tobacca-chewin’, stump-jumpin’, gravy-soppin’, coffee-pot-dodgin’, dumplin-eatin’, frog-giggin’, hillbilly from Hill County, Texas.”
That was how legendary singer-songwriter introduced himself every day on his “Western Express” radio show on KVAN, broadcast from Vancouver. After becoming a star as a teenage disc jockey in his birthplace of Texas, Nelson hit the road and settled for a few years in Vancouver.
Nelson, who wrote classic songs such as “Crazy” and “On the Road Again,” reminisced about his time as a DJ in the Pacific Northwest during a visit this month to Howard Stern’s satellite radio show. As a 23-year-old, Nelson became a hit on the local airwaves; he even had his own fan club, he told Stern and his millions of SiriusXM listeners.
“Those were the days when you could go in and grab a handful of records and sit down and have your own show, play what you want,” Nelson said. He had to correct Stern when the radio host mistakenly said Nelson was a Portland DJ.
“Vancouver, Wash., right across the river,” Nelson corrected.
If you’ve been around a few years, you might recall three portraits of Nelson painted on the side of 704 Main St. as a reminder of the superstar who once walked the same streets. Those murals have since been painted over.
Nelson’s second daughter was born in Vancouver and he bought his first home here. His mom lived in Portland.
Nelson got $40 a week for his daily show, which eventually ran from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It wasn’t huge money — $40 in the mid-1950s is about $350 in today’s dollars — but Nelson said it was a platform to promote his gigs and hawk his early recordings.
The outlaw country star recorded his first single, “No Place For Me,” using the station’s equipment, eventually selling about 3,000 copies. His star was quickly rising, so Nelson demanded a steep raise, which didn’t go over so well. He quit and it was, yes, on the road again.
His career really took off after he left Vancouver and immersed himself in the country music scene, first as a successful songwriter and then as a performer.
On KVAN, Nelson made a few extra bucks by using the airwaves to promote concerts for other performers, he told Stern, though he never got any big “payola” payoffs, an illegal practice of paying for airplay that was common in the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll era.
“I was looking for the payola, but I never got any,” Nelson laughed.
Now, nearly 60 years later, the 81-year-old Nelson is still at it; last week, he released “Band of Brothers,” his 48th full-length album.
Though he was only a temporary Vancouver resident, Nelson has fond memories of his time in the Northwest. Before his concert in Portland in 1980, Nelson spent hours on his tour bus chatting with friends Leo and Marsie Erickson. Leo was an engineer on KVAN when Nelson was there and the two bonded. At the Portland show, according to a Columbian article from that time, Nelson wore Leo’s cowboy hat on stage and gave a special shout-out to his “two old friends” from Vancouver.
Nelson gave back to his former home on June 30, 2007 with a $40,000 donation to Vancouver following a concert at the Sleep Country Amphitheater, in Ridgefield, Washington (north of Portland).