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Willie Nelson at 65 (Texas Monthly, April 1998)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

Willie Nelson at 65
by Gary Cartwright
Texas Monthly Magazine
April 1998

We’re sitting alone in his bus, me and Willie, drinking coffee and sharing a smoke, two geezers talking about how it feels to approach age 65… We agree that when dealing with life’s vagraries — the hits, misses, insights and sorrows — attitude is everything. “However you want things to be,” Willie assures me, “create them in your own mind, and they’ll be that way.”

The miles are mapped on his face and crusted in his voice, which seems less melodic by daylight. Willie traveled all day yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, 1997, arriving in Las Vegas from the Bahamas just before show time. When he was in the Bahamas in 1978, I remind him, they threw him in jail for smoking pot and then banished him from the island for life. So they did, Willie recalls with a nod. He was so happy to be free of that damned jail he jumped off a curb and broke his foot.

The following night, his foot in a cast, he celebrated by firing up an Austin Torpedo on the roof of President Jimmy Carter’s White House: “That was an incredible moment, sitting there watching all the lights. I wasn’t aware until then that all roads let to the Capitol, that it was the center of the world.” Also the safest spot in America to smoke a joint, he adds. Willie credits God and the hemp plant for much of his good fortune and openly advocates both at every opportunity. Without encouragement he begins to list the consumer items produced by the lowly plant:Â shirts, shorts, granola bars, paper products, motor fuel, not to mention extremely enlightening smoke. “Did you realize the first draft of our Constitution was written on hemp paper?” he marvels.

From the window of the bus we can see the afternoon players drifting through the front entrance of the Orleans Hotel and Casino. Though management has reserved a suite for Willie in the hotel, by long habit he sleeps aboard his bus, venturing out only to play golf or make it onstage in time for the first note of “Whiskey River,” his traditional opening number. Willie says that inside his head is a network of communication outlets, that he has a mental tape recorder that starts with “Whiskey River” and lasts two and a half hours — the time needed to complete a concert. He also receives messages from angels and archangels and several bands of broadcast signals, some in languages unknown to the human race.

This bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, is Willie’s home, office, and sanctuary, not only on the road but also at Willie World (his compound outside Austin that features a house, a recording studio, a golf course and a western film set). The bus is the one place he truly feels comfortable. It’s as well equipped as any hotel, with multiple TV sets, a state-of-the-art stereo sound system, kitchen, toilets, showers, and beds. Willie’s private compartment at the rear is as cozy and as densely packed as a Gypsy’s knapsack. One of Willie’s old aunts once confided to writer-producer Bill Wittliff, “That Willie, he can pack a trailer faster than anyone I ever saw.”


On his king-size bed lie three guitars, and surrounding it are Native American paintings, beaded necklaces, and breastplates; a giant American flag; photographs of his two youngest sons, Lukas and Micah (by his fourth and current wife, Annie); a jump rope; some dumbells; and a speed bag anchored to a swivel above the door. Willie’s elder sister, Bobbie Nelson, and has daughter Lana also travel on the Honeysuckle Rose. Members of the band and crew ride in two additional buses and a truck that make up Willie’s relentless caravan.

“I don’t like to be a hermit, but I”m better off staying out here by myself,” Willie explains, taking a drag and passing the smoke across the table. “El Nino,” a song from his new Christmas album, plays in the background. “Too many temptations In the old days we’d stay in town after a gig and start drinking and chasing women, and some of the band would end up in jail or divorced. That’s when I started leaving right after a gig, driving all night just to get out of town. If it wasn’t for the bus and this weed, I’d be at the bar right now, doing serious harm to myself.”

For a man who’ll be eligible for Medicare on April 30, Willie appears fit, trim, content, and comfortably weathered, a man who has not only transcended his wounds and scars but also made them part of his act. In his unique American gothic way, he appears semi-elegant, a country squire in an orange sweatshirt, jeans, and running shoes, his hair neatly braided, his eyes crackling with good humor. He looks ready to run with the hounds.

Willie exercise daily, jogging, stretching, jumping rope. He can make the speed bag rattle like a snare drum. A few weeks earlier he went three rounds with former heavy weight Tex Cobb, and he is about to get his brown belt in tai kwon do. Onstage the previous night, without warning, Willie kicked a microphone off a stand higher than his head. This is a regular part of the show, and his audience roared its approval. How many geezers can high-kick like a majorette?

As we talk, Willie squeezes a rubber ball, releasing nervous energy. “I have so much energy that it gets to be a problem,” he says. “I don’t smoke week to get high; I smoke it to take the edge off, to level out, so I’m not out there like a turkey sticking his head into everything.” Though this natural energy is part of his creative process, it must obey the laws of physics; the action of whiskey, women, music, and life on the road eventually produces the reaction of self-destruction.

Anyone who has spent time with Willie knows that he is as tightly wound as he is mellow. Bud Shrake, who helped Willie put together his autobiography, told me, “Willie has a violent temper. He gets so furious his eyes turn black, and he has to leave the room or kill somebody.” In the book, Willie tells about a twenty-minute bloody brawl in a parking lot in Phoenix after a concert, some irate husband swinging a crescent wrench and Willie defending himself with a two-by-four. “Having a temper is like being an alcoholic,” he says. “You always know its there.” He has learned to control his temper, or at least modify it. His mantra in the nineties is positive thinking. As he counsels in one of his songs: “Remember the good times/ They’re smaller in number, and easier to recall.”

Willie has battled his share of ailments — pneumonia four or five times; a collapsed lung that required surgery (he wrote the album Tougher than Leather in the hospital), followed by a relapse when he ripped out the stitches while on a movie set in Finland; chronic back pain that dates from stacking hay bales as a boy… but an uncanny survival instinct has enabled him to weather the raves of time. “I’ve never been healthier,” he assures me. “I’m at the top of my game. I’ve got no domestic problems to speak of, nothing tearing me apart. I’m enjoying life more than ever. Now is the most important time, as least t o me. If I start worrying about yesterday or tomorrow, I’ll get cancer and die.”

Watching from the theater wings at the Orleans Hotel, I realize again that Willie and his music are inseparable, that his songs are more than mere fingerprints of life, that they are a field of cosmic energy directing, shaping and revealing everything he is or has been. Dressed in his stage “costume” — black T-shirt with sleeves and neck cut away, jeans, sneakers, a straw cowboy hat the he quickly exchanges for a headband — Willie is singing one of his legendary cheating songs, “Funny How Time Slips Away.” His tone is generous but accusatory, reflecting the mixed emotions that he was feeling when he wrote it in the late fifties. Thought I can’t see her face from where I’m standing, I know that Willie is focusing on some knockout blonde seated in the fourth row, singing directly to her. It’s a trick he uses to intensify his concentration onstage.

Willie was just 26 and in the middle of an incredibly hungry and productive period in his life when he wrote “Funny How Time Slips Away.” He wrote it and two other equally memorable classics — “Crazy” and “Night Life” — in the same week, driving in the early morning hours from the Esquire Club on the east side of Houston, where he was playing six nights a week, to the apartment in Pasadena where he lived with his first wife, Martha Jewel Mathews, and their three kids, Lana, Susie and Billy.

These were his pre-Nashville days, and he was as poor as a Sudanese cat. Living in Houston, Fort Worth, San Diego, California, and a lot of other places, Willie worked by day selling vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias door-to-door and played by night in honky-tonks. He worked as a deejay where he could.

Whatever it took to survive, Willie did. He sold all the rights to “Night Life” (including claim of authorship) for a measly $150. “Night Life” is one of the greatest blues numbers of all time and has been recorded by everyone from B.B. King to Aretha Franklin, but Willie gave it away for equivalent of a month’s rent. He had to use the alias Hugh Nelson the first time he recorded it. He sold “Family Bible” for $50 and tried to sell “Mr. Record Man” for $10. Writers were like painters, Willie believed:Â An artist sells a creation as soon as it is finished so that he will have enough money to create again.

From his earliest years Willie knew that he was born to play music. Daddy and Mama Nelson, the grandparents who raised Bobbie and Willie after their parents divorced, taught singing and piano, filling their home in Abbott with music. Bobbie had the patience and the discipline to study music — her mastery of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach is such that friends say she can play concert piano at any hall in the world — but with Willie it was all instinct. He started writing poetry when he was five and got his first guitar at age six, a Stella ordered by his grandparents from a Sears catalog. Within a few weeks he had learned the three chords necessary to play country music — D, A, and G — and begun compiling his own songbook, called Songs by Willie Nelson.

Daddy Nelson’s death the following year had a profound effect on Willie. In his autobiography he wrote, “After Daddy Nelson died, I started writing cheating songs.” Heartbreak and betrayal animated all of his early writings. Influenced by the voices and styles he heard on the radio — the songs of Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb and the voice of  Frank Sinatra — Willie charted his destiny. What could have predicted his amazing success or that he one day would be regarded by many, including me, as the greatest songwriter who ever lived?

“A lot of times when I’m driving alone,” Willie tells me, “and my mind is open and receptive, it will pick up radio waves from somewhere in the universe and a song will start. A line, a phrase. You don’t’ call up creativity; it’s just here. Like the Bible says, “Be still and know that I am.”

“Do you pull over to the curb and make notes or what?”

“I never write it down until the whole thing is in my mind. If I forget a song, it wasn’t worth remembering.”

“But you must think about it?”

“I don’t like to think too much. It’s better coming off the top of your head. Leon Russell had this idea of going into the studio with no songs, just turn on the machine and start writing and singing. You remember wining ‘Main Squeeze Blues?”

He’s referring to my wedding night in 1976. Phyllis and I had been married earlier that evening in the back room of the Texas Chili Parlor and eventually found ourselves at Soap Creek Saloon, where Willie was playing. On an impulse, I hopped onstage with Willie and began improvising a song that I called “Main Squeeze Blues.” I don’t remember any of it except the title, but the audience seemed to think it was pretty good.

“I see what you mean,” I admit. “When you’re sailing high or when you’re in a hard place worrying about the rent or food for the kids, something kicks in and words start gushing. But where do the melodies come from?”

Willie gives me the look you give a child who asks ridiculous questions. “I snatch them out of the air,” he says patiently. “The air is full of melodies.”

Willie’s God-given ability to produce under pressure has delivered some of his best work. “Shotgun Willie,” which turned out to be the title song of his first successful album, was written in a couple of desperate minutes in the bathroom of a New York hotel room, on the back of a sanitary napkin wrapper. The night before he was due in the studio to record Yesterday’s Wine, he popped some pills and wrote the final seven tunes, including “Me and Paul,” celebrating his friendship with his longtime drummer Paul English.

Even in very personal moments, Willie can’t help working on his music. Some years ago, when he was trying to find the words for a father-daughter talk with Susie, Willie asked her to drive him from Austin to Evergreen, Colorado, and along the way he delivered his lecture by writing, “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.” Willie says, “She was young, trying to grow up, and it occurred to me that it was easier to sing it than say it. She’s driving and I’m writing, singing, and picking, and finally it comes to me: “Hey, I’ve got another f–ing song half finished; all I need is a bridge and a steel turnaround!” When the old well ran dry one time, Willie wrote a throwaway called, “I Can’t Write Any More,” immediately followed by a beautiful ballad, “Be My Valentine,” which celebrated the birth of his son Lukas, on Christmas Day, 1988.

The music stopped exactly two years later, when Willie’s eldest son, Billy, hanged himself.  Of all the traumas in Wilie’s life — the screwings by record and movie producers, an early career crisis so desperate that he lay down on a snow-covered street in Nashville and waited for a car to run him over, his famous battle with the Internal Revenue Service — the only one that really rocked him was Billy’s death. Willie has never talked about it or even acknowledged that it wasn’t accidental. He knows that I also lost a son, so when I ask him how he dealt with Billy’ s tragedy, he thinks about the question for a long time, then says in a faraway voice, “You know, Gary, I just kept on. As it happened, we had a six-month gig in Branson, starting New Year’s Eve. I had a legitimate reason to cancel all my dates and go bury myself from reality, which is what I felt like doing. But that old survival instinct cut in. So I went to Branson, cussed the place, and threw myself into my work.”

As a young man, Willie made being broke and desperate into a profitable lifestyle. Now that he’s rich and famous, he tells me, “I don’t have the leisure to write much anymore.” Maybe that’s true, I think. But it seems equally possible that at this stage of his life, Willie has said it all.

All of Willie’s marriage have been wild and tempestuous, but none quite as crazy as his marriage to Martha. Both of them loved the nightlife and its vicious cycle of drinking, cheating, fighting, and making up. Once, when Martha caught Willie fooling around, she tied him up with the children’s jump rope and beat the hell out of him. Another time she broke a whiskey bottle over his head. “Yeah, marriage to Martha was s running battle,” Willie confesses, recalling that in those days he always carried a gun — it was “part of my uniform.”

Wille’s second marriage, to singer Shirlie Collie, was more placid, at least for a while. They were living in Nashville, though Music City wasn’t ready for him. By universal agreement, a hillbilly song had just three chords: Willie’s songs had four or five. The formula for a country lyric involved one catchy line, followed by shallow sentiments of heartbreak and betrayal, rhymed predictably. Nothing in Willie’s songs was predictable. His style was deceptively simple, relaxed and conversational: “Hello, walls. How’d things go for you today?” If the country music industry was threatened by such originality, country singers weren’t. Faron Young ‘ cut of Hello Walls” sold more than two million records. Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” eventually won an award as the most played song on jukeboxes ever. Ray Price made “Night Life” his theme song.

By the mid-sixties everyone was recording Willie’s songs, but no one was buying his records. Disillusioned, Willie bought a small farm outside Nashville and determined to be a genteman farmer-songwriter. He smoked a pie, wore overalls, raised weaner pigs with fellow musician Johnny Bush, and gained thirty pounds on Shirley’s good country cooking. By 1968, however, he was on the raad again and life was becoming a living hell. “Shirley was boozing as bad as I was,” Willie says in his book, “and we were all swallowing enough pills to chokc Johnny Cash….”

The marriage ended when Shirley opened a bill from the maternity ward of a Houston hospital — itemizing the cost of a baby daughter born to Willie nleosn and one Connie Koepke. A year before, the knockout blonde in the fourth row at a club in Cut ‘n’ Shoot happene to be that same Connie Koepke. She became wife number three, even before his divorce from wife number two was finalized.

Willie’s marriage to Connie lasted seventeen years, far and away his personal best, but the strain of the raod again took its toll. This time, actually, it was a road move — Honeysuckle Rose — wohse theme song, “On the Road Again, ” Willie had written in flight on the back of an airline barf bag shortly after signing to do the move. It the flick, Willie’s character, a musician, has an affair with Amy Irving’s character. At the same time, Willie had a highly publicised romance with actress. Marriage to Connie flamed out during the filming. “Anything you want to tell me about Amy Irving?” I ask him on the bus. “She was something else,” Willie replies, then after a long pause, adds, “and I’d do it again.”

Willie met his current wife, Annie, on the set of the movie Stagecoach, where she was working as a makeup artist. “They say we marry what he weed,” he says. “Kris [Kristofferson] married a lawyer, and I married a makeup girl.” They have been married for nearly ten years, a term that roughtly corresponds to Willie’s average time with one wife.

“Marriage gets easier as you get older,” Willie admits. “There are still a lot of temptations out there. Motehr Nature has a way of checking our appetites, but girls still look good. If I stayed around in a hotel or bar the same thing would probably happen again.”

The advent of the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972 was a revelation for all of us — especially Wilie, wh had just moved back to Texas from Nshville and was more or less retired from the national music scene. “We had been trying to travel all over the world with a seven-piece band and compete with the others,” he remembers, “but it just wasn’t working. I knew I could make a living playing honky-tonks in Texas.” Serendipity, in the form of a hippy hitch hiker, let Willie and the band to the soon-to-be-legendary Armadillo, a one time National Guard armory that entrepeneur Eddie Wilson had transformed into a dance hall. This was the start of a wonderfully weird convergence of hippies and rednecks that would change music history.

I first met Willie Nelson on August 12, 1972, a few hours before his first gig at the Armadillo World Headquarters, in Austin. Both of us were in our late thirties and relatively new to psychedelics and long hair. A couple of friends and I were in the small office that the Armadillo had set aside for Mad dog, Inc., a shadowy organization that Bud Shrake and I had founded at roughly that same time. Artist Jim Franklin was decorating a wall of the Mad Dog office with aportrait of a crazed Abe Lincoln when we spotted Willie and the band across the hall.

I didn’t recognize him at first. I had been a fan since 1966, when Don Meredith handed me a copy of Willie’s album that was recorded live at Panther Hall in Fort Worth. The album cover pictured a straight-looking country singer with short hair and a bad suit. He clutched a guitar, but from his looks it could have easily been a pipe wrench.

Willie was different now. His hair fell almost to his shoulders, and though he was still clean-shaven and passably middle class, he was obviously undergoing a metamorphosis. “I saw a lot of people with long hair that day, Willie recalls. People in jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, basically what I grew up wearing. I remember thinking:”^#% coats and ties! Let’s get comfortable!

The real eye-opener for me came that night. Who in his right mind could have predicted that the same audience that got turned on by B.B. King and Jerry Garcia would also go nuts for Willie Nelson? This Abbott cotton picker had merged blues, rock, and country into something altogether original and evocative.

Success came rapidly after that. His Shotgun Willie album sold more copies in Austan than most of his other albums had sold nationwide. The next album, Phases and Stages, sold even better. Willie decided to hold an annual picnic in the styole of Woodstock. He appeared onstage at the first one, in 1973, in cutoffs, sandols, long hair, and a beard. Two years later he had a huge hit with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

By 1978 his image and reputation were so establisehd he convinced executives at CBS Records that his next album ought to be a collections of standards like “Stardust” and “Moonlight in Vermonth.” At first they thought he was crazy, but Willie pointed out that “my audience now is young, college age, and midtwenties. They’ll think these are new songs.” He was right. Stardust was a pivotal album for counry music, opening up a whole new audience. “Willie has always been a prophet, slightly on on the edge,” Rick Blackburn, the preseident of CBS Records, Nashville, said later.

The early seventies were also the formative years for Willie’s other “family” — a motley and colorful crew of itinerant musicians, promoters, and roustabouts that Willie has collected along the way. Billie B.C. Cooper chauffeured Willie around in a six-cylinder Mercedes before the first bus was purchased and doubled as his bodyguard; he’s one of the last of the original family. “I was just a old used-car salesman,” B.C. told me recently at Willie World, where he now resides in peaceful retirement, “but Willie took a liking to me and told me to follow him, and I been following him ever since.”

Larry Gorham was a Hell’s Angel in San Jose before Willie appointed him chief of security. Paul English was a Fort Worth pimp and burglar when Willie asked him to play drums in 1966. Mickey Raphael was a teenager when he cornered Willie outside a Dallas recording studio and applied for a job as the band’s harmonica player. “Follow us, kid,” Willie instructed. Willie’s judgment for new talent is instinctively good, and once discovered, they stay for life.

Backstage at the Orleans, I meet another of Willie’s longtime mates, Phil Grimes, now a Las Vegas developer and real estate executive. In the early seventies he was a freelance reporter for the Associated Press in Austin. “I went out to do a story on Willie,” Phil tells me. “I got on the bus and it was three and a half weeks before I could find my way off.” Looking round, it occurs to me that Willie probalby has the last group of geriatric roadies in the business.

Satruday night in Las Vegas: Wilie gives the Orleans Hotel audience two and a half hours to remember. He goes from cheating songs and blues to gospel numbers like, “Amazing Grace” to a Sinatra -like cover of “Stardust” to a deeply moving rendition of his current philosophical favorite, “Still is Still Moving to Me.” By the end of the show fans have gone beserk, clapping, rocking, dancing in the aisles, callinn his name. “We love you, Willie!” a female voice cries out. Willie ha already tossed two headbands to his fans, and now he peels off his sweat soaked black T-shirt and lobs it to a woman in the fourth row.

The Orleans higher-ups are stunned by the reception. They had no idea how Willie would be received — they usually book ackts like Phyllis Diller and Eddie Arnold — and immediately sign him for three dates in 1998, including another long Thanksgiving weekend. “It’s not the three straight sellouts that impressed them,” says Scooter Franks, Willie’s traveling concessions manager. “What they care about is the drop — the money that people gamble after the show. We told ‘em, ‘Willie is like Sinatra; his people drink a lot of whiskey and they stay to gamble.” Long after his roadies have cleared the stage and loaded the buses for the trip home to Austin, Willie is still singing autographs down front.

There is such a powerful presence about Willie that people sometimes believe he’s a mystic or even a messenger from God, a misinterpretation that he hasn’t always tried to correct. Billy Cooper almost convinced me that Willie ha a magical ability to commune with snakes and birds and that he can, with a wave of his hand, convert negative enrgy to positive. Stage manager Poodie Locke tells of a ferocious gun battle in a parking garage in Birmingham, Alabama, after a concert, with cops squatting in door jambs and civilians diving for cover. In the teeth of the chaos Willie calmy stepped down from the bus, wearing tennis shoes and cutoffs with two Cold .45 revolvers stuck in the waist, and inquired: “Is there a problem”” In an instant, all guns were holstered and Willie was signing autographs. “He’s got the kind of aura to him that just cools everything out,” Poodie explains.

Willie believes that his life is a series of circles in which he is continually reincarnated, each version a ltitle better than its predecessor. There is some theological support fo htis belief. Kimo Alo, one of the magician-priests, or Huhunas, who live on the island of Maui, where Willie has a vacation home, believes that Willie is “an Old King,” reincarnated to draw the native races togther. When I ask Willie about the Old King theory, he dismisses it – though I suspect he secretly thinks it’s reasonable. In his autobiography he wrote, “Even as a child, I believed I was born for a purpose. I had never heard the words reincarnation or Karma, but I already believed them and I believed in the spirit world.”

Raised as a staunch Methodist, Willie was taught that if he drank or smoked or went dancing, he was doomed to hellfire. He never bought this doctrine: Willie’s God was always willing to give a guy another chance.

An incident in the fifites, when he was teaching Sunday school at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Fort Worth, reinforced this conviction. His preacher gave him an ultimatum — stop playing in beer joints or stop teaching Sunday school — and Willie quit the church for good, disallusioned with a policy that summarily condemned people like him.

He went to the Fort Worth library and starting reading books on religion. “Soon as I read about reincarnation,” Willie wrote, “it struck me just the same as if god had sent me a lightning bolt — this was the truth, and I realized I had always known it.” Willie had the good sense to see that it would take many more reincarnations for him to triumph over his lustful urges, but at least he knew he was on the right track.

Today, Willie and family worshp at the one-room church on Willie World’s western film set, where RedHeaded Stranger and a bunch of other movies were shot. Though the church is empty except for some benches and a portrait of Jesus hung by Lana and Bobbie, the music on a Sunday morning will stir the jaded soul.

Willie often jokes that he is “imperfect man,” sent here as an example of how not to live your life. This was the theme of Yesterday’s Wine, his most personal and spiritual album, and arguably his best. Written in the early seventies after a series of personal disasters, including a fire that burned his home in Nashville (Willie managed to save his marijuana stash from the ruins), the album follows a man from birth to death, ending with him watching his own funeral. “Maybe I was imperfect man, riting my own obituary,”

Willie tells me during our conversation on the bus, breaking suddenly into song: “There’ll be a mixture of teardrops and flowers/Crying and talking for hour/And how wild that I was/And if I’d listened to them I wouldn’t be there.” The album also includes a passage in which God explains to imperfect man that there is no explanation for the apparent random cruelty of life: “After all, you’re just a man/And it’s not for you to understand.”

Two weeks before Christmas I drop by Bobbie Nelson’s home on the sixth fairway at Pedernales Country Club in Willie’s World and am surprised to find Willie sitting at the kitchen counter, rolling numbers and listening to a blues album he was recording recently with Riley Osbourn and some other blues players. Bobbie is cooking breakfast — sausage, eggs, biscuits, and gravy. This was supposed to be a one-on-one interview with her, but it turns out to be something else. We sit for awhile, sharing a smoke and listening to some great blues.

Pouring us more coffe, Bobbie asks Willie in her soft, sweet voice, “Remember where we first heard the blues?”

“Out in the cotton fields in Abbot,” Willie says. “Somebody would start singing ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’ and somebody else would pick it up.”

Bobbie has faintly romantic memories of the cotton fields, but not Willie. “By the time I was seven or eight,” he says, “I was working the rows for a couple of dollars a day. My desire to escape manual labor started back there in the cotton fields.”

A seven-foot grand and a smaller piano dominate the living room, and I remember reading that Bobbie’s first piano was a box that she and Willie made out of a paste-board box. The keyboard was drawn in crayons, and Bobbie sat under a peach tree in the back yard, practicing for hours. For years on long bus trips across the country, she propped a coardboard keyboard in her lap, shut out the world, and followed with her fingers as the works of Mozart or Bach played instead her head.

After a while, Lana sotps by. She has brought Wille’s Christmas present. He’s leaving the following day for a couple of months in Maui with Annie had his boys. We all sit around the iining room table, passing heaping platters of biscuits. Bobbie and Lana are the two people closest and dearest to Willie, and they fuss over him like mama hens, tending to his slightest wish. Watching him in the nest of his true family, I realize that the private Willie is not much different from that little boy who grew up in Abbott. He knew that he ws special, and so did everyone else.

“I marreid Bud Fletecher when I was sixteen,” Bobbie says as she refills the gravy bowl. “Bud formed a band called the Texans, with me on piano and Willie on guitar on vocals. Willie was making eight dollars a night, which was very good money for a thirteen-year-old.”

“The forth to fifty dollars a week we took home to Mama Nelson was a fortune back then,” Willie says. “I’d hock my guitar every Monday for twenty dollars, and Bud wold get it back out of hock on Friday so the Texans could hit another lick.”

“Of course, Mama didn’t like us playing beer joints.”

Willie laughs, remembering, “She didn’t even want me going on the road. Shadowland was five miles away — in West. But that was the road to her.”

If Willie has learned anything in these 65 years, it’s that Mama Nelson was right. When you’re life’s the nightlife, all roads are pretty much the same.

Willie Nelson on, “The Rookie” Soundtrack

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

release date:  March 2002

1. Some Dreams
2. Blue Moon Nights
3. Embryonic Journey
4. Tumbling Down
5. There Is a Light
6. Stuff That Works
7. Slow Turning
8. Baby I Ain’t Gotta Do That No More
9. Shining
10. Nothing I Can Do About It Now (Willie Nelson)
11. In My Time of Need
12. The Plains
13. The Spheres

Happy Shoeshine Friday! (and stay home day!)

Friday, March 27th, 2020

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Paula and Willie Nelson

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Paula and her dad! ????

And, thinking about the passing of Kenny Rogers, here’s Paul’s beautiful rendition of “Just Dropped In”

Luck Reunion’s “Til Further Notice” — concert streaming tonight

Thursday, March 19th, 2020


Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Jewel, Lucinda Williams, Paul Simon & Edie Brickell, Nathaniel Rateliff, Margo Price & Jeremy Ivey, Randy Houser, Lucius, Paul Cauthen, David Ramirez, Nikki Lane, Devon Gilfillian, Early James, Katie Pruitt, Tré Burt, Ian Ferguson, Sunny War, Tami Neilson, Thomas Csorba, AOTR Winner: Ida Mae, Special Guests

Hosted By: Ray Benson

March 19, 2020
Beginning at 6:00 PM CST
This week the team behind Luck Reunion, the annual anti-festival held in Willie Nelson’s backyard, will present “Til Further Notice,” a live-streamed event held in the absence of this year’s in-person event. On Thursday, March 19, Luck will stage a free broadcast featuring call-in sets filmed live by artists themselves, from the comfort of their own homes. Starting at 6:00 PM Central Time 

Fans can tune in to,, and at any time between 6:00 – 11:00 Central Time for a multifaceted streaming event showcasing artists, partners, charities, and makers that make up the cherished “Luck Family”.   While the majority of the acts will be performing and recording from living rooms, bedrooms, or home studios, a small number of local acts are slated to (safely) broadcast from Austin’s premier recording facility, Arlyn Studios. Luck and Arlyn are working in tandem to do what they can to preserve the energy and camaraderie that is intrinsic in Austin’s creative community.

The free-to-view stream is an effort to gather the creative community in a virtual setting during a time that in-person gatherings are impossible to execute. 

Fans can opt to contribute via a digital tip jar that will be readily available throughout the broadcast. Tip donations raised will be divided equally, and transparently, among all performers. Should an artist wish to donate their share to a charity of their choice, or to a fellow artist in need, they will be able to do so. 

If you’d rather show your support and PASS THE BOOT with Venmo, you either scan the code, search for @Luck-Reunion on the app, or click the image below to go to our Venmo page on your phone. Make sure you write PASS THE BOOT in the “What’s it for?” section so we can apply your contribution to the ‘Til Further Notice tally. Big thanks to Tecovas for supporting our PASS THE BOOT tip jar tonight!

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Willie Nelson & Family on Tour

Friday, March 13th, 2020
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April 17, 18
Whitewater Amphitheater
with Pat Green
New Braunfels, TX

April 20
Orpheum Theater
Memphis, TX

April 22
BJCC Concert Hall
Birmingham, AL

April 23
Wilkesboro, NC

April  25
Kroger Field
Chris Stapleton’s Concert for Kentucky
with Sheryl  Crow, Yola, & more
Lexington,  KY

April 26
Four Keys Casino Resort
New Buffalo, MI

April 28
Brown County Music Center
Nashville, TN

April 29
Riverside Theater
Milwaukee, WI

May 1, 2
CMA Theater
Nashville, TN

June 2
Water Works Park Amphitheater
Des Moines, IA

June 5 – 7
Born and Raised Music Festival
Prior, OK

July 30
Providence Medical Center Amphitheater
Bonner Springs, KS
Aug 2
Ravinia Festival
Highland Park, IL
Aug 4
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown, PA
August 5
Wind Creek Steel Stage
Bethlehem, PA
Aug 8
French Lick Resort
French Lick, IN

Aug 10
Swiftel Center
Brookings, SD
August 11
Sturgis Buffalo Chip
Sturgis, SD

Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Jamie Johnson concert at Globe Life Field postponed

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

Saturday night’s Chris Stapleton concert at Globe Life Field, the first official event to take place in the Texas Rangers’ new home, has been postponed.

“The health & well-being of our families & communities is our number one priority,” said Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton, his wife and bandmate, in a statement. “We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience this will undoubtedly cause.”

A new date hasn’t yet been announced for the show, though a Rangers spokesperson said it would likely be rescheduled for the summer.

Chris and Morgane Stapleton sent out this message to their fans:

The health & well-being of our families & communities is our number one priority. With that in mind, we must reschedule the following shows:

March 12 – Austin, TX – Frank Erwin Center
March 14 – Arlington, TX – Globe Life Field
March 20 – Biloxi, MS – Mississippi Coast Coliseum
March 21 – Birmingham, AL – Legacy Arena at the BJCC

We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience this will undoubtedly cause. Please know these decisions are not made lightly and we are working diligently to find new dates for these shows & will announce that information as soon as it becomes available to us.

We look forward to seeing you soon. Until then, our hope is that you all stay safe & well.

Chris & Morgane Stapleton

Leon Russell and Willie Nelson, Luckenback, Texas (4th of July, 1998)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
Leon Russell and Willie Nelson’s at his Picnic (1998) Recorded on July 4, 1998 in Luckenback, Texas. Leon Russell (1942-2016) born Claude Russell Bridges plays classics like “Delta Lady”, “This Song For You”, “Baby Blue” and more. Willie Nelson plays the second part of the show with several of his classics including “Crazy”, “Nightlife”, “I Never Cared for You”, “Hard Edge Texas” and more. Emmylou Harris accompanies him on a couple of songs too. Produced by the Austin Music Network.

Paul English, Willie Nelson’s friend, drummer, enforcer, dies at 87

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” Paul English, shown here in 2011, once said of his best friend.  (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” Paul English, shown here in 2011, once said of his best friend. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

By Meagan Flynn

It was 1955 when Paul English, transitioning between roles as a gang leader and a Fort Worth pimp, met Willie Nelson on a small-time country radio show.

One of the most storied friendships in country music history began that afternoon by accident, really. English had tagged along to the station with his older brother, who scored a gig playing steel guitar on Nelson’s “Western Express” radio program. But Nelson’s drummer didn’t show, and so he looked to English to fill in. He had never beat a drum in his life. “They just told me to keep patting my foot,” English told Oxford American in 2015.

From that day forward, English never stopped tapping his foot for Nelson.

English, who would go on to become Nelson’s best friend, bodyguard, accountant, road manager and one of the most formidable gun-toting drummers in country music, has died at the age of 87, Nelson’s publicist, Elaine Schock, confirmed to The Washington Post on Wednesday night.

Schock said she was notified of English’s death on Tuesday. She said that she did not know the exact cause, but knew from close family friends that English had been battling pneumonia.

Nicknamed “the Devil” for his famous black-satin cape and matching hat, English toured with Nelson and Family right up until the end. The two friends’ escapades, immortalized in Nelson’s “Me and Paul,” would take them from the underbelly of Fort Worth honky-tonks to some of the world’s biggest stages. “We received our education/In the cities of the nation, me and Paul,” as Nelson sings in the titular track of his 1985 album “Me and Paul.”AD

After decades on the road with Nelson, English told Rolling Stone in 2014 that Nelson saved his life.

“If I hadn’t gone with Willie,” he said, “I would be in the penitentiary or dead.”AD

The drummer was born on Nov. 6, 1932, in Vernon, Tex., to devoutly religious parents active in the Assembly of God Church, where English played the trumpet, he said in Nelson’s 1988 autobiography. He soon got into gangs as a teenager once he started hanging on Hell’s Half Acre, a wild strip of honky-tonks in Fort Worth. He beat up a couple guys who tried to jump him and won praise from the Peroxide Gang, a group of outlaw cowboys named for the chemicals they slicked into their hair, as Oxford American reported.AD

After sometimes committing up to a dozen break-ins a day, English took pride in being named on a Fort Worth tabloid’s list of “10 Most Unwanted” criminals for five years in a row, he said in the autobiography. But after getting jailed for a burglary, he tried to get back on the straight and narrow.

And that’s about the time he met Nelson.AD

English knew of him only from hearing his show on KCNC, and from Nelson’s voice and persona, English “thought he was an old man,” he told Oxford American. He said Nelson reminded him of an “ol’ cotton-picking, snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, stump-jumping, gravy-pot sopping, coffee pot dodging, dumpling-eating, frog-giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County, Texas.” But when he showed up to the station that afternoon in 1955, he was surprised to see Nelson was his own age.AD

Despite his lack of experience, Nelson liked him. He invited English to play a six-week gig at a bar for $8 a night, English recalled in a 1981 interview with Modern Drummer magazine. After that, English knew he had found what he wanted to do.

“The money wasn’t that great, but I loved playing, and I got to play in front of the girls,” English told Oxford American. “The girls loved musicians.”AD

It was an era when clubs stretched chicken wire across the bandstand so the bands wouldn’t get hit with beer bottles, Modern Drummer reported. After Nelson moved to Nashville to pursue his own career — the only real hiatus in the relationship — English found work playing with Good Time Charlie Taylor & His Famous Rock and Roll Cowboys. They played Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole at rough clubs prone to brawls, like the County Dump, which was literally located next to the county dump, he told Modern Drummer.AD

Short on cash, he made his living as a pimp, prostituting women from Fort Worth to Houston, where he purchased several rental houses. He insisted to Oxford American, “I was a good pimp. I never did beat a girl.”

Finally, though, Nelson returned to Houston in 1966, and yet again, he was looking for a drummer.AD

“He knew I was making a lot of money. He asked me how to get a hold of a certain drummer we both knew in Fort Worth,” English told Modern Drummer, referring, incidentally, to the same drummer who didn’t show up to Nelson’s radio show. “I said, ‘S— Willie! I’m better’n him!’”

English was hired — for the next five decades.

They toured all over the country as Nelson and Family exploded onto the country music scene, driving in a station wagon with a trailer hitched to the back that once blew a tire on the side of the road. He told Modern Drummer that on one occasion they traveled 15,000 miles in 18 days, for nine gigs, their longest route ever. At stops from Los Angeles to New York, Nelson and English shared motel rooms, and when Nelson got too drunk, English made sure he got home safe, sometimes sitting on the end of his bed to make sure he was okay.AD

But English wasn’t just a road manager and a drummer and an accountant. He was an enforcer, too, pulling guns and swinging fists at anyone who dared cross the Family.

“Willie feels safe with me behind him,” English, who also served as a board member for Farm Aid, the benefit concert for farmers co-founded by Nelson in 1985, said in the autobiography. “I carry two guns, for one thing.”

He once shot at Nelson’s son-in-law’s car for laying a hand on the artist’s daughter, Lana, and once shot at steel pedal player Jimmy Day for insulting English’s dead wife, Oxford American reported. Once he “commandeered a forklift” and used it on a club owner’s Ford Thunderbird, attempting to force the guy into coughing up the band’s performance fee, the magazine reported.AD

“Without Paul, Willie’s story is half as interesting,” Paul’s son, Robert Paul Jr., told Oxford American. “The music’s still gorgeous, but there’s no shootout at Lana’s house. All these stories are part of the legend and serve to define outlaw as outlaw, legitimately outside the law. He was the real deal.”AD

Reflecting on their friendship in the interview with Modern Drummer in 1981, English recalled the first time he ever saw Nelson cry onstage. They were playing “On The Road Again” to a sold-out crowd of 18,000 people in Kansas City, Mo. Thousands took out lighters or lit matches, waving them in the air, and English looked over to see Nelson wiping tears.

Willie Nelson and Family and Dwight Yoakam (March 7, 2017)

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

Nathaniel Rateliff talks about marijuana business and Willie Nelson

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring”

Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

This song is on Willie Nelson’s new album coming out in April.