Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson
by Linda Cain
“Happy birthday, Willie!” reads the huge banner made from bedsheets and hung from the balcony of St. Louis’ Keil Auditorium. It was four days before Willie would turn 45 years young (he was born in Abbott, Texas on April 30, 1933) and the celebrating had already begun.
Willie’s fans throng to the stage, foregoing their $7 – $10 seats to stand for the entire show, just to be near their idol. At his sneakered feet they shower gifts, flowers and hats of all descriptions. A tall man stretches upwards and hands Willie a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels. Willie chugs it. The audience hoots and hollers.
Removing his beaded Medicine Man hat, Willie replaces it with a ten-gallon Stetson and elicits unanimous cheers. Someone tosses their own cowboy hat at him. Willie smiles, picks it up, autographs it and hands back the treasure.
Many fans try to stand on each other’s shoulders to climb onstage. Two adoring, denim-clad females actually make it up, on separate occasions. Each time, roadies are forced to interrupt the ladies’ lengthy kisses and tight embraces. In order for the show to continue, the women are literally peeled off Willie.
His reaction? “Oh, I love it,” he admits after the show, while signing autographs for lucky fans who managed to sneak backstage. ‘The girls are the best part,” he adds.
Willie poses for pictures and a teenaged cowboy approaches the stage from below in the empty auditorium He hollers to get Willie’s attention. Willie sees him, smiles and waves. “Hey, Willie! We love you man” is the response.
Willie Nelson loves his fans as much as they love him. The Rollin’ Smoke Review (no kidding, it’s stenciled on their equipment) has been hoping to rent a huge barge, float up and down the Mississippi and pull into harbors for free shows along the way. Lead guitarist Jody Payne came up with the idea and has been trying to put his plan into action with no luck. “There’s just no way,’ he explained. “I was told there would be problems with crowd control. And it would cost too much money.” They are still open for ideas. “We’d really love to do it,” he adds.
Crowd control has become a problem, ever since Willie started packing them in, 80,000 strong, at his annual Austin picnics. This summer, Willie will hold several picnics in different parts of the country to try and spread the good times around a bit. Renowned British guitarist Eric Clapton had expressed a desire to open one of Willie’s picnics, but it is doubtful the two will be able to coordinate schedules, according to Payne.
“The idea of having the picnic goes back to the outdoor country music festivals,” Payne relates. Only now they bring beer and dope instead of just chicken and ribs in their baskets.”
Like their hero, Willie’s fans are known for their partying. “Do you know that every town we’ve been in, for a week solid before Willie’s birthday, they have had a party for us?” Payne announces. Willie’s personal manager and confidant, known to all as “Snake,” joins the birthday talk. “Usually we try to hit Willie with a cake,” explains the tall, slinky sidekick. “We always play Baton Rouge on his birthday. Last year we tried to hit him with a cake the size of a bed. We carried it onstage and were about to heave it at him, but he ran underneath it.”
Payne and I discuss Willie’s interests, which include reincarnation, yoga, martial arts, postive thinking and Edgar Cayce. I jokingly tell him: “Willie seems to be from another world.” Payne wholeheartedly agrees. “Yes, I think he is from another world. He’s the smartest man I’ve ever seen. He really is.” At that moment, Willie climbs aboard.
His presence is taken for granted by the crew, who are busy celebrating his birthday, early. As he slowly heads toward the remaining empty seats at the back of the bus, a joint waved in his path brings him to a halt.