Hello Walls, by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson, Faron Young

Hello Walls, by Willie Nelson
The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest Hits
by Ace Collins

When Willie Nelson arrived in Nashville in the early sixties, many wondered if the singer/songwriter would fit in.  Willie looked like he belonged.  In those days the Texas wore his hair short, slick, and precisely combed, dressed in nicely pressed suits complete with white shirts and thin ties, and wore boots that were spit-shined.  Yet underneath this all-American cover was a man who was already a bit of a rebel.  The independent nature that would someday make the man a major star was, at this time, evident only in his songwriting.

If anyone was the product of hard times, it was Willie,  Born in Fort Worth, Nelson had grown up poor in tiny Abbott, Texas.  Raised principally by grandparents, Willie considered himself a farm boy, a child who liked the solitary loneliness found in cotton fields and along country roads.  Yet while living in the sticks, he was also drawn to the sounds of the city.  Through the radio he came to know and love not only Ernest Tubb and  Bob Wills, but the music of the big bands, tunes from Hollywood and Broadway shows, the jive of jazz ensembles, and the feel of black blues.

By his teens, Nelson took his fascination with music a step further.  Learning a few chords on an old guitar, Willie began to sing and play at local events.  It made little difference to Nelson if the group that needed him was a polka band, a hillbilly group, or a blues quartet.  He just loved to perform.  After a hitch in the Air Force, he drifted throughout Texas and even up the West Coast in search of both a dream and a place to play.  It was in Houston where he finally began to make his mark in clubs and earned his first dollars as a songwriter.  Strapped for cash and with a family depending upon him for support, Willie sold one of his first compositions, “Family Bible,” for $50.00.  A year later the song became a national hit, making its new owner thousands of dollars in royalties.  Meanwhile Nelson had almost nothing to show for it.  Yet this first best-seller did prove that he could write, so Willie packed his family and his bags and moved closer to the action.

Arriving in Nashville, Willie Nelson cast his lot with the likes of Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard and began writing for pamper Music.  Sitting in the pubishing house’s main office, an old windowless garage, Willie began to call upon his eclectic background and compose songs that had a much different feel and pace than anything else coming out of Music City at that time.

“I remember meeting him at Tootsie’s,” recalled Cochran. “We used to gather there, pass around a guitar, and play the latest things we had written.  This new guy was there and he had some of the best songs I had ever heard.  After he finished playing, I introduced myself and asked, “Who are you with, Willie?”  He told me, ‘I don’t write for nobody.  Nobody wants me.’  I told him to come to Pamper Music the next morning and play his stuff for our talent guy, Hal Smith.”

“I’ll come if somebody can give me some money for gas,” Willie explained.

“I gave him the money for the gas,” Hank remembered.  “The next morning he came and played his stuff for Hal.  Willie had already told me that he had a wife and three kids and needed at least fifty dollars a week to live on.   That was what I was making and I had already had a couple of good songs.  When I told Hal what Willie needed, he informed me that if we signed this new guy, I wouldn’t get a raise.  I thought about that for a moment, then said, ‘I’m getting by now, let’s do it.’ So we got Willie a contract with Pamper.”

As was evident from the beginning, Willie was an artist more than he was a commercial writer.  He didn’t really write what he thought was going to sell.  Instead, he wrote what he felt.  When he composed he didn’t rely on straight country chord patterns or tried and true lyric formulas.  He would blend his country concepts with jazz, blues, and even big-band sounds.  he results were often so different and so unique that it took a really good ear to “see” the songs’ potential.

One of his early Nashville efforts that no one wanted had been inspired by the room wehre he wrote.  One afternoon as he struggled to come up with ideas, Nelson began to think out loud.  As Willie would later tell his songwriting buddies, “I just looked up and said, “Hello, walls.'”  The song about a lonely man who had no one but an unfeeling house to share his heartache grew from that simple concept.

“I was in the studio when Willie came up with the idea,” Hank Cochran explained.  “He said, ‘let’s write it,’ and I was ready to get started.  They I got called into the office, which was an old house a few steps from the garage-studio, for a phone call.   When I came back to the studio just ten minutes later, Willie had already written the whole damn thing.”

Nelson pitched his “Hello Walls” to everyone who would listen to him, and to a man they all turned him down.  Most felt that it was quirky and almost comedic.  They didnt’ believe the seriousness of the message would get through to the audience.  Depressed, Willie gathered with friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounce in downtown Nashville.

“Willie was there,” Faron young recalled, “and he tried to sell me a song.  He needed money and he offered to sell me something called ‘Hello Walls.’  I listened to him sing it and said, ‘Hell, that ain’t bad.’  But I wouldn’t buy it.  I did promise Willie that I’d record it later.  He told me that he needed the money now, so I gave him a four-hundred-dollar loan.”

Young was in the midst of the hottest phase of his long career.  A Louisiana Hayride veteran, he had a smooth style that had first infatuated radio and record fans in 1953.  In a span of eight years the singer had produced thirty-five chart records and three #1’s.  His 1958 version of “Alone with You” had spent 13 weeks anchored at the top of the Billboard chart.  One of Nashville’s hardest-working stars, in the mid-fifties Faron had spun his good looks and easy charm off and made several western movies.  Yet even as his star rose higher and higher, the singer never lost touch with his humble roots or his desire to help others.  When he was in town, he was on the streets meeting the fans and spending time with new talent.  Not long after Willie had arrived from texas he and Faron had become friends.

Good to his word, in early 1961 Faron took Willie’s unique ode to a man so lonely he talked to an empty room into the studio.  Young cut “Hello Walls” with a very personal approach.  Though his voice was as smooth as it had been on his ballads, there was an almost spoken quality about his rhythm when he sang Nelson’s song.  Faron’s arrangement therefore seems to draw the listener into the plight of this poor lost soul.  While putting the song’s message out for all to hear, Young’s phrasing also made the song’s lyrics very easy to learn and sing.  By the third or fourth time someone heard “Hello Walls,” they were either singing with Faron or answering along with the backup vocals.  this participatory quality became infectious and within a month of hitting the charts, Nelson’s strange song’s lyrics had been learned and were being sung by millions.  The piece no one wanted was going to be a hit.

“Hello Walls” charted in mid-March and topped the charts on May 8, 1960.  It would ride at #1 for nine weeks and remain on the country playlists for over half a year.  Surprisingly, “Walls,” would also cross over to the rock lists.  The number would peak at #12 and spend almost a quarter of the year on rock ‘n’ roll turntables.  Young had never seen anything like it, and neither had Willie.

Even before the royalty checks began to roll in, Nelson found himself in deman.  Pamper Music was getting a host of calls wanting to know if Willie had any new material.  Parody songs based on “Hello Walls” flooded the market.  Jokes also seemed to spring up everywhere.  Within a year Liberty Records had even offered Nelson a record deal and he was a regular guest on many of the nation’s best-known country-music television shows.  Though still fifteen years away form real fame and fortune, with Faron’s huge hit Willie had laid the foundation for future stardom.

Not long after Nelson received his first very sizable royalty check for “Hello Walls,” the songwriter ran down Faron young.  With a smile reaching from ear to ear, Willie handed the singer $400.  When You

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