Joe Nick Patoski answers Questions about his book, ‘Willie Nelson: An Epic Life’


Willie Nelson: An Epic Life 

A while back Joe Nick Patoski kindly offered to answer questions submitted by fans about his book, and Willie.  I posted about it and got lots of questions from fans.  Thanks to everyone who e-mailed me.  As it turned out, many queries were the same, and I consolidated the ones I could.  Then there were those questions about things we’ve all wondered about over the years, but that I would never put to Joe Nick for an answer.    (And you naughty fans out there, with your naughty questions, know who you are!)

I sent the questions off to Joe Nick, and he sent the following responses.  Thanks so much, Joe Nick.

Next Saturday, on July 20th, Joe Nick will be signing books in Minneapolis, at the Electric Fetus, which is celebrating 40 years as an independent record store.  Joe worked at the store 30 some years ago, during his very brief stint in Minnesota, (school, I think), before he got so homesick he had to go back home to Texas.  Anyone living in the Twin Cities area, here’s your chance to get your book signed.  And he doesn’t just sign, he talks until he is literally hoarse, about Willie and Texas Music. 

Go next Saturday; you’ll thank me later.

So, here’s Joe Nick:


What do you think Willie considers his greatest success?

I can’t speak for Willie and won’t try to. But I will say that I think Willie’s greatest success was Red Headed Stranger because that album changed his career, his life, and really triggered the Texas music movement.

What do you think he considers is worst mistake is?

His worst mistake?   I don’t think there is one.   If there’s a hard way to do something or an easy way, Willie will take the hard way.   Considering where he’s at today, all the hard ways and whatever mistakes he made turned out to be pretty great career moves.

Did Willie talk at all about his relationship with Waylon, if they were estranged at the end of Waylon’s life?

Willie didn’t talk much about his relationship with Waylon towards the end of his life. He kind of off-handedly dodged weighing in, beyond saying Waylon was his friend. I believe that to be true.  But what I found interesting in researching the book was, they weren’t as close as I think the public made them out to be.  Connie Nelson said they were like brothers, which meant they fought as much as they hugged.

I think that’s to the point. Clearly, they allied together in Nashville by both hiring Neil Reshen to represent their interests and they made albums together and did shows together and played in the Highwaymen together. But Waylon had a healthy enough ego, I think, to resent Willie when Willie became the bigger act, somewhere around the release of Stardust. Waylon had been the bigger draw and the better seller, but by Stardust, he had clearly been eclipsed. Much was made about Willie not going to Waylon’s funeral, but I don’t see Willie as the kind of person who loves going to funerals. If he did, he wouldn’t have time to play.  I don’t think they were estranged so much as they had taken separate paths that did not necessarily converge much towards the end.

Did Willie ever talk about his connection with the American Eagle?

Willie didn’t talk with me about the American Eagle. What did I miss? If you’re referring to the bus, that painting was done by David Zettner. It’s his interpretation of Willie as an eagle, which fits him to a T.

Where all did you travel in researching your book?

For the book, I traveled to Austin (I live in Wimberley), San Antonio, Houston, Waco, Abbott, Dallas, Fort Worth, Nashville, Ridgetop TN, Danbury CT, New York City, Searcy County Arkansas, Portland, OR, Vancouver WA, San Francisco, Santa Rosa CA and points in between.

Did Willie express any regrets he may have?

Willie didn’t express regrets, although I didn’t ask specifically. I did see a clip of a Q and A he did with the Dallas Morning News where  he said his biggest disappointment was losing his son Billy. I believe that to be true.

After books about Stevie Ray Vaughn, Selena and now Willie — are there any other Texans you want to write about?

There’s loads of interesting Texans but at this point, to be honest, I don’t know if there’s anyone else out there to delve into their lives as deeply as I did with Willie. There’s only one Willie Nelson. I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to write about him in this book.

Did you talk with Annie and their boys?

I did talk to Annie and Lukas and Micah.  I had several conversations with Annie via phone and email, but several attempts to do face to face sitdowns ended up getting cancelled. As with anyone close to Willie, I wish I could’ve spent more time with her.

At the same time, I tried not to delve into too many specifics of her life with Willie today on Maui out of respect for their privacy. I understand Annie does not like the book (nor does Susie who called me one Sunday morning to tell me so).   Bottom line: Annie’s done a great job raising their sons and maintaining a stable family environment while Willie has been out on the road. She’s also a committed activist who works in tandem with Willie on many, many causes.

 Did Willie talk about his carpal tunnel and surgery?

I interviewed Willie in 2004 in Luck for No Depression magazine following his carpal tunnel surgery.  He was very, very antsy to get back to music.

Who was the easiest person to talk with about Willie,  for your book? 

Out of all the people I interviewed for the book (and believe me, I could have interviewed 400 more because I knew they knew Willie’s story too), Willie was the easiest to talk about Willie with. Lana and Paul were right up there. Beside them, Mickey in the band, Poodie and Budrock in the crew.

Were you surprised by anything you learned as you worked on your book?

I thought I knew Willie’s story well before, but I guess I was most surprised about how much he moved around once he decided to be a music maker. He was already moving before any of us had a clue what he was doing, especially in the period between leaving Abbott and arriving in Nashville.

Was there anyone who refused to talk with you, or anyone you wished you’d talked to, but didn’t?

No one refused to talk with me who I approached. I wish some had spent more time talking with me. And I tried several times to sit down with Turk Pipkin but we kept rescheduling until I just gave up.

I tried to contact Larry Trader, Billy Walker, and David Zettner but they all passed away before we could sit down.

What did you learn new about Willie, in writing your book?

What I didn’t fully appreciate until I did this book was how hard Willie struggled in the 1950s to be heard, how for all the success he had in Nashville as a songwriter that he wanted to be the performer as well, and what a great salesman he is.   He did door to door sales in the 1950s to keep the family fed and learned the lesson that you can’t sell your product unless you sell yourself so the lady of the house will let you in.   He sells himself better than anyone I’ve met.

Did you learn anything that shocked you?

I’ve followed Willie and known him and members of his family too long to be shocked.  There were some stories I heard that I didn’t write about, mainly because I couldn’t prove them up.  Others can tell those.

How did you learn about all the shows you wrote about?

How did I learn about his shows? I went to a bunch of ’em over the years. There’s a lot of my own personal observations of shows that I worked into the text.  I also relied on eyewitness accounts. Surprisingly, concert reviews and articles were not that helpful.

What has it been like doing interviews and book signing?

Promoting the book, doing signing and press interviews has been an absolute joy. I have discovered that just about everyone has a great Willie story. I should have been recording them because I’d already have another book with the things I’ve heard. I’ve got to meet some great people and renew acquaintances with people I haven’t seen in decades. The past two days I signed at Poodie’s Hilltop and had a bang up time and at Hastings in Kerrville where Kinky, Rod Kennedy of the Kerrville Folk Festival and a bunch of other folks showed up. I’m supposed to be signing books, but I get hoarse from talking.

I’m trying to be respectful of representing Willie, but not speaking for him.   As I reminded him: this was an unauthorized book and all Willie did was talk with me.   If people have a problem with this book, don’t bother him with you complaints.   Air them out with me.

How did this compare to writing the books about Stevie Ray Vaughn and Selena?

Compared to the Stevie Ray and Selena books, this has been much more enjoyable, more interesting, harder to write (you try and cram 75  years of that man’s life into a book), and much more satisfying.   I can say that this book is the culmination of my life of writing about music.   Plus, I got to interview my subject towards the end of my reporting and ask him questions.   At least for this book, The End is not the end.

How did you decide what pages (300) you left out?

My editor John Parsley and I came to a mutual agreement which of those 300 pages I would leave out.   It was hard and sometimes painful, but I know the drill and am pleased we got it cut down to 493 pages of text.   If it was over 500 pages, the list price would go up $10.

What was in the pages you took out?

You can find what I left at by going to the Witliff Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I’ve given them my papers.

Did anyone you talked to say anything negative about Willie?

You know, I’m sure I heard some negative things said about Willie during the reporting process.   I didn’t look for people like that nor did I avoid them.   I wanted to find witnesses who saw him at critical junctures of his life and when it was a significant moment, I tried to find two witnesses at least.   But I didn’t need a critical analysis of who he was or is because I’ve got my own opinion which I’ve expressed over the past 35 years.

Did Willie tell you any jokes?

Willie ALWAYS tells jokes.   Most of them are very dirty and very funny.   The man has talent, what can I say?

How has Willie changed since you first started writing about him 30 years ago?

Willie is pretty much the same person I interviewed in the studios of KOKE FM way back when.   Perhaps the world around him has changed.   He’s certainly become a much bigger star.   But sitting across the table from him, he’s the same guy I’ve sat with over the years, and as his friends of Abbott testified, he’s the same guy they knew growing up. His physical presence has changed. Papa Bear is a granddad now. But look into those eyes and you don’t see any aging at all.

Did you rely on other articles you’d written about Willie?

I did check out some of the articles I’d written on Willie before although truth be told, I don’t like reading my own writing.   I want to pick holes in it and make edits.

I’m guessing I’ve sat with Willie for interviews 25 times over the years. He has always been more than accommodating.

What do you think draws people to Willie?

What draws men and women to Willie?   He’s an engaging good ol’ boy who seems warm and friendly from the gitgo. Beyond that, I don’t know except it’s that mysterious quality called charisma.   You tell me.

What did you learn about why people keep investing in Willie’s projects, even though many do not succeed financially.

Why do people trust and invest in Willie in spite of the track record? Because they want to, because they want to be close to Willie and that’s one way to do it, and because being around him when he’s making stuff up as he goes along is a whole lot of fun.

What was your writing process like?

My writing process is a mystery to me. For this book, I used that 2004 interview in No Depressionas a guide, reread Willie’s autobiography that he wrote with Bud Shrake, spent two weeks reading interview transcripts (most done by Lana) looking for stuff that wasn’t in his book, spent four hours talking with Bud Shrake, and lined out an outline with chapters pegged to places. Then I did some genealogy, went back to Searcy County Arkansas where Willie’s parents and grandparents came from, and started trying to fit the pieces together.

I knew most of the chronology from 1973 on, because that’s when I moved to Austin. Learning the stuff from the 40s, 50s, and even  his Nashville years in the 60s was more like detective work. Main thing you need to know is, all the answers are not on the Internet. I found more pertinent information in libraries. It helps to talk with people who you have a history with.

And yeah, once I started on the book, it was an everyday thing. Many times, I would wake up in the middle of the night to write something down. It really got to the point where I lived it and breathed it, which in Willie’s world is not a bad thing.

What is your next writing project?

I’m working on the text for a book about land stewardship and sustainability, profiling ten American families who live on the land and do good by the land. It’s a project for the Sand County Foundation in conjunction with Texas A&M Press. I also have an article on Willie As Cowboy and Indian for Cowboys & Indians magazine that will come out soon.

Joe Nick

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