Paul English, On the Road Again
by Billy Jeansonne
cover photo by Joseph Kaszynski
“There is no other drummer who can beat Paul English playing behind me, and I watched him become the great drummer that he is today. He learned to play drums playing behind me. 1955 was the first time we played together, in Ft. Worth, Texas on my radio show. Paul’s brother Oliver is also a great musician and helped Paul a lot in those days. But when I left Ft. Worth, Paul was just learning. The next time I saw him was in Houston. He heard I was looking for a drummer and applied for the job. He’s been with me ever since, and he has always been my friend, my best friend.”
39 years of drumming in Willie Nelson’s band has placed Paul English in a respective category that few drummers ever achieve, rivaled only by Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. Very few drummers have enduring careers of this magnitude. Paul English is one of those drummers:
Classic Drummer (CD) Paul, when did you first begin working with Willie?
Paul English (PE): I first started working with Willie in 1956 at Majors Place, at 4010 Hemphill in Fort Worth, Texas, making $8.00 a night three nights a week. Willie was a disc jockey in Fort Worth and I was a leather tooler. My brother Oliver and Willie were doing a 30-minute live show on “The Western Exposure”, Willie’s radio show, to promote a job. They needed a drummer. I had never played drums before, but I went out there and started playing a snare drum on 1-2-3-4, with brushes. I was one of the few who could take off work to play, so we did that about three weeks.
Then Willie got a job and took me with him, benevolent as he would be and still is. Willie said, “Let’s take Paul, he hasn’t been playing three weeks for nothing.”
So that was my first gig. I like to say, “I played my first job ever with Willie and I will play my last one with Willie.”
CD: How did the band transform from there?
PE: That band didn’t transform. We were working at a nightclub about six weeks and then the place got sold, as they usually did back then. Me and the front man went out on Jacksboro Highway and worked for a guy named Billy Wade. After that, my cousin, my brother, and myself, put a band together.
I stayed friends with Willie all this time, and in 1966 I was living in Houston. He came by my house and spent the night. He said, “Do you know how to get in touch with Tommy Roznaski?”, who was a friend of ours that played the drums. “I’m looking for a drummer”, and I said, “Well, I play the drums probably better than him or at least as well.” Willie said, “Would you work for $30.00 a night?” I said yes. That’s where i’ve been ever since. So I’ve been with Willie Nelson since 1966. It’ll be 39 years this January.
CD: From 1956 to 1966, did you stay in touch with Willie? Did you continue learning to play drums?
PE: Oh yes, in fact I was a big fan as well as a friend. When he recorded “Then I Wrote”, I took the album to the radio station and had them record it to an 8 track tape so I could pay it in my car. I’m still learning as a matter of fact. Back when I started playing drums there was nobody to emulate like there is now. There was Gene Krupa, but we didn’t have videotapes to watch and I didn’t know how to read music. I started out by playing the drums to music. I should have learned to play the drums first, then get the job.
CD: You’ve been playing with Willie most of your life. What other bands have you played in?
PE: Between 1956 and 1966, I played with a lot of bands. I’m proud of them all, but one that I’m especially proud of, is Delbert McClinton. I recorded with him on the first single he ever did in 1963. It was called “If You Really Want Me To, I’ll Go”, which became a minor hit. There were only three people who played on that record, Johnny Patterson, Delbert McClinton, and myself. Johnny played guitar and overdubbed bass. Delbert sang and played harmonica. The band was called Delbert McClinton and the Rondells. I also worked four years with Ray Chaney, a local guy in Fort Worth. Once I started with Willie, it’s been a good job and a full time job with him. I wouldn’t want to work for anybody else.
CD: When Willie writes a new song, how do you approach the song from a drumming standpoint? Does Willie give you direction?
PE: When Willie starts playing a new song, I usually get a good feeling of what the song should sound like. I play what I feel it needs. Willie never tells me exactly what to play, but if he feels it’s too busy, he may tell me to hold back a little or straighten it out if he thinks it’s a little too much on top, he’ll tell me to lay back or keep it cleaner. But I generally play what I want.
CD: What are some of your favorite songs to play each night?
PE: “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Night Life”, and of course, “Me and Paul.” We play that song every night. It takes me back many years. Working with Willie, we both have a lot of good memories together. We’ve been together for so many years. The song “Me and Paul”, was on a concept album called “Yesterday’s Wine”. Willie wrote six songs in one night to go on that album.
CD: What were the crowds liked in the early days? What are some of the largest crowds the band has played to”
PE: When the band first started, we’d play 200 – 300 seaters, mostly for the door. In the 60’s when we played a show, there were sometimes as many as fifteen well-known artists playing the show. Everyone form Ray Price, George Jones, Hank Thompson, Jr., Johnny Cash, Bill Anderson, to Ernest Tubb would play shows together.
We had a Fourth of July Picnic in Oklahoma and played to seventy four thousand people. That’s the biggest crowd we ever had. This was in the late seventies. Then we played the Academy Awards which was shown to about seventy four million people. Johnny Carson hosted the show that night and what a class act he is. I really respected him. He was a great guy, a fantastic human being. He was really down to earth. He was also a very good drummer!
CD: How many nights a year does the band work now?
PE: We go from 130 to 150 days a year. To do that many days a year, you ‘re on the road better than 200, maybe 225 days. The most we ever worked was about 180 days a year. That was back when we just started getting popular.
CD: The band now travels in three tour buses. How did you travel in the early days of playing with Willie?
PE: In 1966 we had a 1947 GM bus. We bought it from Red Adair, the Texas firefighter. Then we went to a Mercury Station wagon pulling a trailer. Now we have three buses. Willie’s bus is called Honeysuckle Rose. The band crew are getting new busses this wear. We’re excited about that.
CD:Â How did the cape become part of your outfit?
PE: In 1967 we were in California. We were going to buy new uniforms. We had two jackets, two shirts, and two pairs of pants. Willie and I were walking and he saw this cape in the window and said, “Aw you gotta have that, go get the cape.” I paid $25.00 for it. We played Panther Hall in Fort Worth and I wore the cape. A lot of girls wanted autographs after the show, so the cape stayed. I’ve had about seven capes.
Somebody asked me, if I wrote a song about the cape what would it be? I siad, “Long Time Forgotten”. Willie brought me three beautiful capes for my 71st birthday. All my original capes were burned when my house caught on fire in the 80’s. I wore one of the capes Willie bought me when we played John T. Floores Country Store in Helotes, Texas. That cape is in the Willie Nelson Museum in Nashville. We played John T. Floores Country Store from the word go. When we first started playing there, about 200 people would show up. Now the palce can hold 2,500 people. We play there at least twice a year.
CD: If you had not met Willie, would you have purused drumming as a career?
PE: I had other interests, but they didn’t involve music. I kept my drums set up fin the kitchen just in case. I don’t think you can get away from music. Even when I worked for $35.00 a night, sometimes I would fly to Florida to work the job and fly back. I would spend $50.00 flying and lose $20.00 for the love of playing.
CD: What does 2005 bring for Paul English and the band?
PE: Beginning in February, we play several dates in Australia. Then we go to Europe for a couple of weeks.