by Jay Milner
One night in 1964, Gene McCoslin, then manager of KNOK radio in Dallas, drove down to the old Sportatorium on Industrial to hear Roger Miller in person. He got there early and was leaning against a post near the back of the barn-like auditorium when Willie Nelson strolled onstage with a guitar and opened the show with an hour of songs.
Just a man and his guitar. Alone on the big stage. Singing “Hello Walls,” “Touch Me,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” “Crazy,” “Half a Man” and other songs he’d written himself.
“Well, he knocked me right out,” McCoslin said recently in his cluttered Central Expressway office, where he holds out tenaciously as perhaps the last of the independent music promoters. “I forgot all about Roger Miller and everybody else. When I got a chance, I introduced myself to Willie and told him, tried to tell him, how hard his songs hit me.”
Next time Willie came to Dallas, McCoslin went to work for him. Gave up a lucrative career in radio management to go on the road with Willie and his band to ride an ancient bus that wasn’t air conditioned from coast to coast, to ride herd on a crazy gang of outlaw musicians.
“Willie told me they’d told him in Nashville he was ten years away,” McCoslin said. “I told him that was a crock, that if anything it was Nashville that was ten years away. I wasn’t into music, understand. I was a super salesman! But Willie Nelson turned me around. He had on a brown suit and a clip-on tie, ferkrissakes! What was I doing being impressed by a man in a brown suit and clip-on tie?”
Ten years later, McCoslin booked Willie Nelson into that same barn, the Sportatorium, and sold out both times to stomping, yelling, adoring crowds, consisting mainly of long haired, new generation people who wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to country music in 1964.
Even in the mid-60s Willie was regarded as something of an outlaw in Nashville. He wasn’t an angry man, far from it. Mainly, he went his own way as he does today. The brass in Music City USA told Willie to forget about a singing career and concentrate on writing songs.
“I’d had a little success as a songwriter… ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ and ‘Hello Walls’ and those songs came out pretty quick after I moved to Nashville. After that, I could afford to be a little bit independent. Since they’d gone for my songs and hadn’t particularly gone for my singing — and I knew they wasn’t going to go for my life style — I figured one out of three wasn’t too bad.”
“In fact, Faron Young told me one time that what I ought to do was just write the songs and he’d sing ‘em. That was before I started recording. Faron had had a little success with ‘Hello Walls’ so I guess he figured if he could keep me on the hill writing there’d never be a Willie Nelson.”
More and more folks — in and outside of Texas — got gladder and gladder that, indeed, there is a Willie Nelson today. Yes, indeed. A Willie Nelson who is fast becoming loved by all kinds of fans everywhere for his singing, his songwriting and an almost indefinable something more that he’s come to mean to them.
Willie and his band played the rock-oriented Troubadour night club in Los Angeles and drew near capacity crowds all week. One night’s audience included Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, who came to listen to this Willie Nelson they’d been hearing so much about from musicians of all persuasions all over the country.
And so it goes.
So, what has triggered all this seemingly sudden and uniquely personal interest in, and adoration for, an apparently easy-going Texas country picker poet who, that night ten years ago, opened the show for Roger Miller without fanfare, front or back, alone on the old Sportatorium stage?
The answer is complex and has to do with the coming around of several things, including Willie Nelson’s decision about three years ago to move back to Texas after cutting at Nashville for almost a dozen years.
A new breed of country musician had been coming of age, a generation young enough and sensitive enough in the rocking ’60s to know that country music could be better if it had more than three chords and delved deeper with its lyrics than a minnow’s plunge.
Willie found a new audience for his music in his own Texas back yard; so, he and key members of his band shucked Nashville and moved to Austin. At about the same time, Willie changed record companies — singing with the New York City based Atlantic Records. These two, almost simultaneous, moves meant that at about the same time, Willie was able to make the kind of music he wanted to make both live and recorded.
The audience Willie discovered in Texas was ready for his music and lyrics. Consciously or not, they have geen getting ready most of their lives. Willie’s music was basically country, but more. And, from the other direction, this new, younger audience had been hearing some of the best of their rock era musical heroes — Dylan, Grateful Dead, Byrds, Poco, The Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others — edging toward their country roots for some time. But a major problem had been that no established country stars had been willing, or able, to appreciate what these young pickers were attempting to accomplish — a new, all-American music, firmly rooted in folk and country attitudes and sounds, but improved, not diluted, by sounds and viewpoints from more modern aspects of updated living experiences. There was still in the atmosphere the residue of social and political fragmentations of the 1960s.
In the dozen or so years he operated out of Nashville, Willie became a successful songwriter. But his career as a singer had not developed satisfactorily for him. His songs came out of gut reactions to personal triumphs and failures, private joy and pain. He was a journeyman craftsman, but he was ever able to crank out money-making gimmick songs like “The Streaker.” Not long ago, I asked him about this he said, “I like to make myself believe that my songs will still be around 500 years from now, and I wouldn’t want the people then to find songs like that among ‘em.”
“Not that I don’t write bad songs now and then,” he added, revealing the now famous Willie smile. “I do, just like everybody else. But I try not to let anybody hear them.”
To Willie, writing songs was only half the job. Interpreting them was important, too, and the idea that other singers would always interpret his songs for most people became increasingly unacceptable. (“I always thought I sang pretty good.”)
So, when he heard one day that his house in Tennessee had burned to the ground in his absence. Willie decided to bring it all back home to Texas. That is, he decided to keep it here. When news of the burnout reached him, Willie and his family were in temporary residence in guest houses on a dude ranch near Bandera, Texas. It was the off season, and they had taken advantage of the cheaper rent to isolate for a breathers, after a long string of years doing one-night tours and other killing show biz tasks. Also, there were the continuing frustrations from Nashville’s discouraging attitude about his singing career.
At that time, Willie’s immediate “Family” included wife Connie, youngest daughter Paula, longtime drummer Paul English and his family, bass picker Bee Spears, legendary steel guitar man Jimmy Day, various other wives, girlfriends,d rop-outs, drop-ins, and no telling who all.
Their first gig after the Texas move was at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, the first country music act to play there. Willie and Paul simply walked in one night and asked Armadillo honcho Eddie Wilson for the job. Wilson said something like: “Why not? Let’s see if it works.”
In the approximately two years ince, Willie’s Texas concerts became legendary existential experiences that consistently packed honky tonks, ballrooms and auditoriums of all sizes, shapes and persuasions across the state — particularly in the vicinities of Austin, Dallas and Houston.
The damn near incredible intimacy shared by Willie and hundreds or thousands of individuals in his audiences set his performances apart — placed them on a lofty level alone. Others might rev up as much mass energy, but none could simultaneously plug into so many individual emotional circuits across the footlights. The cliche, “He’s singing just for me!” might have been invented by a Willie Nelson fan.
Meantime, Music City began to snap to the Willie Nelson phenomenon. In November of 1973, the Country Music Songwriters Association in Nashville inducted Willie into their Hall of Fame, along with Roger Miller and Harlen Howard. Soon, everywhere you went in Nashville you heard Willie’s name. Articles began to appear, in and out of Nashville, about a gang of picker poets called “The Nashville Outlaws,” whose membership included such imposing names as Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Tompal Glaser, Billy Joe Shaver and, of coure, Willie Nelson.
A writer for the New York Times told of something he called “Progressive Country Music.” He said it was a new, vital country music, and its creative energy seemed to be centered around Willie Nelson down in Austin.
And people like Gene McCoslin — who had tuned in on Willie and was saved a decade ago — weren’t surprised to see the bandwagon rolling.
“I just wonder what the hell took everybody else so damy long,” McCoslin said in his cluttered Dallas office, trying to pay his head and rub his stomach at the same time and failing miserably.