Still Willie After all these years
Still Willie After All These Years
by Steve Labate
“My greatest achievement? Waking up this morning, probably,” Willie Nelson says with a hearty laugh. “And getting out of bed. I just kinda take ‘em one at a time.”
Don’t let the 77-year-old American icon’s mix of modesty and effortless self-deprecating humor fool you — his resume is a little more impressive than he lets on. In his life, Nelson has been a singer, songwriter, guitarist, poet, disc jockey, high-school football halfback, Air Force private, actor, political activist, environmentalist and philanthropist. And he’s a black belt in tae kwando, to boot.
Next up for the Red Headed Stranger? Following his most recent album, last year’s T-Bone Burnett-produced Country Music, and leading up to this spring’s Country Throwdown tour with Jamey Johnson, Nelson is kicking off Austin City Limits’ new ACL Live concert series at the freshly opened 2,700-seat Moody Theater in downtown Austin. ACL events are familiar territory for Nelson, who played the show’s very first taping in 1975, and has been back to perform 15 times since then — more than any other artist in the award-winning PBS series’ 35-year history.
“The folks at Austin City Limits know sound,” Nelson says. “That was one of the big problems with television (back before the show started), trying to do music on tv without anybody knowing anything much about sound. But (executive producer) Terry Lickona and those guys — when I heard how good their television shows sounded, I told ‘em I wanted to stay a part of it. Over the years, Austin City Limits has given a whole lot of great talent a place to pay. I think it is one of the best things that’s happened to music.”
Nelson’s Feb 13 and 14 shows at ACL Live at The Moody Theater will be among the first at the venue, which — no coincidence — is located at 310 Willie Nelson Blvd. The new venue effectively doubles as a working monument to the Texas-born troubadour, also featuring a special outdoor backstage smoking area named in his honor and a statue of his likeness at the bottom of the theater’s main staircase. And to further connect Austin City Limits’ new home with Nelson and his aesthetic, the Moody was built to comply with the U. S. Green Building Council’s LEED Certification standards. It’s in a walkable location, close to transit, features water-saving plumbing fixtures, energy-efficient lighting, and was built using carefully selected materials with a significant percentage of recycled content, in order to divert waste from landfills and conserve virgin resources.
“I think it’ a great idea,” Nelson says of the theater’s environmentally friendly design. “I’m glad they’re thinking in those terms.”
A Lone Star is Born
Willie Nelson was delivered on April 30, 1933, smack between Dallas and Waco, in the town of Abbott, Texas. He grew up learning music alongside his big sister, Bobbie, who to this day plays piano in Willie’s touring band. The pair started early, and Willie was writing songs by the time he was seven years old. But even before the music, he was penning little poems, a form of expression he learned from his grandmother. In fact, Nelson’s very first public performance was not as a musician, but a poet. It didn’t go very smoothly, but the resourceful Willie pulled through, averting what — for many kids — would’ve been a traumatic experience, and tunring it into a story he still cracks up over all these years later.
“I got up in front of this church when I was about five,” he says, “And I had on a little red-and-white sailor suit. I got nervous, and my nose, it started bleedin’, so I had blood all over my little white sailor suit. So I put one finger over the nostril that was bleeding, and my poem was, “What are you lookin at me for, I ain’t got nothing’ to say/ If you don’t like the looks of me, you can look the other way.” That was my first attempt at show business.”
In his teens, Nelson played halfback for Abbott High School, guitar in a band called the Bohemian Fiddlers, and records for his first disc-jockey gigs at nearby stations KHBR and KBOP. After graduating in 1950, he joined the Air Force, but was discharged within a year due to back problems. The military, however, still owed him the college tuition it had promised, and Nelson enrolled at Baylor University in Waco. “I don’t feel like I learned a lot at Baylor, and I’m not sure they were proud to have me there,” Nelson says, grinning, mischief in his voice, “But I didn’t go there to get an education — and I didn’t.”
After a stint recording, performing and working as a radio announcer in Vancouver, Washington, Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960. There, he pursued music full-time. “We were so busy every day — ‘I wrote this song last night, let me see if I can find somebody to record it today,’” Nelson remembers. “Me and Hank Cochran — a great songwriter, he’s the one who got me started at Ray Price’s Pamper Music in Nashville — we would hang out every day and see who could come up with songs. It was good to have another writer to bounce your songs off of. Every morning, me and him and Roger Miller and Ray Pennington and Don Rollins, a bunch of us would come in and we’d play each other the songs we’d written the night before. It was kind of a friendly competitive thing, but I think it was good for us.”
It was during this period that Nelson had his first successes, writing a string of country hits, including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” These breakthroughs as a writer soon led Nelson to a recording career of his own. He signed with RCA Victor in the mid ’60’s and cut a string of countrypolitan records with producer Chet Atkins. “Chet was fantastic,” Nelson says. “He was one of my first heroes. He was one of the first guys who had faith in my songs and my music. Besides being a fantastic guitar player , he was also a great producer, and he was really good for the music industry in Nashville for many, many years.”
In the early ’70s, Nelson’s Nashville home was destroyed in a fire, so he decided to leave town and head back to Texas. “I wound up moving to Autin because that’s where my sister was living,” he says. “I hadn’t decided if I wanted to go to Houston or Austin, but when I got to Austin, I realizd this is where I want to hang out because the music scene was just getting started, and I could kinda jump on the bandwagon.”
The laid-back, hippified Austin scene had a big impact on Willie’s music, and he began pulling away from the more-slickly-produced sound of his ’60’s albums, and moving toward the more organic approach that would become his trademark. This is probaly best exemplified by his classic 1975 concept album, Red Headed Stranger, which — even though it ended up going multi-platinum — was not well-received at first by Nelson’s label, Columbia. “I’ve always trusted my own instincts when it comes to music,” he says. “Now, I dunno shit about a lot of things, but music I know pretty good. It wasn’t hard for me to see ‘this is a good song, and I know the people will like it. I’d perform the songs live, and I knew the people liked ‘em. And then I’d hear these record executives say, ‘Well, it’s not commercial.’ I really got sick of the word ‘commercial’ early — I think that less is more. It’s that simple.”
Throughout the decade and beyond, Nelson continued blazing his own trail alongside friends and contemporaries like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, who ended up being branded as “outlaws” because of their refusal to confirm to industry trends. “They came up with that term because we wanted to play our music the we wanted to play it,” Nelson says. “I was really honored to be called an outlaw because I felt like, “Well, all right, now I’m getting their attention.”
In late May, Nelson will head out on the highway for his six-week Country Throwdown tour. “We’re traveling in a little better style than we used to — we went from station wagons to a bus,” he says, contrasting his current biodiesel-fueled accommodations with the less-regal chariots of his humble beginnings. “It’s easier now than it used to be, but I’m not sure we’re having any more fun now than we used to.”
Of course, they’re not having any less fun either. His is a tight-knit, loyal crew, billed as Willie Nelson and Family for a reason. “It extends beyond bloodlines,” Nelson says. “It goes all the way back to me and Paul English and Bee Spears, and Mickey Raphael and all of us who’ve been out here playing music together all these years. When you travel that much, that close together, it’s family.”
After all the miles he’s racked up in his six decades on the serpent’s tail, as he fast-approaches the big 8-0, folks have to wonder whether Nelson will ever take a well-deserved rest on his laurels, if he’ll ever take his inner-road dog out back like Travis did to Old Yeller and retire him from touring, “I don’t see any reason,” Nelson says, without hesitation. “I’ve got a great group of musicians and a good crew, and I know that when I get out there it’s gonna be right. For years and years it’s been that way. I’ve gotten it to where I want it, and I won’t accept anything less. And it’s still fun to go out there every night. As long as the crowds are showing up, and as long as we feel like playing, there’s no reason to quit.”