[Thanks again to Phil Weisman, for sending me this newspaper clipping/review. The Chicago Sun-Times gave over 1/2 page to the photo and review.]
Chicago Sun Times
Sunday, November 6, 1988
by: Don McLeese
Willie Nelson and Bud Shrake
With his autobiography, Willie Nelson not only gets the chance to set the record straight, he offers the same opportunity to his ex-wives. Take, for example, the fabled incident from his first marriage in which his wife was so upset at finding him drunk again that she sewed him up between two bed sheets and proceeded to whack him out of his stupor with a broom handle.
Ridiculous, says Martha Jewel Mathews, who became Willie’s first wife when she was just 16. “How dumb could I have to be to try to sew Willie into a bed sheet?” she asks in one of the book’s “Chorus” sections, which allow many of those who share Nelson’s life to give their side of the story. “You know how long that would take to sit there and take stitch after stitch?”
“The truth is, I tied him up with the kids’ jumping ropes before I beat the hell out of him.”
Written with Bud Shrake (a former writer with Sports Illustrated and Nelson’s collaborator on the “Songwriter” film), Willie is not one of those show-biz sagas that is designed to reinforce an image, to celebrate the myth while sanitizing the man. Neither is it a titilatting “tell-all” account, using scandal to boost sales. As straightforward in its honesty as the best of Nelsons songs, the book offers a matter-of-fact, refreshingly frank account of how Willie Nelson came to be what he is, and how he feels about what he has become.
What he is, although he’s too modest in Willie to make the claim himself, is the greatest artist that country music has known since the late Hank Williams. He’s also something of a sagebrush mystic, a believer in “reincarnation and the laws of Karma,” an environmentalist, an avid golfer, a long-distance jogger, a guy who gets along great with women until he marries them, and a firm believer in the medicinal powers of marijuana.
As an account of this life (Nelson apparently doesn’t remember much from previous incarnations), Willie doesn’t adhere to strict chronology, but most of the pertinent facts are here. It relates his musical beginnings as a cotton-picking, mud-eating child who played guitar at 6, considered himself a “serious songwriter” at 8 and was a veteran at 11 of the polka-band circuit in small town Texas.
It shows his emergency as a hit songwriter, though his early efforts often proved more lucrative for others than they were for Nelson himself. He sold all rights to “Night Life,” which has since been recorded by more than 70 artists, for $150. “At the time he needed the money,” he explains, and the fact that the song was a hit “encouraged me to think I could write a lot more songs that were just as good.”
The country music establishment in Nashville never came to terms with Nelson’s artistry. Though his “Crazy” was a smash for Patsy Cline, and “Hello Walls” did as well for Faron Young. Nelson’s music had a sophistication beyond three chords, and his singing was too down-home conversational. Eventually, Nelson returned to Texas, where he was branded an “outlaw” for following his own best instincts.
He has since progressed from barroom stages to stadium concerts, and now travels on his own Learjet, as well as by bus, while continuing to follow his own instincts. The mythic “Red Headed Stranger”, a musical fable about frontier justice, was an unlikely candidate for mainstream acceptance, but it gave Nelson his popular breakthrough. His record company advised against his “Stardust” collection of standards, and it won him a larger audience than ever.
In addition to offering plenty of advice beyond the usual bromides for those bent on a musical career, the autobiography documents the spiritual development of the man known to much of Texas as “Saint Willie.” An inspiring as his progression from honky-tonk hotheadedness to metaphysical bliss may be there’s no question that Nelson’s contentment has cost him some musical creativity.
He admits that he writes from need, from hunger, and he maintains that for him to return to writing a “sad, negative song” would be bad karma. Leaving songs of whiskey-drenched heartbreak behind, he finds it easier to record duets with the likes of Julio Iglesias.
The “Chorus” sections provide a more rounded portrait of the artist than most autobiographies offer, but the book would be even better balanced if it featured someone who isn’t just wild about Willie. (His third wife, from whom Nelson is estranged, isn’t included within the interviews. However as furious they might once have been at him, his ex-wives remain fond of Nelson; his friends from the scuffling days are still his friends; his band and business associates are unwaveringly loyal.
Even a man whose wife ran away with Nelson (to become the second Mrs. Nelson) proclaims that “IF there’s any man I’d like to run off with my wife, it would be WIllie Nelson.”