by Bill DeYoung
Well, hello there
My it’s been a long, long time
With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna (both trademarks of his for many years), he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.
How’m I doing?/
Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine
There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre–jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tip–toe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.
It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.
It’s been so long now
And it seems that it was only yesterday
For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show–business.
And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Nelson never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, usuing the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville—and the world—was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.
When he and success found themselves at last running neck–and–neck on the same horse track, Nelson made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight–ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.
Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away?
Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”
Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.
Nelson is the original Zen cowboy—no one knows him can recall any show of temper, ever—and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”
Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid–back before people knew what laid–back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”
The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”
Patience, as a virtue was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.
Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933 in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees). Nelson was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson. Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Nelson’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.
Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player and loved to play and sing music. He encouraged the same in his children: Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two. Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a cardboard–box piano.
Mother Myrle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrabbler, a free spirit and a fun–lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.
Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents, William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson. Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice, a Methodist.
But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail–order degrees, and they filled their two–story house in Abbott with song: Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.
Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (when she go a real one) night and day. The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled, as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible. Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six. He gave the boy a chord book, which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.
Willie had made his first public performance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing–along and picnic. He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white–and–red sailor suit. Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.
Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age seven, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame–red hair, his nickname was Booger Red.
Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather: The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house). His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Forth Worth.
“I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled. “Because it was new in the house. There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it. The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry. That was a regular. And everything else. I turned the dial.
“I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really. A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley. And Glenn Miller and those guys.”
Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and into what Nelson would later describe as a “shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields. Nelson’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.
Cotton picking is back–breaking, hand–shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him. Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep somewhere out of the brutal Texas sun.
He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues. Their regular Methodist Church visits filled Willie and Bobbie with gospel music and Christian hymns.
The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial–shopped ceaselessly, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned to love lyrics and melody.
Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart. Although Bob Wills and Texas swing were omnipresent on the Texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO in Waco, for Hank Thompson’s hillbilly show. He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams too. Floyd Tillman was a big favorite.
Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off–meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.
“My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early. And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”
But Nelson’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who first showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.
“Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills and probably other people that I don’t even know.”
Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.
“It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be , but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there…I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”
While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15–member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and horn section.
He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand–printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.
Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with the 13–year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Nelson thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.
That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.
Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs. I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”
Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Nelson’s musical education.
“My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30′s and ’20′s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”
It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact—still a crony of Nelson’s today—who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start–up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).
Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16–year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.
Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).
In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign–on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’, hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.
“He was a Fort Worth pimp and part–time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up.
“So we had Paul sit over there and we put a pair of brushes in his hand. That was the first time he ever played drums—he played trombone, or sax or something in the Salvation Army. But the first time he played drums was on the radio with me and Oliver.”
Nelson played songs for children at one o’clock in the afternoon, sort of a “naptime show”; one of his favorite records was “The Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. Nelson was also writing feverishly.
It was in Fort Worth in 1954, too, that Willie Nelson was first introduced to marijuana, a substance he has rarely been without in the intervening years. It has been sanding off his rough edges for four decades now.
In 1956, after relocating briefly to San Diego, the Nelson family moved in with Mother Myrle, who’d remarried (twice) and had settled in Vancouver, Washington. Old radio hand Nelson talked himself into a jock job on KVAN, and within a month his 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily program was the second most popular show in town (Arthur Godfrey was first). His air name was Wee Willie Nelson.
Mae Boren Axton, who’d co–written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, visited Vancouver while working as advance publicity flak for singer Hank Snow (managed by Axton’s boss, Colonel Tom Parker, who was by then getting busy with Elvis Presley). Nelson, never one to miss an opportunity, corralled her into the production room and played her a tape of some songs he’d written. Axton’s advice: If you got something to sell, go where the store is. Get the hell out of the Pacific Northwest and move to Nashville.
Instead, Nelson dragged his electric guitar and amplifier into a converted garage in nearby Portland, Oregon, and crudely recorded two songs: his won “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack,” a tune written by his pal Leon Payne. The echo–laden tapes were sent off to Starday Records in Nashville, where 500 singles were pressed (on “Willie Nelson Records”); Starday’s Pappy Dailey declined to pick up the artist’s publishing, which was his company’s option in the contract.
Wee Willie sold the singles on his radio show; for $1 you received the record and an autographed photo of W. Nelson, writer, producer and record tycoon. He sold out of the first pressing, and eventually his fans bought 3,000 records. (Both sides of the single appear on the QVC/Rhino package The Classic Unreleased Collection.)
Nelson wasn’t ready to try Nashville yet, but the bug had bitten him. Making enough money to support his family was his top priority, and when his program out–performed Arthur Godfrey in the local ratings, he demanded a raise and was promptly dismissed.
So after two years in Vancouver he packed up Martha and the kids (daughter Susie was born in Washington in January 1957) and went back to Texas. For a while, he was determined to quit the music business and be a serious and hard–workin’ daddy, but his restlessness and drive wore him down. In Fort Worth, living with Ira and his new family again, the Nelsons tried to be a normal family, living normal hours. Nelson sold vacuum cleaners, Bibles and encyclopedias door to door, and even taught Sunday school for a while, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When the pastor learned that Mr. Nelson, respectable bible–thumper and tutor to the local children in the ways of the Lord, was often coming in on Sunday after a night singing and picking in honky–tonks and “buckets of blood,” Nelson was dismissed from Sunday school.
Disgusted by the hypocrisy of it all (“I ran into a lot of the same faces Saturday and Sunday,” he’d later write), Nelson left the Christian church for good. It was at this time, he wrote, that he started reading about other religious beliefs and eventually came face to face with what, for him, would rad like God’s own truth: the laws of Karma and reincarnation. These beliefs helped him through some mighty rough times.
Looking for more honky tonks to conquer, Nelson brought his brood south to Houston, a rough–and–tumble town in 1958 (son Billy came in May). Perpetually broke, he held down three jobs: He played six nights a week with Larry Butler’s band at Houston’s roomy Esquire Ballroom, spun records Sunday mornings on KCRT, and taught guitar at mandolinist Paul Buskirk’s School of Music (although, he says, most of his students seemed to know he was faking it). Buskirk remains a friend and ally; his presence is felt throughout 1993′s Moonlight Becomes You.
Nelson settled his family in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb. It was during the 30–minute drive from Pasadena to the Esquire Club one night that Nelson plucked the opening lines to “Night Life” out of the air: “When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hangin’ round…” He rarely wrote anything down, figuring that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, it wasn’t good.
Meanwhile, Starday Records owner Pappy Dailey signed Nelson to his fledgling D Records, and his first “official” single on Nelson, “What A Way To Live,” but he and Dailey had a falling out over “Night Life,” Nelson knew it was a hit in waiting, but Dailey thought it was a blues song, not a country song, and wouldn’t let him cut it.
So Nelson recorded “Night Life” on a small Houston label, Rx Records, and to avoid a legal hassle with Dailey, he had the artist listed as “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, Featuring Hugh Nelson.”
“The musicians on there were jazz and blues musicians,” Nelson said. “Herbie Remington, the steel guitar player, was a fantastic musician who could play anything. He was one of the original steel guitar players with Bob Wills.
To finance the session, Nelson had sold “Night Life” to Buskirk for $150; earlier, Buskirk had purchased Nelson’s song “Family Bible” for $50. He said that in those days, he figured songs were like paintings; you finished one, sold it and painted another one. He has never earned a cent from “Family Bible,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buskirk’s partner Claude Gray in 1960 (on D Records, of course), or from “Night Life,” which became Ray Price’s signature tune in 1963 and has been recorded by more than 70 artists, including Nelson himself (the latest version is on his 1994 Healing Hands Of Time album).
In 1960, encouraged by his meager songwriting success, he finally took Mae Axton’s advice and pointed himself toward Nashville in his beat–to–hell 1950 Buick; after dropping Martha and the kids at her folks’ place in Waco, he hit the highway to Music City. The car collapsed and died like a tired horse the moment he arrived in downtown Nashville.
Nelson made fast friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the watering hole just across the alley from the Opry, where the songwriters hung out and drank and bragged and schmoozed. Nelson fell in with Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis and, fortuitously, Hank Cochran. The composer (with Howard) of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Cochran had connections; when his new friend Nelson began to turn up at “guitar pullings” (late night boozing parties where writers tried out their new stuff) the tide started to turn for Nelson.
He moved Martha and the children up from Waco, and the family took a cheap trailer at Dunn’s Trailer Court, coincidentally, the very mobile home that both Cochran and Miller had inhabited when they had first arrived. Miller, in fact, used the entrance sign at Dunn’s—”Trailers for Sale or Rent”—as the opening image for his 1965 classic “King Of The Road.”
In 1960, though, Cochran was the only one of the bunch to have achieved any success. So impressed was he by Nelson’s songwriting that he waved off a $50 per week raise from his publisher, Pamper Music, and suggested they use it instead to hire Willie Nelson.
When Nelson learned about this good fortune, he cried. Martha cried. The kids cried. Cochran cried. At last, Nelson was a songwriter, making a living—well, making something—with his relentless creative drive. Martha went to work as a waitress and barmaid, paying the bills, while Nelson pursued his dream. The marriage was, however, unraveling, as Nelson was pulled, and eventually pulled himself, farther away from family duties. He and his wife were both hotheads, he recalled later.
He recorded dozens of songs as demos, the same way its done in Nashville today, and shopped them to country artists (most of the so–called “Pamper demos” were issued amid lots of compilations in the 1970s).
Things began to turn around in 1961. First Faron Young, one of the Tootsie’s crowd and a consistent hitmaker since the 1950′s, cut Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Backed by another Nelson number, “Congratulations,” the single stayed at number one for nine weeks. Nelson received his first big royalty check for $20,000, and French–kissed Faron in front of all their cronies at the bar at Tootsie’s.
Two more smashes followed, in October and November, respectively. “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a smash by Texan Billy Walker (an old friend who’d also cut Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man” to considerably less success), and “Crazy” became a big hit for Patsy Cline. He wrote them in the same week.
He never seemed to be out of songs. “I just think if you’re a songwriter, if that’s what you do, it’s just kind of like if you’re a farmer,” Nelson said. “You have a natural talent for plowing a field. I’m a songwriter. It’s supposed to be easy for me, and it is.
“I can write a song about anything, at any time. Now, whether it’s worth a damn or not is debatable. But to any professional songwriter, you should be able to say, “All right, write me a song about running around naked,” and he should be able to do it.”
The songwriting royalties were startin’ to look fine, but Nelson still desperately wanted to be a performer. Around this time, he took a job, playing bass in Ray Price’s road band, the Cherokee Cowboys (replacing Donnie Young, who would soon change his name to Johnny Paycheck). He so enjoyed life on the road that he spent more and more time away from home, even when he wasn’t working. With his big royalty checks, he’d often spring for a suite at whatever Holiday Inn they were staying in, so the band could party.
In the fall of 1961, Hank Cochran unwittingly got Nelson his first record deal. While on a song–selling mission to Liberty Records head Joe Allison, Cochran played a few of the demos Nelson had recorded for Pamper.
Allison fell for Willie Nelson’s songs, and for his unusually expressive voice. “For years, nobody would record him because they thought he sung funny,” Allison would later recall. “We finally decided that the best approach would just be to play rhythm behind him and stay the hell out of the way.”
That was pretty much the blueprint for …And Then I Wrote, the first Willie Nelson album, issued on Liberty Records in September 1962. Performed with a small, bass–piano–drums–guitar combo and little else to fog Nelson’s Texas baritone, the album is a classic honky tonk weeper. Here are the earliest versions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls,” plus textbook barroom bawlers like “Undo The Right” (co–written by Cochran), “The Part Where I Cry” and “Three Days.”
There’s also the utterly strange “Where My House Lives” and the darkly beautiful “Darkness on the Face Of The Earth.” All in all, depressing songs about unhappy relationships.
“Most of the songs that I write pretty much reflect where I’m at at the time,” he reflected. “And those were some pretty sad and hectic times in my life. I guess that’s why I was born a songwriter, so I could write about ‘em.”
Of course, the album wasn’t a hit. It’s likely that the world wasn’t ready for Willie Nelson yet. Today, Nelson wonders what his life would be like if his early records had made him a star. “I’d be burned out by now,” he believed. “I’d be dead somewhere. It’s occurred to me several times. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to. I don’t think I would’ve known what to do with success—I still don’t know what to do with it! I might be one of those guys that’s settled down in Branson and decided that’s where they want to spend the rest of their life. If I’d had some hits early, when I was 25 years old, I might’ve been tired of the whole damn thing.”
The best thing to come out of …And Then I Wrote, to Nelson’s mind, was his relationship with the great country guitar player Grady Martin. Martin was the session leader for the Nashville part of …And Then I Wrote (several of the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with Leon Russell supervising) and the two developed an easy rapport that would last. Martin played guitar in Nelson’s band for nearly 20 years and finally retired, over Nelson’s protests in 1993.
…And Then I Wrote was the most satisfying album Willie Nelson would release until Yesterday’s Wine nine years later; with each subsequent set, with each new producer, his vocals would become a little less essential to the mix. Starting with 1963′s Here’s Willie Nelson, his producers would try to fit him into the mold of a Nashville record–maker.
But he didn’t fit; he never would. And try as they might, nobody could make a star out of Willie Nelson until they changed the mold to fit him.
His first chart single, a duet with singer Shirley Collie, Hank Cochran’s “Willingly,” was released in December 1961. Collie, a world–class yodeler and harmony singer, was a member of Red Foley’s Phillip Morris road show. By the time “Willingly” had made it to #10 in March, Nelson was romantically involved with Collie, married to a California disc jockey who’d helped Nelson’s career. His solo single “Touch Me” went to #7 in May, but Willie Nelson wouldn’t crack the Top 10 again until he returned with long hair, a beard and a cowboy hat 13 years later.
Here’s Willie Nelson appeared in 1963, and sank without a trace, and a third album though recorded, was never released (all of Nelson’s Liberty tracks are collected on the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings). He left the label for what he hoped would be greener pastures.
By the time Ray Price had cut “Night Life” in 1963, Nelson was deeply in love with Shirley Colley; he once described her as the best harmony singer he’d ever worked with (listen to the duo’s snazzy, jazzy versions of “Columbus Stockade Blues”—three of them—on the Early Years). Martha divorced him in 1963 and took the kids out west; after Shirley’s divorce from Biff Colley, she and Nelson were married. They bought a 200–acre hog farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville (while they were signing the papers, they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas).
Nelson wrote the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which became a Top 20 it for Roy Orbison, and briefly recorded for Orbison’s label, Monument (one single was released, and the other tracks originally consigned to the Monument shelves were issued during the Williefest that was the ’70s; the most complete collection being the Singer/Songwriter album, with unrelated Eddie Rabbitt tracks sharing the vinyl.
Suffering from the serious bouts of depression and self–doubt that would plague him for many years, Nelson quit the performing business for a few months in 1964 to write songs and raise hogs at Ridgetop. The British Invasion was making short work of most other styles of music at the time, anyway, and country music was adding strings and big arrangement to compensate (this was the beginning of ‘countrypolitan’ music, the so–called “Nashville Sound”).
Bored with the hog farmer bit, Nelson “came back” with a vengeance in November, ironically signing with RCA Victor, where the Nashville Sound blueprints were being drawn. But vocal arranger Anita Kerr was a fan, as was A&R head Chet Atkins, and they believed Nelson’s stellar songwriting talent would override his unorthodox singling style. With some strings here and chorus there, he could be a huge country star yet. Nelson joined the Grand Ole Opry the same month.
In Nashville, he joined the cast of Ernest Tubb’s syndicated TV show as co–host. “It was a lot of fun,” Nelson recalled. “That was back when Jack Greene was playing drums in the Ernest Tubb show. Cal Smith was playing guitar, and Wade Ray was playing fiddle with me. That was the good ol’ days.”
Nelson was thrilled to be singing and playing alongside his boyhood hero. “I helped him host a little bit along, but he was the master of ceremonies,” he remembered. “He let me be the co–host because he wanted to help boost my career, I guess.”
But the powers that were at RCA were wrong; in six years and 18 albums, Nelson had never had even a minor hit with the label. Producers Atkins and Felton Jarvis tried every trick in the book—they laid on the strings, they laid off the strings, they put on steel guitars and fiddles, they put on horns, they let Nelson just play his acoustic guitar. But he resented, like so many others, having to use the antiseptic RCA studios and the dispassionate RCA session musicians.
There were some good songs—he was really cranking ‘em out by now—but the recordings were…well, they were kind of boring. “I really did get frustrated in those years,” he said, “because I was writing what I felt were good songs. Each time you put out an album that you didn’t feel had a chance, there’s 10 of your children that you feel like didn’t get a fair shot. On the other hand, I also knew that if these songs were as good as I thought they were, they’d always be good and eventually I’d be able to do them again, some way.
“When I first went to Nashville, I wanted to go in with me and my guitar and do some things. Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and I, just the three of us, we did some a few years later. I was so intimidated being in the studio with those two guys that I couldn’t find my ass with a search warrant.”
Many of Nelson’s RCA records were doomed by his performance style, too, which had become a kind of bleating monotone. He hadn’t yet found the intimate and even tender singing voice he would use on Red Headed Stranger and everything that followed.
Although there were many, many good songs, and they weren’t all overproduced (check out Nelson’s hipster takes on “Fire And Rain” and “Both Sides Now” on the 1970 Both Sides Now LP) they were nearly all overpowering, without any subtlety at all. As if he were trying too hard. (Compare Nelson’s honking 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the calm, measured reading on 1979′s Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson).
“I knew they didn’t sound like I wanted them to sound,” Nelson said. “There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the authority to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do it this way.’ I decided maybe I’m makin’ demos, but if I am, they’re pretty expensive and I’m not paying for ‘em.”
In 1965, Nelson and his band were performing at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix; Waylon Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s Lounge down the street. Jennings went over to check out the traveling Texan, and a lifelong friendship was born.
“I love his writing,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that between him and Roger Miller, it would be a toss–up. Willie has written more of a wider range of country songs. But Willie is basically the greatest country songwriter that’s ever been, I think.”
He was selling records in Texas and surrounding areas, where his live act was drawing crowds, but everywhere else Willie Nelson was a washout. Nashville just didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t feel right with Nashville, either. “Just because he had on a suit and tie, or a turtleneck, didn’t mean that’s what was going on inside his head,” offered Ray Benson. “He could have been a beatnik. You have to get into the nuance of the time. If you really look close at it, you’ll see that he was really different. And he always knew that.
“He was trying to fit in, but only superficially. Because the music was so different, really—his version of ‘San Antonio Rose,’ for example, that’s almost jazz music. That’s also in the great tradition of Ernest Tubb, though. His band did stuff like that all the time. Willie’s musicality was probably what set him apart. The facts are, when you hit Nashville back in them days, there were two kinds of players; the people who played hot, and the people who played commercial. And that was the word they used, ‘commercial.’ Hank Garland, one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, also played on all of the Top 40 country western records of the time. And played commercial.”
At Ridgetop, Lana, Susie and Billy came to live with Willie and Shirley. Martha never did give her ex–husband legal custody, but she was getting re–married, again, and had better things to do. Eventually, she and her third spouse, Mickey Scott (an old flame from Waco) moved in just down the road from Willie, Shirley and the kids.
Ira, Willie’s dad, and his new wife Lorraine moved onto Nelson’s farm, as did sister Bobbie, her third husband and her three kids. When Lana married, she and her husband stayed in the area. Mother Myrle and her husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to a house five miles away. Musicians Wade Ray and Paul English—they played fiddle and drums with Nelson—moved onto the farm with their wives too.
Even though he wasn’t selling records, Nelson was bringing in close to $100,000 a year in songwriting royalties. He still wanted desperately to be a star, and in the mid–’60s bought his first bus. He and the band began to hit the road nationally, for a month at a stretch.
Things at Ridgetop were strained, with Nelson on the road all the time, and Shirley increasingly resentful, holding the reins on the kids, the hogs and a whole brood of transplanted Texans practically by herself. Daughter Susie began to rebel, staying out all night and abusing drugs; Billy apparently never got over his parents’ divorce and resented Shirley for years.
One afternoon in November 1969, Shirley opened up a piece of mail with a Houston postmark, and proceeded to read a hospital paternity bill. Willie and Connie Nelson, “Mr.. and Mrs.,” had become the parents of a baby girl, Paula Carlene on Oct. 27. Mr. Nelson had put the Ridgetop address on the registration forms.
Nelson had been introduced to Connie Koepke at a club in a Texas town called Cut ‘n Shoot, just outside of Houston. She was more than just another conquest of the road, of which there were many by this time. Nelson’s marriage to Shirley was coming apart; he was hard–drinking and unhappy again.
Shirley moved out shortly after the arrival of the errant hospital bill; by Christmas, Connie was living at the house with the baby Paula Carlene, Susie and Billie. Susie thought Connie, 27 was all right, but Billy never spoke to her. Willie and Shirley wouldn’t speak to one another for 10 years.
In the basement at Ridgetop, Nelson had rigged a crude recording studio where he, Cochran and the rest of the songwriting gang would play cards, get drunk and lay down new tunes. A week before Christmas, Nelson and Cochran wrote a song called “What Can You Do To Me Now?”
Nelson was at a party in Nashville on Dec. 23 when someone called to say his house was on fire; Connie and the baby were home, but had escaped unharmed. He hurried home and dashed through the smoldering ruin, kicking through the ashes until he found an old guitar case stuffed with two pounds of top–notch Columbian marijuana.
A friend helped the Nelson’s find suitable quarters while they started looking for a place to live while their home was being rebuilt. Since most of Nelson’s performance dates were in Texas, and Texans loved him, they started looking down there. Eventually they settled on a place called the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country.
Happy Valley was closed for the winter, and so they had the place all to themselves. Nelson’s “family” was expanding even further, and several of his band members and their immediates made the move with him. Thus, the Bandera property became something like a commune, with each family encamped in a different clapboard guesthouse. Willie and Connie took the ranch foreman’s quarters.
It was here at Happy Valley, among the hills, cedar trees and verdant fields of wildflowers, that Nelson began to wonder whether he really wanted to live in Nashville after all. His lifestyle was loose, organic, so unlike the way country music performers were supposed to behave. He hated the studio system, hated his record company, hated the fact that after 10 years of hitting the road hard, the only place he could draw any sort of a crowd was around Texas.
Nelson recalled, “I was ready to move somewhere anyway, and it just seemed like when the house burned I didn’t have any excuses anymore. If I’m gonna look for a new house, I might as well look for one back in Texas, because that’s really where I felt I ought to go.
“First of all, I needed to go somewhere I could take my band and play, and I knew I could do it in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I didn’t have to travel very far that way, and I figured, ‘If this is my retirement, I’m gonna enjoy it and be somewhere I want to be.’
“I think I reached a point where I just said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not working. I’m ruining my health, running around all over the world trying to do something that just ain’t working.’ I was still getting songs cut, so I was making an income that way, so I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And when the house burned I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”
In Bandera, Nelson began to meditate. He read Kahlil Gibran, the poet, and the philosophical works of Edgar Cayce, the prophet of reincarnation. He also began playing golf religiously (Happy Valley had its own nine–hole golf course).
In 1971, he released Yesterday’s Wine, a brilliant country music album, brimming with the mortal court and mystical spark that would ignite Red Headed Stranger (still four years away), but just as gut–wrenching and emotional as his early songs for Liberty.
It’s a concept album, the first of four Nelson would make, telling the story of a man watching his own funeral and reviewing his life. The new songs on Yesterday’s Wine were written in Bandera, where he and his cohorts had settled into a hippie–esque, hedonistic way of life. There were drugs, and drink, and many days spent navel–gazing and nature–communing under the influence of some chemical or other.
The are the spoken opening lines of Yesterday’s Wine:
Voice 1: You do know why you’re here?
Voice 2 (Willie): Yes. There is great confusion on eearh, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already, and his voice was heard; the voice of imperfect man must now be manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.
Voice 1: Yes, the time is April, and therefore you, a Taurus must go. To be born under the same sign twice adds strength, and this strength, combined with wisdom and love, is the key.
With an intro like that, how could Nashville like this album?
“It was just one of those ideas,” Nelson said recently. “I’d heard of concept albums before, and I just thought, ‘Well, I can do that.”
Along with the title song and good old “Family Bible,” Yesterday’s Wine includes “Let Me Be A Man,” “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and “Me and Paul,” Nelson’s humorous song about the trials and tribulations of life on the road with drummer and closest pal Paul English (really close, because he lived at Happy Valley too).
Most importantly, the album introduced a “new” Willie Nelson and Band sound: stripped down, spartan instrumentation and quiet vocals, like a gang of spiritual cowboys around a campfire.
Except Cowboy Willie seemed to be trying to sing with the stilted phrasing of every other erstwhile Nashville star. The combination was lethal; Yesterday’s Wine was too weird, and predictably, it stiffed. He wasn’t ready yet.
The Ridgetop house was rebuilt in 1971, and everyone schlepped back to Tennessee. Willie and RCA reached an impasse over Yesterday’s Wine (he thought they didn’t promote it, which they didn’t, and they accused him of being counter–commercial, which he was). After a few contractual obligations were worked out, Willie Nelson was a free agent.
He met Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler at a guitar–pulling. Sitting on a stool in the wee hours, his old Martin N–20 gut–string guitar in hand, Nelson sang an entirely new concept album he planned to call Phases And Stages. The story of a painful divorce was told from both sides. Phases And Stages introduced a couple of songs that would become Nelson classics: “Bloody Mary Morning,” “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “Sister’s Coming Home.” It was to be a bold stroke.
Wexler told the singer he was starting an Atlantic country division, and since his deal with RCA was just about up, would he like to be the flagship artist? Nelson said yes, if he was given artistic control of the project. He was making just enough money to be cocky about it. Wexler agreed.
The first thing Atlantic did was fly Nelson and his band to New York, to record there (for their very first time) with Arif Mardin. The Shotgun Willie album sessions, featuring a crack horn section and guest pickers Leon Russell, Doug Sahm and David Bromberg, were attended by Rollling Stone magazine.
Phases And Stages finally arrived a year later, as quiet and reflective as Shotgun Willie had been drunk and electric. “Bloody Mary Morning” was a Top 20 hit, and Phases And Stages became Nelson’s best–selling album to date (numerous rave reviews certainly didn’t hurt). The “alternative” press was calling him cool, and it looked like he was on his way.
But the sales figures still weren’t all that great, and when Atlantic decide to shut down its Nashville operation, Phases And Stages died a quick (and painful) commercial death.
By that time Nelson had already retreated back to Texas and its comfortable beer joint stages, where he was a familiar and welcome figure.
“I could be happy doing that, because I had worked clubs down in Texas all my life, and I knew all the club owners around there,” he explains. “There was a pretty good circuit of clubs in Texas, and you could work every day and not work the same one.”
Since almost all the gigs were in Texas, why not just move there permanently? Nashville just flat wasn’t happening. With the Atlantic debacle ringing in his ears, and with Happy Valley memories still strong, Nelson shifted his entire organization to Austin.
“I had come back to Texas to retire, and to play what I wanted to play when I wanted to play,” Nelson said.
“I’d been lucky enough to write some songs and have an income, so if I lived within the means I wouldn’t have to do any more touring. I was 40 years old, and it was time to slow down a little bit, I thought.
“So I came back to Texas, and I started just working around places that I wanted to work.”
Rock ‘n’ roll and country were drawing closer together, despite themselves, and in the spring of 1972, some quick–thinking promotion guys in Dallas had decided that Texas, where the burner under this melting pot seemed to be, needed its own Woodstock.
And so it came the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion, held in a dusty cow pasture a half–hour’s drive west of Austin. Tex Ritter and Loretta Lynn were on the bill, but so were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “The old meet the new” was the idea. Or something like that.
The country Woodstock was pretty much a disaster; the 60,000 fans got wet, muddy and stoned, in that order, and the promotion men took a bath. But Willie Nelson, keen observer of people and the things that drove them, was taking notes. He used the unfortunate Dripping Springs concert as the jumping–off point for the annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, which he would begin in 1974.
The Dripping Springs Reunion had been a financial disaster, but it was still a good idea,” Nelson said. “And I was on that show. And I saw the possibilities.
“The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat. I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn’t want to fight. Especially if it was hot.”
And he put his own name prominently “above the title,” helping to set himself up as the patriarch of the south’s new counter–counter–culture.
“Some of them were big, some of them were just bombs,” Ray Benson recalled. “He really wasn’t making any money at all. He’d take his publishing checks and subsidize the whole thing.”
The bill at the 1974 picnic included Kris Kristofferson, his then–wife Rita Coolidge (then enjoying success as a pop solo act and as a duo with her husband) and Nelson’s old bud Waylon Jennings, who was coming into his own, like Nelson, as a “progressive country” artist.
(By the fourth go–round in 1976, a three–day affair held in Gonzales, Texas, the picnics had become the largest annual musical event in the nation and were routinely condemned by the local politicos. Which of course, made them all the more fun.)
“I don’t know how many Fourth of July picnics we’ve done, 10 or 12 or 15 or something,” he said. “They started blending into Farm Aid. We quit doing Picnics and started doing Farm Aids.”
In 1972 and ’73, Willie Nelson had found more than what he expected in Austin. He found a lifestyle, a manifesto, and an attitude. And he, a 40–year old country singer, ostensibly an “establishment figure” could relate to it.
“I found a lot of people who thought the same way I did about a lot of things, a lot of them from Texas,” he said. “And so I realized there was a lot of folks over there who would like to hear some country music, but they really didn’t have a place to hear it.
“Guys like Commander Cody were playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so I thought this would be a good spot to break country music in to those people.”
The Armadillo World Headquarters, a converted National Guard Armory, became the center for Austin’s fledgling subculture of hippies, rednecks, country and folk fans and all the strange hybrid bloodlines that were forming. It was a lot like San Francisco in its hipster heyday, Nelson said. Except much farther south.
The music was changing fast too. Rock ‘n’ roll and country had been brought together in exciting new ways courtesy of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles. Troubadours such as Jerry Jeff Walker were sort of like Hank Williams, the prevailing logic went, if he’d been alive in the present age.
“I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see,” Nelson said. “I saw a whole new audience out there. And the only difference between these guys and these guys is one of them has long hair and might smoke a little dope every now and then, and the other guy over here’s got short hair and drinks rotgut whiskey.
“It was gonna be difficult for them guys to ever get together unless they had some common ground. And I knew what the common ground was. I knew that these same guys, who had their hair down to their ass, loved Hank Williams. And I knew that this guy over here, who had just got through kickin’ the shit out of some hippie, he loved Hank Williams. So there was something wrong with this.”
Austin in 1972 was like nothing else history had seen, recalled Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. “It was wonderful. We were always broke, and everybody just wanted to get high and play music. There were many, many like–minded people. People used to say, ‘What’s the Austin sound?’ I’d say, ‘There ain’t no Austin sound, there’s an Austin scene.’ We were all as different musically as you could be: Doug Sahm had his thing, Greezy Wheels, Marcia ball, Willie Nelson, a hundred other groups. And they all sounded different. There wasn’t anybody sounded the same.”
So what was it? “It was all lifestyle,” Benson said. “Everybody liked to get high, liked to have a beer, liked elements of country music for sure, absolutely, but we were also counter–culture, whatever that was. We were takin’ the hippie thing and giving it this real Texas, country music slant.”
And above the title, smiling that million–dollar paternal smile, was Willie Nelson. “He was the father of the whole thing, no doubt,” Benson said. “He was the most successful, he was the oldest, and he was pure Texas. He knew Darrel Royall, the football coach, he knew the state representatives, these kind of guys. I couldn’t get a check cashed in Austin.
“Willie was very much in touch with the establishment from his previous days, and yet he was also very much part of the counter–culture. So he had his feet in both camps, and was accepted by both. He was our link. He was the guy who, when he said we were all right to a bunch of these straight establishment kind of people, we were all right, which opened up many, many doors which would’ve otherwise been closed.”
Nelson began to grow his hair and beard, and to wear old jeans and T–shirts onstage. “I did it to piss a lot of people off, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t pissin’ nobody off any more,” Nelson recalled with a deep laugh. The he told a story that, for him, explained everything: “We used to sit around at parties back in the drinkin’ days, sit around in hotel rooms, and crowds would come in, and there’d be more people there than you wanted.
“So we’d start sayin ‘fuck’ around, and the first thing you know, the guys that had their little girlfriends would leave. And then I started noticin’ that the more you said ‘fuck’ the more people’d come in.” He laughed a good Texas laugh. “Times are changing.”
The common denominator, Benson said, was, “Drugs. Frankly, all I can say is he turned on with the rest of us. He got psychedelicized, as they used to say. I think he always was a ‘seeker’ as Dolly Parton used to call him. He was always looking for more than perhaps the obvious spiritual answer.”
Nelson’s first show at the Armadillo was Aug. 12, 1972. It wasn’t long before he called Waylon, who too was getting sick of the stranglehold up in Nashville, and persuaded him to come down to play a gig in Austin. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were booked as the opening act.
“He called me and said, ‘I think I found something down here,” remembered Jennings. “So I went down there, and I looked out of the curtain, and there was all these long–haired kids. And I said, ‘Go get that little red–headed son–of–a–bitch! Get him in here!” And they went out front and got Willie, and I said, ‘What the hell have you got me into? Those are a bunch of kids!’
“And he said, ‘Just trust me.’ I said, ‘Now I know what that means in California, but I ain’t sure about Austin.’ Well, that was one of the first times that I saw this happening, and it spread from right there at that little Armadillo Club, all across the country.”
In 1975, the country music establishment was doing its best to ignore the mixed marriage between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the switch to the “countrypolitan” sound was complete, away from the hillbillies and honky–tonk tunes of the old days to a streamlined, string–laded, cloned–from–the–pop–charts sound. There was very little in the middle. Still, things were better in 1975 than they had been at the turn of the decade—both Freddy Fender and Merle Haggard had sizable hits that year with different–sounding records. But Nashville, slow to change, was still pretty much a bastion for the old guard.
Willie Nelson, meanwhile was having a great time being the King of Austin. He’d like to keep recording, he told anyone who asked, but he wasn’t gonna go back to Nashville and have to put up with all the at dictatorial crap. But since he’d never had a real hit, no producer was going to let him call the shots.
Phases And Stages, although a critical success, was a commercial dud, and you couldn’t exchange a flop for clout in the studio. But the big noise from down Austin way had attracted CBS Records’ A&R guys in Dallas; over the objections of producer Billy Sherrill, the hottest hit maker in Nashville (and head man at the label’s Music City headquarters), CBS president Bruce Lundvall offered Willie Nelson a contract.
The key clause: Total artistic control—the music, the players, everything down to jacket art—was Nelson’s. Why would giant CBS give a relative nobody like Willie Nelson such freedom?
“I found out later that they didn’t,” Nelson said with a chuckle. They just told me they did. It just so happens, on that very first album, they knew if they ‘no’ then, then I was gone. So they let me have it for a time or two, but then whenever they decided I’d had enough, they started rejecting my albums.
“And I said, ‘But wait a minute, you can’t do that. I got artistic control! But they continued to do it.”
Willie and Connie were making the log drive back to Texas from a skiing trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, when he asked her to help him think of songs to record for his first album for CBS. As she was jotting down titles, Connie reminded her husband how much he loved that old song by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the cowboy ballad called “Red Headed Stranger.” This was his favorite song to play on his children’s show back on Fort Worth radio. He’d crooned “Red Headed Stranger” as a bedtime ballad to his three kids during the early years; he still sang it to lull Paula Carlene and her sister Amy to sleep.
“All of a sudden it was like a light came on in Willie and we started talking right away about it being a concept album,” Connie told an interviewer later. “Willie started mentioning other old songs he knew like ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,’ and he started outlining an album, noting where he could write a song to fill in the story.”
“Red Headed Stranger,” written by Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman, told the tale of a brooding rider who held a dark secret, riding from town to Western town, silently leading his dead lover’s horse behind his own “raging black stallion” and staring straight through anyone who approached him.
Nelson bracketed the song with an Old West parable: In his version, the stranger was an idealistic young preacher who’d murdered his cheating spouse in a jealous rage and then went riding in search of redemption, haunted by the memories and deadened by the sin he’s perpetrated.
He added thematic links; he added Fred Rose’s old “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” as the rider thinks back on his deepest love. Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” went into the narrative, and the old gospel standard “Just As I Am.”
Nelson added Hank Cochran’s bittersweet “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” to the story as the lost preacher finds comfort in the company of a simple farm woman who understands his sorrow and accepts his fall from grace. He finds peace at last in “Hands On The Wheel,” written by Bill Collery, a lovely piece of imagery that brings the stranger full circle in a kind of blissful cowboy catharsis.
Red Headed Stranger was stitched together from disparate sources and incredibly, it all sounded wonderfully cohesive. “It didn’t take any time at all, really,” Nelson recalled. “It sort of fell together as they do, in a scary way; when you got somethin’ really going for you at all, you just start writing it. To put in ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ in that point, I didn’t think about it in a month. It had to go there.”
Released on Columbia, the Red Headed Stranger album went on to break Willie Neslon out of Texas and way, way out of Nashville; its spare arrangements (performed, as per his demands, by Nelson’s own touring band) left the focus on his warm and newly–relaxed voice. It was as if Nelson was telling the Red Headed Stranger story, with his guitar and sister Bobbie’s piano, right there in your living room (by now the band included drummer English, bassist Dan “Bee” Spears, guitarist Jody Payne, harmonicat Mickey Raphael and Bobbie. This remains the band today).
The album was recorded, Nelson recalled, over two days in a tiny Garland, Texas studio usually used to cut advertising jingles. The total cost was around $12,000. “It was a timing thing,” he said. “I had to wait until Red Headed Stranger came out to get another shot. CBS let me go in and do it, and accepted it the way I handed it to ‘em, reluctantly. They said, ‘When are you gonna finish it? It’s a pretty good demo, but…’ It was Bruce Lundvall, up in New York, who asked Nelson, ‘Wouldn’t it sound better with a couple of strings or background singers?’” When the album hit, Lundvall never questioned Nelson’s judgment again.
To mix a metaphor, Red Headed Stranger proved to be the straw that broke the power block in Nashville. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” spent two weeks at #1 (it went to #21 on the pop charts) and the album was a smash success.
Suddenly, Willie Nelson, who’d had so many doors shut on him in Nashville (he could show you the bruises on his feet) was the hottest thing going. His unorthodox performance style—those simple arrangements, that cozy deep voice with no strings attached—became the rabbit for the Music City greyhounds to follow. Ray Benson says he became a “pied piper.” It was time for a last laugh.
Meanwhile, because he’d dared to record outside of Nashville with a producer he actually liked and who solicited the artist’s opinions, Waylon Jennings had been branded a troublemaker. But his records were selling to a desirably young audience, and “outlaw” dreamed up by some ad man or other, turned into a music industry buzzword. Long hair. Beard. Beer–swilling and good times. Non–conformists playing non–conformist country music. Outside of the Nashville establishment. And this is how Waylon and Willie became outlaws.
In 1975, Jennings began putting together a patchwork album, using old tracks, for RCA. His task was to pull together tracks of his own, old stuff of Willie’s, and songs by studio owner/artist Tompall Glaser and wife, singer Jessi Colter, and make an “outlaw” album out of them.
“I did the Outlaws project at about three o’clock in the morning at RCA.” Jennings recalled. “A lot of those things weren’t supposed to be released.”
He “sweetened” the old four–track tapes with harmony vocals and extra guitars. “Most of those tracks were 10 years old by then,” he said. Nelson was, of course, the linchpin. RCA was eager to get some mileage out of him by re–releasing old tracks from his long, unsuccessful tenure there. Jennings was the label’s current great white hope for tapping the younger, hipper audience, and RCA had been watching “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and the commotion down Austin way. They saw the Willie juggernaut.
Central to the album, which wound up with the title Wanted: The Outlaws, was a song Jennings and Nelson had written together in the ’60s, during an all–night poker game in a Fort Worth hotel. They had both cut versions of “Good Hearted Woman” (Nelson’s bloodless solo reading is available on the All–Time Greatest Hits CD) and Jennings had recently issued a live version.
In the studio, Jennings took this live recording, deleted his own voice in some places, and put Nelson’s in. “We were just riding around town in one of those hazy conditions,” Jennings recalled, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we go cut a record?’”
So they went in and “made” a classic country record in a matter of an hour or so. “When I first cut the one that’s got me and him on it,” Jennings said, “he wasn’t within two or three thousand miles of me.” Be that as it may, the Waylon and Willie version of “Good Hearted Woman” spent three weeks at #1 and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
Wanted: The Outlaws became the first country music album to be certified platinum. Yep, they were outlaws, all right. Whatever worked. Whatever sold.
Two of Nelson’s best songs from the Yesterday’s Wine album, the title tune and “Me And Paul” were included on Wanted: The Outlaws. Because the rejection of that album had been a key reason Nelson had left Nashville, their success on the compilation made for an even more bitter irony. Nelson and Jennings became the toast of country music; overnight long hair, bandannas and Stetson hats became part of the country package. Uniforms and kitsch were out. Individuality, as personified by Willie and Waylon, became a thing to be prized, rather than scorned, in Nashville.
“I’ll tell you what it was, it was freedom,” Jennings said. “It was something that had never happened in country music. We just took our own lives by the reins and didn’t let nobody in.
“When I first came to Nashville, you had three hours to cut four songs, and mostly you had to use their studios, their producers, their musicians. You went in there, and what you got was what you got, and that was it. I never could do music like that. It was like an assembly line.”
Although they’d known each other since the early days, Nelson and Jennings had found they were kindred spirits; fun–loving, fiercely independent, tired of letting someone else call the tune while they danced. Or didn’t dance.
“I don’t know how two brothers could be any closer,” Nelson said.
“We’re friends, we fight…we have, we don’t anymore. Back when we was on different kinds of drugs, we would fight.”
Eventually, they cut a total of four duo albums, and two as 50 percent of the Highwaymen (there’s a third on the way as this is being written).
Yes, Nelson and Jennings are really, truly good friends. Theirs is not a friendship of showbiz contrivance. Said Jennings: “He don’t try and change me, and I don’t try to change him. Willie is the only truly free spirit that I really know. I hear a lot of people say they are, but he really is. Now, there’s other people say he’s the most irresponsible person on Earth, and we’re both right.”
Against Jennings better judgment, he let Nelson convince him to act in the abysmal 1986 TV–movie remake of Stagecoach. Jennings said he doesn’t hold it against his friend.
“I love Willie; he’s like my brother of the road,” he explained. “And he’s one of those type friends that, when you’ve been apart for a long time, all of a sudden you look up and he’s standing there. You pick it up right where you left off a year ago. It’s just a timeless friendship.”
After the double–whammy of Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, Nelson just go hotter and hotter (he sang the last verse of Jennings’ hit “Luckenbach, Texas” a #1 hit in April 1977).
As befits any legend, Nelson’s past came back to haunt him. As he made one album after another for CBS, his old labels, EMI (which owned the Liberty masters) and especially RCA, were reissuing his early material with new titles and with pictures of the new, bearded and bandanna’d Willie on the cover.
Eight Willie Nelson albums appeared in 1976; only two, The Sound In Your Mind and The Troublemaker, contained new material (The Troublemaker, a gospel set, had been recorded for, but rejected by, Atlantic). Between 1976 and 1987, at least four Willie Nelson titles appeared in the record bins each year. More were sold through TV ads and mail order.
Rick Blackburn, who runs Atlantic’s current country operation in Nashville, was president of CBS/Nashville during Willie’s peak years. He said that he, Nelson and the label were only too aware of the harm those continuous re–issues—of generally inferior material—were causing Nelson’s rep.
“We hated it,” he said. “It diluted the market, it cheapened his price. But that’s the commercial music business. He tried to stop it, but you can’t. You don’t have the right to. In the case of Willie’s pre–Liberty demo recordings, the artist can say, ‘I’ll sue you because it was never intended to be a master,’ but of course they’d say, ‘Well, we own it.’ And you wouldn’t believe the glut of a product that came out.”
Nelson’s recorded output, once he and Columbia hit Red Headed Stranger out of the park, began to reflect his own wide–ranging musical tastes. First out of the chute were The Sound In Your Mind, a hodge–podge of stuff from various places, and a Lefty Frizzell album, To Lefty From Willie. It was as if he wasn’t sure what to do after Stranger.
“The natural thing that I guess a marketing genius would’ve said to do was come with another concept album,” Nelson said, “but you just can’t run ‘em off, you can’t sit down and write one anytime you want to.
“I had some songs that I probably could’ve done, other than a Lefty Frizzell tribute album, but I didn’t have anything that I thought was that good. The songs in that Lefty Frizzell album were, to me, just as good as the songs in The Red Headed Stranger album, or in the Stardust album that came out later. Those songs are standard, as far as I’m concerned.”
He released low–key duet albums with Ray Price, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Young and Roger Miller within another two–year span.
“Honestly,” he said, “these guys were my heroes. To be able to afford to go into the studio with Faron Young, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Ray Price and do albums and have ‘em come out? That’s amazing. I was not only singing with my friends, I was singing with guys that I had listened to growing up.”
Nelson denies that these were “payback” albums, to bestow some of his commercial cache on the men who’d helped him in the early days, and who were now less than commercially viable.
“I thought they needed to be recorded,” he said of those albums. “I loved those songs, and I know a lot of other people do—Lefty Frizzell songs, Webb Pierce songs, Carl Smith…nobody’s done a Carl Smith album, so that needs to be done. Little Jimmy Dickens. There’s some more guys that I want to do albums about, once I get in a position where I can do it again.”
Nelson’s recorded output began to include standards, cowboy songs, gospel music and contemporary classics—sometimes all on the same album. To him, it all made sense.
“When I was playing clubs, the same audience would ask for ‘Fraulein,’ and then they’d turn around and ask for ‘Moonlight In Vermont,’” Nelson said. “Or they’d ask for ‘Stardust’ or they’d ask for ‘San Antonio Rose,’ and then they’d ask for ‘Mansion On The Hill.’ Those people didn’t know labels out there; they just liked music. So it wasn’t hard for me to want to record all kinds of music and sing all kinds of music.”
Everything came together with Stardust in 1978. Produced with velvety smoothness by Booker T. Jones (who was married at the time to Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla), of Booker T. and the MG’s fame, the album played up Nelson’s odd phrasing, against a setting of low–key, romantic arrangements.
But, there were no strings in sight; Stardust laid its bets on Nelson’s voice as the centerpiece. Against all odds, it worked.
Remembered Rick Blackburn: “He had started to get hot. And Willie called and said, ‘I got this idea to take 10 of my all time favorite songs, like “Moonlight In Vermont,’ ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’ and ‘Stardust,’ and do those; they’re just great songs. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re crazy. I think what you need to do is write some; you’re a great songwriter. You’ve got a roll going; do something current. To me it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.’”
The Waylon and Willie single “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” was all over the place at the time; Jones, to Blackburn, meant Booker T. and the MG’s. “Green Onions.” Who the hell did Nelson think he was, with those old songs? Tony Bennett?
“He had a young demographic, which was unheard of at that time,” said Blackburn. “Country artists skewed very old. Willie was never one for a debate. Not much discussion and he says, ‘Well, thank you very much,’ and he hangs up the phone.”
Under its contract with Nelson, CBS had to putout whatever record he gave them. And so, as with Red Headed Stranger, it took on Stardust with reluctance.
Immediately, Nelson’s sensitive reading of “Georgia On My Mind” became his third chart–topping country single (after “Blue Eyes” in 1975, and “If You’ve Got The Money” the following year).
The followup, “Blue Skies,” went to #1, too. “All Of Me” was Top 5, “September Song” Top 15. And Stardust, the album that made no sense to anyone but Willie Nelson himself, eventually sold triple platinum staying on the Billboard pop charts for more than two years. To date, it’s his most successful album.
“It was a marketing dream,” Blackburn said. “The older demographic loved the songs, even if they didn’t like Willie, they liked the songs. It brought back a lot of good memories. The young demo, they liked Willie, and they thought he wrote every song. So we couldn’t go wrong.”
Said Nelson: “I’ve always figured that the commercial end of it is somewhere in the future. The ideas that I’ve had, the music that I’ve come up with and written and played—I’ve always had the encouragement of the people around me and from the audience was playing it for. The only people who were telling me it didn’t have a chance were the record executives. The public was already telling me, ‘Hey, it’s a good idea.’”
Stardust wasn’t the first time Nelson had gone against the powers that be in the record biz—remember Yesterday’s Wine?—but it was the first time he was vindicated by enormous acceptance by a public that now adored him, and was willing to give his ideas a listen.
“As soon as I got the record companies to give me a shot, to put it out the way I wanted to d it, well, success was right there,” he explained. “And the commercialism was right there.
“All of a sudden, all those ideas that weren’t commercial weren’t commercial were selling,” Nelson said.
Waylon Jennings wept the first time he heard Stardust. “I told him, I said, ‘Willie there’s that thing in our voice that never fit anywhere else like it does there.’” Jennings said. “He had this thing in his voice. I told him, ‘That thing has been waiting.’ Because he always had this kind of a quiver in his voice—it wasn’t like a vibrato, it was just something that was there—like no other person.”
Stardust was the ultimate outlaw album. Willie had rewritten the book of country music, and added another chapter.
“I’ll tell you what,” adds Jennings. “Willie does what Willie wants to do, and that’s it. You might be there for two days and miss the whole train yourself I f you start trying to make him do something.”
Simply because he didn’t have to, he wrote less. His older songs popped up on his new albums all the time, in new recordings. Still do. Nelson said he’s always been reluctant to let them go.
“I’ve got hundreds of songs laying around back there, and I haven’t had an opportunity to get ‘em all recorded,” he said. “And whenever there’s an opportunity to go get one—or if it’s one that I did on one of those obscure albums years ago that got lost—there was 10 of my songs that got lost along with it.
“So I don’t give up on them. I go back and look for the ones that I think nobody heard and I’ll bring ‘em back and try to find a spot for ‘em.”
By 1980, life in Dripping Springs was becoming too much, what with all the visitors (“People were showing up at the ranch who thought I could lay hands on them and heal their crippled limbs,” Nelson later wrote) and so Connie persuaded her husband to buy a second home, a three–story Swiss chalet just outside of Denver. Here, Paula and Amy began school. The Nelsons also purchased the Pedernales Country Club, a huge, secluded spread in Spicewood, Texas, just northwest of Austin (the Pedernales River flows between Luckenbach, Spicewood and Dripping Springs).
Nelson now had his own private nine–hole golf course, the country club building was converted to a recording studio, and he had a full–scale Western town built across the street from the studio (you can see it in the Red Headed Stranger movie, and in the TV–movie Lonesome Dove, where it stood in for Fort Smith, Arkansas, sheriff July Johnson’s stomping grounds.
Golf quickly turned into a passion. “It looks so easy, and it is so hard. You think you got it and then you don’t. You think you’re turning into a great putter, and then you miss one two feet away. So I think it’s a humbling game, and I don’t know why anybody plays it,” Nelson said.
Back at the outlaw ranch: Because of the unprecedented success of the Outlaws compilation, RCA waved fistfuls of money at Nelson and Jennings and persuaded them to record an all–new album together. Waylon and Willie was released in January 1978, just before Stardust.
Ultimately, Waylon and Willie again dusted off a couple of Nelson’s older tunes, chiefly, the lovely “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way,” a highlight of Phases And Stages. But the long–haired country music “outlaws” had such a cachet that the album, which was recorded quickly and wasn’t very good, sold platinum in record time.
The album’s one/two punch was Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” It hit #1, earned a gold single, and became the best–selling of all of Jennings and Nelson’s 45s. (They had recorded together, in the same studio, this time around.)
Nelson’s solo career, of course remained his primary concern. After Stardust, there was no stopping him, and his next “new” album appeared in November (co–headlining jaunts with Jennings had taken up the first half of the year). The double–pocket Willie And Family Live was a fairly straight–forward recording of his band’s live show at the time—it was pulling sellout crowds wherever it played.
Here, Nelson sang the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” he’d already been doing for years. To this day, his shows still start with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and follow with “Stay A Little Longer” and the medley.
Willie And Family Live also included performances of early tunes he would eventually stop doing: “Hello Walls,” “Mr. Record Man” and a long medley of songs from Red Headed Stranger (although “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” Nelson’s first #1, is still a staple of his shows).
Nelson became an American cultural icon in 1978. His contented smile, it seemed, beamed from everywhere: Rolling Stone gave him an extensive cover story, and periodicals from Peoria to Pakistan delighted in chronicling his troubled rise to the top: the hard early days as a songwriter, the rejection by Nashville, the rejection of Nashville, the “Outlaw Movement,” the Family band, the exhaustive touring schedule.
On April 25, 1978, Nelson performed at the White House as special guest of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and with Connie and the girls, spent the night. Nelson loves to tell the story about the White House aide (nameless, of course) who sat on the roof with him that night, drinking beer and smoking “Austin torpedoes,” pointing out the sights of Washington from the best vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ah, success.
Nelson release three albums in 1979; Sings Kristofferson, a rather unspectacular collection of compositions from Kris Kristofferson, an old drinking buddy and co–headliner at the early Fourth of July Picnics (Kristofferson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the moment, what with A Star Is Born and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, but he wasn’t considered much of a singer, and his records still weren’t selling).
Willie also cut a two–LP set with Leon Russell. One For The Road, recorded quickly in a rough ‘n’ ready roadhouse style. One For The Road, Nelson and Russell sang duets on “Danny Boy,” “Summertime,” “You Are My Sunshine” and a bunch of even stranger titles. Even so, their up–tempo remake of Mae Axton’s “Heartbreak Hotel” went to #1 in July. The album went gold.
At Christmas time 1979, the Pretty Paper album appeared. A collection of holiday tunes delivered in the quiet, unassuming Stardust style (Booker T. Jones retuned to produce), Pretty Paper joined the ever–rowing glut of county singers’ holiday albums; although the title song was released as a single (and as a red vinyl promo), it failed to chart. Willie wasn’t concerned about it one way or another, for his star continued to rise at a dizzying rate.
In November, Nelson made his cinematic debut as Robert Redford’s manager in Sydney Pollack’s comedy The Electric Horseman. Earlier, there had been a round of talks with Hollywood people about turning Red Headed Stranger into a movie (ultimately, it would take another seven years to happen).
Nelson had backed out of negotiations after getting the sneaking suspicion that MCA/Universal, which was offering him a development deal, only wanted a piece of his recording contract. The company had also indicated it wanted Robert Redford to star as the murdering, redemption–hungry preacher; Nelson had designs on the role himself, even though he had no acting experience at all.
So when Nelson heard that Pollack was producing and directing Redford in a film about a cowboy in Las Vegas (an updated remake of the 1962 Kirk Douglas epic Lonely Are The Brave), he called Pollack out of the blue and said, “I sure would like to be in that movie you’re making with Bob.”
Taken aback, Pollack said he didn’t think there was a part for Nelson; Nelson, who’d read the script, countered that he’d like to read for the part of Leroy, who managed Redford’s title character, a showbiz cowboy.
Pollack agreed to let him try, and the audition went well, and Nelson would up getting some of the best notices when the film appeared (it was otherwise not a tremendous success). He ad–libbed much of his own dialogue.
The Electric Horseman soundtrack was released as a Willie Nelson album—although it was as spotty and fleshed out with movie–music filler—and brought him another gold album award. It went on the wall at Pedernales.
“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the movie was a #1 hit in January. Although it features Nelson’s intimate and unfettered voice way out front, the song (which Nelson didn’t write) isn’t much more than a string of clichés about cowboys and country stars, and the production (by Nelson and Pollack, of all people) is burdened with violins and other badly–arranged and unnecessary instruments. If Nelson had stayed with RCA, and been a success, his records by then might’ve all sounded like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
“My Heroes” was Nelson’s sixth #1 country single in less than five years. Ultimately, he would have 13 chart–toppers, and several more as half of a duet (plus one as part of a foursome). Conversely, some of his singles barely charted at all.
That’s the way Nelson worked: he put out whatever he felt like putting out, and if it had little to do with what came before, well, so what? It was as if he was purposely going in the opposite direction of his tightly–controlled RCA years.
Between 1978 and ’83, Nelson placed 17 albums on the Top Pop Albums chart. Eight of these went platinum or more, and the rest (the new CBS stuff, but not the RCA re–issues) went gold. Everything made an appearance on the Country Album chart (Stardust hovered in the nether reaches for nearly 10 years!)
“Willie always had vision,” said Rick Blackburn. “You gotta listen to him.”
As head of CBS, Blackburn’s job was to approve or reject an artist’s material. When Nelson was hot, he was on fire, and it was all Blackburn could to keep up with the music as it came in.
“I encouraged it, because Willie was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Blackburn said. “I never really thought that hurt him that much. Willie was everywhere; Willie had an appetite to do all kinds of music.”
Stardust, about which Blackburn had been skeptical, remained on the pop charts for more than two years. So although, as Nelson says, CBS sometimes exercised its “veto power” over his “artistic control,” it pretty much said yes to him at every turn, especially at the turn of the decade.
He’d bring you so much, and then you’d sit down and talk about what made sense,” said Blackburn. “The product just flowed all the time, in rough states. But good roughs. Our feeling was that it broadened your horizon. Would that fly today? It depends on the artist. Willie would be sort of what you’ve got Garth Brooks to be now. You had hits, and then there was Willie. We were selling four or five million back then. That’s a lot.”
Meanwhile, the execs at RCA were still kicking themselves for cutting Nelson loose, and the wizards in A&R (and the art department) were keeping busy churning out new riders for the Willie bandwagon. RCA charted Willie Before His Time, Sweet Memories, The Minstrel Man, Best Of Willie and My Own Way (although Willie Before His Time was assembled and “sweetened” by Waylon Jennings in the wake of the Outlaws success, and presumably had Nelson’s blessing, the rest were no more than retreads from the RCA vaults.)
Most insidious of all was 1980′s Willie Nelson With Danny Davis And The Nashville Brass, a set of musty RCA tracks featuring Davis and his hornblowers overdubbed over Nelson’s vocals. Nelson, never swayed and always happy for one more acknowledgement, even penned cheerful liner notes for the album. The Nelson/Danny Davis version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” charted, briefly.
Nelson’s projects for 1980 include Family Bible, a modest collection of religious songs and hymns from his Methodist boyhood, released as a duo album with sister Bobbie on MCA and the set with his old boss, Ray Price (Price had been a co–owner of Pamper Music way back when, too). San Antonio Rose was the first of five albums Willie cut with buddies from the old days, and it was the best. The duo put “Faded Love” on the singles charts, where it stalled at #3 in August.
The Electric Horseman had whetted Nelson’s appetite for movie acting, though, and in 1980 Pollack produced his first starring vehicle, Honeysuckle Rose.
“I always wanted to make movies, all the way back to when I first saw Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys,” Nelson explained.
“That’s the kind of movies that I wanted to make; still do. And those others came along: a movie about being out on the road again, that’s easy to do.”
Although it contained elements from Nelson’s road life, the movie, which co–stared Dyan Cannon as Willie–esque singer Buck Bonham’s loving but discontented wife and Amy Irving as his protégé–turned–lover, was pretty much the Hollywood version of the way things were. Nelson’s band members all appeared—Mickey Raphael has a couple of memorable moments with actress Diana “Mommie Dearest” Scarwid—but the “band” in the movie was fleshed out by actors (including Slim Pickens!)
Nelson’s charisma and sheer likeability carried the day, though, and Honeysuckle Rose was a success at the box office, if a modest one. The film is notable mostly for the appearance in a concert scene, of Emmylou Harris (looking radiant in 1980, and sounding like every bit the queen of country music) and for the introduction of two freshly–written Nelson songs, his first for about five years, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and “On The Road Again.”
“I haven’t ever written as much as I did in those early years, when I was hungry and writin’ for money,” Nelson said. “Tryin’ to write enough songs to keep the advances coming from the publisher. I was pretty productive in those days. But what I write (now), I feel was worth sitting around waiting for.”
Pollack has often told the story of how his new star wrote “On The Road Again,” start to finish, on the back of an envelope during a flight to somewhere or other, impressing the hell out of him and director Jerry Schatzberg.
Both “On The Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” (written as a gesture of reconciliation after a fight with Connie) went to #1. Nelson seemed unstoppable as he conquered genre after genre. His film career (he filmed a small role in James Caan’s Thief that year, too) opened new doors. He became a favorite guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Bill Witliff, who’d handled the script for Honeysuckle Rose, had written a script about an old cowboy embroiled in a life–long feud with a Mexican family. He’d married the daughter, the father had betrayed him and cut off his ears in the bargain, and when the cowboy had become a roving bandit, a legend had sprung up around him (he also took to killing the old Mexican’s sons when they came looking for him).
The character, and the movie, were both called Barbarosa, and when it was filmed for Marble Arch in 1981 it starred Willie Nelson in the title role, and Gary Busey as Carl, the naïve farm boy who joins him in his dusty travels.
Released in 1982, Barbarosa played in theatres for about five minutes. It is however, full of Western black humor and interesting dramatic tension, and is one of Nelson’s better movies (it’s his personal favorite too). His next film was a TV–movie with Jon Voight, Coming Out Of The Ice, for which he received good notices for his portrayal of an at–peace–with–himself prisoner in a Siberian work camp!
In 1981, Nelson re–teamed with Paul Buskirk for Somewhere Over The Rainbow, an album of swinging country jazz and Western swing tunes (“I’m Confessin’,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”), big old ballads (“Mona Lisa,” “In My Mother’s Eyes,” “Over The Rainbow”) and other tunes as far from the commercial country music of the day as possible.
Johnny Gimble lent a swinging fiddle to the proceedings. Country/jazz guitarist and singer Freddie Powers co–produced the album and even sang several of the songs; “Mona Lisa” was a minor hit, and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” became a gold album.
It was during this period that Nelson started working on improving his health: he quit smoking, cut back on his drinking and began running daily (he hasn’t committed to vegetarianism yet, still having a weakness for Texas barbecue and potted meat sandwiches). While vacationing in Hawaii during the summer of 1981, his left lung collapsed (he figures it was a combination of his lungs’ smoke–weakened state, his jog that morning, and the icy–cold Pacific water).
During his four weeks in a Hawaiian hospital, to make use of his down time, Nelson wrote an entire concept album. Tougher Than Leather, which would be recorded with his road band and released in February 1983, was the story of an 1800s gunfighter who eventually died in the electric chair.
Reincarnation figures in the Tougher Than Leather picture, but unlike Red Headed Stranger, it’s a difficult story to follow. Its single “Little Old Fashioned Karma,” made it to #10.
In 1982, Nelson cut the albums with Roger Miller and Hank Snow, and his old tracks continued to come back and haunt him. Monument Records assembled The Winning Hand, musty period recordings by Nelson, Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee, all of whom had long ago left the label.
The always–game Nelson participated in a promotional video shoot for Monument (which was, after all, owned at the time by CBS, the label he worked for). A Nelson/Parton “duet” on the Ray Stevens tune “Everything Is Beautiful,” even made the Top 10. Nelson and Merle Haggard next cut an album together; the title song, “Poncho and Lefty,” had been written by the legendary and terminally under–appreciated Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt and recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album.
Nelson and Haggard hit #1 with “Poncho and Lefty” in April 1983. Although it had been recorded a year earlier, typically for Nelson it was released out of sequence. In the meantime, he’d had his biggest hit yet.
Rick Blackburn: “We were doing a duet with Merle and Willie, it was ‘Poncho and Lefty,’ I think. And Johnny Christopher showed up on the bus drunk. He had this demo in his hand, which was the B–side of an Elvis Presley song. It was ‘Always On My Mind.’
“He brought that song in for Haggard. I was there. I think Johnny put it in the tape player and Hag said, ‘Aw, that’s not for me, Johnny.’ And Willie’s sitting there, real quiet, and he says ‘That’s for me.’ Hag doesn’t remember that story, but that song was originally pitched for him. Willie had an ear though.’”
Indeed, Chips Moman, who’d produce a lot of Nelson’s stuff in the ’80s, came on board for the Always On My Mind project. The album, which featured Nelson on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be Me” and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” wasn’t his best, by any stretch. But something about the bare emotions of the song “Always On My Mind” caught the public’s attention. It was a #1 country single (of course), and a Top 5 pop single. It earned a Grammy nomination for Record Of The Year. The triple–platinum Always album is Nelson’s second biggest seller, after Stardust. It was his biggest pop album, logging five weeks in the #2 spot.
Two years later, he was back in the Top 5 on the pop chart with perhaps his strangest single, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Blackburn: “He wanted to do something internationally. He always thought, ‘Let’s start thinkin’ global.’ And Julio Iglesias was the biggest thing in the international market.
We had him on CBS International; I didn’t know him, but he had a house in Florida, where he lived part of the year. His brother was a dentist down there. So Willie set out to find him. And did.
“And I guess Julio was convinced that maybe it would bolster his domestic sales, because he didn’t sell a lot in the U.S. They struck up a win–win thing and started looking for a song.”
Hal David’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” proved to be the ticket, and although Nelson and Iglesias recorded their parts separately, the chemistry was right, the single was a huge hit and went gold.
(Another Nelson/Julio duet, “As Time Goes By,” appeared on the Without A Song album at the end of 1983. Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album consisted of yet more standards in the Stardust vein, but failed to attract much attention.)
Songwriter, a movie Nelson and Kristofferson had been planning for many years, finally went before the cameras in 1984. Written by Bud Shrake, a former newspaperman and Sports Illustrated writer (he later went onto co–author Nelson’s autobiography ), Songwriter was the story of a country songwriter who left the business, disgruntled, only to return as an entrepreneur and Svengali for a flaky girl singer and get revenge on the low–life club owner who’d screwed him.
The script underwent many, many revisions from Shrake’s and Nelson’s original ideas, but the final product was till pretty close to that vision, and to Nelson’s own story. Lesley Ann Warren played the girl singer, Kristofferson was hot country star Blackie Buck and ex–partner of Nelson’s Doc Jenkins. The film also starred Rip Torn as a Texas promoter with questionable ethics. Pollack produced, and Alan Rudolph directed.
Still, Songwriter was a massive failure both at the box office and at the record store (featuring Nelson/Kristofferson duets, Music From Songwriter hardly qualified as a full ablum from either). Promotionally, the film suffered because Nelson had shaved off his beard during some, but not all, of the scenes, and appeared in many of the promotional photographs almost totally unrecognizable.
In some of the photos and film clips, he sported his beard. People got confused, and avoided the movie in droves. (Nelson often shaves off his beard on the spur of the moment, just to give his chin some air). Nelson scored another #1 with Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” in August 1984, just before Songwriter came out and teamed up with Ray Charles at the end of the year for “Seven Spanish Angels,” as unlikely a country music chart–topper to “All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”
Again, Nelson changed the rules to suit himself. The success of “Seven Spanish Angels” helped get Charles a recording deal with CBS. “One of the reasons I went after Ray Charles was because Willie said that was his favorite artist,” said Rick Blackburn. “And Merle Haggard said that was his favorite artist. Ray was like the idol, see. I didn’t know Ray Charles from you.”
In 1984, Nelson released the unlikely Angel Eyes, which presented him as the vocalist with a swinging three–piece jazz group headed up by Texas guitarist Jackie King; some of the songs are nothing less than fusion, with Willie Nelson trying to keep up at the microphone (picture him out in front of the Pat Matheny Group).
“He’s an incredible guitar player from San Antonio,” Nelson said of King. He knew a lot of the same musicians around San Antonio,” Nelson said of King. He knew a lot of the same musicians around San Antonio that we knew.” The title song to Angel Eyes was torchy ballad with big, free–form jazz breaks, but the album’s unquestionable highlight was a magically weird rendition of the Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
Despite all this, Angel Eyes is one of Nelson’s few original albums to be deleted from the CBS catalog. No single was ever released from the project.
In April 1985, duet albums appeared with both Faron Young (who’d cut “Hello Walls” so many years before) and Hank Snow; in May came Highwayman.
Highwayman was one of those rare high–concept projects that worked. Usually, pairing more than two big stars on one record meant they tried to out–perform each other, on the separate fan bases cancelled each other out. But Highwayman, with Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, was a winner right out of the gate.
So where did the idea come from? “They all know I did it,” recalled Jennings. “I’ve had to rejuvenate all of their careers so many times…they’ve never known how much they really needed me.
“I remember talking about it. We were in Switzerland, on Johnny Cash’s Christmas special. And we got to doing three or four songs, and I’m positive I said, ‘Man, we ought to go cut an album.”
The song that gave the project its title was written by Jimmy Webb, and had been kicking around for a year or two. “Highwayman” was about reincarnation; specifically, the same fellow appears in the song in four different personas.
“I don’t go for that,” Waylon said. “I think it’s a little far–fetched.” As for his pal Nelson though, “He’s never tried to push me with that, and I’ve never tried to push him away from it. That’s what gets him through the days and nights—everybody has something that does.”
Actual recording of the song and the Highwayman album was, like everything else, purely an accident of time. “Cash and Willie were recording something together at Chips’ place,” said Jennings, “and I just stumbled in there.”
As for the ideas of adding Kristofferson as a fourth, Jennings said, “I think I brought that up, but all of them say they did too. So you got four liars, now you take your pick. No, really, the main thing about all of us is that don’t keep score.” Highwayman became a #1 single on May 15; the album was a huge hit too, and sent Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” into the To 10 in September.
At the Live Aid concert in July, Bob Dylan remarked that it sure would be nice to see something done for the family farmer in America, so very far from Ethiopia, where all the money and support from Live Aid were going. Nelson took this comment to heart; he’d been thinking about the heartland, where the family farmers—self contained, loyal to the land where their very forefathers had toiled—were being forced out by farming corporations. An American way of life, essential and part of the backbone of the country’s economic success, was being killed off.
He’d discussed this with Neil Young while they were cutting Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” (the song would appear on Young’s Old Ways, and on the Half Neslon compilation, which collected a bunch of loose–end Nelson duets and singles, including those with Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles).
With Young and fellow heartlander John Mellencamp, Nelson formed Farm Aid, Inc., and organized a massive concert for Sept 22 to raise funds in the telethon manner prescribed by Live Aid. The all–day concert, really not much different from the Fourth of July Picnics, except better organized with bigger rock acts on the bill, was held at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
With a few exceptions, there has been a Farm Aid concert every year since 1985, with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp topping the bill (Mellencamp had to drop out of the 1994 lineup in September because of his heart condition).
As president of the company, Nelson signs every check that goes out. “There is this idea that people have that we have way too many farmers,” Nelson said, “that all these small family farmers and small agriculture–related businessmen should be put out of business.
“And they probably think they’re right about it. But I don’t think they realize the importance, or the way that the economy in this country was built, on the farmer. He was the first citizen, the first taxpayer. The first rung on the economic ladder. The farmer is the backbone of the country, the small family farmer, not the big corporate farmer.
“He is related to all the other small businesses. When five farmers go under in a farming community, one business in that town goes under. This has been going on for years now. We once had over eight million small family farmers; now we’re down to less than two million. And they’re knocking them off like flies.”
Since 1985 Farm Aid has granted nearly $11.5 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and service agencies in 44 states. Nearly half of the group’s grants are used for direct services (emergency assistance, legal aid and food); the rest are distributed as program grants, which include outreach, education and the development of long–term solutions.
The Farm Aid board believes that if America grew its own crops, to feed to its own people, the rest of the economic problems in the country would eventually be solvable.
“That’s why we keep doing it, to try to stop this trend of people leaving he land and going to the city,” Nelson said. “It just doubles and triples the problems in the city. And the only way for the economy to turn around is to flip it, and put people back on the land. Let a young couple go out there—take 100, 200 acres of land, make a living and pay taxes, and buy a tractor. Support the local schools, hospitals, businesses, service stations, what have you.”
He is more passionate about Farm Aid than anything that’s ever passed his way before. “The time will come when we will begin to appreciate the small family farmer, and how important it is that we get him back on the land. There’s plenty of money out there to be made if we take the natural things that grow and let them pay the bills.”
“Plenty of money” Nelson himself seemed to have, but in 1984 the Internal Revenue Service came to him and held out its hand for $2 million in unpaid income tax, from earlier, not–so–successful times dating all the way back to 1972.
“This accounting firm came to me and said, ‘You don’t need to pay that,’” he recalled. “What you need to do is get you a tax shelter, and you don’t have to pay. You can take it away and defer it later, write it off,’ all those things. And they were just full of bullshit. It was one of those shelters that the IRS wrote off as a non–allowable deal, and so anybody who invested in it—and there were a lot of us who did—lost what they put it, and at the same time, the taxes still weren’t paid.”
The accounting firm with the bad advice was Price–Waterhouse, the same guys who count the Academy Awards ballots and deliver the envelopes solemnly on TV on Oscar night. Nelson said his tax shelters included “securities and a cattle feed deal. They started going sour pretty quick in a couple of years. I knew a big mistake had been made. But it was one of those you couldn’t take back; you already had your money invested. And you still hadn’t paid your taxes.”
More albums followed: Promiseland, Partners, Island In The Sea, A Horse Called Music, Born For Trouble, Seashores of Old Mexico (with Haggard) and I’d Rather Have Jesus, another religious set with sister Bobbie (it was later re–released as Old Time Religion.) There was the poorly–received Highwayman 2. Although Nelson hit #1 with “Living In The Promiseland” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and had another Top 10 with Iglesias (“Spanish Eyes”), the songs just weren’t hitting the way they had been.
“I think the reason that those didn’t do well is because those albums were coming too quick,” he said. “We were handling them product quicker than they could sell it. They just weren’t geared to put it out that way.
“When I first got into the record business, I can remember when you could record a song today and have it out next week. And then have the whole company behind it. Webb Pierce could do it, and Faron Young could do it, and Lefty Frizzell could do it. All those guys, when they were really hot, they could more or less dictate what they wanted to do. And consequently, there was a whole lot of big hits coming in those days, a lot of great songs from the artists who were able to control what happened.”
Nelson said the marketers at CBS, for all appearances, were doing their best. “They were trying,” he recalled. “Blackburn, he was taking everything I would give him because it was easy product: ‘Oh, Willie’s sent one in again this week. Here’s Willie’s weekly album.” But I was having a big time, and they was takin’ ‘em, so…maybe it was a little overdone.”
By 1991, things were getting strained with CBS. Blackburn had departed for greener pastures at Atlantic, where he could steer the careers of hot hat boys like Tracy Lawrence and John Michael Montgomery. Nelson had one flop too many at CBS, he reckoned. That “artistic control” thing was starting to wear out its welcome.
“As long as it was sellin’ great and everything, there was no reason for them to get after my shit,” he said with a chuckle. “But when I put out one that didn’t do very well, then they had a great reason to come in and say, you know, ‘We better help you, son. Obviously, you’re slippin’.”
His movie projects continued with limited success. Red Headed Stranger made it to the screen in 1986, with Nelson, not Robert Redford, in the title role. Morgan Fairchild was cast as the cheating wife who gets her comeuppance in the form of a bullet, and Katharine Ross signed on to play the woman who redeems the stranger’s soul (replacing Angie Dickinson, Nelson’s first choice, who was busy with another project).
Made at the Pedernales town set for about $2 million, Red Headed Stranger attempted to tell the same story as the album, with an added subplot about an ornery family of wolf–trappers terrorizing the townsfolk. The subplot wound up taking over much of the film.
Despite pretty good performances (including Paul English and Bee Spears, with blackened teeth, as members of the redneck trapping clan), Red Headed Staranger wasn’t a cohesive film, and didn’t retain any of the subtlety of the album. It failed at the box office too. (No soundtrack album was released, the thinking being that Nelson’s original album couldn’t be bettered. The CD was reissued in a new longbox with photos from the movie.)
Nelson bounced back with a TV–movie remake of the classic John Ford Western Stagecoach, for which he provided a title song. Nelson played Doc Holiday, in the strangely unengaging movie, with Kristofferson as the Ringo Kid, Jennings as the gambler and Cash as the sheriff. For once the stars agreed with the critics: it was pretty lame.
On the set, Nelson fell for makeup supervisor Annie D’Angelo, 20 years his junior, the marriage to Connie having lost since deteriorated into heartache, and ultimately, divorce. Nelson and Annie were married in 1991, and they have two sons: five year–old Lucas, and Mica, four. In 1998, Nelson starred in two TV–movie Westerns for veteran writer/director Burt Kennedy: Where The Hell’s That Gold and Once Upon A Texas Train (also called Texas Guns And The Last Texas Train).
He re–teamed with his Songwriter comrades Kristofferson and Rip Torn for Pair Of Aces (1990) and Another Pair Of Aces (1991), two unlikely comedies featuring Nelson as a wisecracking safecracker and Kristofferson and Torn as Texas Rangers. To date, his most screen acting stint was in 1991′s The Wild Texas Wind; he took a small role as a favor to his friends Ray Benson and Dolly Parton, who’d starred.
Nelson filed a $45 million lawsuit against Price Waterhouse, claiming their bad advice had gotten him in such bad tax trouble. The IRS, meanwhile, hit him with a $6 million bill for back taxes, plus more than $10 million in penalties and interest. In November 1990, the agency seized Pedernales—the studio, the golf course, the Western town, the fish camp, the Nelsons’ home—and announced plans to auction off the property to pay off Nelson’s debt.
“The thing started snowballing,” he recalled. “And when the they came down, I knew that it was just a matter of time. I’d been expecting it for years; it wasn’t as tough it was a big shock or surprise to me.” He was not, however, prepared for the big bill they’d handed him.
“Initially, they said $32 million, then it dropped down to $17 million,” he said. “But I knew that if their accountants and bookkeepers had any brains at all, they’d see that there’s not $32 million there. That kind of figure never could have happened.”
At the public auction, one could bid on everything from the studio tasking price $575,478) to a microwave oven, a set of golf clubs given to Nelson by Jack Nicklaus, and a box containing 40 pairs of Nelson’s golf shorts.
Friends Frank and Jeannine Oakley, who run the Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase and Museum and General Store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, spent $7,000 buying up gold and platinum albums, posters, musical instruments and other personal items. Most of them are back in Nelson’s possession. The rest, the Oakleys have on display.
A group of 40 farmers, some from as far away as South Dakota, came to Texas in January 1991 to show support for Nelson and protest the imminent auction of his ranch on Fitzhugh Road in Dripping Springs, where Lana and her family now resided. The American Agriculture Movement, a farmers’ lobbying group, bought the ranch for $203,840; in time. Nelson bought it back.
As for the golf course and studio, well, nobody with money showed any interest. When Nelson’s tax bill was finally settled in 1993 (he wound up paying about $9 million), he got them back. He settled unsuccessfully with Price–Waterhouse, too, and that took off some of the financial burden.
Keeping his sense of humor, Nelson titled a 1991 collection of songs Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes and sold it through TV advertising (“Who’ll Buy My Memories,” unrelated to Nelson’s tax troubles, was a heartache song from his golden age of songwriting). Recorded at Pedernales, Who’ll Buy My Memories featured just Nelson’s voice and guitar on 24 of his classic songs (the exception was “What Can You Do To Me Now,” the old burning–house song he’d written with Cochran in 1969; this would have made a good title for the album too).
It’s a style that would soon come into vogue courtesy MTV’s Unplugged show. But Nelson did it first, and the songs on this album—including “Yesterday’s Wine,” “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” and “December Day”—are among the best recordings of his career, certainly the most personal. The Vietnam–era “Jimmy’s Road” was truly heartbreaking on the album’s intimate stage.
“Whatever talent I had going in, I still had that,” he said. “And whatever I had used to make whatever figure they said I owed them, I still had the same tools, the same music. I really wasn’t worried about it, because I knew their figures were so out of line.”
Outtakes from the Who’ll Buy My Memories sessions—from the Willie Nelson/Internal Revenue Service Tape Library—turned up on The Classic Unreleased Collection, released in early 1994 through Rhino Records and sold, via three nights’ worth of appearances by the man himself, on the home shopping network QVC.
“I felt it was good enough, and important enough to me, to spend some time trying to sell it,” he said of the three–CD or three–cassette box that to this day remains unavailable in stores. “Money had nothing to do with it. It’s just a lot of stubbornness on my part to get this music out.”
The set includes Sugar Moon, an entire album of jazzy standards recorded at the same time as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” with Merle Haggard’s band (Haggard had been scheduled to record, but hadn’t shown up); Willie Sings Hank Williams, a fantastic tribute set cut in the late ’80s; an entire live concert from the Texas Opera House in 1974 (an incredible performance from the height of the pre–Stranger era); outtakes from Shotgun Willie and other projects; and that elusive first single from 1957, “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack Song” (taken from a pristine disc, as the tapes could not be located). Nelson answered QVC callers’ questions about the package, which contained material the IRS had returned to him after their bill was settled, and numerous tracks that CBS/Sony rejected outright. He said as much.
Yeah, okay, but a big star pitching his own stuff on retail TV? Willie ain’t Cher, that’s for sure. “I think that the music involved is a lot more important than my ego,” he said. “Naturally, I could feel like I was really a second–class citizen going on sellin’ shit, but I used to be a disc jockey and I sold it all the time.
“And I used to be a door–to–door salesman, so it doesn’t embarrass me at all to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a good piece of product; let me sell it to you.’”
During the IRS crisis, he’d accepted a job shilling for Taco Bell on TV commercials, singing a song called “The Girl With The Rose Tattoo” against a backdrop of cactus, desert sand dune and a Taco Bell drive–thru.
“When I first got the words, I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” he said of the TV spot. “I can’t do this. It sounds like I’m readin’ a menu.
“And when they sent me the melody, I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s a ripoff of a song that me and Hank Snow recorded years ago.’ They said, ‘When you get sued, we’ll take care of it. We’ll hold you harmless.’” At the end of the day, of course, nobody sued nobody, and after the spots ran their course Willie Nelson was replaced in the Taco bell game by Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Meanwhile, things began to go from bad to worse for Nelson’s son. Billy Nelson never could seem to find a place for himself. Numbed by a messy divorce in the mid–’80s, he turned to drugs and alcohol; living in Goodlettsville, Tennessee in a cabin on the Nelsons’ Ridgetop property, he was arrested four times for driving while intoxicated and, in 1990, lost his driver’s license.
The death of his mother, Martha, in 1989 doubtless shook him up too. All the family members, including Nelson came to therapy sessions and participated in Billy’s treatment programs, but it all came crashing down on Christmas Eve 1991 when Billy hanged himself at home. He was 33.
“Billy was a lost soul,” said Ray Benson, who was one of Billy’s closest friends. “And Willie felt awful about the way it all happened. Billy was a kid when Willie was a young man and had nothing, Willie said. He had no money, he was drinking a lot, the marriage was not a good marriage so he didn’t spend a lot of time at home. And Willie feels a lot of probably remorse—not guilt, but remorse—over not being able to have raised Billy right.
“But he tried, for many years, to be a good father to Billy in his adult life, Billy had demons, and problems, that no amount of fathering could do anything about. Billy was a lost soul and he couldn’t fit in anywhere. He tried. It was really a shame. He was not raised right, Willie knows that. He was not a good father to Billy. Nor was Shirley a good mother.
“As the Japanese would say, it was Billy’s karma to be this way. For whatever reason. And if I knew the answer, hell, I’d get a TV show.’ Nelson didn’t record again until the latter part of 1992; he did however, keep his regular dates in Las Vegas and in Branson, Missouri. Artistically, Willie Nelson’s “comeback” arrived in the spring of 1993.
Across The Borderline was produced by Don Was, who’d engineered Bonnie Raitt’s career revival and would go on to do the same for Waylon Jennings with Waymore’s Blues Part II.
“It felt right at the time, and it was an off–the–top–of–my–head decision,” Nelson said of Was’ recruitment. “My manager, Mark Rothbaum, calls up and says, ‘What do you think about Don Was?’ And I said, ‘As a what?’”
On the album, he sang a song by Paul Simon (“American Tune,” seemingly tailor–made for Nelson), a song with Paul Simon (“Graceland”), a song he wrote with Bob Dylan (“I kind of feel like he and I are sort of equally weird, and we get along fine”) as a duet, and duets with Raitt and Sinead O’Connor.
Simon, he said, had been trying to get him to record “Graceland” for years. Nelson thought it was just some song about visiting Elvis Presley’s grave. He sang “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and “Valentine,” two new compositions (“Valentine” was written for his son Lucas), and re–made 1963′s “She’s Not For You.”
The “Healing Hands Of Time Band,” with Was, David Grisman, Benmont Tench and other notables, backed Nelson up on Lyle Lovett’s “Farther Down The Line” and “If I Were The Man You Wanted,” John Hiatt’s stunning “The Most Unoriginal Sin,” Ry Cooder’s “Across The Borderline” and Dylan’s “What Was It You Wanted.”
Nelson sang the latter song at the big “Bobfest” in New York City at the end of 1992; Dylan was among the numerous guests who performed with him on the April 1993 birthday special on CBS, The Big Six–O. Shortly afterward, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Across The Borderline drove Willie Nelson stock way up for the first time in years; a young, hip audience was learning about him, almost like the young, hip audience of the ’70s had discovered him in Austin and beyond. He was truly country music’s elder statesman now, and an American musical icon—kind of like a cross between Hank Williams, Buffalo Bill Cody and Frank Sinatra. CBS/Sony had its first gold Nelson album in years; it was thrilled.
And then he left the label.
Miffed at the CBS brass’ dismissal of Sugar Moon, Willie Sings Hank Williams and another set of standarts cut with Paul Buskirk, Moonlight Becomes You, Nelson declared himself a free agent. He issued Moonlight through Justice Records, an independent Texas label.
“I don’t know why Moonlight Becomes You wasn’t considered another major album, but it wasn’t,” he said. “They didn’t consider it to be commercial enough, so the powers that be at CBS at that time turned it down. They decided they’d rather have something else, and so we immediately got crossways.”
Justice Records, apparently, was simply in the right place at the right time; Moonlight sold close to a million copies.
But he couldn’t stay there permanently; an independent label just couldn’t handle an artist of his stature (CBS International continued to distribute Moonlight outside of the United States).
“I’d been with CBS a long time, and I have a lot of product there, and I have a lot of friends there,” Nelson said. “And they all worked hard, but I just felt like I wanted to do something…it was time to make a change.
“And all of a sudden, here’s Jimmy Bowen and Liberty Records, EMI, wanting to do something. Again, the timing was just perfect. I love Jimmy Bowen. It’s real easy to work with him. It was just one of those natural deals.”
Liberty, of course, was the very label Nelson had started out on, way back when; it was a different label now, with Nashville legend Bowen at the helm. The label’s first commitment to Nelson was the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings, finally bringing together his early work under one roof. It had been out in ugly dribs and tacky drabs for years on various EMI–owned labels. As a fold–open boxed set, it included an exhaustive EMI discography and a pretty good biography, too.
Bowen took Nelson into a Los Angeles studio in the summer of 1994 to cut the album that would eventually be called Healing Hands Of Time; Nelson had copywrited and recorded the title song in 1964, on the Country Willie album. It had been pre–recorded on The Sound In Your Mind album in 1976.
At first titled Crazy (the implications were probably too much), Healing Hands Of Time is a collection of standards (a little left–of–center this time, with “All The Things You Are,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” among the lesser–knowns in the track listing). It also includes heavily orchestrated renditions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” There’s a new Nelson composition, too, “There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone.”
At 61, he’s still cranking ‘em out. “I enjoy recording,” Nelson said, “and it’s easy to record if you know what you’re gonna do when you get in there.
“We did Red Headed Stranger in a couple of days. Healing Hands Of Time we did in two days. It was 61 pieces, and on the third day we did some overdubbing. To hear about being holed up in a studio for moths at a time is just, to me, unheard of. I guess some people work that way, but I would get bored real quick.”
While Healing Hands Of Time was in the trucks en route to America’s record stores, Nelson found time to cut “Today I Started Loving You Again” for “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” the tribute album to his old pal Merle Haggard, and to sing a duet with Frank Sinatra (“A Foggy Day In London Town”) for Duets II. (He and Sinatra had done a public service announcement together in 1987).
And the Highwaymen—Nelson, Cash, Jennings and Kristofferson—recorded their third album the week after Halloween, in Los Angeles. Don Was produced the set, which will include Nelson’s 1962 composition “The End Of Understanding” and at least one Roger Miller song when it appears next March.
Nelson completed another religious project in 1994, too. Released on tiny independent Promised Land Records, Peace In The Valley is the first in a projected series of three gospel albums featuring his late son Billy, recorded in the ’80s. Nelson sings duets on some of the tracks, and some by himself or as part of a gospel harmony group, and appears with old footage of Billy in the video for the song “My Body’s Just A Suitcase For My Soul.”
It’s a heartbreaker, but a surprisingly good album. “It was something that needed to be done,” Nelson said. “It was kind of like the Moonlight Becomes You album; it was product that I had recorded and done and worked hard for, and my son worked on. It was just waiting for something to happen to it.”
True to his beliefs, the dearth of hit records doesn’t faze Willie Nelson. He figures he’s had a taste of the really big time, and he’s fine where he is, thank you.
Early one morning in May of this year, Texas police discovered Nelson’s Mercedes parked on a service road along Interstate 35 between Austin and Hillsboro. Inside the car, asleep in the backseat, was the man himself.
Nelson explained that he’d been driving home from an all–night poker game, and bad weather had forced him to pull over and stop the car. The officers found a marijuana roach in his ashtray; Nelson was arrested, posted bond and philosophically declared the incident “a part of life.” Then he drove home.
He continues to tour—on the road again and again—with the same band, on the same bus (more or less; the original bus Honeysuckle Rose crashed and burned; now there’s Honeysuckle Rose II). Drawing big crowds—not huge, just big—playing essentially the same songs.
“You would think that I would get tired of some of those songs, and usually when I do get tired of ‘em, I just take ‘em off the show,” Nelson said. “I don’t do them for a while. I think that’s one of the big secrets—well, I don’t know if it’s a secret or not—but it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. If I record songs that I like, if I happen to get a hit, then I won’t mind singing them every night. But if I sing a bunch of crap that I don’t like and that happens to hit, then I’m stuck with it.”
And he swears that he doesn’t care about the current Nashville controversy, of the old guys getting no airplay because the video–genic young bucks are all over the place.
“What’s funny to me, today they say, ‘Well, I wish I’d hear more of the old players—whatever happened to Randy Travis and George Strait?’ I knew when I hear that. I was out of luck, that they forgot about me years ago.”