by Darrell K. Royal
“I first started seeing him when he’d play the package shows that would come to the City Coliseum in Austin. They’d have a headliner, like a Johnny Cash, and then a bunch of other people. Willie had recorded by then and had a following in Texas, but he was down the ticket.
Now, that’s my kind of music, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He was playing at the Broken Spoke one night. I went, and I got a table near the back. The crowd wasn’t big, but it was a crowd. The people were dancing, and then they stopped and walked up to the stage. I realized that they didn’t want to dance — they wanted to hear Willie.
At intermission, he came back to my table. I don’t know how he knew I was there; I never asked. He said hello, and I asked him what he was doing after the show. He said, “Nothing.” I said we could go share a drink and visit. He said that would be fine.
I was a member of the UT faculty, so I took him to the faculty club — it was called the Forty Acres Club back then. We visited until three o’clock in the morning. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we didn’t have any slowing down in the conversation. That started things, and the friendship has grown.
I remember, before Willie got big, before ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’, wanting a bunch of my friends to hear him. So I said, “Willie, let’s do an evening of just you and the guitar.” There was a little place over in east Austin called the Back Door — it was run by a man and his wife. She did the cooking. There were two or three tables in the restaurant part, and you could go in there and get great Mexican food. In the back, they had a dance hall — it could seat maybe two hundred people.
I said, “Willie, we can have this thing. We’ll charge ‘em twenty-five dollars a ticket.” Willie said, “Nobody’s gonna pay twenty-five dollars a ticket.” I said, “Yeah, they will.” He said, “We could do it, but you’re not going to be able to sell any tickets for that.” Well, he filled up the room, all word of mouth. We had lawyers, doctors, people of all professions. I’m amazed at the people over the years who have said, “Boy, we remember Willie at the Back Door — it was great, and wouldn’t it be great if we could do it again?” Willie had a great time too. We gave him a better payday than he ever imagined.
Willie and I have a lot in common — not everything, but a lot. He’s not really a big football fan. He played high school football over there in Abbott. Maybe he was a center. They called him Little Red. I call him Little Red every now and then. We both like to golf. Willie can keep his ball in play, and he’s a good player. And we play chess. He’s good. He has a chessboard on his bus. I used to beat him pretty regularly. Lately he beats me. I think he’s gone uphill and I’ve gone downhill.
Willie knows that he can count on me if there’s some way I can help him. I know I can count on Willie. For instance, I had a charity golf tournament for thirty years. Willie played it all thirty. How’s that for friendship? There’s no telling what that cost him.
These days I don’t see him quite as often as I used to. I’ll call him and visit with him sometimes when he’s on the road. I call him at three or four in the afternoon — that’s a good time to catch him. Sometimes he’s on the bus or moving between gigs.
People sometimes wonder how the two of us can be friends. They do. And I haven’t tried to explain it.
[Darell K. Royal was the head coach of the University of Texas football team from 1957 through 1976.]