by Gary Cartwright
I first met Willie Nelson on August 12, 1972, a few hours before his first gig at the Armadillo World Headquarters, in Austin. Both of us were in our late thirties and relatively new to psychedelics and long hair. A couple of friends and I were in the small office that the Armadillo had set aside for Mad dog, Inc., a shadowy organization that Bud Shrake and I had founded at roughly that same time. Artist Jim Franklin was decorating a wall of the Mad Dog office with a portrait of a crazed Abe Lincoln when we spotted Willie and the band across the hall.
I didn’t recognize him at first. I had been a fan since 1966, when Don Meredith handed me a copy of Willie’s album that was recorded live at Panther Hall in Fort Worth. The album cover pictured a straight-looking country singer with short hair and a bad suit. He clutched a guitar, but from his looks it could have easily been a pipe wrench.
Willie was different now. His hair fell almost to his shoulders, and though he was still clean-shaven and passably middle class, he was obviously undergoing a metamorphosis. “I saw a lot of people with long hair that day,” Willie recalls. “People in jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, basically what I grew up wearing. I remember thinking: ‘F— coats and ties! Let’s get comfortable!'”
The real eye-opener for me came that night. Who in his right mind could have predicted that the same audience that got turned on by B.B. King and Jerry Garcia would also go nuts for Willie Nelson? This Abbott cotton picker had merged blues, rock, and country into something altogether original and evocative.