Willie Nelson at Home in Texas (McCall’s, March 1988)

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McCall’s
May 1988
by Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick 

When he’s not performing on the road to sell-out crowds, there are only two places you might look for Willie Nelson — and hope to find him.  One is in the Colorado mountains, resting and recuperating from hard travel, in the romantic three-story Swiss chalet he owns there; the other is a 775 acre ranch outside Austin, Texas, where I visited him recently.

Here, Willie is surrounded by the rivers, hills and the down-home country folk of his childhood, very close to the place where his ma and pa, along with his grandparents, raised him.  It’s where he feels most at home in the world, consequently, where he’s most himself  No wonder friends like Kris Kristofferson and his longtime producer, Chips Moman, enjoy visiting the ranch, sometimes for weeks at a time.

“There’s another house, too,” Willie tells me.  He loves houses, perhaps because he travels so much.  “It’s less than a block from the place where I was born.  In fact, we’re restoring it — an old house on the edge of town.”

A gentle light shimmers in his eyes as Nelson remembers his grandfather.  “He died when I was six years old.  He was a blacksmith near Abbott, Texas.  It was my grandfather who bought me my first Stella guitar when I was five.  I learned how to play dominoes and guitar early — that was what we used to do.”

Born Willie Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Willie has one sibling, an older sister, Bobbie Lee.  “Bobbie and I started out together.  Then she got married, had children, and now we’re back playing music again.  She plays piano in the band.”  He recalls tenderly those “good ol’ days” when he was trying to make a living in the rough-and-tumble clubs around Fort Worth, Texas, first with Bobbie and later by himself.  Times were pretty hard then, and he credits his five children and his current wife, Connie Jean Koepke (whom he met in 1968 at a show in Cut ‘n Shoot, Texas), with sticking by him and encouraging his dream of someday making music that people would want to hear.

But his grandparents, Willie says, were his true, and earliest, inspiration.  They themselves learned music through mail-order courses, and, when he was very young, they deeply involved grandchild Willie in church and gospel music.  They also gave him a lsting feeling for the church itself.

We hike up into the hills were a church stands on one of his acres.  (It appeared as a post-Civil War set in his film Red Headed Stranger.)  Lana, his oldest daughter, who’s 33, comes with us.   Willie grabs the tattered hemp rope hanging from the belfry, and we hear the sound of bells clattering.  “Whenever we can, my children and grandchildren (he has seven) have church up here.  It’s a nice feelin’, havin’ your own church on your own property.  I try to instill sound values in my children as much as possible.  None of them are interested in becoming entertainers.  My son — we call him Wild Bill, although sometimes he’s Mild Bill — goes through changes, but he’s gettin’ better.  He’s thirty years old, lives in Tennessee with his wife and children, and just started farmin’ his own land.”

“That’s one thing Daddy instilled in us,” Lana interjects.  “His spirituality and love and God and human nature.  Daddy always taught us to have good relationships with people.”

Lana, the first child born to Willie and his first wife, Martha Matthews, speaks of her parents with great feeling.  “Daddy was seventeen and my mama was sixteen when they met; she was a car hop serving food at a restaurant.  Daddy is still very close to her, but they were so young!  I was four years old when my daddy wrote a song called Family Bible.  He sold it for fifty dollars to pay for rent and food, and I cried and cried because I thought he just gave it away.  He grabbed me by the hand on the front porch and said, ‘Look out there, honey.  One of these days I’m gonna buy you that land as far as you can see.’  I knew my daddy would be a star.”

Lana has directed and produced Willie’s music videos, including the very first country-and-western video, Poncho and Lefty, which was nominated for an American Video Award.  Today, she still works with her father.  “I know his values and what kind of story he likes to tell.  I also inherited his sense of humor.”

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Willie and Connie Nelson

Besides Lana and Billy, Willie has another child, Susie, from his first marriage.  He and Connie, who have been married for 17 years, also have two daughters, Paula Carlene and Amy Lee.  Connie has stayed by his side through all of his struggles and, finally, his success.  “Willie and I try to spend as much quiet time as possible away from everything,” Connie says.  “We like to go to the movies.  Willie likes to ride horses, and I like to ski.  I spend a lot of time in California with our daughters when he’s off performing.”

Willie leans into a char and relaxes by the fireplace.  “Yeah, I enjoy my horses and playing golf,” he concedes., “but I love my music just as much.  Honestly, I have all these guys who are my heroes.  … But when I was struggling, it didn’t matter if there was only one person in the audience.  That was enough for me to get inspired.  I’m still starstruck.”

A while ago, in Illinois, with some of his heroes — Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Couger Mellencamp — Willie put together a musical cast that included B. B. King, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell, Carole King, Billy Joel, George Jones — a stupendous concert to raise money for America’s financially stricken farmers.  Farm Aid became a cultural and historic high point of the ’80s.  Since that first concert Willie helped to sponsor, 14 million dollars have been raised in this nation for farm relief.

“I was brought up on a farm and know a lot about agricultural and farming,” he reveals.  “It’s darn hard work; I couldn’t do it.  But it keeps families together on the farm.  A lot of them who are suffering now don’t have money for their children or for medical emergencies.  There’s hope out there, though.  All kinds of folks are helping us all across the country, Jody Fischer, my assistant works loyally on behalf of Farm Aid.  That’s what life is all about; helping each other, if we can.”

Willie identifies strongly with the poor.  Graciously and proudly, he welcomes those who are troubled in his Texas home — built in a rustic, Ponderosa style reminiscent of a land baron’s mansion of the 1980s.  The interior sports a Western motif complete with shelves of Indian arrowheads and a buffalo skin draped over a beam.  His simple futon bed lies on the floor in front of a huge fireplace.  Willie hops onto it, assuming his favorite yoga position. 

“This is the best form of meditation for me,” he explains.”  “Sometimes a song or an idea will come, and I just write it.  I enjoy meditating when I jog and play golf, too.  I’d rather be workin’ than not.  And we can cut ten sides of a record here in one day.  It’s been a real help, havin’ the recording studio on my property.”

Memories of his difficult early years appear in his conversation.  It was nearly 30 years ago, in 1961, that he made the trek to Nashville in a second hand car.  His struggle in the musical world had already gone on for more than a decade; he had attempted to become a party-time hog farmer… and failed at it.  “I was the worst hog farmer you ever saw,” Willie says, laughing.  But by 1985 he was able to release four albums within a single year:  Funny How Time Slips Away (with Faron Young); Highwayman (with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings); Half Nelson, Brand New Heart (with Hank Snow) and Me and Paul (written for and about his friend Paul English)   In 1986, The Promiseland was Willie’s strongest LP in years.  And no sentimentalist can ever forget Willie’s Crazy, recorded by Patsy Cline.  (His newest album, Island in the Sun was released earlier this year.)

Of all contemporary songwriters, he has most effectively observed and interpreted the life around him.  “The master of sadness, the poet of honky-tonks,” he has been called.  His songs elucidate his highest priorities:  love, God, prayer, staying close to his kin.

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Willie Nelson and Lana Nelson, at Lana’s wedding.

Lana testifies to that.  “I produced a family album that included all of the significant events in my daddy’s life and some of his song lyrics and family photo. I gave it to him for his forty-seventh birthday.  Boy, was he happy!  He grinned from here to Nashville.”

In the kitchen, Willie messes around with his restaurant-size stove. “You bet I can cook,” he replies, in answer to my question.  “I love to make all kinds of gravies.  And I can eat bacon and eggs any time of the day or night.”  He grabs a soda from the fridge, sit down, takes off his tennis shoes and puts on a pair of cowboy boots.   “How would you like to go up and see my horses now?” he asks. 

We walk out the back door that gives him his favorite view of two lakes that come together and travel yet another third of a mile up to his barn.  His two horses, Scout, a large palomino, and Dancer, a sorrell horse with a blazed forehead, timidly run for cover in the barn when we approach.  But as soon as Willie brings out some feed, Scout comes over.  Willie lumps in the hay and sits there feeding Scout, as if he were sitting next to his best friend.  “I rid every day when I’m home,” he tells me.  “I have a lot more horses on the property, but they’re all off somewhere now.” 

The sun begins to set, the landscape shaded by tall plains grass, mesquite and scrub oak trees.  I feel as peaceful and calm as Willie, a man who like to take life one day at a time when he’s home.  His friend and colleague, Chips Moman, has joined us for the evening.  “I’d do anything for that man and so would a lot of other people,” Chips says.  “There seems to be nothing he can’t do to please everyone.  And he thrives on the excitement of the road.  He’s performed with the best:  Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt.  He’s now with CBS Records.  We’re a long way form 1964 when he first signed with Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.  But he became fed up with the politics of becoming a star there.  He moved to Texas and He’s een there ever since.”

We climb into his black truck, and he invites us back to visit some more with his family.  After strong coffee and with nighttime creeping up, I take my leave reluctantly.  He thanks me generously for coming down to visit, and I drive off down the wonderful, winding dirt road that’s as serene as the Texas sunset, as serene as Willie Nelson himself.

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3 Responses to “Willie Nelson at Home in Texas (McCall’s, March 1988)”

  1. Monique says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

  2. this is a great article.you know i really envy willie,to be able to play music for a living.i,m a musician myself and i know what it is to struggle to make a living at it.i played uot on the road for 30 years and it was tough but i loved every minute of it.I,m 55 now and i live in a veteren homeless shelter but i play my music for the guys here and they really enjoy it most of these guys have much of nothing and they like the music ,it gives em something to look foward to.i saved enough money to get another amp and guitar and now i,m hoping i can get small p.a so i can do a single act i figure it will help me with my bills and its good therapy. most of us here have drug and alcohal problems and if we were out in the street it would be bad. my psych docter says music is good for me. well thanks for the music i listen to you all the time. as a matter of fact i just learned on the road again even the lead even though i,m a rythem player. thanks again.

  3. patricia skinner says:

    Mr. Nelson, Please if you will send a autograph signed picture for my grandson this is for christmas. Thank you so much.
    His name is Thayne Reece he is 10 years old

    The address is Thayne Reece
    510 Lakewood Dr.
    Sumter, SC 29150

    Attn: Thayne Reece

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