Willie Nelson: His own story in his own words (Country Song Roundup, February 1969)

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Country Song Roundup
February 1969
by: Judy Myers

When I was given the assignment to do a story on Willie Nelson, I couldn’t have been more pleased.  You see, I’m a big Willie Nelson fan!  Not only do I appreciate his song writing, but he’s one of the best song writers ever.  Proof can be found in the listening to such songs as “It Should Be Easier Now” (one of my favorites), “Night Life”, “Crazy”, “Funny How TIme Slips Away”, “Hello Walls”, and I could go on and on… I really “dig” Willie’s singing.  I’d just about rather hear Willie sing than anyone I can think of.

The day finally arrived and I met Willie at his office for the interview.  His manner was charming and relaxed.

“Where do I start?” Willie asked.

“Why not start at the beginning”, I said.

“In the beginning I created”… he began laughing.  Then he got serious and there followed a series of reminiscence that had me sitting on the edge of my chair, listening to Willie, who has a mind that works like a human tape recorder.  He had almost total recall of everything.  It was one of the most enchanting hours I’ve ever spent.  Now, I want to share it with you…

“I was born in Abbott, Texas, on April 30, 1933.  That’s in West Texas.  My grandparents raised us, and my daddy (Ira) was a blacksmith.  My grandparents taught music that they had learned by studying a correspondence course.  My father got me a guitar when I was about four or five years old, and I learned to play.  I guess I started writing songs when I was about eight or a little younger.  My first song was pretty bad!  My mother still has it, along with a lot of others in a scrapbook, and she says one day she’s going to publish it.  I’d sure like to have that book, but she won’t give it up.”

“When I was thirteen, I started playing clubs with my sister, Bobbie.  She played the piano, my brother-in-law was our manager and he played a broomstick.  You  know, a broomstick with a piece of shingle attached that he could beat back and forth to create a little rhythm.  He later took up playing the bass, but mostly he just hit it and swung it around.  My father played a little fiddle and rhythm guitar and I played lead guitar.  We were called “Bud Fletcher and His Texans.”  Bud is my brother-in-law.

We had a sign-on show on KHBR Radio in Hillsboro, Texas, every Sunday morning.  We’d come dragging in after playing and driving all night, making us late most of the time.  We were followed by preachers, and most of the time they directed their preaching right at us.  You know, they thought we were wicked hillbillys.

“I was a relief telephone operator there in Abbott.  We had a central switchboard and the woman who ran it liked to go out on Saturday nights so my sister or I would take over for her.  My voice was changing then and I guess they thought I was a girl.  They didn’t know I was a boy, but I sure knew everything that was going on in the county.

“My first real job was that of a tree trimmer.  We went around cutting branches away from the high tension wires.  Once my buddy was about forty feet up and needed a rope, so I took it up the tree.  Then, rather than climb down, I decided to go down the rope.  I got about four feet down and got my finger hung up.  I couldn’t go up or down, and I was too far from my friend for him to help, so the only choice I had was to have him cut the rope.  I fell down through those high tension wires and branches and I was able to get up and walk away, but I never went back to that job.

“Then I worked in a pawn shop, went into the Air Force, got out, worked as a bouncer in one of the roughest joints in Texas, (that didn’t last long, there was a fight every night, and I don’t like fights).  I got married, worked as a parts man in an auto house, trimmed trees again, formed a band and started pickin’ again, made saddles, worked in the oil fields in Texas, got married for the second time, and worked for a short time at a radio station in San Antonio.

“I went to work for Johnny Bush.  He had a band and I played lead guitar.  I asked him if I could sing, so he did let me sing some, but then he asked me to just play guitar,  I don’t think he liked my singing.  I managed him for awhile.

“We moved to Pleasanton, Texas, where I saw an ad for a D.J. job on KBOP Radio.  I had two kids by then, Lana and Susie.  I’d never worked as a D.J., but I wanted that job.  I went to see Dr. Ben Parker, who incidentally did more to help me than almost anyone.  He asked me if I had any experience and I told him that I had.  He then asked me if I was familiar with the board there.  I said, “That’s a Gates board isn’t it?  Anybody could see it was a Gates board, it was written right across it.  I told him I didn’t know that board as I’d worked on an RCA Victor Board.  I remember that’s what they had at the other station.  He’d have to show me how to use that one because they looked different.

“My test was to do fifteen minutes of news…live…the first time I’d ever been on the air as an announcer.  Then he gave me a commerical to do.  It was for the Pleasanton Pharmacy.  It went like this…’The Pleasanton Pharmacy Pharmaceutical department accurately and preciseley fills your doctor’s perscription,’ and after I got through with that, he knew I’d never done radio work.  It was the hardest commercial I’ve ever done.  He gave me the job anyway.  Then he worked with me to show me all arbout radio work.

“Dr. Ben Parker really helped me a lot.

“I worked at KBOP for awhile, and then got itchy feet.  I went to Denton, Texas where I got a job as salesman for KDNT radio.  I wasn’t on the air so I didn’t like that much.  I went on to Ft. Worth, where I worked with Uncle Hank Cragg on station KCUL.  I learned some more about radio work from him.  From there I went to KCNC and Western Express.  I was still working nights pickin’.

“Well, I got itchy feet again.  I decided we should go to San Diego.  The only catch was, we didn’t have any money, and no car.  I saw an ad in the paper where you could drive cars to different places.  I went to see them and asked about taking a car to San Diego. They said that they had a car to go that way, and they would pay for the oil… but they had to know that I could get the car there.  They said they would have to see at least $50.00.  Well, I was down to my last $25.00, and that was that.  However, i told them I’d go get the money as I didn’t have it on me.  I went out and found a friend and asked him to let me have $50.00.  I didn’t want to borrow it, I explained about the car.  I just wanted to show it.  He let me have the money and I took it to show, and they let me have the car.  I gave the money back to my friend, but we still had to get to San Diego, buy gas and food, and only had $25.00 to do it on.  Well, we made it, but I won’t go into details about how it was done.”  He gave a sort of half chuckle.

“Well, when we got to San Diego, I couldn’t find any work.  My wife got a job, and I didn’t like that much, her working and me not working.  So I decided to go to my mother’s in Portland, Oregon and see what I could get there.  I planned to get something going and then send for my family.  So I started hitchhiking with $10.00 and a suitcase.  That was some trip.  We could get a whole story just out of the details of that trip alone.  I’ll just tell one thing that happened along the way.  I got to Orange, California.  It was night time and I was tired and broke, and awfully tired of carrying that ole’ suitcase.  I found a country music nightclub, went in, and found I had just enough money for one beer.  By buying that beer and making it last all night, I was able to stay there without getting thrown out.  When the band was packing up, I asked if they knew of anybody who might give me a job, but they didn’t.  One old boy told me to stick around for a few mintues and he would make some phone calls for me and maybe find something.  I waited and he did make the calls, but with no luck.  Then, I had an idea.  This old suitcase was getting heaver every mile, and I thought I could trust him, so I gave him my mother’s address in Portland, and asked him if he would send the suitcase to me there.  Well, I never did see that suitcase again!

“I made Portland eventually.  I got a job with KVAN in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river.  I also had my own weekly t.v. show.

” I sent for my family to join me, and things were going pretty well in Portland but…..I got restless.

“On the move again, we headed for Springfield, Mo.  On the way, we went through Denver, Colorado, and I got a job pickin’ there, at a place called “Heart’s Corner.”  The guy that ran the place rented a guitar for me, and I guess I stayed there about six weeks.  Then we were on the move again.  When we got to Springfield, I ran into Billy Walker. He was working the Ozark Jubilee at the time.  His wife and my wife had been friends in Texas, so they invited us to stay with them for a few days.  Billy even set up an interview for me with Si SImon, who was running the Jubilee.  Si didn’t seem to think I was too good, so I took the only job I could find, dishwashing.

I wasn’t too happy as a dishwasher, so I took my family and headed south to Waco, Texas.  Right after that, we moved to Ft. Worth and I quit the music business for a year.  During that time, I sold just about everything, door to door.  They even made me manager for Ameriana Encyclopedia.

“But I wanted to pick.  I went back to Waco, then to Houston.  I had, in the meantime, written “Family Bible” for Frankie Miller, who was recording on Starday, but Don Pierce wouldn’t let him record it.  When in Houston, I ran into a guy I’d known before, Paul Buskirk. I was pretty broke so I decided to sell the song, “Family Bible”  Paul, Walt Breelin and Claude Grey split it three ways and gave me $25.00 for it.

“Looking for work, I went to the Esquire Club where Larry Butler was the head of the band.  I asked him for a job, but he said that he didn’t need anyone at that time.  I aksed him if he would buy some of my songs then, for $10.00 each.  I sang him about ten or twelve of my best ones, including “Mr. Record Man”, “Crazy”, “Nightlife” and “What a Way to Live.”  He wouldn’t buy my songs, not because they weren’t good he said, but because they were too good, and if I needed money that bad, he would loan me some, and he did.  That kept me from being compeltely broke.

“Paul Buskirk had a recording studio and he offered me a job teaching guitar.  Well, I didn’t know how to read music, but he said that was okay, he’d teach me.  I got my first lesson on Wednesday, and gave my first lesson on Monday.  I always managed to stay one lesson ahead of the students.  They didn’t know any better, since I did know how to play, I didn’t know how to read music, that’s all, but I learned that.

“I finally went to work for Larry Butler pickin’ in the evenings, adn I worked the Sunday morning sign-on DJ show at KRCT radio, which now has the call letters, KIKK.  Leroy Gloger was the manager there, and he fired me.  That hurt my ego, and I left town.

“I took my family to Waco, and I headed for Nashville, and the first person I ran into there was my old buddy, Billy Walker.  I sent for my family, and brought them to Nashville.  Billy took me to Starday records and introduced me to Tommy Hill.  I sang some of my songs for him, and he told me that he’d set up a recording and writer’s contract for me, but Don Pierce turned us both down.

“One night when a bunch of us were jammin’ in Tootsie’s, Hank Cochran heard me and took me to Pamper music, where I signed an exclusive writer’s contract.  Faron young had heard me sing “Hello Walls” at Tootsie’s and told me that he wanted to record it.  I was working on the road with Bobby Sykes, playing lead guitar and Faron, who was on the show that night, asked me to sing the song again so that he could learn it.  I also sang “Coungratulations” that same night, and the next week, he recorded both of them, back to back.

“I moved my family into a trailer house, and I had three kids by then.  I found out later that it was the very same trailer Hank Cochran and his wife and three children lived in when they first came to Nashville.  It was green and ugly and the rent was $25.00 a week, and it was worth about $3.00, but they were always there to collect the rent eery rent day.

“I heard that Ray Price needed a man to play bass and front his band.  I didn’t know how to play bass, but I told Ray I did, got the job, then went out and got a bass and learned real quick. If he ever knew I didn’t know how to play, he was kind enough not to mention it.  I worked for Ray for a year.

“Crazy” was doing real good then, and Billy had recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away”, I wrote it for him, to follow “Thank You For Calling”.  Joe Allison signed me to Liberty Records, and produced an album and single for me.  The album was “And Then I Wrote” and the single was “Mr. Record Man.”  I did two albums on Liberty.

“My marriage broke up about that time and I moved to Texas.  I met and married my present wife, Shirley there.  Incidentally, she was a regular on the Ozark Jubilee the time I went through Springfield, but we didn’t know each other then.

“I stayed in Ft. Worth until 1963.  After that I went to California to run the office for Pamper Music.  I didn’t like that because I wasn’t pickin’, just running the office.  So we came back to Tennessee, and bought a farm at Ridgetop, just out of Nashville.

“I had been on Monument Records in the meantime, and had a record with them, but in 1964 I signed with RCA Victor.  My first release for them was “Pretty Paper.”  I’ve had six albums on Victor, and my latest single is, “Johnny One time”, written by Dallas Frasier.  I am really sold on the song, and I think we’ve got the most commercial sound on it of any of my other records.  Were hoping that this one will make it, but if it doesn’t, well, maybe next time.

“That’s it, up to now.  I remember some things I left out, but let’s save them for next time.”

That’s Wille’s story, and the hour I spent getting it was one of the most interesting I’ve had in a long time.  there’s nothing left for me to add, it’s all been said.

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