Willie Nelson Interview, Scene Magazine (6/28/1981)

Scene Magazine
The Dallas Morning News
June 28, 1981
On the Road Again
by Carlton Stowers

It was one of those ball-bearing cold nights in Wichita Falls in the mid-Sixties, when my reason for being there was to cover another unmemorable high school football game.  Unexcited about my mission and spending the night in another budget-rate motel, I suggested to the man at the registration desk that my spirits might improve dramatically if he could direct me to the nearest bar.

There wasn’t one in the motel, he said with little apology, but customers were entitled to guest memberships to a club up the road.  “It doesn’t open ’til dark, and it’s really just a honky-tonk,’ he said.  “Still, there’s cold beer and an occasional nice-looking lady to be found.  They’ve even got live entertainment on the weekends.  Some guy named Little Willie Nelson’s going on at nine tonight.”

My spirits reversed immediately.  The game’s kickoff was at eight p.m. Willie, I judged, would be going on just about halftime.  Some careful planning, not to mention bending of good journalistic judgment, obviously was in order.

At the stadium, I sought out a sportswriting friend who had no interest in country and western music and struck a cash-in-advance bargain.  I would man my pressbox post for the first two quarters, taking careful notes then beat it for the outskirts of time.  For ten dollars, my friend would call me at the pay phone in the Dew Drop Inn and tell what transpired in the second half.  Afterwards, I would place a call to my paper, dictate a story, and, with any luck, not miss more than a couple of songs.

The moment was not one of my proudest as a sportswriter, but, Lordy, Willie was cooking that night.  Sitting on a stool, playing his guitar with only a bass and drums as accompaniment, he sang them all — “Night Life,” “Crazy,” “Family Bible,” “Black Jack Country Chain,” “Hello, Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” — for the dozen or so of us who had bothered to come to hear him.  The Dew Drop probably took a beating on the booking.  As many tables were empty as were occupied by beer-drinking kickers and rednecks — who wouldn’t even become familiar with those terms for another ten years.  If Willie, short-haired and wearing a western suit which was then the common uniform of country singers, ever bothered to take a head count, its effect didn’t show.  He was performing, singing his songs, and we listened as if he were playing church music.  Rapt response was what he fed on in those days, long before he had been judged a success after almost twenty years of one-night stands.  Long before he was playing Vegas and the White House, starring in movies and making the cover of Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and People.  Before his records were selling, and he was winning grammys and Academy Award nominations and country music Entertainer of the Year citations.  Before he drew acres of admirers to Fourth of july “picnics.”  Before he was able to buy his own private golf course and homes in four states.  Before he had his ever growing Family band and his own line of western wear and bodyguards were necessary to get him through wave after wave of admirers.  Long before he had become his field’s post laureate and a symbol of the state he still calls home.

In a recent television interview, author Larry L. King, self-appointed chronicler of things Texan, was asked what triggered the almost passionate affair easterners are having with his homeland.  King, the not-so-modest good o’ boy from Putnam, said there were two things, actually:  first, there was the enormous, big-bucks success of his play, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  second, there was the late-in-coming explosion of Willie Nelson’s music.

And on the West coast?  “Wille’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen out here since the right-turn-on-red,” says a regular at the Palomino, LA’s most popular country-and-western establishment.  “People in Hollywood are getting to know a lot about him in a hurry,’ adds his agent, Jim Wiatt.  “He’s gaining momentum fast.”  Already Nelson has shared the screen with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in ‘The Electric Horseman,’ starred in “Honeysuckle Rose,” with Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving, has a supporting role in “Thief,” with James Caan, and recently has finished work on ‘Barbarosa,” filmed in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.  Depending on which gossip columnist you believe, six to ten other movie projects involving Willie are on the drawing board.

Willie Nelson has made it.  In spades.  And seems to be less surprised by it than most.  Hell, he says, he’s had it made “since the time back when i was making two dollars a day chopping cotton and then one night got paid eight dollars for playing guitar in a polka band down at the Night Owl between West and Abbott.,  I was eleven then,” he remembers.  “That was the big turning point.  Playing music, i figured out right quick, was better than chopping cotton was ever going to be.”

But the road from the cotton fields to the station in life the 48-year-old Nelson now enjoys was jammed with dead ends and detours.  If dues-paying is part of stardom’s master plan, Willie Nelson paid until it hurt.

He was born in the worst year of the great Depression, the son of an Abbott mechanic who did more traveling than his wife deemed necessary.  When, finally, he didn’t bother to return, she also took to the road, leaving Willie Hugh Nelson to be reared by a blacksmithing grandfather and a grandmother who encouraged him in learning the Scriptures and music.

The music interested him more.

He learned simple chords on a mail-order guitar, and became the featured entertainer down at the barbershop, where the proprietor allowed him to emulate the voices he had heard on the “Grand Ole Opry” or run through a gospel number his grandmother had taught him.  If a customer flipped him a dime, it was a bonus.  Even at the ripe old age of five, the picking and singing were more important than the financial reward they might bring.  By age thirteen, he had formed his first band.  His grandfather played the fiddle, sister Bobbie (who remains with his musical entourage today) was on the piano, and the high school football coach blew a mean trombone.  Willie remembers one dance they worked for a percentage of the gate:  they each pocketed eighteen cents.

“But when nobody’s got much of it, money doesn’t really get your attention,” he says.  “And back then, I didn’t know anybody who had any.  But, no, I don’t have any negative memories of growing up.  It was being grown up that started to be a problem.”

If, as writer Pete Axthelm says, Willie’s songs tell the stories of hooch, heartbreak and hallelujah, of whiskey rivers and Bloody Mary mornings, they are little more than musical entries in a lifetime diary.  The man now called the King of Country Music knows of what he speaks.

He graduated from Abbott High at sixteen and joined the Air Force, but was discharged after eight months because of back problems.  He enrolled at Baylor, where, as he puts it, he spent a semester majoring in dominoes and playing with a local band for minor wages before marrying a Waco carhop named Martha Matthews.

“She was,” Willie recalls, “a full-blooded Cherokee, and every night was like Custer’s Last stand.  We’d live in one place a month or so and then pick up and move as soon as the rent came due.”

Briefly, Willie tried to make ends meet by selling vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias and Bibles.  “Selling just didn’t suit me,” he says.  “I never felt right trying to sell an expensive set of encyclopedias to people who didn’t even have any furniture in their living rooms.”

He and Martha traveled on to Pleasanton, Near San Antonio.  There, assuring the manager of a small radio station that he was an experienced disc jockey, Willie landed a job paying $40 a week.  The trail eventually wound to Fort Worth, where he hosted a country music radio show by day and played the riotous honky-tonks along the Jacksboro Highway by night.  On Sundays, he taught Sunday school — until the preacher learned of his night life and suggested he choose between performing in beer joints and reading BIble stories to kids.

Willie chose the Jacksboro Highway, where the clientele was so rough that chicken wire often was strung as a barrier between the bandstand and the audience, to protect entertainers from flying bottles and chairs.

‘There was this one place,” says Paul English, longtime drummer, pal and business manager for Nelson, “Called the County Dump, and we played there six nights a week.  They hired us to play loud enough to cover up the noise of the dice game they were running in the back room.  Paid twenty-four dollars a week.  We worked there nine months and saw two good kilings and at least one knock-down, drag-out fight a night.”

Though going nowhere fast, Willie Nelson was bound to a life of country music.  He had even begun writing songs. “I’ll never forget,” says daughter Lana, “One day when we were still living in Fort Worth, and he came home to tell Mom that he had sold a song called ‘Family Bible,’ for fifty dollars.  I was little then, but I can still remember the excitement in the house.”  The song  would become a country music classic, recorded over the years by numerous artists selling millions of records.  But Willie would not enjoy a dime’s worth of additional revenue until, years later, when he would record it himself.  In 1961, he sold another classic-to-be, “Night Life,” to three Houston investors for $150.  (It has since been recorded by over seventy artists and has at last count, sold over thirty million copies.)

Willie, however, couldn’t get his own career out of low gear.  His best-selling single had been prophetically titled “No Place to Go,” which he recorded, produced and paid for himself while working as a disc jockey in Vancouver, Washington.  Aware that his boss might frown at self-promotion on company time, Willie used his middle and last names on his first-ever recording. “I had 500 copies pressed,’ he says, “and sold them over the air for a buck apiece.  Eventually sold 2,000 copies of that sucker, throwing in a glossy eight-by-ten to boot.”

He was still a long way from mention in Billboard, but after seven years as a gypsy deejay, he followed the country muscian’s dream by heading for Nashville in an old Buick. His songwriting career was about to begin, and his first marriage was about to end.

Martha took a job bartending in Nashville while her husband knocked on doors along music Row.  She didn’t like what she was doing and wasn’t happy that her husband came home drunk more nights than not.  Having once resuced him from a zany suicide attempt when, in a drunken state, he stretched out in the street in front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, waiting for a car to run over him, and weary of telling bill collectors the check was in the mail, Martha decided to take drastic measures.

“One night I came home drunk,” Willie says, “and after I passed out, she sewed me up in a sheet, got a broomstick, and started pounding on me like a short-order stake.  By the time I got loose, she’d lit out in the car with the kids, her clothes — and my clothes.  There was no way I could follow her naked, so that was kind of the end of it.”

Soon, however, his songs came to the attention of a pair of established country stars, Hank Cochran and Ray price.  Willie was hired to write for the Pamper Publishing Company.  Writing songs was to pay handsomely as tunes like “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy” rose on the charts along with Price’s version of “Night Life.”  By 1963 Willie was earning $600 a week in composer royalties, was playing in Price’s band, and had remarried, this time to a “Louisiana Hayride” singer-yodler named Shirley Collie.

To Willie’s misfortune, Shirley knew karate.  Their marriage was stormy:  she once chased him through a graveyard intending bodily harm and another time shoved him through a glass door.  After ten years, they called it quits.

They were left with few happy memories, but the experiences triggered some damn sad songs.

Shortly after their divorce in 1969, Willie sat in the basement of a farmhouse they had called home, writing songs and taking stock of things with friend and business partner Hank Cochran.  The albums he had recorded for RCA had gone nowhere.  Agreement seemed to be universal among country music powers that he was a first-rate writer (among the many who have recorded his songs are a Who’s Who of country music, plus Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, Perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Doris Day, Andy Williams and even Lawrence Welk).  But his voice, they felt, would not bring him success as a singer.  On top of everything else, Willie had made a misguided venture into the hog-raising business.  “I bought ’em for 27 cents a pound and sold for nineteen,”  Willie says.  “Song writing was a lot better than that.  Like Shirley said, hogs are an art.  And obviously I didn’t have the artistic touch.”

The bedrock problem, though, was his lack of acceptance as a singer.  “Honestly,’ he says, “I always thought I could sing pretty good and, yes, it bothered me that nobody else thought so.  The more I thought about it, the more negative I got.  I got into fights with the recording company and all kind of bad things.”

Angered, discouraged and despondent, Willie was enjoying one of his finest movements of self-pity that night in the basement with Cochran when he wrote the song, “What Can You Do To Me Now?”

The following day his house burned down.  It was time, Willie decided, to go home to Texas.

“Why not?”  he says.  “I knew everybody, every club and waitress on the Texas circuit.”  After a brief layover at a friend’s dude ranch near Bandera, where he wrote songs and regrouped his forces, he landed in Austin, a college town full of young students with money and a driving interest in music.  He didn’t wait for them to accept his off-tempo, off-beat style of music; he went to them.

“I felt there was a lot of interest in country music among the young people,” he says, “but I also knew there weren’t too many places they could go to hear it.  You didn’t walk into a Texas beer joint with a beard and long hair back in those days without asking for more than a little trouble.’

Nelson defied the code of C&W music, letting his hair grow long, sprorting a beard, sticking a gold ring in his ear.  Nashville cringed.  Same ol’ Willie.  Same guy who, deciding the time was right, once took a young black country singer named Charle Pride with him on a tour through the redneck South and kissed the guy smack on the lips onstage one night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Same guy who kept insisting his own way of making music was better than that of the experts who controlled the million dollar careers of big stars.  He’d be doing car shows and opening supermarkets and playing the Dew Drop Inn for the rest of his life, the Nashville powers predicted.

What took place in Austin in the early Seventies, however, was a country music revival, presided over by a 5-foot-8-inch leader who would become its front-runner/prophet/guru.  Not only did young people take quickly to the standards he’d been singing for years, but the tight-knit group of long-standing Nelson followers, the Saturday night honky-tonking country folk, stayed, too.

His music turned Austin into Nashville West, and he was everywhere at once.  Picking at Darrell Royal’s house, opening Ford dealerships, holding street dances, playing off flatbed trucks for politicians’ fund-raisers, singing at Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl victory parties, and taking his music to every Texas town that would bid him welcome.  Willie, still beating the bush, was hustling.  And finally making some headway.

Those who came to hear him were more disciples than fans.  Blatant worshipers.  Some were even convinced that the man and his music had healing powers.

At a concert in Houston, Willie took notice of a pretty blonde in the audience, Connie Koepke from Cut ‘n’ Shoot, Texas.  Given neither to fits of temper nor murderous intent, she became the third Mrs. Nelson, and continues to lend positive reinforcement to Willie’s life.

There would soon be the first of the now famous Fourth of July “picnics,” drawing 50,000 people to a Dripping Springs cow pasture and becoming the nearest thing to a C&W Woodstock this world may ever see; and a couple of albums — on the Atlantic label — which sold more than all his previous efforts combined.  “Suddenly,” Willie says, “Something good was happening and I wasn’t bucking it, finally wasn’t finding ways of screwing it up.”

The Nashville establishment branded him an Outlaw, a flagrant violater of all country tradition.  But Willie smiled all the way to the bank.

New confidence gained, he established his own record label, gathered his band, and in a small recording studio in Garland cut an album titled “Red Headed Stranger.”  It climbed steadily to the top of the charts in 1974.  A single cut from it, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” became his first record to be number one and earn him a gold record of his own.

He’s been riding a skyrocket ever since.  Today Willie’s as welcome in New York and Los Angeles as he is in Austin.  Even Nashville rolls out the red carpet, having elected him to the Country Music Songwriters Hall of Fame and honored him as the Country Music Entertainer of the Year.  He pulls down $1.5 million a year just for playing Caesar’s palace in Las Vegas, and pays the members of his Family band, whose membership has grown to 25, $750 a night.  Generally, they work about 250 nights a year.

But the number of Willie Nelson followers has become so crushing that he no longer enjoy the loose-and-easy backstage camaraderie he once relished.  Security guards escort him from a mobile home near the entrance and whisk him on stage at the moment he is announced.  Then, after a show that generally includes over fifty songs ranging from his own to Hoagie Carmichael’s, he’s hustled back to safety.  The warmth is still in his eyes, the love of his music and the people he’s playing it for is still evident, but stardom has made him less touchable.  No longer can he drive down to Luckenbach for an afternoon of playing dominoes under the trees, or sit by the pool at Austin’s Villa Capri, picking and singing for friends.  Connie Nelson finally wearied so of the constant flow of visitors to Their Austin home that Willie decided to pull up stakes and take her and the kids (daughters Paula Carlene and Amy Lee) to a quieter place outside Denver.

The Dew Drop Inn days are over.  But Willie’s still hard-driving, taking his music to the people.  Still on the move and still loving it after two decades.  “Traveling’s a big part of my life,” he says.  “I like the perpetual motion.  I’ve been all over this country a thousand times, but I really haven’t seen much of it.  I just lay in the back of the bus, relaxing, glad to be going.

“Somebody was asking the other night how I’d like to go when my time comes.  I told ’em I’m just not going.  When one of us does die, we’re just going to be stuffed and put on the bus.  We’ll be wired so you can push the right buttons and, bingo, we’re on the road again.”

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