The White House has never seen any thing to beat it. Where the powerful and the privileged usually dine, a buffet is laid on for members of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Where Casals once played, the entertain ment is a sort of tribal rite in which the guests whoop it up to a Texas honky-tonk beat. The placid evening air is pierced by a singer’s plangent cry:
Whiskey River, don ‘t run dry, You’re all I’ve got—take care of me…
Nor has an apparition like the singer himself been glimpsed around the White House lately—without being arrested on sight, that is. Bearded, sporting jeans and sneakers, with a bandanna tying back his shoulder-length red-brown hair and an earring dangling from his left ear, he comes on like some improbable blend of Celtic bard and Hell’s Angel, with a smile straight out of Huckleberry Finn.
It is Jimmy Carter’s kind of evening. The stock-car crowd is there because Ole Country Boy Carter is devoted to racing tracks the way his predecessors were to putting greens or yachting water. And the singer? Another Carter favorite: high-riding, low-living Willie Nelson, 45, country music’s reigning “redneck rocker.”
White House dinners are pretty high off the hog for Willie, who not too long ago was being written off by the country music establishment as an “outlaw”—a renegade, a troublemaker who wrote interesting songs but would never fuse his raw performing talents. Then six years ago, Willie bucked the system by leaving Nashville for Austin, Texas, where he took charge of a movement that made outlaw a term of defiant pride. Along with such congenial spirits as Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker, he fashioned a spare, linear style with a heavy rock beat that reached an audience far broader than the country faithful, mainly by appealing to long-haired rock fans.
The Austin sound—redneck rock or progressive country—began crossing over from country to pop charts and racking up sales once scarcely dreamed of in the country field. In the past two years, three such albums have gone platinum, in trade parlance (i.e., sold 1 million copies): an anthology of progressive stars titled The Outlaws, the duo album Waylon & Willie and Willie’s own Red Headed Stranger. Willie’s latest, Stardust, is currently one of the nation’s hottest-selling country LPs, even though it consists entirely of Tin Pan Alley standards.
Progressive he may be, but Willie remains true to the bedrock traditions of folk, blues, jazz and country. His unusually sophisticated phrasing—now lagging behind the beat, now scooting ahead of it. twisting and rolling the melody like a champion lariat twirler—owes something to Frank Sinatra, one of his favorite singers. But his high, slightly nasal baritone retains an austere lyricism that goes back to Appalachian hills and hollows and beyond. Where much of commercial country music has only a catch in its throat, Willie’s has a touch of iron in its soul.
His themes are mostly the Nashville perennials of hootch, heartbreak and hallelujah. But his best songs—chronicles of a tough, sensitive drifter—have a gritty conviction that comes from being unsparingly autobiographical. As Willie says, they are “songs that had to come out.” The deep lines around Willie’s surprisingly gentle brown eyes bear witness to a lot of hard days and even harder nights, and he sings about them with sentiment but no sentimentality, with pain but no self-pity. He celebrates their brief, boisterous pleasures, as in I Gotta Get Drunk:
I’ll start to spend my money, Callin ‘everybody honey, And wind up singin’ the blues.
He bemoans their frequent emptiness, as in Opportunity to Cry: I think I’ll go home now And feed my nightmares
He voices the exhilaration and melancholy of ceaselessly moving on, as in Bloody Mary Morning:
Baby left me without warnin’ Sometime in the night, So I’m flyin ‘down to Houston With forgetting her the nature of my flight.
When Willie moved on from Nashville, his decision to settle in Austin was no accident. Texas to him meant his native heritage, his own people, his starting place. To paraphrase a classic country hymn that Willie favors, the circle was unbroken.
The circle began in the dusty hamlet of Abbott, Texas, where Willie and his sister Bobbie, now the pianist in his band, were raised by gospel-singing grandparents; their parents had drifted off in opposite directions shortly after Willie was born. Willie was five when he got a guitar and a few rudimentary lessons from his grandfather, a blacksmith who had taken mail-order music courses. Soon Willie was pressing his ear against an old wooden Philco radio to hear Grand Ole Opry. At 13 he formed his own band—with his father, then living in a town 40 miles away, on fiddle. He left high school at 16, was mustered out of the Air Force after eight months because of back problems, and quickly married a Waco carhop named Martha Matthews.
Then came a sequence of “whiles”—a while as a door-to-door encyclopedia and Bible salesman, a while as a plumber’s helper in Oregon, a while as a disc jockey in Fort Worth, and so on. Willie was forever setting off for new destinations with everything he could call his own loaded into his 1946 Ford: Martha, the three kids they soon had, some furniture and an “Oklahoma credit card” (a length of hose for siphoning gas from roadside tanks). A few years of this and Martha began heading for a destination of her own: divorce court. “I tried being like other people,” Willie says. “I tried to work and come home and watch TV. That just wasn’t me.”
Wherever he wandered, Willie sang and played guitar in local honky-tonks, at times performing behind a chicken-wire screen set up to protect musicians from flying beer bottles. Out of this harsh apprenticeship came one of his earliest and best songs, a neon-lit lament called Night Life:
The night life ain ‘t no good life, But it’s my life.
In 1961 Willie sold copyrights to Night Life and one other song for a paltry $150 to finance a move to Nashville. There he quickly made it as a songwriter, but for other singers. Crazy rose high on the charts when Patsy Cline recorded it. So did Funny How Time Slips Away as recorded by Jimmy Elledge, Hello Walls by Faron Young, and dozens of others. It seemed Willie could write a hit for anybody but himself. His own recordings went nowhere, perhaps because they were not truly his own. Producers decreed that he should be backed by slick studio musicians and often swathed in saccharine strings. What came out was the Nashville sound, not the Willie Nelson sound. “I was trying to sell a new style of singer,” Willie recalls. “They didn’t have a category to put me in.”
The category they settled on was outlaw, and Willie and other road-hardened individualists like Waylon Jennings earned it in ways that went beyond unorthodox musicianship. They disdained the studded and rhinestoned outfits of Nashville stars for scruffy clothes. They ducked the record-company celebrity mills for a life of carousing and missed appointments. Willie also met and married a red-haired country singer named Shirley Collie. Though the marriage was to last ten years, it was nowhere near as harmonious as the records they occasionally cut together. Once when Willie came home drunk, Shirley, who knew a little kung fu, pushed him through a glass-paneled door.
Strange to say, Willie’s luck improved when his Nashville house burned down in 1972. After plunging through the flames to retrieve his stash of marijuana, he headed again for Texas. There, says Merle Haggard, an admiring colleague, “Willie took his own band and a case of beer and sat down to try to create things.” He did so by following his usual rules—that is, none. “Nothing works every time,” Willie says. “Everything has to stand on its own. I don’t try to limit my thoughts in music. Everything I do is by feel.”
Among other things, Willie saw a chance to “create my own market” by bringing together Austin’s country audience with the rock devotees and college crowd on its fringes. While his post-Nashville LPs began building a national following, he consolidated his local reputation by promoting a series of July 4th outdoor concerts featuring friends like Leon Russell and Kris Kristofferson—and, not incidentally, himself. “When I was in the encyclopedia business,” Willie explains, “I learned that whatever you want to sell, first you’ve got to sell yourself.”
Despite the underlying unity of the progressive country style that burgeoned beneath Willie’s—and Austin’s—banner, its exponents were diverse and farflung. Some were identified with the city’s rowdy club scene, like the hard-drinking Jerry Jeff Walker, whose life-style could qualify for federal disaster relief. Others, like Michael Murphey, started in Austin but moved on to other locales. Now living in Evergreen, Colo., Murphey has a cooler sound than many of the progressives and writes lyrics about themes like urban sprawl and the advent of fast-food chains where the Cavalry once rode. Still others, like Waylon Jennings, the only member of the movement to share superstar status with Willie, never lived in Austin at all. Jennings comes by his affinity through his outlaw tendencies and through his capacity to make honest and appealing music, as Willie does, out of all his disorder and early sorrow.
Today Willie has become not only an Austin but a Texas institution. He has performed with the Dallas Symphony and golfed with the then Texas Longhorns Coach Darrell Royal. Around the state he sees T shirts reading MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE AND WILLIE. He hears his name lightly mentioned for Governor. His father and stepmother—universally known as Mom and Pop Nelson—bask in the legend. Together they run Willie’s Pool Hall in Austin, and Pop fronts a country band. Nowadays Mom and Pop also occupy Willie’s $300,000 ranch house outside town. Willie’s third wife, Connie, 34, a former Houston lab technician, got tired of the way fans treated the house as a combination crash pad and national shrine. So last year she and Willie retreated to a three-story Swiss chalet in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
Counting their Malibu Beach place, the Nelsons now have three residences, but Willie’s true home is still the road. He travels 250 days a year, crisscrossing the country from bastions of the Bible Belt to glittering emporiums like Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget, with forays to outposts like New Jersey’s Meadowlands stadium, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where he recently played before a youthful crowd of 62,000 (most of them fans of the headline act the Grateful Dead). He carries with him his “family” of 25 musicians, technicians and hangers-on, who use nicknames among themselves like “T. Snake,” “The Beast” and “Fast Eddie.” Some of their escapades are memorialized in Willie’s song about his longtime drummer, aide and confidant, Paul (“The Devil”) English, 45, who packs a .38 special on the bandstand:
… Almost busted in Laredo But for reasons that I’d rather not disclose… We received our education In the cities of the nation, Me and Paul.
Besides drinking “a lot of whisky,” Willie has been through many drug scenes, including pills, acid, mescaline and cocaine (which he didn’t like). He is now a confirmed marijuana smoker. When he goes too long between tokes he says he gets “hyper.” His famous quick temper begins to flare at insistently ringing phones (he rips them out of the wall), officious security guards or—a special vexation—closed doors. “I can’t tell you how many doors he has kicked down,” laughs Connie. “Sometimes he even has the key in his pocket.”
Yet Willie is a roughneck with a poet’s soul. When his dander isn’t up he is courteous and softspoken, with some of the grave self-possession of the country man. His favorite reading is Kahlil Gibran and Edgar Cayce. Sitting around hotel rooms, he muses often on the theory of reincarnation and on karma as a sort of Newton’s Third Law of the spirit (“Whatever goes around, comes around”). Willie is “irresistible to women,” says a female member of his entourage, “because he’s so sensitive along with being so masculine—like Shane.” Willie acknowledges that people find his calm or silent phases “mysterious.” He pauses and smiles. ” ‘Course they don’t know I’m completely ripped.”
Willie also seeks detachment from the pressures of performing by jogging almost daily. Motion is the primary law of life for him. He writes most of his songs on the run, scribbling them on cardboard boxes, napkins, the backs of airline tickets. Best of all, he likes to compose them in his head while roaring down a highway in a car. Four years ago, he and Connie sketched out the whole of his Red Headed Stranger LP during an all-night drive from Colorado to Texas, fitting new songs side by side with traditional tunes and country standards to form a unified narrative of love and death, sin and redemption.
In my mind,” says Willie, “I was seeling a movie unfold.” Sure enough, Universal Pictures is interested in making a film based on the album. Willie has formed a production company to handle the deal. A canny businessman beneath his roistering exterior, he usually produces his own albums, has several real estate holdings in Texas and is majority owner of a record label and publishing company.
All of which has made Willie a millionaire on paper. He could afford to ease off before risking a fall from the charts, to quit the road and spend more time with his family (he and Connie have daughters, ages 8 and 5, scarcely older than the four grandchildren that stem from his first marriage). But Willie knows the touring will never end. First and last he is a honky-tonk troubadour. To see him on a bandstand is to see a man truly in his element. He is hunched over his battered Martin acoustic guitar, nodding and smiling as the applause of recognition washes over the opening bars of each number; singing to a shouted obbligato of “You said it, Willie! Sing it!”; swigging a beer between phrases or cheerfully knocking back the shots of booze passed up to him from the audience; remaining unperturbed even when a burly fan in sheer exuberance hurls a table onto the bandstand—bottles, glasses and all.
People are sayin’. . . That I’m livin ‘too fast And they say I can’t last for much longer…
To such people, and to the vagaries of age, fame and hard living, Willie’s hellbent answer is Pick Up the Tempo:
Little they know That the beat ought to go Just a little faster; So pick up the tempo just a little And take it on home