Willie Nelson: King of Country Music (Newsweek 8/14/1978)

Newsweek
August 14, 1978
King of Country Music: Willie Nelson
by Pete Axthelm

His rough, red-bearded face has been lined by years of tequila nights and Bloody Mary mornings, but the clear eyes sparkle as if each song, each cheer and each success is happening to Willie Nelson for the very first time. Surrounded by a merry band of pickers and pranksters, he travels the hard miles and one-night stands; but like the cowboys he celebrates in songs, Nelson can seem pensive and alone in the wildest of crowds. Willie has always carried himself with a kind of fierce innocense, defying those who would corrupt or label him. And now, to his whimsical delight, it is all paying off. At 45, the old outlaw has become music’s “in” phenomenon. The night life, Willie Nelson'[s life, has become a good life indeed.

Twenty years after he wrote “The Night Life” and other country classics — only to have them recorded by others because his own haunting, unusual voice was deemed unsuitable by record executives — Willie is now singing not only his own hits but ones that he didn’t even write himself. His new “Stardust” album, an evocative country-blues treatment of ten old standards, has topped the country charts for two months — after supplanting a wonderful No. 1 album that Willie did with his outlaw friend Waylon Jennings. His Western epic, “Red Headed Stranger,” remains on the charts three years after it smashed all the old rules about what a country musical album was supposed to be. With his hard-edged poetry and intensely personal blend of country, rock and gospel sounds, Willie has crossed over to the pop charts and reached out to enbrace a widening audience of good old boys, young rockers and almost anyone else who can see beyond narrow categories onto a brand of music that sometimes seems very close to magic.

“The nice thing about what’s happening now,” says Nelson, “is that I’m doing pretty much what I’ve been trying to do for 25 years. During a lot of those years, I wondered if anybody out there was listening. But now, the word seems to have gotten around about me.”

The message began to get out about 1973, when Nelson threw a Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas, and 50,000 of his friends showed up. Soon he was being hailed as a great synthesizer who could bring together rock groups and country stars, as well as hippie and red neck fans. Nelson’s music is described in catchall phrases like progressive country and redneck rock. But when ever the trend spotters thought they had him pinned down, Willie slipped away.

Just when people began to call him an avant-garde poet, this country genious turned back to old-time melodies like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Georgia (On My Mind) — and merely became more popular than ever.

Despite such apparent contradictions. Nelson is not really an elusive person. To know him, the trick is to keep listening. “I’ve come as close to keeping a real diary as anybody,” he says. “I just disguised it as a bunch of songs.”

My front tracks are bound for a cold water well
And my back tracks are covered with snow
And sometimes it’s heaven,
And sometimes it’s hell
And sometimes I don’t even know

Nelson sings of not only highs and lows but the confused moments in between. In the wreckage of his first marriage, he stared at the walls of a Nashville garage, while the rain hit the lone window like tears. The result was the ode “Hello Walls,” with the conclusion: “We must all pull together/Or else I’ll lose my mind/Cause I’ve got a feeling she’ll be gone a long, long time.”

Many of Nelson’s early songs dealt with pain and loss, but must were different from traditionally sudsy Nashville fare. Like a Greek dramatist, Willie sought wisdom through suffering and often it arrived in the form of brilliant insights like those in his thematic album about divorce, “Phases and Stages.” A later album, “Red Headed Stranger,” highlighted the stern frontier morality that can transform melodrama into something remarkably akin to tragedy.

Willie isn’t writing much these days. After all the early years of playing in Texas honky-honks behind chicken-wire fences put up to keep the drunks from hurling bottles at the band, he is reveling in the huge crowds that turn out during his tours. Unlike many performers, most notably the reclusive Jennings, Willie loves audiences — and his obvious enthusiasum infuses his concerts with tremendous energy. “I get restless when I don’t pay,” he says. “If I had a choice, I’d play four hours a night, seven nights a week. The playing is the fun, the writing is the work. To write, reflects the present state of Willie’s heaven-and-hell existence: “Life don’t owe me a living,” the song goes, “But a Lear and limo will do.”

Out in the land of Learjets and limousines, Nelson is a hot property. United Artists is planning a motion picture called, “The Songwriter,” inspired by Willie and written by his good friend, novelist-screenwriter Edwin (Bud) Shrake. Universal is planning a Western based on “Red Headed Stranger,” and there are long-range plans for a book and a movie about Nelson’s life. Willie will write the movie sound A Beverly Hills bartender put it in less Hollywood terms: “He’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen out here since the right-hand turn on red.”

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