Feb. 13, 1984
by Chet Flippo
Is it true that when cowboys die, they go to Texas? Tonight is cowboy heaven for sure — as two forever young good ole boys named Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson smile and press the flesh and inch their way through phalanxes of ecstatic fans on their way to the bandstand. Out front, a couple thousand of the faithful are whooping it up and pouring down the Lone Star beer at Austin’s Opry House, a true shrine of C&W. It was here that Willie put modern Country on the map in the early ’70s when he gave up on Nashville’s establishment and drifted on down to Austin to forge an alliance between hippies and rednecks.
Hordes of both — now almost indistinguishable, what with their pierced ears and long hair and pounds of silver and gold jewelry and flowered shirts and skintight jeans (and that’s only the men) — are starting their “Willie” chant. Even though the concert footage has already been shot at the Opry House for Songwriter, the movie that Willie and Kris are filming here, Willie got cabin fever after awhile and decided he just had to do a show. Since he now owns the Opry House, along with a lot of other prime Austin real estate, it wasn’t too hard to set up. Austin can never get enough of Willie, especially since he now spends most of his time in Colorado or on the road. He is still a holy man in Texas.
Backstage, Willie, still in his “Doc Jenkins” black garb from the day’s shooting, smiles his guru smile and shakes the hands of preppies in blazers and bikers in leather and grandmothers in shawls and little children and clean-cut jocks and guys who look suspiciously like dope dealers and businessmen wearing suits and left-over ’60?s hippies and farmers and former University of Texas coach Darrell Royal. They are smiling at each other so much that, if you didn’t know better, you might think this is a mob of some kind of babbling religious freaks. But no, they’re just Willie fanatics.
Willie embraces Kristofferson, who is still wearing the black outfit of the “Blackie Buck” character in the movie. Kris and Willie are the old pros of progressive C&W and their lined faces and salt-and-pepper bears show a lot of years of being rode hard and put up wet. But, as a bystander points out, they fearlessly — and recklessly — went up against heavy odds in fighing Nashville’s establishment.
“And, bah Gahd, we won, didn’t we, Willie?” rasps Kris in his window-rattling rumble of a voice, hugging Willie amid the chaos. “Yeah, Kris, I guess we did,” Willie says quietly. Then he and his band hit the stage to plead: “Whiskey river, take my mind.”
The crowd erupts and doesn’t stop. It’s an old-fashioned hoedown with dancers and drinkers twirling and swirling thorugh hours of Willie and Kris, and Kris and Willie stripping down to black T-shirts and dripping with sweat by the time they turn Amazing Grace into a Country Mass — hundreds of europhoric worshipers jumping to their feet and pointing their fingers heavenward and singing along witha Texas sermon from Matthew, Mark, Kris and Willie. And not one fight. Remarkable for a honky-tonk.
“God, Willie’s great,” Kris says a few minutes after the show, back in his modest suite at the Ramada Inn, as he picks his way through stacks of toys for his children and calls room service to order himself some rabbit food and volcano water.
Ten years ago, when they were really living the lives of Doc and Blackie, Kris and Willie existed on shots of tequila and more shots of tequila, with the occasional night out on shots of Jack Daniel’s. They were living right out there “on the border,” as Kris sings in this movie. And they were slogging through the drugs-and-alcohol diet thought essential to capture the exquisite pain of country music.
No longer. Kris pulls off his T-shirt to reveal that he’s healthy now, rippling muscles and all that. Coherent. Sane. Everything that he is not in Songwriter. Doesn’t drink or drug anymore. Runs 10 miles a day. Plays golf with Willie. Eats right. Is writing songs again after a long drought.
“Yeah, things are going real good,” he says with a satisfied sigh from his easy chair, boots up on the table. “I got married. Wasn’t no big thing, but yeah, we got a little boy now. My wife’s named Lisa. She’s a lawyer. She was in law school at Pepperdine when I met her. We had a little boy on the seventh of October — Jesse Turner Kristofferson. ‘Jesse’ for an old football coach I had and ‘Turner’ for [band member] Turner Stephen Bruton.
“Wille’s got a great philosphy — about running, about golf, about everything. Kick it back to where you can enjoy it, you know? I’t like, if youre’ running too hard and you’re miserable, then ease off a little bit. He runs for pleasure, not to drive himself. I swear to God” — he laughts at the notion — “being around Willie is like being around Buddah. He gives off these positive attitudes. Next thing you know, you’re acting like him.”
He laughs again, shaking his head in wonderment as he pushes his room service tray aside. He turns and trains the full force of his intense, sky-blue deep-set eyes on his visitor and says seriously, “I’ll never be like him. I’ll never be able to walk directly from the golf cart to the stage. But I’ll never again put myself through the angst I used to. This film as changed my life as much as A Star is Born did. That was a real turning point because I saw that I had potential as an actor. It was enough to clean me up, to quit drinking, you know. And this move has justified my getting cleaned up. You always hope that working with friends will work, but working with Willie is a real bonus because the chemistry on the screen is so good. This has turned out to be the best experience of my life.”