Willie Nelson, Rolling Stone interview (7/13/78)

Rolling Stone
July 13, 1978
by Chet Filippo

The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. “Got no Willie Nelsons today.” He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook.

He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: “You goin’ to see  Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had ta haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, ‘Man, you die fast in this town.’ ”

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.”

“Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is….”

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.”

Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?” He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a.
Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet — if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs — Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few — but Willie’s own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music.  He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him.

Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.”

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does.

I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.'” Willie fell over laughing. “Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?”

“What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?”

With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes.

Eyes that don’t miss much. He is not the most talkative person around —  lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers.  Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he’s sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both.

Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music.

He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists uggested that he make a choice. He chose music. “I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.

Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating.   I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes.  So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time,  we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of  him — in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then
we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.”

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds,  they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations  are good for us to hear-how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.”

When I met Willie Nelson, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him.  That picnic was a real oddity; a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun.   The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk.  The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons.   I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades.  I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson.   I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it.   We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk.

He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while.  He told me his history:   born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents.   As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day.   At age ten, he started playing guitar with a polka band in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled.   He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed.   Did a stint in the Air Force.  Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music.  Dropped out.  Sold Blbles door-to-door.  Sold encyclopedias door-to-door.  Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side.

Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks.   Disc jockeyed all around the country.   Played every beer joint there was.   Taught guitar lessons.   Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars — “Family Bible” — and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.   Traveled there  in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there.

Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract.   Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished.  “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set.  “I’ll do all right.”

Indeed he did.  That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on.  Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm.   This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up.  It was the watershed in the progressive country movement.  Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell.   Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence.  Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.”

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses — too many gate-crashers — but he was established.  Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of him to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time.   When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out.   I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway.   But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate.   I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me.   Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key.   He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career.   Right place at the right time.  Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong.   His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life.   “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Michael Raphel, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music.  But, thought it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it.

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman.

“Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans.

One Response to “Willie Nelson, Rolling Stone interview (7/13/78)”

  1. Helene says:

    This article is as informative as the day it was written. I have always believed the the real performers ” get to to have all the fun.” What sense of humour to call himself Fast Eddie! We saw him last summer in San Diego, he is wearing his age except in the playing of his guitar. Do not miss an opportunity to see him. They don’t last forever (the ones that paved the way) and while the voices are not as clear as the early days the talent does not fade. The article says that his song writing was successful before his singing. Remind anyone of Willie’s tour mate, Jamey Johnson?

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