Willie Nelson: Vagabond and Icon (by Michael Corcoran

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by Michael Corcoran
2003

Willie understood. When Frank Sinatra kept touring well into his 70s, reading the words of his classic songs off giant TelePrompTers, critics and fans wondered why he didn’t retire. How much money did he need? But Willie Nelson knew that concert receipts had nothing to do with his friend and idol’s busy schedule. “When you sing for people and they throw back all that love and energy,” he says, “it’s just the best medicine in the world.”

With Nelson’s 70th birthday coming Wednesday, the eternal red-headed rascal has been inundated with tributes, including a celebrity-heavy affair in New York earlier this month that will be shown on the USA Network on May 26, Memorial Day.

The phases and stages of Willie’s career have found him evolving from the honkytonk sideman to the hit Nashville songwriter, from progressive country pioneer to crooner of standards. And now the iconoclast has become the icon, with Willie achieving American folk hero status.

This pot-smoking Zen redneck in pigtails, who sings Gershwin through his nose and plays a guitar that looks like he picked it up at a garage sale, transcends music and has come to personify the individual, the rectangular peg to the round hole of corporatization.

Willie’s the one producers called to sing “America the Beautiful” at the moving finale of the televised “A Tribute To Heroes” show after the Sept. 11 attacks. He’s played for worldwide audiences at former President Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. And he can have his bacon and eggs at any greasy spoon in the country and feel right at home.

Meanwhile, the journalists keep leading with the same questions about what keeps him going at the pace of a much younger man. Willie and the band he calls the Family are scheduled to play almost 180 dates this year, and the shows are two-and-a-half-hour affairs.

“I’ve been trying to take it easy for years, but this is what I love to do,” he says. “When I go home to rest, I get a little stir-crazy after a few days.”

Here’s a man whose office in Luck, the Western town he built near his “Willie World” complex of golf courses, condos and recording studios on Lake Travis, carries a plaque that reads, “He who lives by the song, dies by the road.” True to that motto, one of Roger Miller’s favorite sayings, Willie’s been home in the Hill Country a total of only two weeks this year.

It’s no wonder that “On the Road Again” is the easiest song Willie’s ever written. The producers of the 1980 film “Honeysuckle Rose” were looking for a theme song about vagabond musicians, and their star wrote the first words that popped into his mind: “The life I love is making music with my friends/ I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

It’s a simple existence made all the more comfortable because Willie is surrounded by people who’ve been with him for decades. Bassist Bee Spears has lived 35 of his 53 years in Willie’s band, which also features the barrelhouse piano of Willie’s 72-year-old sister, Bobbie, and Willie’s legendary running buddy, 71-year-old Paul English, on drums. Percussionist Billy English, Paul’s brother, is the new guy, having joined just 19 years ago. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael and guitarist Jody Payne are also relative newcomers, both joining the ragtag caravan 30 years ago.

“You can’t get out of this band even if you die,” Willie says with a laugh. “I’ve told the guys that we’ll just have ‘em stuffed and put back up on that stage.”

Willie’s circle of fiercely loyal lifers include roadies (78-year-old Ben Dorcy has been with Willie since the early ’60s), sound engineers and managers. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Lana, travels with Willie and keeps up the willienelson.com Web site.

“We all act like we can’t wait to get off the road and catch a break from each other,” says stage manager Randall “Poodie” Locke, who joined up in 1975. “But after three or four days, we’re looking for excuses to call each other. Everybody’s wives or girlfriends are going, ‘Uh, Honey, don’t you got any gigs comin’ up?’ ”

Where’s Willie?

On the road again, they just couldn’t wait to get on the road that takes them to the Lone Star Park horse racing track near Dallas on a crisp recent evening. Some of the fans come early, looking for Willie’s bus, the one that has “Honeysuckle Rose” and an American Indian figure painted on the side.

A group of giddy grandmas stand outside the band’s business bus before the one with the “Ladies Love Outlaws” T-shirt gets up the courage to knock on the door. “Where’s Willie?” she asks the driver, who answers that he won’t arrive until showtime. When the women leave, Poodie says, “Willie makes every fan feel like they’re his friend. Because they are.”

With piercing brown eyes that seem to have the ability to make eye contact with thousands simultaneously and a world class smile that’s both frisky and comforting, Nelson turns concerts into lovefests and makes fans feel like they grew up next door to him.

To gaze at the social makeup of the line waiting outside the horse race track is to marvel at the range of Nelson’s appeal. There are older couples dressed in tight, rounded jeans and multicolored western shirts, who look like they used to see a pre-bearded Willie at the old Big G’s dance hall in Round Rock or the Broken Spoke. There are tons of college kids in ballcaps and straw Resistol hats, plus truck-driver types, budding socialites, bikers and hipsters with their neck tattoos.

But there are also many who just came to play the ponies and don’t even know Willie’s booked to sing after the night’s final race. When a young man with gold front teeth and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat worn sideways approaches the turnstile, the ticket taker jokes, “Are you here to see Willie Nelson?” A few Willie fans giggle as the man shakes his head and says, nah, he’s here to bet on horses. Then, as he passes, he leans back and says, “But I do like Willie Nelson.”

As long as he’s healthy and the people keep coming out. That’s how long Willie says he’ll keep this carnival, which commands upwards of $50,000 per show (and $100,000 for private parties), out on the road. Meanwhile, the 70th birthday peg has led to renewed interest in Nelson’s recorded legacy, with Sony reissuing an “Essential Willie Nelson” double disc and the Sugar Hill label getting critical raves for the recently unearthed “Crazy: the Demo Sessions” from the early ’60s. A recently remastered version of the 6 million-selling “Stardust,” Willie’s best-selling album, is turning a whole new audience onto the songs of Hoagie Carmichael and Irving Berlin, just as it did in 1978.

Although last year’s “The Great Divide,” an attempt to duplicate the “Supernatural” success of Carlos Santana by dueting with such hitmakers as Sheryl Crow and Rob Thomas, sold a relatively disappointing 361,000 copies, Willie and the Family are playing to some of their biggest crowds since the mid-’70s glory days of “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

Now that Waylon, the Butch Cassidy to Willie’s Sundance Kid, has passed away, it’s up to Nelson to keep the outlaw country bus a-churnin’ down the highway. And with his role as the vortex of Texas singer-songwriting assured, Willie has picked up the younger high school and college crowd that goes batty for the likes of Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen.

Informed that a band member said, “It’s like 1975 all over again,” Willie lets out a laugh. “If he can remember 1975, he wasn’t in my band. But it does seem that the girls are getting younger and prettier. And they know all the words! I hear a thousands kids singing along to ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ and I think, ‘Y’all weren’t even born when that one was written.’ It just makes me feel great to know that these old songs are clicking with a whole new crowd.”

As with the Grateful Dead, Nelson’s spike in popularity so late in his career comes partly because he and the band promote a free-spirited lifestyle. But where the Dead (whose surviving members will join Willie at this year’s Fourth of July Picnic at the new Two River Canyon venue, just down the highway from Willie World) became synonymous with extended jams and mind-expanding drugs, the Willie way is built around short songs and long drives, a cowboy/ Indian fashion mix and tear-in-your-beer roadhouses. Above all, the band’s escapist bent is intensified with instinctive musicianship, a play-it-as-we-feel-it attitude that extends beyond the stage.

“Playing with Willie is tricky business,” bassist Spears says of the frontman who never met a beat he couldn’t tease. “If you try to follow him too close, he’ll lead you down to the river and drown you. You have to keep one eye on him and one eye on your part. Just play your part and trust that he’s going to come back and meet you at some point.”

Willie says the musical kinship between him and sister Bobbie, who ride the bus together, is almost telepathic. “Sometimes, she seems to know what I’m going to play before I do. I’ve played music with my sister almost every night of my life. There’s just this intense connection that really gets the whole ball rolling.”

Raphael says that if someone should die, the members of the Family have decided to carry on in missing man formation, as fighter pilots do after a comrade crashes. “But if anything happens to Trigger,” he says of the acoustic guitar that Willie’s picked a hole through, “that could be the show.”

The Martin classical guitar, which he bought sight-unseen for $750 in 1969, is Nelson’s most precious possession. That he lets friends, about 40 so far, carve their names into the guitar says as much about Willie Nelson, the unmaterialistic scamp, as the way he plays it with gypsy fingers and a jazzman’s curiosity.

At home in the crowd

“God bless ‘em,” singer Marty Robbins once said of country music fans. “They’ll do anything for you but leave you alone.”

But no country star has ever handled the demand from fans to touch, to talk to, to have a picture made better than Willie. He spent the first part of his career trying to become successful and the rest proving that success hasn’t changed him a whit.

He’s got a bunch of burly guys, including a former Hell’s Angel named L.G., working for him, but Willie doesn’t allow them to lead him through crowds, even when about 3,000 people stand between him and the stage, as they did at the Lone Star Park show.

When the crowd lets out a roar because they’ve seen Willie in their midst, Mickey Raphael walks up to the window of the band bus, peers out at his boss signing autographs in the sea of hats and says, “Looks like we’ve got about 45 minutes,” then goes back to telling a reporter how he came to run away with this circus.

“My first exposure to the group was the cover of that (1971) ‘Willie Nelson and Family’ record. They were the freakiest looking country band I’d ever seen. Paul looked like the devil and was wearing a cape; Bee had on some furry diapers. I said, ‘Now, what do these guys sound like?’ ” After sitting in with Willie and the Family at a firefighter’s benefit in Waxahachie, Raphael starting playing at all the band’s dates in the Dallas area.

“Willie asked me one night, ‘Hey, Paul, what are we paying that kid?’ ” says English, the infamous raconteur immortalized in Willie’s song “Me and Paul.” The pistol-toting English has handled band biz on the road since 1966, when Willie enticed him to leave his business supplying call girls to Houston businessmen. “I said we weren’t paying Mickey anything, and Willie said, ‘Then double his salary.’ ”

Bee Spears, who joined the Family in 1968 when original bassist David Zettner was drafted into the Army, talks about his first Christmas out on the road with Willie: “We tried to make a snowman out of shaving cream, and we drew pictures of the presents we would give each other when we made it big. Willie had us believing that it wouldn’t be ‘if’ we made it, but ‘when.’ He knew that eventually someone was going to figure him out.”

Austin understood. It was here in the early ’70s that Willie Nelson found a kindred musical attitude. Even though he spends more of his time off the road these days in Maui, where his fourth and current wife, Annie, and their boys Luke, 14, and Micah, 13, live, he remains Austin’s spiritual adviser and greatest musical ambassador.

“Willie loves it in Maui, but he considers Austin his home,” says Lisa Fletcher, who’s married to Bobbie’s son Freddy Fletcher. “He’s got six children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and they almost all live around Austin, so he gets down here every chance he can.”

Austin and Willie go together in the minds of the masses, like Elvis in Memphis, but where Presley lived a fortressed life, Willie doesn’t think anything about jamming for hours at Poodie’s Hilltop Grill near his Lake Travis compound or popping in at Momo’s on Sixth Street to see his favorite local band, Los Lonely Boys. “The town’s grown so much,” Nelson says, “but I still like the vibe there. It’s still a music town.”

Watch the movies he made here in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and you’ll see that so many old landmarks are gone, including the Armadillo World Headquarters, where Willie mapped out the common ground between hippies and the rednecks. Also torn down was the Villa Capri motel, the scene for so many guitar-picking parties hosted by Willie’s buddy Texas Coach Darrell Royal. But Willie’s still Willie, and his set starts out the same way it has since 1971.

There’s the four or five guitar strums and Mickey’s snaky harp lines and then the unmistabkable nasal twang: “Whiskey river, take my mind/ Don’t let her memory torture me.” It’s a holistic hoedown as “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” follows, and then come patchwork versions of the early ’60s hits “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and “Night Life.”

Ain’t it funny how much time hasn’t seemed to slip away?

There’s a scene in “Honeysuckle Rose” when Amy Irving asks Willie if he ever gets tired of being everybody’s hero. His silence makes the question rhetorical, but after watching Willie hold court on his bus a few months ago outside Gruene Hall, with person after person telling him how much his music has meant to them and their recently deceased mother, it’s a question worth re-asking. Does Willie ever get tired of being everybody’s hero?

“I think when that line came up in the movie, the reason I didn’t say anything was because I was probably thinking, ‘That’s about the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked,’ ” he says with a huge Willie laugh.

What a stupid question. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by millions simply by being themselves? Who wouldn’t want to be paid handsomely to do the thing they’d do for free? He’s on the road again and again, playing, in the words of Mickey Raphael, “Carnegie Hall one night and some dump in Odessa the next.”

And so when Willie hits the big 7-0, it won’t be a star-studded affair at a huge Texas amphitheater, complete with fireworks. That would make too much sense. Instead, his bus, his home, is rolling towards Wednesday’s gig at the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City, La.

That’s so Willie.

On the road, he’s Willie Nelson, an American treasure and hero of the common folk. Now, who wouldn’t want to be that as often as possible?

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