Country Music: Willie Nelson (October 1980)

Country Music: Willie Nelson (October 1980)

by Bob Allen

After national exposure in a film with Robert Redford, and more recently, in a starring role of his own in Honeysuckle Rose, the quiet days are gone forever for the Red Headed Stranger… but who’s complaining?

Several months from now after the picture of Willie Nelson sitting on a wooden fence in front of a pastoral Texas outdoor scene has appeared as part of the promotional campaign for his recently released feature film, Honeysuckle Rose, only a few people will know where it was really taken:  in the parking lot of a non-descript beachfront motel in the suburban outskirts of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But that is the reason why Willie is perched on a small “portable” Hollywood facsimile of a wooden fence on a patch of grass next to a busy dual-lane thoroughfare, in front of a Best Western Motel in this rather early, but very hot Sunday morning in Southern Florida.

The theory is that Willie Nelson doesn’t have time right now, in the middle of a tour, to come to Hollywood for this photo, so instead, Hollywood has come to him:  A contingent of photographers and executives have flown in the night before and brought with them the pieces of the ready-to-assemble fence on which Willie is sitting.  Later, back on the West Coast, through the wonders of modern photography, the photo of Willie will be touched up slightly; a bucolic scene of hay bales, moo-cows, horses and cowboys and cowgirls will be superimposed over what is now mere asphalt and parked cars.  More fence will be stripped in, until it looks like that one little section on which he’s sitting stretches all the way to the Texarkana border.

Even though it’s only about 10:00 a.m., a small crowd quickly gathers.  Cars that pass on the busy street honk their horns and the drivers lean precariously out with huge smiles on their faces, giving ol’ Willie the universal power sign of the raised fist.

“Hhhheeeeyyyy Willieeee!!!!!”

Willie smiles quietly at them and returns their acknowledgements with his own clenched and raised fist.  It’s obvious he doesn’t mind being recognized like this.  In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it.

But still, there’s something slightly incongruous about it all:  dear old Willie, his slender, well-carried frame perched with a Best Western Motel behind him, cars whizzing by in front of him, and the hot Florida sun beating down causing beads of sweat to form on his  brow, and under his freshly pressed cowboy shirt he’s wearing, while his air-conditioned tour bus sits idling a few yards away, ready to whisk him off to his next show, clean across the state in St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast.

Perspiration is also forming in the brows of the two young photographers.  One of them appears to b uneasy about something.  His camera stops clicking.  He looks up at the sun, then looks at the ground and then looks at Willie.  He is not happy with Willie’s tennis shoes.

“I think you should have boots on,” he decides after a long pregnant pause.

Willie, whose movements are slow and deliberate anyhow, looks down from his perch at the ground, then looks up at the sun.  His eyes narrow into slits and he locks the photographer in a scowl that would send Charles Bronson running for cover.

“What makes ya think that?” he asks ever so softly.

The photographer backs off, throws up his hands in a conciliatory jester, “Well, it’s uh… it’s fine with me… It’s great…. if you’re comfortable with the image.”

“I am.”

Far from ever being replaced by cowboy boots, Willie Nelson’s blue sneakers will probably some day be set in bronze.  Because here lately, travelling the road with him, one gets the distinct impression that the whole world is now waiting to embrace him just the way he is — blue jogging shoes and all.  To steal an applicable phrase from the late John F. Kennedy, the quiet days are gone forever.  When Willie’s on the road anymore, it’s nothing like the tours of earlier years when he could check into a hotel under his own name, and walk around outside the club before the show to kill time.  Nowadays, as soon as he signs him name to a room service tab, it’s all over.  Word spreads through the hotel that he’s cloistered away on the grounds and a quiet, hushed excitement spreads through the lobby.

And funny things happen.  Like the time on an earlier date of this particular swing through the Southeast when Willie happened to check into the same motel where two busloads of kids from a high school marching band were staying.  the students and their instructors got word from the hotel management that Willie was on the premises, and then proceeded to roll out their instruments on the front lawn and play a command performance just for him.  Willie was so amused and delighted by it all that he returned the favor by sticking around to pose for snapshots and sign autographs.

Things like that just seem to happen to Willie everywhere he goes these days:  give him the key to his city.  (He was recently presented the key to one good-sized Southern metropolis by the mayor, only to later pass it on — with equal formality — to the nine-year-old sister of one of his soundmen who had come to see his show.)  People line up to get their photos snapped with him and offer him the use of their houses for the weekend.  During his stay at the beachside motel in Fort Lauderdale, a large speedboat called the “Hot Lick” was quitely placed at the disposal of Willie  and his travelling Family.  Several times when he set off to take his daily run down the beach, he was waylaid by well intentioned fans bearing joints and cold cans of beer.

Except for some weird scenes in the parking lot — where crowds inevitably gather around the four tour buses that haul Willie’s Family around the country as soon as they pull in — and backstage, where the “lunatic fringe” sometimes congregate.  Much of the adulation for Nelson still remains more of a reasonably calm veneration than a dangerously heated frenzy.

Nelson’s own appraisal of his new role as a latter-day cultural hero is amazingly realistic — almost self-effacing.  “It’s a big responsibility to know that maybe just one person might be influenced just a little bit by what I do,” he told me in his usual soft speaking voice one afternoon sitting in his tour bus as it carried him and his band through the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale on the way to a one-nighter at an auditorium in a town somewhere out near the Florida Everglades.  “But to think there might be thousands is a little bit scary… especially when I don’t consider myself as that much of someone to pattern their lives after… But,” he adds.  “I feel like I’ve made all the mistakes and I hope I’ve learned from them.”

An objective look at the present state of Willie Nelson’s nearly three-decade-long musical career indicates that he’s not only learned from the errors of his ways, but he’s in fact, gone a step further and turned them all into  triumphs.  For at least the last three years some journalists have been sublety predicting that his career was bound to peak any second now, and that it would be all downhill form there.  But, the fact is, it just seems to be gaining more and more momentum — almost by the day.

In fact, throughout Willie’s entire organization, there is a strange new feeling during this late Spring tour.  It is a feeling that things had reached a new level that everyone involved is just learning how to deal with.  Security is tighter and the whereabouts of Willie at any given time is a well-kept secret.  (Some members of his crew even wear t-shirts insisting, “I DON’T KNOW WHERE WILLIE IS!”)

Calculated strategies now have to be developed to get Willie swiftly through the choking backstage crowds and into his bus after the show.  there seems to be shades of Elvis Presley  everywhere, there are now hulking security men who keep watch over him from the shadows in back of the stage, all through his performances.

The point is, things have changed.  Members of the band now find themselves being chased through hotel lobbies by teenage girls, and inside the auditoriums during the shows, there is a tense, restless electricity that just wasn’t there a couple of years ago.

“Goin’ out and openin’ for Willie on a show sure ain’t the easiest thing in the world,” singer/songwriter/comedian Don Bowman, a long-time Willie Nelson sidekick signs as he sits in the air-conditioned comfort of his hotel suite complete with a picture window over-looking the ocean, the morning after one such concert in West Palm Beach.  “This tour’s been the wildest of all.  It’s like…the crowds… Well, you saw  ’em last night, up standin’ on the chairs before he even hit the stage..  The only thing there is to compare it to is Elvis.”

The electricity of his live shows, though, is merely the more obvious evidence of the fact that Willie Willie Nelson is in high gear, and clearly on his way to becoming a household word.  He’s walked away with both the Country Music Association’s and the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year awards in recent months, and he’s selling more records than ever before.  All of his recent albums, including Willie and Family Life, Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson and One For the Road (with Leon Russell) have reached either gold or platinum (million sales) status.  His two most recent, San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price) and the soundtrack from Honeysuckle Rose, both headed right for the top of the country charts.  During the mid-summer of this year, he had six different albums simultaneously in the charts.

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