Joe Nick Patoski’s Tribute to Willie Nelson — Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (out 4/21/08)

Willie Nelson:  An Epic Life
by Joe Nick Patoski

Willie Nelson fans (like me) have been reading Joe Nick Patoski’s interviews and articles about Willie for years. So when we heard he was writing a book, we thought, it’s about time; we’ve been waiting for this. Well, we don’t have to wait much longer, because his book, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life is scheduled to be in bookstores next month, on April 21st. And the book is available to pre-order right now at

You can tell Joe Nick is a Willie Nelson fan when you read his articles; he writes with such great respect for Willie. And his articles are interesting to read because he doesn’t keep asking the same questions and soliciting the same responses — I always learn something new.  When I first read the title to an article he’d written for Texas Monthly’s December 1999 issue, titled: Willie Nelson: Entertainer of the Century, I thought, Well, yeah, that’s right. He gets it.

Joe Nick was raised in Fort Worth, and then spent time Minnesota; once at the U of M, and  later he ran a hip record store, Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.  It was a real wild time, he said. That was a great job, because it really helped my music knowledge and maturity.” It was while working at the Fetus that he started getting recognition for his music writing.   I sent a review into Cream Magazine, two reviews on the blind, and they accepted them.

Homesick, Joe Nick wanted to go home to Texas, but to Austin — not Fort Worth again. I knew something was happening in Austin. I wanted to come here and write about the music scene. I knew Willie was here, and I had read an article in Rolling Stone about Doug Sahm at the Soap Creek Saloon, and they made it sound so cool. And this was the dawn of the era of rock journalism.  Moving to Austin then was a stroke of good timing, and timing is everything.   Joe Nick said he arrived in Austin a year after Willie had moved back from Tennessee, and he met Willie shortly after he arrived. 

After 30 years, I expect Joe Nick has enough information in his head to put out a book about Willie without a ton of research.  But Joe Nick didn’t take the easy route. He interviewed over 100 people in preparation for writing his book about Willie (which is almost 500 pages.) He did extensive research about the places Willie lived and worked, and looked into what was going on in those cities at the time Willie was there.

I got acquainted with Joe Nick, because of this blog, so I like to thank Willie for that connection. And when I made plans to go to Austin to see Willie in concert last weekend, I e-mailed Joe Nick, who lives in nearby Wimberley, and he kindly agreed to get together. And I have to say, sitting backstage at the BackYard in Austin, under an old, old tree, talking with Joe Nick about Willie Nelson, and looking forward to seeing Willie that night; it doesn’t get much better than that.


LL: Joe Nick, thank you so much for taking this time. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

JN: It’s nice to meet you, too, Linda.

LL: So, what did you do with the SXSW yesterday?

JN: I hosted a panel at the SXSW festival, and then I interviewed Mickey for SXSW Studio, which you can see [soon] at   It’s a 30-minute Interview with Mickey, and he did some demo-ing, and showed how he played his harmonicas, how he did his moves.

Then Mickey and I met up at MEtv. It was Mickey, Willie, Paula, and me, and Kevin Connor.  Kevin is the producer at MEtv. Kevin and I used to work together at KGSR, and Willie has always done stuff with him, graciously. So he showed up and we all sang Happy Birthday to Willie.

LL: Did you give a talk?

JN: I talked a little bit about the book. I told Willie that it was a real honor to do it. I said that I have spent my life getting to write about my three favorite subjects: Music, Texas and Texans: all rolled into one. It was really a joy to do that. And I thanked Willie for that.

And Kevin led everyone in singing happy birthday. Then Willie, and Paula and Mickey all played. It was short, but it was the typical mania. It just got crazy. Everyone was excited. It was the first time I’d seen Willie since I finished.

LL: Has he read your book?

JN: I sent him the first third, or fourth of it. That’s all — he hasn’t asked for more. I kind of figured — I don‘t know if he‘s going to read it or not. I don‘t think he really cares, as long as his name is spelled right. I really believe that. I think he knows what my intentions were. I’m sure he’ll hear about it and people will be talking about it and talking about bits and pieces.

LL: Your book comes up in Google, with your writing about Willie’s pot smoking as a young boy.

JN: That cracked me up. The National Enquirer and both contacted me. Celebstoner called me, and they knew all about Willie’s drug life as a young man, but they didn‘t know this. And the guy said, “Well, who told you?” And I said, “Willie did. We were talking about Fort Worth, and he said he‘d been smoking” So that’s the news peg. There’s all kind of other information in there, but that’s the news worthy part. I don’t know, what can I say?

LL: I read that you did a lot of interviews; who all did you talk to?

JN: Well it was over 100 people; I don’t know where to start. I interviewed all the band. I interviewed all the crew that have been in the crew since 1995, and people around him.

LL: When was your first interview with Willie?

JN: I arrived in Austin a year after Willie did. I had moved back here to write about music, and the Austin music scene. And I met Willie shortly after that. My first interview with him was in 1973.

But I knew about Willie from growing up in Forth Worth; Willie was part of my background. Like the song, ‘Hello Walls,’ the Faron Young version, was on the top 40 in Fort Worth. I used to listen to the country radio a little bit, and I also watched t.v. Willie was a very constant face on the Cowtown Jamboree from Panther Hall, Live from Panther Hall. Willie was playing almost once a month down there.

I take some time with a few of Willie’s albums in this book: The Liberty Sessions, his first single in Vancouver, and definitely, Live Country Music Concert, recorded at Panther Hall. That album, because it was a live album, it shows you just how outside the box Willie already was. People think he came here, he moved to Austin, let his hair grow, got weird. But the thing is, Willie was offbeat and unconventional, really going back to the ’50s. Willie’s style, his singing style was very different. He was a jazz singer, basically, who happened to be working in country music. And some recognized it, and some didn’t.

His was a sophisticated upbringing, in the sense that his grandparents raised Bobbie and him to do exactly what they are doing some 70 years later. If you just look at that aspect — this is just unique and off the charts in the history of American music! Period. Willie is the most important and significant Texan of the 20th or the 21st century. There is no more important person that personifies Texas and has had an impact than Willie. And it’s purely cultural, it’s not political. It’s not like, ˜Well, he didn’t bring in federal projects, like Lyndon Johnson. Or he wasn’t president like George Bush.  That’s not the point. He defines what Texans and Texas are. You can point to him, and he’s that.

Basically, his is a remarkable musical life. He has already told the story in his own voice. I can’t top that. But I can kind of fill in the blanks with what I discover, things that he didn’t regard as significant, but maybe someone like me would.

LL: Was any subject off limits to you?

JN: Uh-uh. Well, I self-policed myself. I’ve always known him to be an honest man and an open book. And so it was how far I wanted to go down certain paths. The smart ass thing I say is, I don’t know to this day if he has hemorroids or false teeth. And I don’t really want to know. That’s not the focus of my book. As someone who has written about music and written biographies, I wanted to focus on the musical part of Willie. That is the most remarkable part to me; the music is how everything else informs. So, yeah, you talk about marriage and divorce, and you hit on all these. But it’s basically how it informs what this guy’s doing, in the way that we that we know him, as a music maker.

It’s so trite, it’s almost stereotypical to say, “Well, it’s all about the music.” But in this case, it really is all about the music. If you look at it that way, this guy is a pretty pure musical artist. And the fact that he happens to be famous and a celebrity, that‘s all great. But I’m looking at him more like a guy, he’s one of a kind, we’ll never see anyone like him again. I feel privileged that I’ve gotten to watch this, and to be in the same city and in a similar scene. I believe that this gives me the perspective to make some judgments as a writer. And I don’t think I’m opinionated in the book.

LL: Did Willie know you were writing a book about him?

JN: Well, when I called people to talk to them, a lot of them would call Willie to check, ‘Is it okay to talk to this guy?’ In fact, when I saw Willie sitting in with Paula at the Saxon Pub, a little more than a year ago, I said to him. “Willie, I’ve been spending the last nine months obsessing about you.”

And Willie said, “I know. People keep calling, to ask if it’s okay to talk to you.” Then he paused and said, “I’m sure glad it’s you doing this.”

When I talked to Fred Foster, he said that he’d talked to Willie, and he told him that I’d never said a negative thing about him. And I said, really? And I thought, well, maybe I’ve said something critical about his music, or something.

But I’m not here to judge; the reader has to judge. Whatever you think; that’s your business. I don’t think I did too much shaping, as far as to say, it’s this, or It’s this. The best thing I do is put it all in context. So it’s all about place, because he couldn’t come from anywhere else but Texas. It’s about what Abbott was like; what the area in Arkansas was like, where his people came from. And Waco, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. Fort Worth twice, Fort Worth’s key! And this little known Portland/Vancouver place. He was big shit in Portland/Vancouver. He was a star. He kind of glosses it over. I went a little deeper about his time there, and there’s still some mysterious aspects that I haven’t solved. Or how it was when he went to Nashville. So it’s putting it all together.

I did a lot of detective work. I remember researching the weather on the day he first played the Armadillo, and how hot it was. And it was the day that the last troops had been pulled out of Viet Nam. And I wasn’t even thinking of that. It’s putting Willie in context. It’s like looking at Willie almost as if he were a static character, and looking at all these periods, what was around him..

He didn’t talk that much about that. He talked about what he is experiencing. And I can never pretend to experience what he experiences. I can’t get in his head that way. But I can put what’s around him in context, so maybe you can make some judgment about what it must have been like.

And one thing I found out, and Willie confirmed it, was he went , he left Houston and went to Nashville, and stopped in Meridian, Mississippi, and tried to work in the radio with Billy Gray.

I spent a lot of time trying to explain what it was like in Fort Worth in 1955, what the population was, what the club scene was like And I was able to find people who had worked with him at the radio station, in addition to Paul. People who were announcers at the station, saw him work, what they thought. about him.

I feel blessed that I got to talk with Oliver English, before he passed.  I talked to David Zettner six weeks before, but he was working on something at the time, and we never got to get together. And I was after Larry Trader. But the clock ran out.

All I can is, it’s one version. There are lot of people who are going to have there own versions. This is one.

I had a guy from the Fort Worth paper call me; I guess he’s reviewing the book. And he described himself as a Willie freak. We were talking about the Autobiography book. And he said,  “Yeah, no offense, but the most of those stories in there, I’d already heard. But there’s stuff in your book that I’d never heard.”  So I think I’m on the right track.

Joe Nick’s articles have appeared in many magazines, including Texas Monthly, (where he worked as staff writer for 18 years), No Depression, Rolling Stone, Harp, Spin, Country Music, and others. He has written many books, too, and you can learn more about his body of work at

You can pre-order a copy of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life now at for $27.00.

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