No Depression Magazine Willie Nelson Article (9/04)

No Depression Magazine
September, October 2004
Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now
by Joe Nick Patoski
Part I

Luck, Texas isn’t as easy to find as it used to be.  Development has sprawled the entire 25 miles from downtown Austin to this idyllic little spot in the Hill Country near Lake Travis where Willie Nelson created his own universe more than two decades ago.  The old corner store that was once a landmark is now a bank.  The entrance gate is practically lost among the McMansions and ranchettes that have sprouted up.

This fact of life is not lost on the guy in the Willie Nelson T-shirt driving the mower over the fairway of  the Briarcliff Country Club.  After providing directions to a way word tourist, he wisecracks, “Welcome to Oak Hill,” referring to the suburb fifteen miles closer to the city.

Still, there’s enough acreage surrounding Luck that once you stumble onto the dirt main street, you realize Willie Nelson’s home base is safely in a zone of its own.  The cowboy town of faux buildings — including a feed store, barn, gunsmith, church, and bathhouse — hasn’t changed much since it was built for the film Red Headed Stranger in the early 1980’s.  Unchanged, but deteriorated to the point that Luck today looks less like an Old West movie set and more like a real 20th century small town in Texas that is drying up and blowing away.  Whatever it is, it is Willie’s World.  The rest of us are just visiting.

I had come for my last sit-down with Willie Hugh Nelson.  I’d been writing about him since I hit Austin in 1973, a year after he did.  I’ve spent the ensuing years listening, watching and observing him as he played shows on flatbed trucks, in drive-in movie theaters (with Paul Simon sitting in, no less), in amphitheaters, in performing arts halls, and at too many July Fourth Picnics to count.  Somewhere along the way, the television appearances, movie roles, and inductions to various halls of fame added up to Willie achieving some kind of sainthood, with just enough speed-crazed hustlers, soulful used-car salesmen, and honest-to-Sam-Houston characters to keep me engaged.

Like Austin, Willie too has changed along the way.  He came to the game as a songwriter.  Some say that particular skill fell by the wayside decades ago — that he’s sliding by on cruise control, that he hasn’t written a memorable song in years.  And yet, in the midst of all his albums of cover songs, tribute songs, collaborative affairs with high-profile buddies, television specials, and films, he’s still continued to write songs — including an antiwar protest number that briefly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy late last year.  Not to mention enough straight-ahead country tunes to justify a full-blown album that may be his best work in ages (It Always Will Be, due October 26 on Lost Highway).

But even if he hadn’t written a line in a quarter-century and decided to follow the path of Fats Domino – who once reasoned he didn’t need to write another song because he already had more than enough hits to perform in concert – Willie would justify a visit, just because he’s Willie.  After all, he personifies the outlaw movement that presaged alt-country.  He’s the one credited for putting Austin and Texas Music on the map.  He’s a pop culture icon, bandannas, pigtails, running shoes, and all, the one Texan more popular than George Bush.  He’s the gold standard for Texas marijuana.  If it’s Willie weed, i.d., pot fit for him, it’s top-of-the-line bud.  And he’s just mysterious and mystical enough to keep everyone guessing.  You never know what you’ll find when you’re in Luck.

 

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