Paul English and Willie Nelson


by Tom Netherland

Willie Nelson, an American legend, is on the road again. “I played my first show with Willie, and I’ll play my last show with Willie,” said Paul English, Nelson’s friend and drummer dating back to 1956. “There’s not enough Willies to go around. There’s only one, and that’s it.”

Time was when Willie Nelson played beer joints with such names as The County Dump and The Bloody Bucket.

“Willie Nelson is a legend on top of his game,” said Rob Halford, lead singer of legendary heavy metal band Judas Priest. “He’s a showman. He’s the man.”

Yeah, now. But Paul English, Nelson’s friend and drummer dating back to 1956, recalls their rough and rowdy decades before stardom quite well.

“Oh man, we played some pretty bad places,” English said on Monday by phone from Huntsville, Ala. “Those days are gone.”

Forty years of hits and highways later, Nelson’s road leads to Bristol, Tenn., and Viking Hall on Jan. 26. Expect a show loaded with classics, including “On the Road Again,” “Whiskey River” and “Always on My Mind.”

However, long before the Country Music Hall of Fame member became a legend, he slugged it out playing Texas’ beer joint circuit. Rough?

“We played behind chicken wire in those days,” Nelson said during a recent interview by phone from outside New York City. “I carried a pistol in the small of my back, on stage.”

Fitting in a way, given that when he was growing up in Abbott, Texas, Nelson’s heroes included a bevy of gun-toting singing cowboys.

“Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, all those guys, strong male characters,” Nelson said. “I really liked their way, especially the cowboys. The music had a lot to do with it, too.”

Fast forward to Nashville, circa late 1960s. Nelson had written a string of songs now recognized as classics. Faron Young hit with Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Patsy Cline struck gold with “Crazy.” Ray Price notched a dandy with “Night Life.” And so on.

“I wish I was as talented,” said blues legend B.B. King, who has recorded with Nelson along with several of his songs.

But Nelson, despite a contract with RCA Records and Chet Atkins as his producer, didn’t click with what Nashville wanted in those days. So he bought a farm and became a pig farmer. But he didn’t quit music, evidenced by the night he wrote “What More Can You Do to Me Now.”

“It was in Ridgetop, Tenn.,” Nelson said. “I wrote that the night before my house burned.”


“That got my attention,” Nelson said with a laugh and added that he saved one thing in particular. “My guitar was pretty important.”

Guitar in hand, Nelson moved back to Texas.

“We lived on a closed down dude ranch,” English said. “We were poor. We never thought about making it big. We just did what we wanted to do.”

Meanwhile, Nelson wrote a song about he and English and those chicken wire days, “Me and Paul.” Listen for it in Bristol, as it’s a staple in his shows.

“That’s my favorite song,” English said. “He went to New York to record it. Willie called me and sang ‘Me and Paul’ over the phone. That really made me proud.”

Nelson’s career took off in 1975 when his album “Red Headed Stranger” sold several million copies. Hits atop hits followed. One in particular means the world to B.B. King.

“My number-one song in the world that I like better than anything else is one of Willie’s songs, and it’s called ‘Always On My Mind,’ ” King said. “I’ve heard other people do it, but Willie Nelson’s version of that song really knocks me out.”

Nelson’s star soared to superstar status. As time went by, his appeal reached well beyond country music. Among his nearly 200 albums and thousands of songs recorded, Nelson has recorded with rock’s Aerosmith and U2, blues master B.B. King, pop’s Norah Jones, folk’s Bob Dylan and on and on.

For now there’s another show to play, this time in Bristol. Look for English, Nelson’s best friend, on the drums.

“I played my first show with Willie, and I’ll play my last show with Willie,” English said. “There’s not enough Willies to go around. There’s only one, and that’s it.”

So from Bristol and beyond, country music’s red-headed stranger travels on. See him while you can, an American legend who’s on the road again.

“I’ll see you down the road sometime,” Nelson said.

Who: Willie Nelson
When: Jan. 26, 2010 7:30 p.m.
Where: Viking Hall, 1100 Edgemont Ave., Bristol, Tenn.
Admission: $38-$58
Info: (423) 764-0188
Web and audio:

Leave a Reply