Rolling Stone Willie Nelson Interview Pt. II (7/13/78)

Rolling Stone
July 13, 1978
The Saga of Willie Nelson
Part II

When I met Willie Nelson, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him.  That picnic was a real oddity; a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun.  The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk.  The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons.  I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades.  I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson.  I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it.  We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while  He told me his history:  born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas,April 30, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents.  As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day.  At age ten, he started playing guitar with a polka band in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled.  He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed.  Did a stint in the Air Force.  Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music.  Dropped out.  Sold Blbles door-to-door.  Sold encyclopedias door-to-door.  Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side.  taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playng honkey-tonks.  Disc jockeyed all around the country.  Played every beer joint there was.  Taught guitar lessons.  Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars — “Family Bible” — and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.”  Traveled there  in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there.  Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract.  Other people had hits with his songs but his own recordiing career languished.  “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set.  “I’ll do all right.”

Indeed he did.  That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on.  Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm.  This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up.  It was the watershed in the progressive country movement.  Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kdis.  University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell.  Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence.  Two yers later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.”

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses — too many gate-crashers — but he was established.  Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of him to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time.  When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out.  I took off drivinig across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway.  But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate.  I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me.  Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key.  He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timig has been the key to his career.  Right place at the right time.  Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong.  His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar plaing is a startling mixuture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life.  “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Michael Raphel, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music.  But, thought it took years, Wllie Nelson managed to do it.

Vieweed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anoymous Everyman.  “Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans.

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