Why Willie Nelson’s Still Cool, by Joe Nick Patoski (Texas Monthly, April 2003)

Why Willie’s Still Cool
by Joe Nick Patoski
A Texas Monthly Magazine Tribute to Willie!
April 2003

Ever since I was a kid, when his grinning visage first flickered at me over the black-and-white on Channel 11 live from Panther Hall, in Fort Worth, Willie Nelson has been a fixture in my life. I swear I heard him introducing 45’s when he was a disc jockey on KCNC-AM, my first exposure to country and western music. Like him, I saw the neon Stars and Stripes that once flew over the Tarrant County courthouse at night. Like him, I was moved by the blind couple who sold pencils in front of Leonards Department Store downtown (Willie paid tribute to them by writing “Pretty Paper,” the best Texas Christmas song ever).

Growing up in Texas back then, you couldn’t help but hear Faron Young’s recording of “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” jukebox staples that never went away; Willie wrote the lyrics of both songs. When I finally met him fact to face in the offices of KOKE-FM, in Austin, the station that revolutionized radio by playing a brand new mix of music called progressive country. I remember thinking that he was unlike any musician — any person, for that matter — I’d ever seen or heard.

Who’d have guessed that after all these records, picnics, scandals, and road miles later, he’d still be so much in his prime? At a time when his peers have either hightailed it to Branson or are being wheeled out onstage to show they’re still alive, Willie’s till Willie — on the road again, on the bus again, worthy of tribute songs and accolades and whatever else you can throw at him.

Which raises the question: What keeps him going? What makes Willie Willie, who turns seventy on April 30, more of an icon that ever? Everyone has his opinion. Willie surely has his own. Here’s mine.

He’s a family man. Four marriages and what can be charitably described as an unconventional lifestyle explain why a lot of people thing Willie and family values don’t go together.  They’re wrong. He’s the epitome of family. It’s not just that he’s a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather or that his sister plays piano in his band or that his eldest daughter goes out on the road with him and writes the band’s official Web site diary (www.willienelson.com).

 Not for nothing is his band called Willie Nelson and Family; they’ve stayed together longer than most blood relations. His steadfast followers are likewise called family. To them, he’s more than a star; he’s a combination of daddy, patron, sage, boss man, fearless leaders, beloved outlaw, and benevolent shepherd tending his flock.

He’s a uniter, not a divider. The original cosmic cowboy came to Austin and brought rednecks and freaks together, mainly because he’s a little of both (he was the first hippie I ever saw wearing a diamond pinkie ring). His audience today is the face of America, bringing together folks who’d never darken the same door — from baby boomers to yahoos, academics to convicts — and making them want to stay all night and a little longer.

He’s the Teflon Troubadour. From unpaid bar tabs and pistol down payments to high-dollar lawsuits and high-profile tax hassles, he has nimbly stepped around buckets of excrement without getting any on him in a manner unrivaled this side of Ronald Reagan. Think about it: In just ten years he seamlessly segued from IRS target to A-plus patriot, leading the likes of Tome Cruise and Julia Roberts in a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the nationally televised post-9/11 telethon.

He’s loyal. It works in the White House. It works in the Mafia. And it works in Willie’s world, where the operating rule of thumb is Darrell Royal’s “Dance with the one who brung ya.” Following the first Willie Nelson Picnic, in Dripping Springs, he severed ties with the hippie crew from the Armadillo World Headquarters who’d helped put on the show after hearing one of them complain about his pal’s toting firearms backstage. “If my friends aren’t good enough for you,” Willie told them, “then I’m not good enough for you either.”

He’s an activist without being overly political. He championed small, independent farmers by starting Farm Aid, a no-brainer fit of inspired populism that pays back the culture he was part of growing up in Abbott. On almost the opposite end of the spectrum, he has had a thirty-year relationship with NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), making a public service announcement here and there. And he’s even raised money to rebuild the fire-damaged Hill County courthouse in Hillsboro. yes, he lends his name to causes, bu the causes don’t define him: his Williness transcends all controversy.

He’s a jack-of-all-trades. No one slides in and out of so many musical skins. He’s country as all-get-out, but he’s also a folkie for the ages, a great gospel artist (look no further than Family bible and Healing Hands of Time), a connoisseur of pop standards (Stardust is one of the best-selling albums of all time), and an organic-rocker who can take a jam on on a trip farther out than even . The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead may have preceded him in their two-drummer setup, but only Willie Nelson’s band has sported two bass players as well. Reggae?  Been there (though the album has yet to be released). Sentimental schmultz? Done that (“On teh Sunny Side of the Street?) Dance times? Yes, thsoe were disco whistles you heard on a recent single, “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me).” He has sung credible duets with Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Little Joe, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt; B. B. King, Kid Rock, and Nora Jones.  Now that’s versatility.

He’s an extraordinary talent. He can jump from genre to genre so effortlessly because he’s so gifted musically — the greatest all-around Texas player born in the twentieth century. He writes songs that have   As a singer, he’s surpassed only by Sinatra.  He’s an American original, right up there with Hank, Miles, and Elvis.

He’s a crossover dream. unlike Mariah Carey and Madonna, he has managed to transition form music to movies (Honeysuckle Rose, Wag the Dog) and television (the edgy detective series Monk) without being ridiculed — mainly because he’s smart enough to play a version of himself, if not the real thing, and act naturally. What you see is what you get.

He’s Ours. Willie is Texas and Texas is Willie, pure and simple, no one represents the brand like he does. The spiritual descendant of Bob Willis, who blazed trails by welding together seemingly incompatible styles to invent western swing. Willie is responsible for birthing this think called Texas Music and taking Texas to the world. Bonus points for making red-bandanna headbands, braids and running shoe symbols of Texas culture.

He’s cool. He has lived a thousand lives and died a thousand deaths, having been wrongly written off more times than any other cat in showbiz. While he could be resting on laurels that include a discography ofmore than two hundred albums, he’s plahying 145 nights ayear, cranking out sets in excess of two hours, while on the side pitching booze (Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight Bourbon), financial services (Frost Bank), and blue jeans (the Gap) in television commercials and on a billboard overlooking Broadway.

Wilie and blue jeans? Could there be a more perect match? It isn’t so much that the was made for them as they were made for him. And you can’t get any cooler than that.

[Joe Nick Patoski is author “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,” among many other great documentaries on Texas music and history.  His latest is The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America”.]

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