Willie Nelson, Goldmine Magazine, (1/6/1995)

Goldmine Magazine
January 6, 1995
Bill DeYoung
Part II

Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees).  Nelson was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson.  Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Nelson’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.

Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player and loved to play and sing music.  He encouraged the same in his children:  Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two.  Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a card-board-box piano.

Mother Myrtle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrabbler, a free spirit and a fun-lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.

Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents.  William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson.  Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice a Methodist.

But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail-order degrees, and they filled their two-story house in Abbott with song:  Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.

Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (When she got a real one) night and day.  The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible.  Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six.  He gave the boy a chord book which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.

Willie had made his first public appearance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing-along and picnic.  He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white-and-red sailor suit.  Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.

Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age seven, begain writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar.  In those days, because of his flame-red hair, his nickname was Bugger Red.

Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather:  The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house).  His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Fort Worth.

“I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled.  “Because it was new in the house.  There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it.  The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry.  That was a regular.  And everything else.  I turned the dial.

“I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really.  A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley.  And Glenn Miller and those guys.”

Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and to what Nelson would later describe as a “Shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields.  Nelson’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.

Cotton picking is back-breaking, hand shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him.  Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep some where out of the brutal Texas sun.

He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues.  Their regular Methodist Church visits filled Willie and Bobbie with gospel music and Christian hymns.

The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial-shopped ceaselessly, soakikng up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Big Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.  He leraned to love lyrics and melody.

Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart.  Although Bob WIlls and Texas swing were ominipresent on the texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO, in Waco, for Hank’ Thompson’s Hillbilly show.  He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams, too.  Floyd Tillson was a big favorite. 

…to be continued

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