Willie Nelson on Guitar


Acoustic Guitar
September/October 1994
Willie Nelson on Guitar
by Roger Deitz

It’s nearly midnight on a Saturday in south Flroida, and the hot and steamy air hangs like a damp shroud around the legions of senior citizens who inhabit the retirement communities covering the Sunshine State’s lower third.  I’m standing in back of the Sunrise Musical Theater near Fort Lauderdale, outside a tour bus that’s been running all day and all night; perhaps continuously for an entire six-month concert tour.  The Honeysucke Rose II, a wine-colored country music caravan, idles in a parking lot amid an army of pickup trucks replete with chrome wheels, twin gun racks, and “Jesus Luvs Country” bumper stickers.  Emblazoned tastefully with a Native American astride a horse, with a red bandanna, cowboy hat, and six-gun from the Lone Star State, the bus creates some atmosphere of its own, a blue cloud of exhaust that engulfs the group of post-concert dignataries waiting not so patiently to meet and greet Willie Nelson.

I’m in Florida in September because Willie Nelson would rather not do interviews by telephone.  “Mr. Nelson doesn’t like the telephone,” says his publicist.  So I flew in from New Jersey, because my originally scheduled interview in New York City was cancelled in the press stampede that followed the release of Nelson’s remarkable album Across the Borderline, which rescued the artist from a period of relative obscurity and personal strife.  Before Borderline, Nelson hadn’t had a hit album in years, and the IRS had a hand in his pocket, but now things are turning around.  Willie Nelson is on the road again.  The enigmatic redheaded stranger, once more the darling of the media and the consumate artistic outlaw has scaled the elusive top of the charts.

On stage earlier tonight, Nelson picked, strummed and sang his way through what has always been one of the most generously entertaining live shows in all of country music.  Although the program has not been altered much over the years, it lavishes audiences with an impressive array of self-written hits and singularly interpreted, deftly played standards.  It’s boggling, this music career that transcends multitudes of fads and eras with first-class songwriting and crosses country and pop charts with an overwhelming array of hits.  Impressive, too, is the recording career that spans more than 60 albums, garnering countless industry awards and the adulation of millions of fans.

At about the point when most concert programs leave you with one or two encore numbers, Nelson kicks into a higher gear to deliver yet another half hour of show.  It is impossible to leave a Willie Nelson concert feeling shortchanged.

When the time comes to speak with Nelson, I am ushered onto the bus, into the climate-controlled cabin where Nelson, sporting a T-shirt, jeans, and braided hair, looks somewhat tired, yet remarkably fit for a 60-year-old who has just entertained flat-out for two nonstop hours.  Nelson is polite and soft-spoken, deliberate and careful with his answers; he makes every effort to be complete and honest.  There is an air of intelligence, consideration, and strong will about him that is papable and disarming, but spooky.  His eyes are darkish and soft, yet riveting.  He never gazes anywhere but at me, into my eyes.

Our conversation takes us from his childhood along a remarkable odyssey that spans (and creates) much of the history of country music, some more of which is about to be made three days hence when Nelson is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Willie Nelson debuted as a singer at the age of four in 1937 when he performed at a Methodist gospel picnic in his home town of Abbott, a small farming community in the Hill Country of central Texas.  Clad in a sailor suit, the red headed youth delivered his fqrst precocious, Quintessentially Willie Nelson lyric:

What are you looking at me for?
I ain’t got nothing to say.
If you don’t like the looks of me
You can look the other way.

From that point, he was one more Texas kid wrapped up in learning music, Nelson recalls, “My parents broke up, so my grandparents raised my sister and me.  When I was about five years old, they bought me a Sears and Roebuck guitar; a few years later I graduated to an electric guitar.  Both my grandparents played guitar, and there was all kinds of music everywhere around me.  The guitar was a natural place to end up.  Although I pretend to play other instruments, fool around some, I’m basically a guitarist.”

Nelson recalls Wednesday night gospel meetings at the Hill County courthouse, wherer his grandparents, both music teachers, would gather with other gospel singers residing in the area.  Hymnal in hand, young Nelson was “influenced by gospel music at the singings, and also by country and popular music…what was being played on the radio.”  To his ears, Frank Sinatra and Gene Autry seemed a natural blend.

“As far as my musical style,” Nelson continues, “I’m a product of a whole lot of radio and church and dance and cowboy music.  I even picked cotton for a time and was influenced by some of the blues music I heard being sung by the people I worked alongside in the fields.  Today, I am deeply interested in blues music.  I am listening to it a lot these days.”

….to be continued


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