Willie Nelson, ‘The Undisputed King of Country Music’ (Dallas Daily News, 9/17/1978)

by Pete Oppel
Dallas Daily News
Sept. 17, 1978

South Lake Tahoe, Nev. — The baby grand Steinway piano in Willie Nelson’s hotel suite is flanked by a window overlooking Nevada and a flight of stairs leading to a bedroom overlooking California.

Nelson, dressed in blue jeans, a blue T-shirt and blue tennis shoes is conferring with an officious looking gentleman in a conservative blue suit. Everything else in the room with the exception of the piano and six huge pillows in various shades of red, maroon and orange is geige or crystal — the sofa, the fireplace, the chairs, the thick carpet, the magazine rack, even the bar and the stereo system. Nelson’s conference is interrupted by a woman’s voice from the kitchen-dining area, located in the loft of the split-level suite.

“Dinner is served, Mr. Nelson,” the voice says.

Willie Nelson, the one-time door-to-door book salesman from Abbott, Texas, who has played every gin joint from Key West to the Puget Sound, has come a long way from the days of knocking about in Nashville and playing on the back of flatbed trucks for the opening of a Ford dealership in some one-horse town.  Nelson is in the middle of a 2-week engagement at the luxurious Harrah’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe, an engagement interrupted for ao one-night only performance at the White House.

Nelson rushes through his meal (one of the few times he rushes through anything) and walks back down into the living room.  He strolls around to the couch and sits.  He looks at the luxury that surrounds him and remembers those earlier days, shows in such unlavish places as Panther Hall in Fort Worth, or the Sportatorium in Dallas, where Nelson returns Wednesday night — exactly one week after his White House gig — for a show with Delbert McClintock and Ray Wylie Hubbard. 

“Harrah’s, Panther Hall, the Sportatorium, they’re all beer joints,” Nelson said, “apolstrey’s just a little bit better in some.”

People flocked to Harrah’s from all over the western United States to see Willie.  The once-maligned (by Nashville recording executives) singer is the toast of the town, the undisputed king of country music.   His infamous picnics made him a king in Texas, his recording of ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” made him a god in national country music circles.   Willie Nelson has reached the stage where he can take a non-country song like ‘Blue Eyes’ and convert it to a number one country single.   He is be sought as a major motion picture star and has three movies in the works, “The Songwriter,” a movie based on his album, “Red Headed Stranger,” and the ultimate measure of success, a project with the working title of, “The Willie Nelson Story.”

And what has nelson done to generate all this recent acclaim?    What has he done differently to change the way the country music establishment regards him during the past couple of years? 

The answer is absolutely nothing. 

“Our music is good and I think it took people a long time for anyone to hear it,” Nelson says.   “And the people who hears it, they like it, and they want to come see a show.  I haven’t changed.  I’m doing basically the same thing I’ve been doing all along.”

Willie was one of the first of the breedof country singers labeled “progressive country.”  There is really nothing progressive about Nelson’s style.  In fact, if anything, Nelson’s music is rooted in the simplistic patterns of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Roy Acuff. 

“I’ve never really left the old style,” he says.  “The term progressive country was applied to the appearance of the people who were playing the music and it really didn’t really have anything to do with the music itself.  When a guy had long hair, he played progessive country.  If he had short hair he played AM Top 40 Country.” 

The strange thing about the Willie Nelson success story is that it was the young people — the crowd with the musical diet of the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company — that first tuned into Willie Nelson and responded to his songs.

“The music has always been something that they always would have liked, had they been associated with it,” Nelson said,  “They just didn’t have any place to go and listen to it.  Then they found out they could go to the Armadillo (an Austin club) and hear good country music.  They’d been hungry for it all along.  They’d been hearing their parents play it while they were playing rock and roll, creating a separation there — there was a barrier between rock and roll and country for a long time because the parents liked country and the kids liked rock and roll.   So somewhere along the way there had to be an agreement of some kind.   And the kids made the concession, if there was a concession to be made, because they were listening to the same kind of music their parents were listening to.  I don’t know if they realized they were conceeding anything or not.”

Willie Nelson performs two shows a night at Harrah’s.  The audience at the 8:15 dinner show consist of the well-heeled, because Harrah’s Showcase is the place to be at Lake Tahoe.   The second show, which begins at midnight, draws the hard-core Nelson fanatics.  They whistle.  They stomp.  They cheer.  They shout.  They won’t let Willie leave the stage, forcing him back for seven encores.   And Willie gives them a show they will not soon forget.   The songs are the same, but Willie and the band play them with abandon.  An instrumental jam on Whiskey River (a song he sings three times for an estatic second-show audience) sounds more like the Allman Brother’s Band than hard-line country music.  But this is Willie Nelson. 

His version of “Georgia on My Mind” in these late night shows has an ending that redefines the term ‘country soul.’  His treatment of ‘Amazing Grace’ is pure enough to reform the gamblers who are tossing silver dollars into slot machines, onto crap tables, around roulette wheels and in the general direction of the black jack dealers not more than a couple hundred feet from the stage where Willie Nelson is singing. 

“Even so more in a place like this (a gambling casino), that song is enjoyed because it is so different than what they are hearing around them,” Nelson says.   And they can get in to a song like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ beecause they don’t expect to find it here.

“But most of the people here can afford to be here.  There’s nobody here that’s throwing away their rent money, I don’t think.”

Hopefully, the excitement of a Willie Nelson performance in this atmosphere will be captured on his next album.

“My next release is a live album,” Nelson says.  “The last time I was here I cut a live album.  The new album will be coming out in October.”  The album, a two-record set, will contain all of the familiar Nelson songs plus his version of Rodney Crowel’s ‘Til I Gain Control Again’, which he has recently included in his shows.  It will not incude any new Nelson compositions.

“I’ve got some new songs, ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Sun’, and ‘Is the Better Part Over’?  I want to get enough for a new album.  I want to have a whole album of new songs. 

Nelson says the picnics — those July 4th happenings that were either a musical extravaganza or Bataan with all the fun taken out of it, depending on your point of view — are not history.  “The status of the picnics is the same as it is every year after the picnic, I guess,” he says.  “No one knows what’s going to happen next year.” 

The 1978 picnic came during the Texxas World Music Festival at the Cotton Bowl.   

“The accommodations were great, the stage was fine, the sound was good, the shows were good, but I don’t think the atmosphere was a Fourth of July Picnic atmosphere,” Nelson says.  “It would have been a lot more uncomfortable out there in a pasture, somewhere, but personally I would have liked that more.  The Cotton Bowl would be a good place to do a show, in a cooler time of year.  And for the Fourth of July it would be better to have it outside where you have a breeze, a lake you can go swimming.   And I think people enjoy the fact that they are not that well controlled.  Everything is too easy in the Cotton Bowl.   I mean, you can go get a snow cone, a drink of water, or go to the bathroom.  That’ s not a picnic.  They’re supposed to be rougher than that. 

Willie Nelson is 45 years old and to many people around the country, who learned about Willie through “Blue Eyes’, an overnight success, “a real Cinderella story,” Willie says with a laugh.  Not only has he seen it all, he has played in every place he’s seen.   Now Willie has just about done it all.  He has gone from the very bottom to the very top.   Is there any reason to go any longer?   Has he every thought about getting out the rat race he’s sentenced himself to? 

“The thought comes up very often,” he says.  “But, I enjoy playing.   If I didn’t go out and play with my band on the road, I’d be out in some other joint somewhere with just me and my guitar with a bunch of guys I don’t even know, because I like to play.  And as long as I have my health and can travel around and do it, I’m going to do it.  And I’ll quit when I get tired of playing music.”

[Thanks again so much to Christine Majors (and her mother) for saving these clippings about Willie Nelson from the ’70’s, and sharing them with me, to share with you.  I admire anyone who can hold on to newspaper clippings for over 30 years.  I love reading these old interviews and articles.]

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