by lyle e davis
The first time I?ever saw Willie Nelson in a live concert was back in Omaha,
Nebraska, sometime in the mid to late 1950’s.
He had short hair, wore a black, or dark blue suit, white shirt and red standard
Quite a different image from today’s Willie Nelson.
He was part of a touring show. I don’t remember now if it was Elvis on tour, or some other touring show . . . I do
remember Sonny James was also on the had a big hit with “Young Love”).
Saw Willie again last Thursday night at the Del Mar Fair. Quite a change. No more short hair, no more suit and tie; well trimmed gray beard, long flowing
gray hair (no more braids), cowboy hat (later, a bandana) and he simply walked
on stage and jumped right into 'Whiskey River,'' a broken-hearted drinking song that has been Nelson's set starter for decades.
On April 30, Nelson turned 78.
No matter which song he sings, he still improvises new shades of meaning each
Back when I?first saw Willie, he was pretty much mainstreammusic. He was being
noticed, but not by a whole lot of people . . . or a whole lot of recording
That would change.
Willie has worked hard all his life. Not much has changed . . except, perhaps, his rate of pay.
He started working by the age of five, picking cotton in Abbott, Texas. When he was a toddler, his mother, a dancer, and his father, a musician, left
him and his older sister, Bobbie, who plays keyboards in his band, to be raised
by their grandparents.
The grandfather bought Nelson a guitar when he was six, and taught him a few
chords. With his sister Bobbie he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first
song when he was seven and played in a local band at age nine. During the
summer, like most of Abbott's inhabitants, the family picked cotton. As Nelson
didn't like picking cotton, starting at age thirteen and continuing through
high school, he earned money by singing in local dance halls, taverns, and
honky tonks. Nelson was influenced musically during his childhood by Hank
Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Django Reinhardt, Ray Price, and Hank
He played his first professional date at eight, and as an adult sold vacuum
cleaners door to door. In 1952, he married Martha Matthews. Seeking a stable
income, he took a job as a disc jockey at local radio stations in addition to
booking shows. He studied agriculture at Baylor University from 1954 to 1956.
In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington to begin his formal musical
career. His first record, "No Place For Me" was not successful. Nelson continued working as a radio announcer and singing
in Vancouver clubs. He sold the song "Family Bible" for $50 to a guitar instructor, and the song turned into a hit for Claude Gray
Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960, but no label signed him. Although most of his
demos were rejected, thanks to his songwriting and Hank Cochran's help, he
signed a publishing contract with Pamper Music. After Ray Price recorded
Nelson's "Night Life," Nelson joined Price's touring band as a bass player. While playing with Price
and the Cherokee Cowboys, Nelson's songs became hits for other artists,
including "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker), "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison), and, most famously, "Crazy" (Patsy Cline), which became the biggest jukebox hit of all time. He was gaining
recognition as a songwriter but despaired of becoming a singer. The fact that
he didn't sound like anyone else was not an advantage at the time.
"I never pretended to have a great voice," he says. "It works and I can carry a tune. If you have a good song, that's about all
Nelson knew he needed to be out front himself, presenting his music in his own
way, however unorthodox his voice and unconventional his look. Easier said than
done, given the Nashville assembly line of the era. Nelson began putting
together the tight-knit musical team that would stay intact for decades and
building a following on the road.
Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released several singles,
including "Willingly" and "Touch Me," a duet with his soon-to-be second wife, Shirley Collie. He recorded his first
album And Then I Wrote.
In 1965, Nelson moved to RCA Victor Records. The same year he joined the Grand Ole Opry and released a string of standard,
Nashville Sound-inspired country albums, mostly produced by Chet Atkins. He had a number of mid-level chart hits throughout the 1960s and early 1970s
before retiring and moving to Austin, Texas, in 1971. Austin's burgeoning
hippie music scene pulled Nelson back to music. His popularity in Austin soared
as he played his own brand of country music marked by rock and roll, jazz,
western swing, and folk influences. He called a kindred spirit, Waylon
Jennings, and told him
“something is going on down here.”
But it wasn’t until 1972, when the legendary producer Jerry Wexler signed him as the anchor
for a country division of Atlantic Records, that someone encouraged his
idiosyncratic, genre-bending sounds in the studio. And now things began to
Suddenly, the world caught up with Willie Nelson, and by sticking to his guns,
he now seemed visionary rather than stubborn. A hastily assembled compilation
of songs by like-minded artists was given the title “Wanted: The Outlaws” and became country’s first million-selling album. In 1978, “Stardust,” a magnificent collection of standards produced by the soul artist Booker T.
Jones, was an even bigger hit, and Nelson was a bona fide celebrity. Soon, he
was also a movie star, playing variations of himself in a string of films, from
“The Electric Horseman” to “Half-Baked.” His addiction to touring kept accelerating — the Oscar-nominated “On the Road Again” (which he called “the easiest song I ever wrote”) was more than just a theme song; it was a creed to live by.
“From the mid-1970's through the mid-80's, Willie was close to being the king of
country music, although his sound has always stood starkly apart from the
Nashville mainstream. For nearly two decades, he and his band, the Family, have
taken on the appearance of a band of musical gypsies who do what they do,
oblivious of pop fashion.
Ragtag and homemade, but soulful and spontaneous, their sound might best be
described simply as "Willie Nelson music." Organized around Mr. Nelson's vibrant acoustic guitar, which incorporates
elements of rockabilly, honky-tonk and Texan swing music while remaining
mindful of Tin Pan Alley and Nashville in its respect for the well-made song.” — Stephen Holden
Willie has become instantly recognizable, both by his distinctive voice, but
with his grizzled face, his long hair (no longer worn in braids) and his red, white and blue bandanna. .
His band, featuring his sister Bobbie Nelson's parlor piano and Mickey Raphael's
pillowy harmonica, plays quietly, nearly all on acoustic instruments, making
room for Mr. Nelson to tease and recalibrate the songs at whim. He tends to
group songs by genre, only to individualize them anyway.
He will often linger over the words, as he did to turn ''Always on My Mind'' into a vow of repentance.
He plays state fairs, minor-league ballparks and Las Vegas ballrooms. His voice
remains immediately identifiable, and virtually unchanged over 50 years. His
appeal is all but universal, as illustrated by his collaborations with everyone
from Ray Charles to Julio Iglesias to Kid Rock.
Not bad for a guy who’s also known as a pot-smoking, tax-dodging supporter of Dennis Kucinich.
Nelson, who is married to wife No. 4, may be most recognizable for, in earlier
years at least, his Pocahontas braids, but it's those eyes that start the trouble. Even now, at
78, they are perfectly almond shaped, deep brown and, well, just deep. Look
into them for too long and you may regret it. As one of his early wives did, no
doubt, that famous time she walked in on him in bed with another woman. Mr.
Nelson focused those soulful, sexy eyes on her and asked: "Are you gonna believe what you see? Or what I tell you?"
She chose the former..
Nelson's misfortune in love (or maybe just his greed) is the reason he can wail
his songs about heartbreak so well. Not to mention write them. When he went
home drunk and passed out cold for the thousandth time, his first wife sewed
him into the bedsheets "buck naked," as he likes to say, and piled his clothes and the kids into the car and left.
It makes you wonder whom he really wrote "Crazy" about.
But life can be funny for a crooning cowboy. While on the road he has to sing
his love songs to everyone but his wife, Anne Marie, back in Spicewood, Texas,
for whom they are meant. And being on the road again means living on his bus,
Honeysuckle Rose II.
His hair, once reddish-brown, has now turned gray, and finely sifted with gray, hangs loose down his back. And his face! It is
marked with so many creases, hollows and furrows it looks almost geological. He
sits quietly, watching, like a cornered animal that can't decide if he should
pounce, flee or purr.
Navy velvet curtains hang over the windows, and the dark brown paneling and dark
carpet seem to soak up light. "It's kind of like living in a submarine," Nelson acknowledges, showing a small smile. "But I'm happy on the bus. Home is where you're happy. It can be anywhere, out
there playing music, wherever I'm at. I refuse to stay where I'm not happy, and
if I can't change it, because of bad vibes or whatever, there's no reason to
"A lot of people get tired of the road," he continues. "But as much as I enjoy being at home with the toys I have there, I still need
to leave that and go play music. I have the best of two worlds, though it's
hard to balance them. They're both fragile. There's the desire to be where you
are plus the desire to go back where you were."
Money has been a loaded issue for Mr. Nelson since 1990, when the Internal
Revenue Service seized his house and all his assets for nonpayment of $16.7
million in taxes. What happened, he says, was that he owed $2 million in taxes,
and on advice of his accountants, Price Waterhouse, was told to borrow $12
million to invest in tax shelters so he wouldn't have to pay the $2 million.
The only problem, he says, was that, after the fact, the shelters were
But the story has ended happily. He settled out of court with Price Waterhouse
and paid back the Government. When his house was auctioned, a group of farmers
bought it for him, grateful for the singer's Farm Aid concerts, which have
raised $12 million, so now he has it back. "There's a lot of good people out there," Mr. Nelson says simply.
So, why bother touring, especially if his debts are paid? "Well, I don't know," he says. "I seem to be happier when I'm working. I tend to get into trouble with too much
time on my hands."
"Like you name it," he shoots back.
The writer, Joe Samuel Starnes describes just one shining moment in Willie’s career:
It was on the trampled grass of a cow pasture in Luckenbach, Texas, on July 4,
1998, the 25th anniversary of his first Fourth of July Picnic. Luckenbach,
little more than a flashing-caution-light crossroads settled down in the
Pedernales River Valley like an old fly-covered Hereford taking a nap, was both
the inspiration for and the title of his 1977 hit with Waylon Jennings that
gave us the timeless line: “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys.”
Each time he appeared, Willie tossed bandannas, cowboy hats and the occasional
sombrero into the swirl of college kids, aging hippies, faux cowboys and the
honest-to-goodness salt-of-the-earth locals who swayed and sweated to the music
and gulped cold, cold beer all the while.
A whole new atmosphere is created through Willie’s guitar and voice and the artful piano plunking of his “little sister, Bobbie” (who is actually two years older than he is). Her playing was rowdy and hymnlike
at the same time, and made me imagine a swinging-door cowboy saloon in the
1800s where everyone carried Colt .45 revolvers.
He capped the night with a wave, a humble smile, a sparkle in his eye and this
farewell: “Be careful driving home. There are a lot of crazy people out there, and we know
most of them personally.”
As a writer, Nelson has slowed down in recent years, though it's hard to blame
him. He says that between the mid-1950's and mid-1970's, he wrote about 2,000
"I went into the studio last week with my original band and a new songbook of
mine," he says. "We started on the first page, and in two days we did 11 segments. I want to do
that with all my songs, the way I hear them and feel them now. People wouldn't
know but one or two of 'em."
"There's a saying I could never decide was mine or Roger Miller's. I decided I'd
take credit for it: 'I didn't come here and I'm not leaving.' "
He has had seven children in all, yet he has traveled his entire life, leaving
home for vast stretches of time. His eldest son, Billy, who had been treated
for alcohol abuse, committed suicide three Christmases ago. Should he have done
"Well, you have all those guilts and regrets, but you can run yourself crazy," he says quietly. "You're not the same person now you were then, so why take responsibility for
something you didn't do?" When he lifts his eyes, the anguish in his face belies the slickness of the
A Typical Show:
In February of 1995, a writer, Alex Witchel, went on the road with Willie
Nelson. Here’s an excerpt from that report:
It's only 7 P.M. Rehearsal is over, and the show's not until 8. Willie heads
toward the bus. What's he going to do now? He smiles.
"I'm gonna roll me up a big joint and smoke it." Then he eats a plate of vegetables and settles back with some of the band to
watch videos of himself. The feeling is easy, relaxed. You would never know
that, a few yards away, thousands of people are growing restless.
At 8:10 P.M. he walks backstage and picks up his guitar with no noticeable
increase in energy. He keeps his world small, parking his living room just
outside and walking in here now to play. He could be anywhere. On the other
side of the curtain are howls and whoops as the lights go down.
When the curtain rises they launch into "Whisky River," their customary opening number. They're all so used to each other, they're like
fingers on a hand. They just stand and play, with no videos or special effects.
But when Nelson launches into "Always on My Mind" the yelling accelerates. "My favorite song!" a man screams from the balcony. As Mr. Nelson sings, his energy is intense. He's
not young, he's not pretty, he doesn't have a fancy headset or smoke machines.
He holds Trigger, his old, beaten guitar with a hole in it, and sings his
And when he says, "Good night, everybody," and the roar intensifies, they somehow find their way backstage, and they're
lining up outside near the bus, and everywhere he goes there are arms and hands
and people shouting, "Willie!"
And he talks to each of them, one at a time, in no particular rush now to climb
back on the bus and drive into the night. He'd like to stay awhile.
Way back in July of 1996, Neil Strauss said: Mr. Nelson may be one of music's most solid genre-jumpers, able to play almost
any type of music without going out of his way stylistically. He can be both an
outlaw and a traditionalist, a hippie and a redneck, an unrepentant sinner and
a good Christian. with devotional songs like "Amazing Grace" and "I Saw the Light.."
At one of his concerts, you will celebrate the life of one of our long-haired,
craggy-faced fathers - that of a living American legend, Willie Nelson.