Funny How Time Slips Away
by Bill DeYoung
Well, hello there
My it’s been a long, long time
With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna (both trademarks of his for many years), he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.
How’m I doing?
Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine
There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre–jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tip–toe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.
It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.
It’s been so long now
And it seems that it was only yesterday
For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show–business.
And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Nelson never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, usuing the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville—and the world—was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.
When he and success found themselves at last running neck–and–neck on the same horse track, Nelson made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight–ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.
Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away?
Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”
Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.
Nelson is the original Zen cowboy—no one knows him can recall any show of temper, ever—and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”
Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid–back before people knew what laid–back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”
The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”
Patience, as a virtue was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.
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 cardboard–box piano.
Mother Merle, 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 go 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 performance 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, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame–red hair, his nickname was Booger 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 Forth 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 into 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 somewhere 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, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned 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 omnipresent 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 Tillman was a big favorite.
Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off–meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.
“My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early. And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”
But Nelson’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who first showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.
“Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills and probably other people that I don’t even know.”
Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.
“It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be , but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there…I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”
While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15–member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and horn section.
He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand–printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.
Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with the 13–year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Nelson thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.
That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.
Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs. I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”
Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Nelson’s musical education.
“My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30’s and ’20’s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”
It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact—still a crony of Nelson’s today—who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start–up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).
Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16–year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.
Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).
In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign–on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’, hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.
“He was a Fort Worth pimp and part–time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up.
“So we had Paul sit over there and we put a pair of brushes in his hand. That was the first time he ever played drums—he played trombone, or sax or something in the Salvation Army. But the first time he played drums was on the radio with me and Oliver.”
Nelson played songs for children at one o’clock in the afternoon, sort of a “naptime show”; one of his favorite records was “The Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. Nelson was also writing feverishly.
It was in Fort Worth in 1954, too, that Willie Nelson was first introduced to marijuana, a substance he has rarely been without in the intervening years. It has been sanding off his rough edges for four decades now.
In 1956, after relocating briefly to San Diego, the Nelson family moved in with Mother Myrle, who’d remarried (twice) and had settled in Vancouver, Washington. Old radio hand Nelson talked himself into a jock job on KVAN, and within a month his 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily program was the second most popular show in town (Arthur Godfrey was first). His air name was Wee Willie Nelson.
Mae Boren Axton, who’d co–written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, visited Vancouver while working as advance publicity flak for singer Hank Snow (managed by Axton’s boss, Colonel Tom Parker, who was by then getting busy with Elvis Presley). Nelson, never one to miss an opportunity, corralled her into the production room and played her a tape of some songs he’d written. Axton’s advice: If you got something to sell, go where the store is. Get the hell out of the Pacific Northwest and move to Nashville.
Instead, Nelson dragged his electric guitar and amplifier into a converted garage in nearby Portland, Oregon, and crudely recorded two songs: his won “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack,” a tune written by his pal Leon Payne. The echo–laden tapes were sent off to Starday Records in Nashville, where 500 singles were pressed (on “Willie Nelson Records”); Starday’s Pappy Dailey declined to pick up the artist’s publishing, which was his company’s option in the contract.
Wee Willie sold the singles on his radio show; for $1 you received the record and an autographed photo of W. Nelson, writer, producer and record tycoon. He sold out of the first pressing, and eventually his fans bought 3,000 records. (Both sides of the single appear on the QVC/Rhino package The Classic Unreleased Collection.)
Nelson wasn’t ready to try Nashville yet, but the bug had bitten him. Making enough money to support his family was his top priority, and when his program out–performed Arthur Godfrey in the local ratings, he demanded a raise and was promptly dismissed.
So after two years in Vancouver he packed up Martha and the kids (daughter Susie was born in Washington in January 1957) and went back to Texas. For a while, he was determined to quit the music business and be a serious and hard–workin’ daddy, but his restlessness and drive wore him down. In Fort Worth, living with Ira and his new family again, the Nelsons tried to be a normal family, living normal hours. Nelson sold vacuum cleaners, Bibles and encyclopedias door to door, and even taught Sunday school for a while, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When the pastor learned that Mr. Nelson, respectable bible–thumper and tutor to the local children in the ways of the Lord, was often coming in on Sunday after a night singing and picking in honky–tonks and “buckets of blood,” Nelson was dismissed from Sunday school.
Disgusted by the hypocrisy of it all (“I ran into a lot of the same faces Saturday and Sunday,” he’d later write), Nelson left the Christian church for good. It was at this time, he wrote, that he started reading about other religious beliefs and eventually came face to face with what, for him, would rad like God’s own truth: the laws of Karma and reincarnation. These beliefs helped him through some mighty rough times.
Looking for more honky tonks to conquer, Nelson brought his brood south to Houston, a rough–and–tumble town in 1958 (son Billy came in May). Perpetually broke, he held down three jobs: He played six nights a week with Larry Butler’s band at Houston’s roomy Esquire Ballroom, spun records Sunday mornings on KCRT, and taught guitar at mandolinist Paul Buskirk’s School of Music (although, he says, most of his students seemed to know he was faking it). Buskirk remains a friend and ally; his presence is felt throughout 1993’s Moonlight Becomes You.
Nelson settled his family in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb. It was during the 30–minute drive from Pasadena to the Esquire Club one night that Nelson plucked the opening lines to “Night Life” out of the air: “When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hangin’ round…” He rarely wrote anything down, figuring that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, it wasn’t good.
Meanwhile, Starday Records owner Pappy Dailey signed Nelson to his fledgling D Records, and his first “official” single on Nelson, “What A Way To Live,” but he and Dailey had a falling out over “Night Life,” Nelson knew it was a hit in waiting, but Dailey thought it was a blues song, not a country song, and wouldn’t let him cut it.
So Nelson recorded “Night Life” on a small Houston label, Rx Records, and to avoid a legal hassle with Dailey, he had the artist listed as “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, Featuring Hugh Nelson.”
“The musicians on there were jazz and blues musicians,” Nelson said. “Herbie Remington, the steel guitar player, was a fantastic musician who could play anything. He was one of the original steel guitar players with Bob Wills.
To finance the session, Nelson had sold “Night Life” to Buskirk for $150; earlier, Buskirk had purchased Nelson’s song “Family Bible” for $50. He said that in those days, he figured songs were like paintings; you finished one, sold it and painted another one. He has never earned a cent from “Family Bible,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buskirk’s partner Claude Gray in 1960 (on D Records, of course), or from “Night Life,” which became Ray Price’s signature tune in 1963 and has been recorded by more than 70 artists, including Nelson himself (the latest version is on his 1994 Healing Hands Of Time album).
In 1960, encouraged by his meager songwriting success, he finally took Mae Axton’s advice and pointed himself toward Nashville in his beat–to–hell 1950 Buick; after dropping Martha and the kids at her folks’ place in Waco, he hit the highway to Music City. The car collapsed and died like a tired horse the moment he arrived in downtown Nashville.
Nelson made fast friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the watering hole just across the alley from the Opry, where the songwriters hung out and drank and bragged and schmoozed. Nelson fell in with Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis and, fortuitously, Hank Cochran. The composer (with Howard) of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Cochran had connections; when his new friend Nelson began to turn up at “guitar pullings” (late night boozing parties where writers tried out their new stuff) the tide started to turn for Nelson.
He moved Martha and the children up from Waco, and the family took a cheap trailer at Dunn’s Trailer Court, coincidentally, the very mobile home that both Cochran and Miller had inhabited when they had first arrived. Miller, in fact, used the entrance sign at Dunn’s—”Trailers for Sale or Rent”—as the opening image for his 1965 classic “King Of The Road.”
In 1960, though, Cochran was the only one of the bunch to have achieved any success. So impressed was he by Nelson’s songwriting that he waved off a $50 per week raise from his publisher, Pamper Music, and suggested they use it instead to hire Willie Nelson.
When Nelson learned about this good fortune, he cried. Martha cried. The kids cried. Cochran cried. At last, Nelson was a songwriter, making a living—well, making something—with his relentless creative drive. Martha went to work as a waitress and barmaid, paying the bills, while Nelson pursued his dream. The marriage was, however, unraveling, as Nelson was pulled, and eventually pulled himself, farther away from family duties. He and his wife were both hotheads, he recalled later.
He recorded dozens of songs as demos, the same way its done in Nashville today, and shopped them to country artists (most of the so–called “Pamper demos” were issued amid lots of compilations in the 1970s).
Things began to turn around in 1961. First Faron Young, one of the Tootsie’s crowd and a consistent hitmaker since the 1950’s, cut Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Backed by another Nelson number, “Congratulations,” the single stayed at number one for nine weeks. Nelson received his first big royalty check for $20,000, and French–kissed Faron in front of all their cronies at the bar at Tootsie’s.
Two more smashes followed, in October and November, respectively. “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a smash by Texan Billy Walker (an old friend who’d also cut Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man” to considerably less success), and “Crazy” became a big hit for Patsy Cline. He wrote them in the same week.
He never seemed to be out of songs. “I just think if you’re a songwriter, if that’s what you do, it’s just kind of like if you’re a farmer,” Nelson said. “You have a natural talent for plowing a field. I’m a songwriter. It’s supposed to be easy for me, and it is.
“I can write a song about anything, at any time. Now, whether it’s worth a damn or not is debatable. But to any professional songwriter, you should be able to say, “All right, write me a song about running around naked,” and he should be able to do it.”
The songwriting royalties were startin’ to look fine, but Nelson still desperately wanted to be a performer. Around this time, he took a job, playing bass in Ray Price’s road band, the Cherokee Cowboys (replacing Donnie Young, who would soon change his name to Johnny Paycheck). He so enjoyed life on the road that he spent more and more time away from home, even when he wasn’t working. With his big royalty checks, he’d often spring for a suite at whatever Holiday Inn they were staying in, so the band could party.
In the fall of 1961, Hank Cochran unwittingly got Nelson his first record deal. While on a song–selling mission to Liberty Records head Joe Allison, Cochran played a few of the demos Nelson had recorded for Pamper.
Allison fell for Willie Nelson’s songs, and for his unusually expressive voice. “For years, nobody would record him because they thought he sung funny,” Allison would later recall. “We finally decided that the best approach would just be to play rhythm behind him and stay the hell out of the way.”
That was pretty much the blueprint for …And Then I Wrote, the first Willie Nelson album, issued on Liberty Records in September 1962. Performed with a small, bass–piano–drums–guitar combo and little else to fog Nelson’s Texas baritone, the album is a classic honky tonk weeper. Here are the earliest versions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls,” plus textbook barroom bawlers like “Undo The Right” (co–written by Cochran), “The Part Where I Cry” and “Three Days.”
There’s also the utterly strange “Where My House Lives” and the darkly beautiful “Darkness on the Face Of The Earth.” All in all, depressing songs about unhappy relationships.
“Most of the songs that I write pretty much reflect where I’m at at the time,” he reflected. “And those were some pretty sad and hectic times in my life. I guess that’s why I was born a songwriter, so I could write about ’em.”
Of course, the album wasn’t a hit. It’s likely that the world wasn’t ready for Willie Nelson yet. Today, Nelson wonders what his life would be like if his early records had made him a star. “I’d be burned out by now,” he believed. “I’d be dead somewhere. It’s occurred to me several times. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to. I don’t think I would’ve known what to do with success—I still don’t know what to do with it! I might be one of those guys that’s settled down in Branson and decided that’s where they want to spend the rest of their life. If I’d had some hits early, when I was 25 years old, I might’ve been tired of the whole damn thing.”
The best thing to come out of …And Then I Wrote, to Nelson’s mind, was his relationship with the great country guitar player Grady Martin. Martin was the session leader for the Nashville part of …And Then I Wrote (several of the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with Leon Russell supervising) and the two developed an easy rapport that would last. Martin played guitar in Nelson’s band for nearly 20 years and finally retired, over Nelson’s protests in 1993.
…And Then I Wrote was the most satisfying album Willie Nelson would release until Yesterday’s Wine nine years later; with each subsequent set, with each new producer, his vocals would become a little less essential to the mix. Starting with 1963’s Here’s Willie Nelson, his producers would try to fit him into the mold of a Nashville record–maker.
But he didn’t fit; he never would. And try as they might, nobody could make a star out of Willie Nelson until they changed the mold to fit him.
His first chart single, a duet with singer Shirley Collie, Hank Cochran’s “Willingly,” was released in December 1961. Collie, a world–class yodeler and harmony singer, was a member of Red Foley’s Phillip Morris road show. By the time “Willingly” had made it to #10 in March, Nelson was romantically involved with Collie, married to a California disc jockey who’d helped Nelson’s career. His solo single “Touch Me” went to #7 in May, but Willie Nelson wouldn’t crack the Top 10 again until he returned with long hair, a beard and a cowboy hat 13 years later.
Here’s Willie Nelson appeared in 1963, and sank without a trace, and a third album though recorded, was never released (all of Nelson’s Liberty tracks are collected on the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings). He left the label for what he hoped would be greener pastures.
By the time Ray Price had cut “Night Life” in 1963, Nelson was deeply in love with Shirley Colley; he once described her as the best harmony singer he’d ever worked with (listen to the duo’s snazzy, jazzy versions of “Columbus Stockade Blues”—three of them—on the Early Years). Martha divorced him in 1963 and took the kids out west; after Shirley’s divorce from Biff Colley, she and Nelson were married. They bought a 200–acre hog farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville (while they were signing the papers, they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas).
Nelson wrote the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which became a Top 20 it for Roy Orbison, and briefly recorded for Orbison’s label, Monument (one single was released, and the other tracks originally consigned to the Monument shelves were issued during the Williefest that was the ’70s; the most complete collection being the Singer/Songwriter album, with unrelated Eddie Rabbitt tracks sharing the vinyl.
Suffering from the serious bouts of depression and self–doubt that would plague him for many years, Nelson quit the performing business for a few months in 1964 to write songs and raise hogs at Ridgetop. The British Invasion was making short work of most other styles of music at the time, anyway, and country music was adding strings and big arrangement to compensate (this was the beginning of ‘countrypolitan’ music, the so–called “Nashville Sound”).
Bored with the hog farmer bit, Nelson “came back” with a vengeance in November, ironically signing with RCA Victor, where the Nashville Sound blueprints were being drawn. But vocal arranger Anita Kerr was a fan, as was A&R head Chet Atkins, and they believed Nelson’s stellar songwriting talent would override his unorthodox singling style. With some strings here and chorus there, he could be a huge country star yet. Nelson joined the Grand Ole Opry the same month.
In Nashville, he joined the cast of Ernest Tubb’s syndicated TV show as co–host. “It was a lot of fun,” Nelson recalled. “That was back when Jack Greene was playing drums in the Ernest Tubb show. Cal Smith was playing guitar, and Wade Ray was playing fiddle with me. That was the good ol’ days.”
Nelson was thrilled to be singing and playing alongside his boyhood hero. “I helped him host a little bit along, but he was the master of ceremonies,” he remembered. “He let me be the co–host because he wanted to help boost my career, I guess.”
But the powers that were at RCA were wrong; in six years and 18 albums, Nelson had never had even a minor hit with the label. Producers Atkins and Felton Jarvis tried every trick in the book—they laid on the strings, they laid off the strings, they put on steel guitars and fiddles, they put on horns, they let Nelson just play his acoustic guitar. But he resented, like so many others, having to use the antiseptic RCA studios and the dispassionate RCA session musicians.
There were some good songs—he was really cranking ’em out by now—but the recordings were…well, they were kind of boring. “I really did get frustrated in those years,” he said, “because I was writing what I felt were good songs. Each time you put out an album that you didn’t feel had a chance, there’s 10 of your children that you feel like didn’t get a fair shot. On the other hand, I also knew that if these songs were as good as I thought they were, they’d always be good and eventually I’d be able to do them again, some way.
“When I first went to Nashville, I wanted to go in with me and my guitar and do some things. Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and I, just the three of us, we did some a few years later. I was so intimidated being in the studio with those two guys that I couldn’t find my ass with a search warrant.”
Many of Nelson’s RCA records were doomed by his performance style, too, which had become a kind of bleating monotone. He hadn’t yet found the intimate and even tender singing voice he would use on Red Headed Stranger and everything that followed.
Although there were many, many good songs, and they weren’t all overproduced (check out Nelson’s hipster takes on “Fire And Rain” and “Both Sides Now” on the 1970 Both Sides Now LP) they were nearly all overpowering, without any subtlety at all. As if he were trying too hard. (Compare Nelson’s honking 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the calm, measured reading on 1979’s Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson).
“I knew they didn’t sound like I wanted them to sound,” Nelson said. “There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the authority to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do it this way.’ I decided maybe I’m makin’ demos, but if I am, they’re pretty expensive and I’m not paying for ’em.”
In 1965, Nelson and his band were performing at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix; Waylon Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s Lounge down the street. Jennings went over to check out the traveling Texan, and a lifelong friendship was born.
“I love his writing,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that between him and Roger Miller, it would be a toss–up. Willie has written more of a wider range of country songs. But Willie is basically the greatest country songwriter that’s ever been, I think.”
He was selling records in Texas and surrounding areas, where his live act was drawing crowds, but everywhere else Willie Nelson was a washout. Nashville just didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t feel right with Nashville, either. “Just because he had on a suit and tie, or a turtleneck, didn’t mean that’s what was going on inside his head,” offered Ray Benson. “He could have been a beatnik. You have to get into the nuance of the time. If you really look close at it, you’ll see that he was really different. And he always knew that.
“He was trying to fit in, but only superficially. Because the music was so different, really—his version of ‘San Antonio Rose,’ for example, that’s almost jazz music. That’s also in the great tradition of Ernest Tubb, though. His band did stuff like that all the time. Willie’s musicality was probably what set him apart. The facts are, when you hit Nashville back in them days, there were two kinds of players; the people who played hot, and the people who played commercial. And that was the word they used, ‘commercial.’ Hank Garland, one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, also played on all of the Top 40 country western records of the time. And played commercial.”
At Ridgetop, Lana, Susie and Billy came to live with Willie and Shirley. Martha never did give her ex–husband legal custody, but she was getting re–married, again, and had better things to do. Eventually, she and her third spouse, Mickey Scott (an old flame from Waco) moved in just down the road from Willie, Shirley and the kids.
Ira, Willie’s dad, and his new wife Lorraine moved onto Nelson’s farm, as did sister Bobbie, her third husband and her three kids. When Lana married, she and her husband stayed in the area. Mother Myrle and her husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to a house five miles away. Musicians Wade Ray and Paul English—they played fiddle and drums with Nelson—moved onto the farm with their wives too.
Even though he wasn’t selling records, Nelson was bringing in close to $100,000 a year in songwriting royalties. He still wanted desperately to be a star, and in the mid–’60s bought his first bus. He and the band began to hit the road nationally, for a month at a stretch.
Things at Ridgetop were strained, with Nelson on the road all the time, and Shirley increasingly resentful, holding the reins on the kids, the hogs and a whole brood of transplanted Texans practically by herself. Daughter Susie began to rebel, staying out all night and abusing drugs; Billy apparently never got over his parents’ divorce and resented Shirley for years.
One afternoon in November 1969, Shirley opened up a piece of mail with a Houston postmark, and proceeded to read a hospital paternity bill. Willie and Connie Nelson, “Mr.. and Mrs.,” had become the parents of a baby girl, Paula Carlene on Oct. 27. Mr. Nelson had put the Ridgetop address on the registration forms.
Nelson had been introduced to Connie Koepke at a club in a Texas town called Cut ‘n Shoot, just outside of Houston. She was more than just another conquest of the road, of which there were many by this time. Nelson’s marriage to Shirley was coming apart; he was hard–drinking and unhappy again.
Shirley moved out shortly after the arrival of the errant hospital bill; by Christmas, Connie was living at the house with the baby Paula Carlene, Susie and Billie. Susie thought Connie, 27 was all right, but Billy never spoke to her. Willie and Shirley wouldn’t speak to one another for 10 years.
In the basement at Ridgetop, Nelson had rigged a crude recording studio where he, Cochran and the rest of the songwriting gang would play cards, get drunk and lay down new tunes. A week before Christmas, Nelson and Cochran wrote a song called “What Can You Do To Me Now?”
Nelson was at a party in Nashville on Dec. 23 when someone called to say his house was on fire; Connie and the baby were home, but had escaped unharmed. He hurried home and dashed through the smoldering ruin, kicking through the ashes until he found an old guitar case stuffed with two pounds of top–notch Columbian marijuana.
A friend helped the Nelson’s find suitable quarters while they started looking for a place to live while their home was being rebuilt. Since most of Nelson’s performance dates were in Texas, and Texans loved him, they started looking down there. Eventually they settled on a place called the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country.
Happy Valley was closed for the winter, and so they had the place all to themselves. Nelson’s “family” was expanding even further, and several of his band members and their immediates made the move with him. Thus, the Bandera property became something like a commune, with each family encamped in a different clapboard guesthouse. Willie and Connie took the ranch foreman’s quarters.
It was here at Happy Valley, among the hills, cedar trees and verdant fields of wildflowers, that Nelson began to wonder whether he really wanted to live in Nashville after all. His lifestyle was loose, organic, so unlike the way country music performers were supposed to behave. He hated the studio system, hated his record company, hated the fact that after 10 years of hitting the road hard, the only place he could draw any sort of a crowd was around Texas.
Nelson recalled, “I was ready to move somewhere anyway, and it just seemed like when the house burned I didn’t have any excuses anymore. If I’m gonna look for a new house, I might as well look for one back in Texas, because that’s really where I felt I ought to go.
“First of all, I needed to go somewhere I could take my band and play, and I knew I could do it in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I didn’t have to travel very far that way, and I figured, ‘If this is my retirement, I’m gonna enjoy it and be somewhere I want to be.’
“I think I reached a point where I just said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not working. I’m ruining my health, running around all over the world trying to do something that just ain’t working.’ I was still getting songs cut, so I was making an income that way, so I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And when the house burned I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”
In Bandera, Nelson began to meditate. He read Kahlil Gibran, the poet, and the philosophical works of Edgar Cayce, the prophet of reincarnation. He also began playing golf religiously (Happy Valley had its own nine–hole golf course).
In 1971, he released Yesterday’s Wine, a brilliant country music album, brimming with the mortal court and mystical spark that would ignite Red Headed Stranger (still four years away), but just as gut–wrenching and emotional as his early songs for Liberty.
It’s a concept album, the first of four Nelson would make, telling the story of a man watching his own funeral and reviewing his life. The new songs on Yesterday’s Wine were written in Bandera, where he and his cohorts had settled into a hippie–esque, hedonistic way of life. There were drugs, and drink, and many days spent navel–gazing and nature–communing under the influence of some chemical or other.
The are the spoken opening lines of Yesterday’s Wine:
Voice 1: You do know why you’re here?
Voice 2 (Willie): Yes. There is great confusion on eearh, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already, and his voice was heard; the voice of imperfect man must now be manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.
Voice 1: Yes, the time is April, and therefore you, a Taurus must go. To be born under the same sign twice adds strength, and this strength, combined with wisdom and love, is the key.
With an intro like that, how could Nashville like this album?
“It was just one of those ideas,” Nelson said recently. “I’d heard of concept albums before, and I just thought, ‘Well, I can do that.”
Along with the title song and good old “Family Bible,” Yesterday’s Wine includes “Let Me Be A Man,” “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and “Me and Paul,” Nelson’s humorous song about the trials and tribulations of life on the road with drummer and closest pal Paul English (really close, because he lived at Happy Valley too).
Most importantly, the album introduced a “new” Willie Nelson and Band sound: stripped down, spartan instrumentation and quiet vocals, like a gang of spiritual cowboys around a campfire.
Except Cowboy Willie seemed to be trying to sing with the stilted phrasing of every other erstwhile Nashville star. The combination was lethal; Yesterday’s Wine was too weird, and predictably, it stiffed. He wasn’t ready yet.
The Ridgetop house was rebuilt in 1971, and everyone schlepped back to Tennessee. Willie and RCA reached an impasse over Yesterday’s Wine (he thought they didn’t promote it, which they didn’t, and they accused him of being counter–commercial, which he was). After a few contractual obligations were worked out, Willie Nelson was a free agent.
He met Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler at a guitar–pulling. Sitting on a stool in the wee hours, his old Martin N–20 gut–string guitar in hand, Nelson sang an entirely new concept album he planned to call Phases And Stages. The story of a painful divorce was told from both sides. Phases And Stages introduced a couple of songs that would become Nelson classics: “Bloody Mary Morning,” “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “Sister’s Coming Home.” It was to be a bold stroke.
Wexler told the singer he was starting an Atlantic country division, and since his deal with RCA was just about up, would he like to be the flagship artist? Nelson said yes, if he was given artistic control of the project. He was making just enough money to be cocky about it. Wexler agreed.
The first thing Atlantic did was fly Nelson and his band to New York, to record there (for their very first time) with Arif Mardin. The Shotgun Willie album sessions, featuring a crack horn section and guest pickers Leon Russell, Doug Sahm and David Bromberg, were attended by Rollling Stone magazine.
Phases And Stages finally arrived a year later, as quiet and reflective as Shotgun Willie had been drunk and electric. “Bloody Mary Morning” was a Top 20 hit, and Phases And Stages became Nelson’s best–selling album to date (numerous rave reviews certainly didn’t hurt). The “alternative” press was calling him cool, and it looked like he was on his way.
But the sales figures still weren’t all that great, and when Atlantic decide to shut down its Nashville operation, Phases And Stages died a quick (and painful) commercial death.
By that time Nelson had already retreated back to Texas and its comfortable beer joint stages, where he was a familiar and welcome figure.
“I could be happy doing that, because I had worked clubs down in Texas all my life, and I knew all the club owners around there,” he explains. “There was a pretty good circuit of clubs in Texas, and you could work every day and not work the same one.”
Since almost all the gigs were in Texas, why not just move there permanently? Nashville just flat wasn’t happening. With the Atlantic debacle ringing in his ears, and with Happy Valley memories still strong, Nelson shifted his entire organization to Austin.
“I had come back to Texas to retire, and to play what I wanted to play when I wanted to play,” Nelson said.
“I’d been lucky enough to write some songs and have an income, so if I lived within the means I wouldn’t have to do any more touring. I was 40 years old, and it was time to slow down a little bit, I thought.
“So I came back to Texas, and I started just working around places that I wanted to work.”
Rock ‘n’ roll and country were drawing closer together, despite themselves, and in the spring of 1972, some quick–thinking promotion guys in Dallas had decided that Texas, where the burner under this melting pot seemed to be, needed its own Woodstock.
And so it came the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion, held in a dusty cow pasture a half–hour’s drive west of Austin. Tex Ritter and Loretta Lynn were on the bill, but so were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “The old meet the new” was the idea. Or something like that.
The country Woodstock was pretty much a disaster; the 60,000 fans got wet, muddy and stoned, in that order, and the promotion men took a bath. But Willie Nelson, keen observer of people and the things that drove them, was taking notes. He used the unfortunate Dripping Springs concert as the jumping–off point for the annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, which he would begin in 1974.
The Dripping Springs Reunion had been a financial disaster, but it was still a good idea,” Nelson said. “And I was on that show. And I saw the possibilities.
“The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat. I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn’t want to fight. Especially if it was hot.”
And he put his own name prominently “above the title,” helping to set himself up as the patriarch of the south’s new counter–counter–culture.
“Some of them were big, some of them were just bombs,” Ray Benson recalled. “He really wasn’t making any money at all. He’d take his publishing checks and subsidize the whole thing.”
The bill at the 1974 picnic included Kris Kristofferson, his then–wife Rita Coolidge (then enjoying success as a pop solo act and as a duo with her husband) and Nelson’s old bud Waylon Jennings, who was coming into his own, like Nelson, as a “progressive country” artist.
(By the fourth go–round in 1976, a three–day affair held in Gonzales, Texas, the picnics had become the largest annual musical event in the nation and were routinely condemned by the local politicos. Which of course, made them all the more fun.)
“I don’t know how many Fourth of July picnics we’ve done, 10 or 12 or 15 or something,” he said. “They started blending into Farm Aid. We quit doing Picnics and started doing Farm Aids.”
In 1972 and ’73, Willie Nelson had found more than what he expected in Austin. He found a lifestyle, a manifesto, and an attitude. And he, a 40–year old country singer, ostensibly an “establishment figure” could relate to it.
“I found a lot of people who thought the same way I did about a lot of things, a lot of them from Texas,” he said. “And so I realized there was a lot of folks over there who would like to hear some country music, but they really didn’t have a place to hear it.
“Guys like Commander Cody were playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so I thought this would be a good spot to break country music in to those people.”
The Armadillo World Headquarters, a converted National Guard Armory, became the center for Austin’s fledgling subculture of hippies, rednecks, country and folk fans and all the strange hybrid bloodlines that were forming. It was a lot like San Francisco in its hipster heyday, Nelson said. Except much farther south.
The music was changing fast too. Rock ‘n’ roll and country had been brought together in exciting new ways courtesy of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles. Troubadours such as Jerry Jeff Walker were sort of like Hank Williams, the prevailing logic went, if he’d been alive in the present age.
“I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see,” Nelson said. “I saw a whole new audience out there. And the only difference between these guys and these guys is one of them has long hair and might smoke a little dope every now and then, and the other guy over here’s got short hair and drinks rotgut whiskey.
“It was gonna be difficult for them guys to ever get together unless they had some common ground. And I knew what the common ground was. I knew that these same guys, who had their hair down to their ass, loved Hank Williams. And I knew that this guy over here, who had just got through kickin’ the shit out of some hippie, he loved Hank Williams. So there was something wrong with this.”
Austin in 1972 was like nothing else history had seen, recalled Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. “It was wonderful. We were always broke, and everybody just wanted to get high and play music. There were many, many like–minded people. People used to say, ‘What’s the Austin sound?’ I’d say, ‘There ain’t no Austin sound, there’s an Austin scene.’ We were all as different musically as you could be: Doug Sahm had his thing, Greezy Wheels, Marcia ball, Willie Nelson, a hundred other groups. And they all sounded different. There wasn’t anybody sounded the same.”
So what was it? “It was all lifestyle,” Benson said. “Everybody liked to get high, liked to have a beer, liked elements of country music for sure, absolutely, but we were also counter–culture, whatever that was. We were takin’ the hippie thing and giving it this real Texas, country music slant.”
And above the title, smiling that million–dollar paternal smile, was Willie Nelson. “He was the father of the whole thing, no doubt,” Benson said. “He was the most successful, he was the oldest, and he was pure Texas. He knew Darrel Royall, the football coach, he knew the state representatives, these kind of guys. I couldn’t get a check cashed in Austin.
“Willie was very much in touch with the establishment from his previous days, and yet he was also very much part of the counter–culture. So he had his feet in both camps, and was accepted by both. He was our link. He was the guy who, when he said we were all right to a bunch of these straight establishment kind of people, we were all right, which opened up many, many doors which would’ve otherwise been closed.”
Nelson began to grow his hair and beard, and to wear old jeans and T–shirts onstage. “I did it to piss a lot of people off, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t pissin’ nobody off any more,” Nelson recalled with a deep laugh. The he told a story that, for him, explained everything: “We used to sit around at parties back in the drinkin’ days, sit around in hotel rooms, and crowds would come in, and there’d be more people there than you wanted.
“So we’d start sayin ‘fuck’ around, and the first thing you know, the guys that had their little girlfriends would leave. And then I started noticin’ that the more you said ‘fuck’ the more people’d come in.” He laughed a good Texas laugh. “Times are changing.”
The common denominator, Benson said, was, “Drugs. Frankly, all I can say is he turned on with the rest of us. He got psychedelicized, as they used to say. I think he always was a ‘seeker’ as Dolly Parton used to call him. He was always looking for more than perhaps the obvious spiritual answer.”
Nelson’s first show at the Armadillo was Aug. 12, 1972. It wasn’t long before he called Waylon, who too was getting sick of the stranglehold up in Nashville, and persuaded him to come down to play a gig in Austin. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were booked as the opening act.
“He called me and said, ‘I think I found something down here,” remembered Jennings. “So I went down there, and I looked out of the curtain, and there was all these long–haired kids. And I said, ‘Go get that little red–headed son–of–a–bitch! Get him in here!” And they went out front and got Willie, and I said, ‘What the hell have you got me into? Those are a bunch of kids!’
“And he said, ‘Just trust me.’ I said, ‘Now I know what that means in California, but I ain’t sure about Austin.’ Well, that was one of the first times that I saw this happening, and it spread from right there at that little Armadillo Club, all across the country.”
In 1975, the country music establishment was doing its best to ignore the mixed marriage between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the switch to the “countrypolitan” sound was complete, away from the hillbillies and honky–tonk tunes of the old days to a streamlined, string–laded, cloned–from–the–pop–charts sound. There was very little in the middle. Still, things were better in 1975 than they had been at the turn of the decade—both Freddy Fender and Merle Haggard had sizable hits that year with different–sounding records. But Nashville, slow to change, was still pretty much a bastion for the old guard.
Willie Nelson, meanwhile was having a great time being the King of Austin. He’d like to keep recording, he told anyone who asked, but he wasn’t gonna go back to Nashville and have to put up with all the at dictatorial crap. But since he’d never had a real hit, no producer was going to let him call the shots.
Phases And Stages, although a critical success, was a commercial dud, and you couldn’t exchange a flop for clout in the studio. But the big noise from down Austin way had attracted CBS Records’ A&R guys in Dallas; over the objections of producer Billy Sherrill, the hottest hit maker in Nashville (and h