photo: Mark Humphrey
If anyone ever had any doubt, it’s now official — Willie Nelson is a man of letters.
He’s also broken another through another boundary in obtaining the official honor.
The Texas Institute of Letters has named Willie as a recipient of one of the 2018 awards bestowed by the non-profit organization founded in 1936 with the self-avowed mission of celebrating Texas literature and recognizing “distinctive literary achievement.”
That’s right folks, literary achievement.
The group’s website states the Texas Institute of Letters’ elected membership “consists of the state’s most respected writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism and scholarship” and “gives awards to recognize outstanding literary works.”
They include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, the Academy Award, Tony Award and the MacArthur “Genius” grants, the TIL says. Membership is based on literary accomplishments and can be obtained only one way — through being elected by existing members.
When it came to this year’s awards, the organization decided to amend its bylaws to add songwriting to the list of writing genres it formally honors.
This is the first year the TIL has recognized a songwriter based on literary accomplishments and Willie is the first songwriter on which the award has been bestowed.
Willie’a among a group of 19 Texas writers selected for this year’s induction. The announcement includes a short bio of each of the recipients, with most of the blurbs citing the books or other forms of literature the author has created.
I love the reason for Willie’s induction, which is brief and directly to the point: It simply states “He’s Willie. Do we need to say anything else?”
Nope, not as far as I’m concerned.
I admired Willie’s songwriting all the way back to when he wore suits, ties and turtleneck sweaters — though not all at the same time. His earliest songs were big hits for others: “Crazy,” for Patsy Cline; “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, “Night Life” for Ray Price, and “Funny How the Time Slips Away,”recorded by a beaucoup of artists.
As a kid, I knew a great poet when I heard one.
Look at the lyrics to “Hello Walls,” when Willie, singing as a man distraught at a woman leaving him, talks to the walls, the window and the ceiling, respectively.
I especially like the way he addressed the window: “Well look here, is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane? Now, don’t you try to tell me that it’s rain.”
Now that’s poetic!
Willie now joins Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, as a songwriter who’s been bestowed with a major literary award — and it’s fitting that songwriting is being placed on par with other types of writing when recognizing the poetic achievements of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Although some spoilsport critics complained about granting a songwriter the Nobel Prize for literature, I had long thought Dylan more than worthy of the honor as a great poet — so what if he sang his words? So did Homer when the ancient Greek recounted the tales “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” The same goes for Willie.
Now, that the Texas Institute of Letters has shattered its own glass ceiling by recognizing Willie’s literary achievements as a songwriter, can others be far behind? Surely, Kris Kristofferson, another Texas native and long considered one of the most poetic and literary songwriters in any genre, deserves inclusion. His trifecta of “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and the great “Sunday Morning Coming Down” alone ought to warrant inclusion, along with hordes of lesser-known gems in his songwriting catalogue.
I don’t know if the Texas Institute of Letters grants posthumous awards, but if it does, what about Texas songwriting master Guy Clark, who wrote the great “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and countless other great songs, or Townes Van Zandt, probably best known for writing Willie and Merle Haggard’s hit “Pancho and Lefty” and the Don Williams hit “If I Needed You” along with dozens of others.
They are not only among the greatest Texas songwriters — they’re among the best that America has ever produced.
As for Willie, he’s also set to join rocker Neil Young in a new western film directed by actress Daryl Hannah, titled “Paradox.” Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson, who often perform alongside Young these days, are also in the film. It’s uncertain if it will be coming to a theater near you, but it’s set to premier at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin next month.
While Willie is being honored by the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary accomplishments as a songwriter, he’s authored or co-authored a number of books, and the ones I’ve read are insightful, funny and well-written.
Some of his books include: “Willie: An Autobiography,” “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road.”
I especially like the title of his most recent autobiography, hilariously titled “It’s a Long Story: My Life.”
Here’s hoping the story continues for a lot, lot longer.
Contact James Beaty at [email protected]