Feature: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Poet, Picker, Prophet

Turn up the lights, the party ain’t over for willie.

By Jeff Prince

A friend called and asked whether I had ever received a gift that changed my life. Seemed like an odd question (although not surprising, coming as it did from a pacifist vegetarian yogi who lives by choice in Alabama).

Two gifts sprang to mind. On Christmas Day 1972, my parents gave me a guitar. Months of practice yielded enough basic chords to render shaky renditions of Elvis, Roger Miller, Marty Robbins, and early Beatles. All these years later, hardly a day passes without one of the half-dozen guitars scattered around my house getting an enthusiastic workout.

The next life-changing gift came in 1973. The gift wasn’t an object, but parental advice.

“I’m leaving to go play bridge,” my mother said as she headed to the door. “Bread and bologna are in the kitchen.”

“I’m bored,” I whined, in the snotty way that 13-year-old boys sometimes talk to their mothers. I was sprawled on the living room floor in front of the tv.

“Well, switch to Channel 13,” she said. “Willie Nelson is going to be singing at 6.”

“Who?”

“Willie Nelson,” she said, and broke into a familiar song: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over, they say that all good things must end....”

“The Party’s Over” was a radio staple, but I only vaguely recalled a few Nelson songs and wasn’t really a fan. Still, at 6 p.m. I turned to KERA, the public television station that my parents enjoyed but I typically avoided, and there was Willie. This was my first time to see him, and I was startled. Back then, country singers wore gaudy, sparkling suits with bolo ties, pointy boots, and ill-fitting cowboy hats. Willie looked as if he had shucked his coat and tie, put on some faded jeans, gone on a long bender, puked in the parking lot, and arrived at the studio just in time for the show. He wore his hair short but obviously hadn’t handled a comb or razor in a while.

The show was a live performance in front of a small studio audience. An identical format would be used the following year when Austin City Limits debuted, with a longhaired Willie returning for the pilot episode. The 1974 pilot program is rebroadcast every now and then (it was shown on CMT a few months ago) but I’ve never again seen the 1973 studio performance. A KERA official said the station didn’t retain the rebroadcast rights and the tape had been sent to storage years ago.

Willie sang a few familiar radio hits but mostly played songs I’d never heard, such as cuts from his just-completed Whiskey River album, and “Georgia on a Fast Train” by a then-unknown Billy Joe Shaver. At one point, he called up Sammi Smith for a duet. He was playing his soon-to-be famous Martin classical guitar but had only just begun to wear the trademark hole through the soundboard.

These details come back to me so readily 30 years later because, even at the time, it was evident that this was a profound performance by a supremely talented singer, songwriter, and lyricist, combining the best elements of country, rock, and blues, and delivered with country-boy cool. After the program ended, I raided the little drawer that was nailed under a low shelf in my closet, took every last cent of my savings, and vowed to buy as many Willie records as $8 would allow.

From 1973 to 1975, Willie released three successive albums that would eventually be viewed as the best that Texas music has to offer — Whiskey River, Phases and Stages, and the career-making, progressive-country-movement-shaking Red Headed Stranger. People would discover later that 1972’s Yesterday’s Wine was also a masterpiece but so poorly marketed by RCA that few music stores knew it existed.

On that long-ago evening in 1973, a boy on the verge of becoming a young man discovered a brother, mentor, and hero. Through the years, Willie evolved into a spiritual compass, damn near a prophet.

He turned 70 on April 30, still doing what he loves, spending the week performing at Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City. Widespread demand means he doesn’t play Texas as often as in the old days, although on May 7-9 he’s booked at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin. He still performs more than 150 concerts a year, covering thousands of miles in his bus Honeysuckle III, playing old songs, introducing new ones, taking stances on the world around him, and representing the best that humanity — or at least Texas, and we’re not forgetting the White House — has to offer.

Willie’s background has been hashed out a million times, so let’s be brief: Born poor in Abbot (an hour south of Fort Worth), he worked in cotton fields, listened to 1940s radio, got a guitar, wrote songs, worked as a disc jockey and musician in the 1950s. Moved to Nashville in the 1960s and wrote hits for other artists but didn’t shine as a performer or recording artist. Moved to Austin in the early 1970s, played at Armadillo World Headquarters and was embraced by hippies and rednecks alike. Grew his hair long and started wearing a bandana and became the poster boy for an Outlaw music craze that swept the nation in the mid- and late-1970s. Acted in movies, started Farm Aid in 1985 to help small farmers, criticized government farm programs, became one of the first celebrities to advocate marijuana decriminalization and legalization, smoked pot on the White House roof while Jimmy Carter’s federal agents kept a nervous watch and — perhaps not so coincidentally — ran afoul of the IRS to the tune of $16 million in 1990. Paid off his debts, recorded an album with everyone who ever so much as burped into a microphone, and became what former Gov. Ann Richards dubbed “a Texas Treasure.”

Of course, I knew none of this in 1973. I just knew Willie’s music kicked ass.

His albums went ’round and ’round on my J.C. Penney stereo, almost nonstop. Then, something wonderful happened. Dallas radio station KAFM debuted on Jan. 17, 1975, becoming the first major-market station with an alternative country music format, dubbed Texas Radio. “We kicked it off at 6 a.m. with Phases and Stages by Willie Nelson, and played the whole side,” said former KAFM disc jockey and music director Steve Coffman, who left the station in 1978 and now owns the 100,000-watt KTXN in Victoria. “The godfather of Texas music was and still is Willie.”

Not long after their debut, KAFM disc jockeys began announcing that Willie would perform at Dallas Love Field Airport, with a handful of other bands and free beer, for $5.

“Hey, Dad, could you drive me and Kevin to the Willie Nelson concert in Dallas?” I asked, not expecting a yes. My best friend, Kevin Copeman, had become another Willie fanatic, but we were only 15, lived in Arlington, couldn’t drive, and required parental permission for such an adventure. Kevin and I swore we wouldn’t touch a drop of beer if only we could go see Willie, please, please, please. Surprisingly, Dad offered to drive us to the show, drop us off, and come back later. At the gate, he made us vow again to stay away from beer and insisted that we meet him at a pick-up spot at 10:30 that night. Agreed!

A band I can’t recall was playing when we arrived, and the parking lot held a few hundred people — a mix of goat ropers and dope smokers, drinking beer out of white plastic cups and smoking joints out in the open.

“We promised not to drink beer but we didn’t promise not to smoke pot,” Kevin said, eyeing a group of people next to us who were sitting on a blanket with a plastic baggie containing two dozen reefers.

“Nah,” I said. No further discussion was needed. We didn’t care about the weed. This night was about music. Besides, we had made a deal. My parents had given us the key to paradise, and all we had to do, for one night, was resist the world’s peripheral temptations and focus solely on the light.

Chang, chang, chang, chang, chang .... “Whiskey River take my mind.”

On an elevated wooden stage constructed of two-by-fours and plywood, Willie stood front and center, grinning down at the audience and playing the music that had consumed me for the better part of two years. “Whiskey River don’t run dry, you’re all I got, take care of me.”

He blazed away on an extended guitar lead, slapping nylon strings on that unlikely Martin classical, playing in his inimitable way but with a reckless abandon not heard on his albums, lifting my spirit, making me feel that life was forever and anything was possible. The crowd had grown to about 1,000 people, and the energy was intense.

“C’mon, man, let’s go see if we can get backstage,” Kevin said.

A chain-link fence and security guard stood in the way, but we spotted a loophole. Two women were sitting on the ground, leaning against the fence, heads bowed to their chests, drunk and fast asleep. Each had an adhesive backstage pass stuck in her hair. We snuck up, gently plucked the passes from their tangled locks, and tiptoed away. We were in.

Backstage, people stood around talking and drinking. The music was muffled, and our view of Willie was blocked. “Let’s go back out front,” I said.

Kevin had another idea. He gravitated to the wooden stairs that led up to the stage. A burly guy stood at the top with his back to us, surely offering an insurmountable obstacle. “Do you want to try it?” Kevin asked.

We stood there for an uncertain moment, and heard Willie up above singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” Suddenly, a lanky, sweaty guy wearing a pearl-snap shirt and a beat-up cowboy hat approached. He looked angry. He was drunk and swaying, and I expected him to say, “You damn kids get the hell out of here!”

We simultaneously recognized the man as Jerry Jeff Walker. He stopped just short of us, leaned into our faces, and said, “I don’t have a stage pass.” He grabbed a handful of his shirt and thrust it forward so we could see all more clearly that he had no pass. “But I want to sing with Willie,” he said.

Walker had mistaken us for security guards. “Go ahead, Jerry Jeff,” I said. He mumbled thanks, took several steps up the stairs, and then stumbled backward. We reached out and caught him. Kevin (God bless him) said, “C’mon, we’ll help you.” We grabbed Jerry Jeff by the elbows and hoisted him up the steps to the stage. The real security guard nodded at Jerry Jeff and stepped aside. Jerry Jeff headed for a microphone, and Kevin and I sat cross-legged on the stage floor. Fifteen feet away, Willie glanced our way and smiled.

We wouldn’t have been more thrilled to be on stage with Elvis or the Beatles, because Willie was bigger than everyone in our eyes. He wore cut-off jeans, white sneakers, and a faded t-shirt. A birthmark dotted his leg. At one point, he bent down, picked up a lit joint that had been tossed on stage, took a drag, and tossed it back in the crowd. Here he was, a guy the same age as my dad, yet looking that way and doing that stuff.

Below, the parking lot was rocking with revelers having almost as much fun as we were. Girls sat on guys’ shoulders and flashed their breasts at our tender eyes. Guys raised plastic beer cups in the air, toasting Willie. Everyone seemed to realize that the genesis of something extraordinary was happening, something bigger than this one night. We were all delirious, even Willie.

It was 10:30, time to meet my parents. “We got to go.”

“You’re kidding?” Kevin said. “We can’t go now.”

At 11, we reluctantly headed for our pick-up spot, cutting through the crowd to save time. We didn’t go far before a group of bikers hollered, “Hey, it’s those kids that were on stage.” They shouted greetings, and Kevin raised his arms in triumph. Just then, a biker threw his beer at us, which inspired his friends, and they all emptied their plastic cups on our heads. We ran, but not before getting drenched.

In my parents’ car, we apologized for smelling like a brewery, described the incident with the bikers, and let my mom smell our breath. Then we poured out the details of our exploit in one long breathless sentence that lasted all the way home to Arlington. My parents glanced at each other with worried eyes, silently and accurately forecasting the trouble that lay ahead in the months and years to come.

Willie hung around Texas in the early 1970s and performed regularly in Fort Worth. Kevin and I bummed rides to concerts until we got our driver’s licenses, and then drove ourselves. Lacking the pride that comes with maturity, we climbed over fences, crawled under stages, slithered behind curtains, and became pros at sneaking backstage, or even onstage, at Willie concerts. Kevin once walked onstage in mid-song and exchanged cowboy hats with Willie, who looked surprised but didn’t stop singing.

The first time I shook Willie’s hand, I was shocked at how short he was. I was only 15, yet I was several inches taller than the man I revered. Didn’t matter. Willie was larger than life, with long scraggly hair, huge expressive eyes, and more cracks in a human face than I’d ever seen on anyone below the age of 80. At the time, he was in his early 40s. Now I’m in my early 40s, which means Willie is on the winter side of autumn. Some of his hard-living contemporaries are dead (Waylon Jennings), ill (Johnny Cash), or downright deranged (David Allan Coe), but Willie has taken care of himself. He admittedly smokes weed but also jogs, plays golf, and eats healthy. It shows.

During the mid-1970s, Kevin and I watched a dozen exhilarating shows, and not once did anyone hassle us for being backstage. We met all of his band members, including longtime drummer Paul “The Devil” English, who grew up in Fort Worth; harpist Mickey Raphael (he was an Oak Cliff youngster when he met Willie at a Dallas party in the early 1970s and played harmonica so well that Willie made him a band member); and Willie’s piano-playing sister, Bobby, who was always shy and soft-spoken when we approached her but seemed to appreciate our attention. After shows, Willie would hang out and talk to fans, autograph women’s naked breasts, and openly smoke pot in an era when a joint could land you in the pokey. And that squint-eyed smile. Willie was always smiling, and everyone around him smiled too. He seemed wise, beatific, and otherworldly.

To cut a hundred stories down to just a few: In 1974, Willie signed the brim of my straw cowboy hat. From that day on, I religiously wore the hat to work at Chem Can, where I cleaned portable toilets with a spray gun during the summer. One day, my co-workers and I stood in a circle for our ritual of dipping snuff soaked in Jack Daniels. A light rain began to fall, but we didn’t seek cover; it felt refreshing. A minute later, somebody said, “Oh, shit, look at your hat.” Willie’s autograph, signed in felt pen, was running down the brim, no longer legible. Now, that hurt.

On Dec. 31, 1975, my junior high classmates were having a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house. That same night, KAFM was broadcasting a Willie concert, live from Tarrant County Convention Center. I decided to blow off my friends and stay home with my new stereo, which had a special feature — it could record music from radio onto 8-track tapes. I filled up two 90-minute tapes that night. Fiddler Johnny Gimble sat in with Willie for “Milk Cow Blues,” an old Bob Wills song I had never heard before. The song became my “trademark” a couple of years later when I was playing guitar at high school talent shows and pep rallies.

Those 8-track tapes got eaten after a few years and a thousand listenings. I’ll bet $100 that a recording of that concert no longer exists. What stands out all these years later is a moment of stage patter between songs. A voice is heard barking instructions off-microphone, and then Willie says, “Oh, OK, uh, listen y’all, they want me to plug the concessions. So, I guess if y’all want any concessions, they’ll give them to you back there somewhere.” Classic Willie, courteous enough to do as he was told, cool enough to do it his own way. That off-the-cuff remark might sound inane in print all these years later, but to me it was another guidepost in learning how to be a man.

In 1976, Willie autographed my ticket stub and I framed it with a Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article with the headline, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away,” which used four mugshots to depict how much Willie’s appearance had changed since the 1960s. I gave the framed collection to a friendly woman who owned a barbecue joint on Mansfield Highway. She had pictures and posters of Willie on every wall and constantly played his music but she didn’t have an autograph. She almost cried when I presented her with the framed stub. Her restaurant burned to the ground a year later, and the framed picture went with it. But she rebuilt, persevered, and always treated me like a favorite customer. True to the Spirit of Willie.

Explaining why a 13-year-old kid in 1973 became star-struck by Willie and remained that way through adulthood isn’t easy. Why does anyone become fanatical about an artist? It starts with the music, which must be fresh and unique. But there has to be more. Youngsters went nuts over Frank Sinatra in the 1940s because he embodied a velvety, cool sophistication. Elvis enthralled in the 1950s because he was dangerous and erotic. The Beatles ruled the 1960s because they were moptops awash with talent and energy. Each generation of kids needs someone to discover and call their own, ensuring that at least one new icon comes along about every 10 years.

In the 1970s, my contemporaries embraced rock bands, most notably Led Zeppelin. I don’t know why I chose Willie. We were born and raised within 100 miles of each other, so there was a geographic connection. He had Sinatra’s jazz phrasings, Elvis’ danger, the Beatles’ songwriting abilities, and Zeppelin’s instrumental prowess. Plus, he was my own discovery. I took pride in converting Zep-heads to Willie disciples, which wasn’t difficult because most of my friends recognized the same qualities that I did. Willie was independent in music and life. His songs were accessible to me as a novice guitarist, which inspired me to practice. His lyrics were deep and literate, which appealed to my budding affinity for writing. I didn’t judge him for being part of an older generation. He symbolized rebellion and proved that life, even at 40, didn’t have to be about working a boring job from 8 to 5 every f-ing day until you die.

Former KAFM disc jockey Coffman was a young hippie rocker in the early 1970s, and no fan of country music. Willie changed that. “Country music was what our fathers listened to,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, here’s Willie singing, ‘Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear.’ I hate to call it Outlaw, but it was. It was going against the status quo. I learned that I had a passion for real Texas music. We understood what Willie meant when he said, ‘Goodbye Nashville, I’m going home to Texas and do it my way.’”

Rednecks also liked Willie and found common ground with his hippie followers. Jay Milner was almost 50 and an editor at Iconoclast when he heard Willie perform Phases and Stages in its entirety on stage at The Western Place, months before the album was released. He was floored by the performance, wrote about Willie and Texas music, and joined Willie’s inner circle for a couple of years. It’s no easier to explain the mystique now than it was then, said Milner, now 79.

“Something about him and his music made everyone zero in on him and not worry about their own differences,” he said. “Something about Willie does that. For one thing, you realize Willie doesn’t have a devious bone in his body. Everything is out front. It sounds simple, and it is simple. Paul (English) just idolizes Willie, and Paul doesn’t idolize anybody. I can’t explain it, but I can sure feel it. When I was around Willie, I felt the same way. He was just a man you would do anything for, because he’d do anything for you. Everywhere he goes, he has that aura about him. It’s stronger in person than it is on tv, but it’s there on tv, too. He even looks different in person because of that aura. It’s really amazing.”

Coffman and other KAFM jocks sprinkled in the Allman Brothers, Freddie King, and Leon Redbone among the artists on their progressive country playlist. Willie had told them, “There’s good music and bad music. Play the good.” Another one of the Commandments According to Willie.

Every artist contacted for this article — OK, I didn’t call Pink or Van Cliburn — was thrilled to praise Willie, and they all had personal stories about how Willie helped them in their careers. Pat Green remembers being a near-unknown in 1995 and volunteering to play without pay to open a concert for Willie. Afterward, Willie called him aside, thanked him for playing, and personally handed him a wad of bills. “Willie’s mark on a lot of bands is indelible and so far-reaching,” Green said. “He influences people from Nine Inch Nails to me.”

Cody Canada, lead singer for Cross Canadian Ragweed, was born in 1976 and missed Willie’s heyday. He discovered Willie’s music in the 1980s when he sat down with his dad in front of the tv and watched the movie inspired by the Red Headed Stranger album. “I was hooked,” he said. CCR still performs a raucous version of “Whiskey River” at most shows.

Ray Wylie Hubbard would gain fame in the mid-1970s after Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his song “(Up Against The Wall) Redneck Mother,” but before that he was a folk singer from Oak Cliff, struggling to make a name. A Dallas club, Faces, offered live music back then, and performers could stay in a small house behind the club. One night in 1972, Hubbard was “entertaining” a woman in one of the house’s bedrooms when the window was shoved open at about 3 a.m. and a man crawled inside. “Hi — don’t mind me, I lost my key,” the man explained, before walking to another bedroom and going to sleep. “Who was that?” the girl asked. “That was Willie Nelson,” Hubbard said.

A few years later, Willie owned Lone Star Records and signed Hubbard to a multi-album record deal. Hubbard, however, recorded only one album, 1978’s Off The Wall, before the label folded. “Willie called me and said, ‘All my executives took the money and went to Mexico, so there isn’t any record label anymore,’” Hubbard said, but he never forgot Willie’s kindness and faith.

Business associates, promoters, and acquaintances made a habit of robbing Willie, but friends say he rarely complained. “Willie always said, ‘They got families to feed, too,’” Milner recalled.

By the late 1970s, other musicians began competing with Willie for my album and concert dollars. Then, the quality of Willie’s albums tapered off in the 1980s and I stopped buying them altogether, although I continued listening to his old stuff. Still, he remained a spiritual guide. I watched as he handled his IRS problems with aplomb. The government took his possessions, and Willie shrugged and said, “Well, I had too much stuff anyway.” I read about how he occasionally lost his ass financially on festivals or benefits and would say, “Oh well, the people had a good time.” I saw how band members, known as Willie’s “family,” not only stuck with him for decades on end, but showed him as much love as his fans. You knew Willie didn’t act like a jerk behind closed doors.

When artists began providing relief for Third World countries, à la Bangladesh and Live Aid, Willie praised and joined their efforts, but he poured his own energies into helping U.S. farmers. I monitored his press clippings through several marriages and divorces and noticed that he always blamed himself for the breakups and never criticized his wives.

Willie poured out emotion in his music, and proved that baring heart and soul didn’t make someone a sap. Willie’s ability to have fun during the highs, and yet shrug and say, “Oh well,” during the lows, is something I strive to emulate. It’s The Willie Way.

When Willie was in trouble with the IRS in the early 1990s, I saw a tv commercial advertising The IRS Tapes, a mail-order album whose profits were intended to help pay his debt. I was broke but wanted to help, so I placed an order. I didn’t own a credit card and told the sales clerk to send a bill. Several weeks later, two cassettes arrived in the mail, but no bill. I could have figured out where to send the money, but I didn’t. Willie eventually crawled out from under his debt, but a guilty feeling dogged me for years. He was my friend, and I had cheated him.

Books and magazine articles revealed that Willie had cut down on booze and given up hard drugs, but defended marijuana. Smoking a plant that grows wild on the green earth shouldn’t be criminal, he said. He advocated human rights, stood up for the poor and displaced, performed marathon concerts, and signed autographs with the willingness of Babe Ruth.

In 2002, Playboy published an interview with Willie that touched on 9/11 and the Middle East. He didn’t profess to have the answers, but he supported asking questions: “Are we going to look at poverty, disproportionate wealth, and the horrors in the world, or ignore them?” he said. “The poorest places are the ones where terrorism breeds. If someone wants to kill me bad enough to kill himself at the same time, there has to be a reason. ... I’m not saying we should stop doing anything they don’t like just because they don’t like it, but we should understand why and try to acknowledge that people in other parts of the world have rights, too. That they matter. What arrogance to say it doesn’t matter what they think. It’s not un-American to ask these questions. It’s un-American not to ask them. America really stands for human rights and freedom. Let’s apply it everywhere.” Like the old bumper sticker said, Willie for President.

On Sept. 21, 2002, I decided to ease my conscience for the shirked payment on the IRS cassettes. I skipped a party, just as I had done years earlier, and stayed home to watch Farm Aid on cable tv. I waited until Willie came out for his set, and then picked up the phone — I wanted organizers to know it was Willie who prompted my donation.

As usual, he began with “Whiskey River,” but he looked older. His pants were pulled up high around his waist, the way old men tend to do, and the skin on his arms was sagging. His voice wasn’t as strong as in the old days, and even his guitar playing was missing its snap. He’d surely played “Whiskey River” a million times, yet he missed several chords and licks. But there he was, at 69, still performing and making a difference, illustrating to people that “the voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest,” as he had sung 30 years earlier on the intro to Yesterday’s Wine.

The Farm Aid set was life-affirming. Sitting in my easy chair, middle-aged, stable, and happy, I became momentarily teary-eyed, not for the beauty of the music, but for the beauty of the man.

“Farm Aid,” a voice on the phone said.

“I’d like to pledge $50.”

“Do you have a credit card?”

“Yes I do.”


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