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Willie Nelson: Holy Man of the Honky Tonks

The saga of the king of Texas, from the night life to the good life

July 13, 1978
Willie Nelson, RS issue 269
Willie Nelson
Beverly Parker

The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. "Got no Willie Nelsons today." He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook.

He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: "You goin' to see Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had ta haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, 'Man, you die fast in this town.' "

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: "See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs."

"Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so." He started thumbing through registration forms: "Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain't here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . "

"Okay, gimme Snake's room number."

Poodie, who is Willie's road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night's concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake's duties are exactly. He's a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: "What do you want done?" He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson's Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren't so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

Willie Nelson Through the Years

It wasn't always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn't even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie's songs – Rusty Draper with "Night Life," Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with "Funny How Time Slips Away," Patsy Cline with "Crazy," Faron Young with "Hello Walls," Andy Williams with "Wake Me When It's Over" and Roy Orbison with "Pretty Paper," to name a few – but Willie's own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville's establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville's idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of "my favorite ten songs." His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake's door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don't mean a lot to him.

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Willie Nelson

Snake opened his door: "Damn, I didn't know you were coming. I guess it's okay if you didn't bring too many women. C'mon, Eddie's just down the hall."

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. "Shit, Eddie," said Snake. "Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We're gonna sell 24 million." Willie laughed softly, as he always does.

I told him about the cabdriver: "And not only do you die fast, the driver said: 'Shoot, I ain't gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.'" Willie fell over laughing. "Why, hell yes," he finally said. "Why buy old songs?"

"What happened to your beard, Willie?" I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. "Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin'? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?"

With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes.

Eyes that don't miss much. He is not the most talkative person around – lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers. Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he's sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both.

Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie's music.

He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie's singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God's word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music. "I had considered preaching," he now laughed, "but preachers don't make a lot and they have to work hard."

Still, he didn't protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music's only preacher. "I have met people," I said, "who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally."

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. "Maybe you're exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don't go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We're taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that's not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we're all images of him – in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then we've been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we've lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin' through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again."

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. "But I know what you mean about fans," he continued. "And I know what they're doing. In their minds, they're relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems."

Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three "concept" or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday's Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it. At the time, Willie's house in Nashville had burned – there's an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album. He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as "before life and after life."

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