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Willie Nelson: Holy Man of the Honky Tonks

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Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man's and woman's points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn't promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages.

Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvall, along with other CBS executives, thought it underproduced and weird, but it, and the single off the album, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," broke the C&W crossover market wide open. (It also recently brought Willie a movie deal with Universal for a filmed version of Stranger and a movie based on Willie's life.)

After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete. Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business.

But Willie's success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of '72.

When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn't even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun. The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades. I didn't know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while. He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled. He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was. Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible" – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, "the big time." Traveled there in a '51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract. Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. "I'm not worried, though," he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. "I'll do all right."

Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on. Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for "Willie Nelson's First Annual Fourth of July Picnic," with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren't beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie's pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th "Willie Nelson Day."

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time. When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate. I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I still don't know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong. His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking ("Maybe I am half-Mexican," he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life. "I don't think he ever has a bad thought," his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me.

Such people aren't supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it.

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. "Willie understands," is the most-heard quote from his fans.

There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye," written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one's lover. No wonder Nashville didn't know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics:

The flesh around your throat is pale
Indented by my fingernails
Please don't scream, please don't cry
I just can't let you say goodbye.

Willie's explanations of his songs sound almost too simple: "I'd been to bed and I got up about three or four o'clock in the morning and started readin' the paper. There was a story where some guy killed his old lady and I thought, well, that would bea far-out thing to do." He laughed. "To write this song where you're killin' this chick, so I started there. 'I had not planned on seeing you' was the start, and I brought it up to where she was really pissin' him off, she was sayin' bad things to him and so he was tryin' to shut her up and started chokin' her." All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? "Ah, well, chokin' seemed to be the way to do it at the time."

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