Willie Nelson: Holy Man of the Honky Tonks

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

Willie Nelson, RS issue 269
Beverly Parker
Willie Nelson
By |

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."

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."

Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: "Opportunity to Cry" is about suicide, "Darkness on the Face of the Earth" is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, "I've Got a Wonderful Future behind Me" means just what it says. Some of Willie's best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. "What Can You Do to Me Now?" and "Half a Man" resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in "One Day at a Time":

I live one day at a time
I dream one dream at a time
Yesterday's dead and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at a time.

"I don't know whether I've ever written any just hopeless songs," he said. "Maybe I have, maybe I'm not thinking back far enough. I'm sure I have. Songs I'm writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it. Even though the story I'm trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like 'Walking': 'After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain't no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I've been lying to thee all along/There ain't nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I'll be gone' – to me that's a happy song. This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too."

Is writing his form of therapy?

"Yeah, it's like taking a shit." He laughed his soft laugh. "I guess a lotta people who can't write songs, instead of writing songs they'll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time. I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don't have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs. And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There'd be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad."

Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. "Gonna go out and run three miles," he said. "Wanta come along?"

"I can't do 300 yards," I replied. He laughed.

Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum. Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus' only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert. The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people's land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice.

I thought of a Willie Nelson song, "Slow Movin' Outlaw," that talked about that:

The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty,
Now stands with scars on her face;
And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly,
From the weight of the whole human race;
And it's not that I blame them for claiming her beauty,
I just wish they'd taken it slow;
'Cause where has a slow-movin', once quick-draw outlaw got to go? 1

Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro's evening traffic. Still, I couldn't avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell's Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: "Wil-lie! Wil-lie!" Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence.

The song I was thinking of was "The Troublemaker:"

I could tell the moment that I saw him
He was nothing but the troublemaking kind
His hair was much too long
And his motley group of friends
Had nothing but rebellion on their minds
He's rejected the establishment completely
And I know for sure he's never held a job
He just goes from town to town
Stirring up the young ones
Till they're nothing but a disrespectful mob.2

The song's about Jesus, in case you didn't guess.

The Hell's Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who's been with Willie since 1954. English was once what used to be called "a police character" in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour. Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called "You Look like the Devil." He does, too, and he's still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat's-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he's as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard's father.

Although the 17,000-seat coliseum was not full, it was a splendid evening of music: Billy Joe Shaver opened, followed by Emmylou Harris and then Willie. The bulk of his set was material from Red Headed Stranger, and when he started "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" in his powerful baritone, I heard actual gasps of awe from the front rows. Been a long time since I heard that.

When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in "Amazing Grace" and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward.

One of Willie's friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During "Amazing Grace" he began shouting, "I'm healed. I'm healed." He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were "amens" from the folks around him.

Another of Willie's friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie's songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie's "Half a Man" and soon had the jury weeping: "If I only had one arm to hold you . . . "

Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes.

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

1. Willie sang "Whiskey River."
2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke.
3. Willie: "Went over to Peckinpah's house."
4. Me: "You talk to Dylan?"
5. Willie: "No. Dylan don't talk a lot."
6. Me: "I know."
7. Willie: "He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah's house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin' and runnin'on them horses down there and he ain't no cowboy."
8. Willie sang "Shotgun Willie."
9. Me: "You write that?"
10. Willie: "Yeah."
11. Me: "Good."
12. Silence.
13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in.
14. Willie: "Go away. I'm busy."
15. Paula: "Why can't I stay?"
16. Willie: 'Cause you're a little ole girl."
17. Paula: "Help me carry something."
18. Willie: "I can't. My legs are broke."
19. A toke.
20. Silence.

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit.

"Wasn't Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?" I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. "Yeah, it was," he said. "It's too early to tell how it'll do, but so far it's outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it'd either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn't really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album."

After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs?

"Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I'll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me." He chuckled. "I do have some new ones, 'She's Gone,' 'Is the Better Part Over,' 'Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.' I don't think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don't write as much depressive music now because I don't feel that way anymore."

Do you feel any vindication now that you've succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn't be a singer?

"I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don't know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track."

During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

"Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin' out and quittin' and never doin' it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn't because I didn't think the music wasn't good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me."

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters?

"Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other's houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin' wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I'll never write again, never sing again, don't wanta see nobody again, don't call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn't go anywhere. I didn't work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed 'em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin' up and hog prices kept goin' down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs."

Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing?

"Yeah, I do. I've been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin' up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don't progress, they could very well pass me too.

"But I wasn't considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in 'em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don't know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn't do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people's ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance."

But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson.

"Well, Kris has agreed with that. He'd been listenin' to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I'd listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville."

I'll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn't you listen to Sinatra and Crosby?

"Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin' up. We didn't have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I'd hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way."

Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music?

"I think there's a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it."

Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else?

"Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I'd pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing."

(Author's Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.)

There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think?

He answered seriously. "I think I made it work for me. There's no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I'd written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I'da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door."

He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. "Willie," I asked, "do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?"

He thought about that one for a long time: "The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they're gonna try to figure out how that's done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they're firing at that market. Those guys just didn't know that audience was there. That's what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don't get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin' beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear."

Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia's Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn't particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he's decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly.

After one run-through of "I Gotta Get Drunk," it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: "You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn't have the nerve to pitch it to you."

"Hell, Willie," said Jones, "I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut 'Crazy' but I couldn't find you."

Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: "Okay, Willie's stuff is good and we can overdub George later."

They moved on to "Half a Man," and Jones was still having trouble. "How the hell does Waylon sing with you," he asked. "I'm used to singin' right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses." Willie laughed.

Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.

This story is from the July 13th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 269: July 13, 1978
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