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Willie Nelson: Holy Man of the Honky Tonks

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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 . . . "

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