Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer who was immortalized in Nelson’s road song “Me and Paul,” has died at 87 following a bout with pneumonia. Nelson’s publicist confirmed English’s death to Rolling Stone.
Born in 1932 in Vernon, Texas, English joined Nelson’s Family Band in 1966 and continued to perform with Nelson up until his death, sharing percussion duties with his younger brother Billy English. Known for his tough but flamboyant style, English was not only Nelson’s drummer, but also his enforcer and de facto bodyguard. In a 2015 deep-dive feature for Oxford American, Joe Nick Patoski writes about the many times English engaged in fistfights on the road, often pulling the .22-caliber pistol he kept in his boot. “If you’re writing songs about shooting people,” English’s son Paul Jr. told Patoski, “it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.”
Even without a gun in his hand, the towering English cut an imposing figure. Both onstage and off, he adopted the persona of “The Devil,” grooming menacing facial hair, dressing all in black, and sporting a satin cape that is currently enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s” exhibit. Nelson himself helped further English’s roguish image, writing the song “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag” about him for 1973’s Shotgun Willie album.
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” English, a former pimp and gang leader, told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I was running girls and playing music at the same time.”
Nelson’s most famous ode to English, however, is “Me and Paul,” the autobiographical 1971 road song on Yesterday’s Wine that documents the friends’ many misadventures, from drug busts in Laredo, Texas, to dust-ups at the airport in Milwaukee. “They said we looked suspicious/But I believe they like to pick on me and Paul,” Nelson sang. The shuffling track was also included on 1976’s seminal country album Wanted! The Outlaws, and Nelson would rerecord the song as the title track of his 32nd studio effort in 1984.
After trading the monstrous chrome drum set he bashed away on in the Seventies for a cocktail kit, English’s subtle brushed drumming defined Nelson’s later concerts, those loose, freewheeling affairs where medleys and instrumental explorations became the Family Band’s signature. English suffered a minor stroke in 2010 but continued to tour, resuming his role as his boss’ “money man” until he was able to get back behind the snare or play a shaker.
In his 2015 autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life, Nelson recalled English as his ever-present guardian and partner-in-crime. “Wild, street-smart Paul,” he wrote, “who always had my back and got me out of more scraps than I care to recall.”