Back in late January, I caught up with Willie Nelson for the first time since the biography I wrote Willie Nelson: An Epic Life was published.
We talked about music, his new recordings, Lance Armstrong, and life its ownself.
I’ll post the interview in a few weeks. If you’re hot to read it now, go buy the magazine and help out some good folks including a few writers.
and here’s the story:
Five years ago, my 500 page historical biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, was published on Willie’s 75th birthday. At least seventeen biographies and his own autobiography, ghosted by Bud Shrake, no less, were already out there, but you can’t write about Texas without writing about Willie. I already knew him as the most interesting person in the world, just as he struck me during my first interview with him back in 1974. It turned out there were a lot of new things to learn, and unlike the case with most public figures, the more I knew, the more I liked him. Since a whole lot of other folks feel the same way, I’ll be talking about him for the rest of my life.
Since the Willie book, I’ve been obsessing about football, the Texas high school version and the Dallas Cowboys version, so I hadn’t been inside the Willie bubble in awhile. With his 80th birthday rolling around, a fine, even number to stop and ponder, it was a good time to check in. A lot had changed, I quickly discovered. A lot remains timeless.
Nutty Jerry’s is a massive, utilitarian metal building a few miles east of Winnie, the southeast Texas farming community just off Interstate 10 that is home of the Texas Rice Festival. Nutty Jerry’s is the community’s big bar, dancehall, and all-purpose entertainment facility. On a Friday night in late January, it was also a tour stop for the longest running road show in music, the Willie Nelson and Family traveling revue, this particular leg being one week into the Old Farts and Jackass Tour.
A little more than a year earlier, on the morning of January 8, 2012, Kevin Smith got the call from Mickey Raphael: “Can you drive to Winnie tonight and play with the band?” Smith was the standup bassist for Heybale! the trad-county supergroup of hotshot pickers featuring Merle Haggard’s guitarist Redd Volkaert and Johnny Cash’s (and the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”-vintage Byrds’) Earl Poole Ball, currently in their fourteenth year of Sunday night residency at the Continental Club in Austin. Smith had also logged time with High Noon, the retro country band, original rockabilly Ronnie Dawson, western-swinger Cornell Hurd, and had knocked off more than 160 dates in a year-long tour with Dwight Yoakum in 2006. He got on Willie’s radar three years later by playing on the Willie and the Wheel album and tour, when Smith was with Asleep at the Wheel.
“Tommy Tedesco, in that Wrecking Crew documentary, said there’s three reasons you should take a gig – the hang, the money, and the music,” Smith said, fairly beaming as he tuned up a bass on the crew bus before the show. “All three of those are just great here. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Bee Spears, the one player in the Family band who could hear and anticipate Willie’s sometimes unusual timing and his tendency to sing behind the beat, died from exposure after falling outside his home in Nashville on December 8, 2011. The loss of the forty-year veteran was the band’s first personnel change since rhythm guitarist Jody Payne retired in 2008 after thirty-five years on the road. Spears’ last gig, which was a few days earlier in Mississippi, happened to also be the very last gig for Chris Etheridge, Willie’s long ago bassist in the early 1970s, who sat in with Bee and the band, knowing he was dying of cancer.
In the wake of Bee’s sudden death, Billy English switched from drums to bass (regular drummer Paul English, Billy’s brother and Willie’s friend and bandmate for sixty years, was at home in Dallas recuperating from a stroke) and Willie’s son Micah filled in on drums to finish out the year’s dates.
Smith doesn’t just play bass. He also plays old-style slap bass with a big upright, bringing a new-old sound to complement the other addition, young gun guitarist Lukas Nelson, who opens shows with his band, Promise of the Real, before joining his father’s band as second guitarist.
But on this balmy, late January evening, Lukas wasn’t feeling well, so his dad would have to handle the guitar chores alone, which actually turned out to be a good thing. Paul English had experienced a second wind and rejoined the family, playing and doing the books on the road. Paul allowed that he and Willie had played a round of golf had played a round of golf not too long ago but stopped after nine holes; they were two old duffers with nothing left to prove.
Music, however, was another matter. “I’m feeling good,” English smiled in his office in the back of the band bus, where he offices to keep the band’s books.
Poodie Locke, the garrulous stage manager for the band for the past 35 years and a legend in his own right, passed away from a massive heart attack in 2009. Filling his shoes was young John Selman, Poodie’s neighbor at Willie World. John, who joined the family after road managing Randy Rogers, had been at the job long enough to run a very tight ship. Shows were running on time from stage call to last note, performances consistently hitting the ninety minute mark, a cutback from the four-hour marathons of the 1970s, perhaps, but mighty impressive for a six-piece that included three octogenarians and one septuagenarian.
The three-bus, one-truck conglomeration was a lean, mean traveling machine, with music as the driving force binding everyone on board, one reason why Willie’s home base studio, Pedernales Recording, had recently gone private, so Willie can record whenever he wants.
Mickey Raphael, the Dallas-born harmonica man responsible for giving every WN tune its indelible ID, was almost giddy with the band’s renewed sound, the new crew boss, and the revived Paul. As the former “kid” in the band, Mickey went out of his way to mentor John Selman and now Kevin Smith in the Willie way. The infusion of youth was proving infectious.
The night before on an off-night in Baton Rouge, Mickey broke his standard “I usually stay in when we’re not working” policy and headed to Lafayette, an hour away, with Lukas Nelson and Kevin Smith in tow to join guitar wild man C.C. Adcock at an informal private jam and gumbo party with C.C.’s Lil’ Band of Gold compadres Warren Storm, Steve Riley, and Lil’ Buck Senegal, and David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and the rest of Los Lobos.
Staying in on most off-nights reflects the maturation of Willie’s players. These days, wild times are recalled, not lived. “Everybody’s over their nonsense,” is how Kevin Smith put it. “I’m a pretty square dude. I don’t know how I would’ve done in the Poodie days.”
Once upon a time, band problems revolved around the inability to match drugs. When Willie banned coke back in the 1970s, the rest of the band continued doing blow. When everyone was dropping LSD, someone slipped Mickey some PCP, causing him to pass out at the side of the stage during on those four hour marathon sets without anyone noticing Mickey was missing. Mushrooms and Richard Pryor onboard caused Budrock to forget how to work the lights at the same of one show. If the band was jacked up, they were nowhere near as jacked up as opening act Johnny Paycheck nervously paced up and down stairs thanks to a lot of speed. The band was so high at some shows, “We played for four hours just to keep from having to get off the stage and having to deal with anybody,” Mickey said. These days, “Willie’s smoking and no one else is doing anything; it’s almost like a real band now,” Mickey marveled.
For all the recent changes, which included the late arrival and early departure of Willie’s bus from every gig, the core of this band of gypsies rolling down the highway remained the same. Budrock aka Buddy Prewitt, Jr., lighting director for the ages, reported he’s switched to LED lighting which has eliminating the heavy lifting of big lights and trusses of yesteryear. Tunin’ Tom, steward of Willie’s ancient guitar, Trigger, watched the Simpsons while Kenny Koepke showed off smartphone pics of his grandson. Billy English hung with his brother Paul in the office in the back of the band bus while Flaco Lemons tweaked the sound inside where the Franks Brothers and friends were setting up the merch booth. Outside Honeysuckle Rose, driver Gates Moore talked up Dallas Cowboys with top security man LG, who talked up his 49ers. Inside the bus, David Anderson maintained traffic control while staying close to Willie’s side.
While all the usual preshow business swirled around him, the man at the center of it all sat serenely in his booth chair in his rolling home thirty minutes before showtime, wearing a black t-shirt that read North Shore on the front with a map of the Hawaiian Islands on back. He was twirling a big fatty in his hand while surveying the world around him, facing forward, as always.
Willie’s friend Turk Pipkin had brought a guitar to be signed and auctioned for a fundraiser for the Nobelity Project. Daughter Lana poked her head out from the back of the bus where Little Sister Bobbie (actually, his big sister) was resting up, while daughter Amy sat up front, talking to Kevin Smith after Kevin got last minute instructions to open in A minor.
Willie, it turned out, had been rather busy for a man with his 80th birthday in sight. His book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die was a bona-fide national best-seller. On the heels of the album Heroes, he had a new record about to drop, Let’s Face The Music and Dance, with an album of duets lined up behind it, along with a tour schedule that would keep him on the road, interspersed with breaks, through next fall.
“Still working, still fun, people are still showing up,” he said off-handedly of the schedule ahead.
The new album was kind of a repurposed Stardust. Rather than pulling songs from the Great American Songbook, though, Face the Music And Dance is part-Irving Berlin, part-Django Reinhardt, and all-Willie.
“Someone came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t you do an Irving Berlin album?’ I started thinking about his songs and all of a sudden, Face the Music is there. I listened to Sinatra’s cut on it and Diana Krall’s got a great cut on it. I really fell in love with the song all over again.
But instead of going total-Berlin, Willie veered off into other composers starting with “Walking My Baby Back Home,” and running through “You’ll Never Know,” and “Twilight Time.” “These are all great romance songs, “ he explained. So Irving Berlin simply became the inspiration.
“We’re playing a song or two or three from it every night, mainly because it’s new music and we enjoy a couple of new Django things that we’re doing.”
Ah, Django. Willie couldn’t do an album of classics and leave the original gypsy swing guitarist out of the mix. “Many years ago, Johnny Gimble gave me a tape of Django stuff,” Willie explained. “It’s the first time I ever heard him, and I realized as soon as I heard of him, I’d have to hear a whole lot more. I probably have everything he ever recorded, from the Hot Club of France to when he played the electric in New York. He was the greatest guitarist ever.”
Face the Music and Dance marks the second time he’s recorded “Nuages” and “Vous et Moi,” both of which appeared on 1999’s swing album Night and Day. But on the new version of the latter song in particular, Willie exhibits some of his finest guitar picking on any recording over the past two decades.
Still, it’s the old warhorse, “South of the Border,” that catches the ear, especially the singer’s plaintive “ai-yi-yi”s. “It’s one of those naturals when you’re from Abbott,” the man across the table said matter-of-factly, inhaling deeply before passing the big joint. “It’s one of the first songs you learn. I’ve got a lot of Mexican in me,” he laughed.
Willie asked if I heard about Country Music Association Male Vocalist r of the Year Blake Shelton’s comments about “old farts and jackasses” and that “nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music,” which earned Shelton a heated response from Willie’s friend and mentor Ray Price, who suggested Shelton check back in sixty-three years to check on his legacy. Price signed his letter “Chief Old Fart and Jackass.”
“Wasn’t that funny?” Willie said. “Ray will kick his ass. I think it was a stupid thing to say. I think he realizes it now, that maybe he stepped in it a little bit there.” He paused then expounded. “It’s not often they do [step in it]. Most everybody I know has a lot of respect for those who came before them. I think it was unfortunate thing he said. I haven’t heard a lot of that.”
Willie’s response was to rename his roadshow “The Old Farts and Jackass Tour.”
After Face the Music and Dance comes the duet album, To All the Girls. “I did some songs with Loretta Lynn, Dolly, Roseanne Cash,” Willie said. “You know, I keep having fun doing it. It’s my band on Face the Music and for the Duets album that’s being produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s Nashville musicians who know me up there.”
We talked about the revival of Paul English (“I don’t know. He’s been getting into that Viagra or something”) and the growing acceptance of marijuana, an appropriate topic since Willie sits on the advisory board of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, and was passing around some very strong weed at the moment. “I think there’s 15 or 20 states where medicinal is legal. It’s just a matter of time. When the economy gets worse, and worse and worse, people are gonna say, ‘Wait a minute. We’re missing a deal here.’ And they’re going to finally tax it and regulate it like Chesterfields. They’ll find out there’s a whole lot of money there. “
As onerous as his bust two years ago at the Sierra Blanca checkpoint on Interstate 10 in West Texas may have been, I thanked him because it got me a byline in the Texas Tribune and New York Times. Willie derived some benefit from the inconvenience too. “After I got busted I started the Teapot Party. There was a Tea Party and I thought there should be a Teapot Party. It was kind of a half-ass joke, but it’s now represented in every state in the union and in some foreign countries. There are millions of pot smokers out there who could vote if they wanted to. “
We also talked about Lance Armstrong, the other famous mega-celebrity with Austin ties, who had confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he had doped while winning seven Tour de France cycling races. If anyone could relate, I figured it was Willie. He could.
“If it [doping] is a bad thing to do – and in some instances and with some age groups, it would be a bad thing,” he said, maybe there was reason to go public. “But I don’t know any sport that’s drug-free, do you? From professional football to wrestling.” He laughed and said, “I know some of those old wrestlers who took better pain pills than you ever saw, because they went through a lot of pain. There’s a lot of sports out there that depend on drugs to get them [participants] to the next big town.”
Just like some entertainers enjoy a fine smoke before they hit the stage.
So in a way, Willie had been where Lance is. “We oughta look at it like, ‘Let’s don’t judge ‘til you’ve walked in that man’s shoes. Let’s not tell him how to live or what to do.’ That’s what we were all taught early in life. Judge not, lest you be judged. I don’t think any of us can afford to be judged too close or harshly.”
Turned out, Willie and Lance were friends. “I’ve passed a couple emails back and forth, but he got real busy,” Willie said. “I didn’t want to bother him.”
Did Willie offer Lance any advice?
He nodded, exhaling. “Fuck ‘em.
“Who knows what brought everything on and why everything was like it was? I think BC, Billy Cooper [Willie’s one-time driver], said it pretty good: ‘It’s my mouth and I’ll haul coal in it if I want to.’
“I know one thing that comes to mind when all that happened. I had an arm that I couldn’t use. I hurt it really bad when I was playing golf. George Clooney told me about a doctor in Germany. I went to see him. He took blood out and recharged it with a lot of healing qualities, put it back in, and my arm got OK. It’s about 100% now. You just can’t throw everything in one big bag and say, That’s bad.’”
That was Willie the Star talking. As the grand old man of Texas music, did he dispense advice to younger musicians coming up?
“If they’re any good, they wouldn’t listen to me or anybody else,” he allowed. “They’ll do what their instincts tell them to do and they’ll wind up doing the right thing. You can get a lot of bad advice out there.”
And what were Willie’s instincts telling him?
“To go do a show right here in a minute,” he said, nodding his head towards the big building outside the bus. “That’s about all I have planned until tomorrow.”
Those soulful, deep brown eyes across the table signaled it was time to go to work.
With the band dressed in various shades of black, and Trigger, his battered guitar tethered to his red-white-and-blue macramé strap, Willie had the full house at Nutty Jerry’s eating out of his hands from “Nightlife,” a tune originally recorded less than an hour from Winnie at Gold Star Studios in Houston, just before Willie hit Nashville and was discovered 53 years ago. This particular version showcased his guitar-picking with a long extended improvisation of deft, distinctive notes. He wore the song like an old sweater.
“Little sister” Bobbie, two years his elder, took off on her signature piece, “Down Yonder” to kick the show into gear, followed by “Me and Paul,” the saga of misadventures with Willie’s drummer, his back, and his best friend, Paul English, who nodded assuredly in time with the rhythm as he worked his brushes on the snare.
The crowd provided the response lines to “Good Hearted Woman” “in love with a good-hearted man.” Before long, hardcore fans were pressing up against the stage, women were standing up, arms raised high, mouthing the lyrics, with yeehaws and rebel yells echoing off the walls. Several times, Willie removed the red bandanna he wore around his head and tossed it into the crowd, with outstretched hands grasping for it like it was one of Elvis’ scarves, only better.
The last half of the show was pure tent revival, with daughter Amy and son Lukas, arms around each other, taking the stage to sing backing vocals while their father rolled through “On The Road Again,” “Always On My Mind.” three Hank Williams songs including “I Saw The Light,” working in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” until closing with his latest, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a spiritual with decidedly secular lyrics.
As the band played on, Willie signed autographs for fans bunched at the lip of the stage, autographing hats, pieces of paper, shirts, bras, dolls…anything offered for close to five minutes.
And then he walked offstage. The band finally shut down, and Paul English gingerly escorted Sister Bobbie offstage. When Bobbie recognized a writer waiting at the bottom of the steps, she lit up, gave him a hug, and accepted his compliments for her performance. She kept smiling as she sweetly allowed, “The sound wasn’t very good tonight. You’re just going to have to come back and hear us again real soon.”
Her words made me stop and marvel. Bobbie and Willie have been playing together for seventy-six years. Seventy-six years. That’s longer than any two people in the history of American music. From their perspective, they’re simply still doing what their grandparents raised them to do: make music, and have fun doing it.
Paul helped Bobbie step gingerly onto Honeysuckle Rose, then stepped off as the door closed. Within seconds, the bus with the half-eagle, half-Willie face painted on the back began to back out of its parking spot. A minute later, it had vanished into the coastal fog.
And that should have been that.
Except that the following night in Bossier City, Willie and Family were joined onstage by one of his mentors, Ray Price, who sang “Crazy” and “Nightlife” and killed with his performance, inspiring Willie to advise the audience, “Watch out for them old farts!” The next night, Willie did an intimate two-fer with old friend Kris Kristofferson at the Bluebird Café in Nashville.
Like the big wheels rolling, the Willie show never really stops. It just keeps on going. The man behind it all wouldn’t have it any other way.