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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Willie Nelson Hits Springfield

A timeless (and previously unpublished) encounter with country music's coolest rebel--the redheaded stranger we know and love as Willie Nelson.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

It's long past midnight at the Illinois State Fairground in Springfield. Heavy rain slants down, dousing the day's tangled aromas of corn dog, funnel cake and horse dung. Everything's shut down.

Except for Willie Nelson, that is. He's still out there between the harness-racing track and the band buses where fifty damp, patient souls waiting in line to meet him. He shakes hands, listens, puts an arm round them to pose for pictures, maybe winks and says, "See you on down the road". He's wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. Eventually, someone thinks to hold an umbrella over him. He is 68, after all.

Each brief encounter--and Nelson does this after each of his 150 shows a year--has an intimacy deserving respect. I stand back, but I wonder what they say to that Mount Rushmore face, those shaman eyes. Now, Willie, about the meaning of life...?

"Well, they talk about everything imaginable," says Nelson later. "Marriages, divorces, deaths. Or nothing but 'Hello, we've been fans for a long time'."

Do they look to you for wisdom, for answers? "Some. But I'm not the right person to solve their problems. They are."

You can see he offers no lengthy responses--just nods, grunts and smiles — and that this is exactly what's called for. Fair exchange. Now, at last, they've given him a piece of their lives after all those years sharing his through the songs.

That night they'd heard more than 40 of them. Lickety-split with hardly a pause for a Texan "Howdy!" and "This one's by Hank Williams." Still reddish pigtails bobbing, grey beard gathered in a gnarled grin. Waving to the girls in the fourth row who always caught his eye for better or for worse. But mostly he's pounding his old Martin Classical, the holed and holy Trigger. Cottonfield arms pumping tirelessly, old man's skin slack over still powerful muscles, he sweeps to and back across the rhythm.

His voice is equally eccentric. A word drawled slow, a pause, a whole line spat out fast. When he was struggling in Nashville, the country music bosses used to sneer "That ain't singin', that's talkin'". They missed the point. His voice, his guitar, the band of old friends gathered closely about him on the big stage, all nods and grins and raised eyebrows as they listen hard to every note--unrehearsed on principle: Willie Nelson and Family play at the point where music and conversation meet.

To call his music a universal language would overstate the case--unsurprisingly he has few black followers, for instance. But he does reach across generations, idioms and fashions. Perhaps it's because even when he plays "Crazy," "Night Life," "Funny How Time Slips Away," songs he wrote 40 years ago, he lives them in the here and now.

"Those words, that melody and that old story are still right there for me every time," he says. "That's the root. And then they do the same for the audience as they do for me and everyone there is in that same moment."

The fans in Springfield and the following night at Missouri State fair, Sedalia, show how disparate people find common ground in Nelson. John Brown, 59, general sessions judge from Nashville: "He's the best living American songwriter. So poetic." Adam Walker, 21, self-styled slacker from Springfield, Missouri: "Willie's the baddest guitar player in the world. He's got the most soul." Theresa Johnson, 41, who works in customer services for a St Louis company: "What gets me is the stories he sings, the realism. And he is still a very sexy, good-lookin' man. Distinguished. Pigtails and all."

Chris Post, 16, a farmhand/schoolboy from Warrensburg, Missouri, big, strong and quietly spoken, says he grew up with Nelson: "My dad listened to him all the time." He gets his picture taken. Then he comes back to add something important. "My daddy passed away a little while ago and Willie's got a few songs that...the words hit home, you know?"

*

Nelson sits at the wooden galley table on his customized bus, Honeysuckle Rose. Road manager Dave Anderson hands him a cup of coffee and a spliff--which he doesn't offer to share.

Above us dangle various Indian artifacts recalling his mother Myrle's three-quarters Cherokee blood. On the bench-seat beside him there's a succinct travelling library: a book of Ghibran poems he's re-reading and Jack Herea's definitive marijuana manual The Empress Wears No Clothes. Behind him is the compartment where he sleeps--mattress on the floor because of a back problem acquired when baling hay as a boy--and bunks occupied by Lana, 48, eldest of his seven children and mistress of his website, and his sister Bobbie, 70, family pianowoman.

As late country great Roger Miller observed, Nelson "flushes to the beat of a different plumber." He has written well over 2000 songs, recorded maybe another thousand covers and released more than 230 albums. That's an average of one every nine weeks since his 1962 debut And Then I Wrote..."I could do one a day without a problem," he says mildly derisive of the industry's current three-year "album cycles".

In senior citizenhood, his recording strategy has been to release his down-home records on hobbyist indie labels including his own, while occasionally giving a serious commercial shove to more mass-market ventures. This unconventional approach proved largely incomprehensible to the great conglomerates but, from 1996, in Island he found a sympathetic major label.

Three years ago, Teatro, with its swampy Daniel Lanois production--and recorded at Nelson-speed in four days (about the time it takes U2 to worry about a snare sound)--won great reviews and decent sales. Now, with The Great Divide he's trying the Santana route to multi-platinum: collaborating with Midas-touch Matchbox 20 producer Matt Serletic, with younger-crowd cameos from Rob Thomas, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Brian McKnight (it took two days, bar the guest spots).

But if Nelson candidly seeks chart action on this one--"I've got nothing against success," he chuckles--the album came about as naturally as any of his myriad collaborations down the years.

On the phone from a Cincinnati gig, co-instigator Thomas tells me: "My family were no-shoes country when we lived in South Carolina so I was hooked into Willie, Merle, Waylon as a kid. I first met Willie in 1998 when he played at Tramps in New York. I was drunk by the time he finished so when I got to talk to him it wasn't pretty--(slurs)--'I love you Willie', all that. Then a couple of years later we had a chance to just sit and play songs to one another and he liked three of mine enough to put them on The Great Divide.

"Spending time with Willie was everything I wanted out of it, he's so personable and generous. I'd play him something of mine and he'd say maybe, I love the lyrics but I'm waiting for the melody to go somewhere ... it was songwriting university."

*

After the Springfield show, Jason Stigen, 31, from Iowa, a physical therapist, says: "I figure it would be hard for any new artist to come up with something that speaks to America like Woody Guthrie and Willie because there are no hard times any more. We don't have to worry about holes in our shoes like Willie did when he was growing up."

That's no romance. When Bobbie Nelson invites me into her "boudoir"--to perch on the edge of her bunk, that is--she sketches the "dirt poor" world she and Willie were born into. Abbott, Texas, pop. 300, the early '30s, the depths of Depression. Their teenaged parents split up and left them with their grandparents when Willie was 12 months old. Then, five years on, "Daddy" Nelson, who was a blacksmith, died. The kids and their grandmother picked cotton, whatever it took, to make ends meet.

But just before he died, "Daddy" gave Willie a Sears catalogue guitar. And Bobbie wanted a piano so badly that, she remembers, "in the backyard under a big peach tree" she and Willie faked one up out of a cardboard box and drew a keyboard with Crayolas so that she could practice her fingering. Then her grandparents sold a calf to buy her a second-hand upright.

After that the two children never wanted anything but to play music.

Chasing his chance, Nelson trekked his first wife and children from Abbott, to Eugene, Oregon, back to San Antonio, to Fort Worth--where, in 1954, a friend called Fred Lockwood ignited his lifelong love of pot--to San Diego, to Portland, Oregon, to Springfield, Missouri, to Fort Worth again and Houston, before he finally decided to try Nashville in 1960.

He got into bands and DJ'd wherever he could, but, to support the family he turned his hand to saddlemaking, plumbing, selling Encyclopaedia Americana and Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Sometimes he hopped freight trains, slept in ditches or, when he had a beat-up car, deployed his "Oklahoma credit card"--a rubber tube to siphon petrol.

This ragged rambler was not the laid-back, oracular Willie Nelson of later years. Though never short of friends and a charmer with the ladies, he was also "Booger Red", a raging roughneck, a boozer and pill-popper, up for a fight any time, always riding wild highs and diving to the most miserable lows.

Even when his songs started to make him up to $100,000 a year after Patsy Cline's smash hit with "Crazy" and Faron Young's with "Hello Walls" in 1961, Nelson could find little contentment. His first two marriages broke up in Nashville, emotional conflagrations both. The country powers-that-be wouldn't let him make the records he wanted to, drowning his earthy performances in a syrup of strings, so his constant tours struggled to find an audience. Finally Ridgetop, the handsome "gentleman farmer's" house he had bought burnt down.

One turning point en route from anger and frustration to Buddhist equilibrium was a tragi-farcical suicide attempt in Nashville. He describes it in his autobiography as "a Russian roulette thing--I got so drunk and discouraged that I laid down in the street in the snow late at night and waited for a car to come along...but eventually I began to feel stupid and went and bought another round of drinks."

His emergence from the standard musician's tailspin chaos probably began, more or less accidentally, with the gathering of the faithful disciples who became the Family.

From 1966-73, with a none too Messiah-like invocation--"Stick with me, kids, and you'll be wearing horseturds as big as diamonds" he'd tell them--Nelson recruited still current band members Paul English (drums), Bee Spears (bass), sister Bobbie, Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Paul's brother Billy (percussion) and Jody Payne (guitar). But that wasn't all. Stage manager Poodie Locke, merchandiser Scooter Franks and security man Larry Gorham joined up during the same period and they're still on the bus too.

The strong-character opposite-poles principle which Nelson believes has held them together is best illustrated by considering Paul English and Bobbie Nelson. For both, joining Willie's band was a transformational lifelong commitment from day one. English came out of the prostitution rackets in Fort Worth, a gun-toting hood with a "be killed or kill someone else" attitude. Nelson offered him poverty and music and he went along.

Bobbie is a gentle Southern lady with a fondness for white chiffon. After losing one husband to a car crash and another to divorce, she brought up her three sons in Austin by working for Hammond Organs and playing "dinner music" in restaurants. But when she was nearly 40 and her boys were grown she had only one thought: "I missed playing with Willie so terribly. There was something totally missing in my life. He felt the same. It was his suggestion that we play together from then on."

The happy accident worked. The band assembled in penury went on to prosper mightily. Among friends, Nelson stepped out of the Nudie-suited "spick-and-span Willie" Nashville cliché he'd adhered to for years. He grew long hair and a beard, donned a bandanna and found he'd created hard-nosed "Outlaw" music, kind of country but unsentimental and adult.

In 1975, Nelson released the bloody narrative Red Headed Stranger and it sold two million, the first of more than a dozen platinum albums. Soon, as he prospered, he bought Pedernales, a combined 700-acre ranch, golf course, housing development and Western movie-set town (Luck, featured in Lonesome Dove and many others) where various generations and branches of the Nelson family and Family have lived whenever they wished.

While he savored his success, by all accounts, he never lost a generosity which proved his salvation. In 1990, when the IRS, notoriously, billed him for $32 million in unpaid taxes and penalties and it looked as though the days of ditches and freight cars could come round again. Nelson didn't ask for help, but he got it.

The Family, on $1000 per gig and bonuses when Nelson had a hit album, offered to take a 50 per cent pay cut. When his properties, including Pedernales, and other possessions came up for compulsory auction various friends bought them, promising he could retrieve them at cost when he was ready. Some of those friends were people he had never met before, such as a group of family farmers based in Arkansas who appreciated what he did for them when, in 1985, he founded Farm Aid (it has distributed $15 million so far and Nelson is still its President and tenacious lobbyist).

Eventually, the IRS accepted that the debt was incurred through bad management and poor financial advice, halved their demand and struck a deal on payment terms. By the late '90s, when Nelson was square, he notes appreciatively, every one of the backers "holding" his property "stepped right up to the plate" and returned it to him.

Well, he is the author of that droll ditty "A Little Old-Fashioned Karma."

*

From Yesterday's Wine in 1971 through to Rainbow Connection last year, Nelson has always enjoyed creating concept albums about the "circles and cycles" of a character's life, cradle to grave. It suits a personal philosophy based on reincarnation. It also suits his own fundamental instinct to roll the past into the present and on into the future. Never to lose track of anybody who was ever bonded to him by blood or love or both, and so never to lose track of himself.

It's there in the Family brotherhood, in Bobbie and Lana always on the road with him, in daughters Amy, Paula and Susie singing on Rainbow Connection, in the way he stayed close to his mother Myrle and father Ira until they died (despite their early resignation from parental responsibilities), in the ex-wives he's on close terms with, in the (fourth) wife and young children he loves going home to.

Beyond his attempted chartbusters, he's constantly circling and cycling in the duet albums he records in a day and slips out independently. Two years ago it was a collection of Hank Williams classics knocked out with Larry Butler, a man who gave Nelson 50 bucks and a job with his band when he was destitute back in 1958. On the stocks this year is an album of jazz instrumentals with Paul Buskirk, who, on another hungry day, bought two of his great early songs "Family Bible" and "Night Life" for $200--which sounds exploitative, but Nelson was always grateful because "it felt like a victory to make some money from my writing at last". Due out sometime is a rowdy outing with Ray Price, the 79-year-old "Cherokee Cowboy" who cold-shouldered Nelson for years after he shot Price's rooster when it pecked several of his best hens to death. Even on The Great Divide there is a cover of "Just Dropped In" by Mickey Newbury--who back in 1967 courted a 14-year-old Lana Nelson until deterred by her father's cogent arguments and Colt 45.

Undoubtedly, all this speaks of mellowing. Once he favored whiskey, tequila and speed; now, teetotal, he chills on weed "to take the edge off" that submerged temper. Hellraising has been replaced by an idiosyncratic health regime of jogging, golf, Tai Kwondo--he won his black belt last April--seaweed pills and unfiltered apple vinegar.

Even his songwriting is unapologetically more gentle. Particularly since his son Billy's suicide in 1991, he has sought to spare himself and his listeners a little pain: "I believe in writing a song which has a chance of hope--like 'Healing Hands Of Time'. I really don't think it's healthy to get out there every night for two hours and sing negative songs. You can go into the depths of depression. A lot of guys I know do that, they try to live their songs. Then they go and get drunk when the show's over."

But the fans can take it, old and edgy or new and kinder. As our two-night three-part interview proceeds, out on Nelson's interactive website Spiritbear, RocknGRanch and Scotland Across The Void are discussing grief, the deaths of a sister, a mother, a (gay) lover. Drawn together by Nelson's music, they review their own lives. Spiritbear, a Native American, writes, "It's important that we have an opportunity to grieve for loved ones and share that grief."

Imagine. From the cottonfields to cyberspace.

"He's an American icon," says Rob Thomas. "There's an honesty about him. He tells you something you've never heard before, but in a language you can understand. Willie's all killer no filler. He's the opposite of Uncle Sam, he's the America everybody knows they were promised, he's what we would like to get back to, he's for people who are ploughing the fields, for the working people."

Detective novelist Kinky Friedman, who used to front spoof country band the Texas Jewboys, wrote his old pal into a mystery called Roadkill, concluding that "Willie's guitar was not, like the great Woody Guthrie's, a machine that 'kills fascists'. Rather it was a machine that helped heal the broken hearts of other people and sometimes, just maybe, his own as well."

To which Nelson would be unlikely to respond with anything more than a wink and a "See you on down the road."

Read more vintage Willie Nelson pieces at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 16,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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