By the time this column is published Willie Nelson will have turned 80 years old. He was born April 30, 1933, in Abbot, Texas.
Country western music in the '40s and '50s was far too "western" or "southern western." Then when Willie came along he sang a better melody, lent meaning and gave depth to the message - and thus turned it into "country" by dropping the western/southern and adding a bit of jazz, rock and blues. This could then apply to Midwestern country even from the plains for Minnesota.
According to Robert Sullivan, in the publication of "LIFE," he writes that "Music was Willie's refuge - meaning all kinds, from mariachi to Sinatra. Asked about his all-over-the-lot tastes at such a young age - a catholicity that has endured throughout his life - Willie told me, 'Well, I'd listen to the radio far into the night. I'd turn the dial and hear everything - a little classical, a little country. I liked blues and jazz, and I liked the country stuff I could pick up from SWM in Nashville. On Saturday nights, when the 'Grand Ole Opry' was on, we'd gather around and watch the radio.' He felt he was better at country, and started writing about things such as marital infidelity and myriad other betrayals - affairs of which he had not the foggiest notion. But they sounded like country songs. His guitar playing did not sound country. He was taken, early on, with the stylings of jazz great Django Reinhardt, and Willie's distinctive playing owes a lot to that master musician - and maybe as well to those splayed strings on his imperfect Stella guitar. His band played all sorts of music, but Country came easier.
'Even when I was a teenager I was singing 'Stardust' and 'Moonlight in Vermont' and all those songs on the Stardust album, said Willie. Those were busy days. I had a lot of things happening: going to high school, playing beer joints, teaching Sunday school. Conflict of interest - according to the church it was, yeah.'"
The Nelson forebears moved from Arkansas before moving to Texas in 1929. They possessed a mixture of English, Irish and Cherokee blood. Willie had a sister, Bobbie Lee, born in 1931. Their mother could not bear the family life so she left them when Willie was 6 months old. His father found he could not work and raise children at the same time, so he passed them onto his parents. This decision actually turned out to be a good thing - the grandmother taught Bobbie to play the piano - and the grandfather, who was a blacksmith during the day, was a music teacher on the side.
"They bought Willie a Stella guitar when he was 6. The strings were a bit off and the frets not precisely placed, and Willie, who suffered youthful bloodlettings as he loved the instrument so much, has said that this toughened his fingers early."
Willie married four times and fathered seven children.
"By all accounts, Martha (his first wife) was as hotheaded as her husband, and assaulted him several times. One night, Willie recalled, "I came home drunk and passed out and his wife got pissed. This was my first marriage, early days in Nashville, and we were living in a trailer. So she took a needle and thread and calmly wrapped a sheet around me and sewed me up in the sheet. She took a broom and started beating the crap out of me. So I woke up, and there were a lot of things coming at me. She had the kids in the car already and she just took off."
The first Willie Nelson concert that I attended was in the 1980s when I was working as the civil service administrator at the state 4-H office on the St. Paul campus. The State Fair was the highlight of each year, with 4-Hers coming to the campus from all 89 counties in the state. Willie Nelson was one of the performers at the Fair and we had arranged for the 4-Hers to attend his concert. We needed chaperones for the 4-Hers to attend the concert, so I made sure I was one of them so that I could also attend his concert - free of charge. It was fantastic to say the least.
Here was this legend of a singer - one of the most popular and renowned performers of the time -standing in person on stage and singing our favorite songs. When the concert was over I directed and accompanied the 4-Hers back to their dormitory. It was late in the evening and most of the Fair booths had closed down for the night. As we were walking along the quiet fairgrounds, a handful of 4-Hers grabbed me and pulled me to the side as Willie Nelson's tour bus buzzed by at a rather high speed. I was stunned! I had just missed being run over by Willie Nelson and crew. As I recovered, I thought, what a message that would have been on my tombstone - killed by Willie Nelson's tour bus.
"Willie attended Baylor University for a brief time, considering a career in agriculture. He worked odd jobs - as a disc jockey again, as a tree-trimmer, as a saddle-maker, as a janitor, as a door-to-door Bible and/or encyclopedia and/or vacuum cleaner salesman - and then finally decided to get out of Dodge. He did not head for Nashville at this point but to Fort Worth, other places and then, curiously enough, to Vancouver, Wash., where he again worked on radio while singing in the clubs. He finally moved to Nashville as a deejay when he was 20. Then moved back home when he was 21. Nashville did not accept his songs, but did allow him to be a songwriter. Patsy Cline liked his song 'Crazy' and thus recorded it.
"Another of Willie's greatest hits, if his all-time best drug anecdotes can be called such, concerns a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1978. He has known all the presidents - he is a kind of singing Billy Graham, and no chief executive has missed the chance to curry favor with Nelson Nation by sidling up to Willie - but Carter, a farm boy from Plains, Ga., was a true friend early and remains one today. Willie surely thought that it might be an abuse of that relationship to light up in, say, the Oval Office, or the Lincoln Bedroom. Asked years later if it was really the case that he rolled a joint that day on the White House roof, he demurred: 'I rolled it before I got up there.' Asked if he wasn't worried that he might be setting himself up for a truly historic bust, Willie smiled and gave it the old nonchalance: 'I should have been.'"
(Continued next week)