by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Living legend" is too tame a term to describe Willie Nelson. He's more of an icon, albeit an accidental one. But then that's the best kind. And as for all you whippersnappers thinking of following Willie's path to stardom, forget it. He was forged in a world that doesn't exist any more, of lightning striking the same place, like, ten times. His one-of-a-kind voice belongs on a record like Humphrey Bogart belonged on the silver screen, like Harry Truman belonged in the White House. Only in America.
Willie on the road in 2003, still "making music with my friends," is the equivalent of seeing Elvis or Sinatra, if they had lived this long. Willie goes waaayyy back -- he was writing songs and playing lead guitar when Buddy Holly was strumming a tennis racquet in his bedroom mirror. At 70, he's never been more prolific, with all-star concerts and new CDs pouring out. And now here's your chance to see what all the fuss is about: Willie Nelson is playing the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park on Saturday night.
Before O Brother, Willie was all about roots country. Among his 70-plus records, he wrote far-out concept albums, sang a bunch of Broadway standards that stuck on the charts for more than a decade and turned his back on Nashville, moving to Austin before it was cool. But Willie's charm is rooted in more than music. Raised dirt-poor on a farm in Abbott, Texas, he never quit tugging on those bootstraps. As a result, he's been successful in six different decades. He has even lived to tell about a widely reported fracas with the Internal Revenue Service.
He's as genuine and familiar as the Alamo. And unlike so many celebrities we seek wisdom from, Willie actually has some to share. Why else would so many musicians be so star-struck by him? In recent years, he has recorded with the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Kid Rock, Steven Tyler, Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello, to name just a few. Everybody, it seems, wants to get in orbit around Planet Willie. He has always been a collaborator -- most notably with Waylon Jennings; most notoriously with Julio Iglesias -- but his engine's in overdrive these days. What we're witnessing now is kind of like Michael Jordan's final season, when all the other stars bowed down before him.
The funny thing is, the patron saint of country music ain't much of a saint -- at least by the standards of a format seemingly bent on being recognized as the official soundtrack of the Republican Party. Without putting too fine a point on it, Willie's a hippie. His long hair is the real deal. He probably has more in common with Jerry Garcia than with Garth Brooks. The fact that country music has lionized Willie so much offers hope to all of us that the once-populist country music industry isn't as conservative as we might think -- or else it simply proves that Nashville doesn't really know Willie very well after all.
Willie's not doing interviews on this tour, so we couldn't be the zillionth publication to ask him what he thinks about -- heh, heh -- the flat tax. Or about falling bombs and rising unemployment. Or about his current smash country hit, "Beer for My Horses," performed with and written by Toby Keith, the put-a-boot-up-Islam's-ass, boo-the-Dixie-Chicks guy. Some of Willie's fans are bummed he's performing a song with themes of vigilantism (though, really, it's a song that would have been just another goofy country song before 9/11). We can only imagine how he'd respond to that.
Lucky for us, however, Willie just added "published author" to his resume. He has a new book, and it answers a bunch of other questions we hadn't even thought of asking.
OK, "book" might be too strong a term. You can be read it inside of two hours -- even faster if you skip over the dirty jokes. The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes (Random House) ranges from the absurd to the sublime, and in between you get the jokes, the lyrics to many of his songs and lots of photos thrown in for good measure.
So let's pretend we're interviewing old Willie, and let his book do the talking:
Inlander: The Northwest is your old stomping grounds. Wasn't one of your first gigs as a DJ in Vancouver, Wash., in the mid-1950s? Did you have a persona, like Wolfman Jack or anything?
Willie: My mother had moved to that area, and I followed. I really loved it there. Just before I went to Vancouver, I was working for KCNC in Fort Worth. I'd start the show off every day, "This is your old cotton-pickin', snuff-dippin', tobaccer-chewin', stump-jumpin', gravy-spoonin', coffee pot-dodgin', dumplin-eatin', frog-giggin' hillbilly from Hill Country, Willie Nelson."
Inlander: Your fellow Texan, Ross Perot, really shook up the 1992 election. If you were running for president, what would be your No. 1 issue?
Willie: When you see things going wrong in a country, the first thing you should do is look at how family farmers are treated. How are we treating our first rung on the ladder? Because when the backbone of our country is broken and the first rung on the ladder is weakened, everything collapses. We all come crashing down. You can cut taxes all you want. You can do everything in this world for every other rung on the ladder. But when the family farmer goes under, it's just a matter of time before everyone else follows.
Inlander: Anything else you'd like to tell the voters out there?
Willie: If I had my way, Gene [Autry], Roy [Rogers] and Hoppy [Hopalong Cassidy] movies would be required viewing in every school in the world. And if I'm elected, this will come to pass. Of course, I ain't running for anything.
Inlander: Everybody knows you wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and how that helped launch your career. But what about before that? Any hard-luck stories about you getting started in the business?
Willie: I sold the song "Family Bible" to Paul Buskirk, Claude Grey and Walt Breeland for enough money to pay the rent. I also sold "Night Life" to the same three friends [the song went on to be Ray Price's biggest hit]. I still thank them for the fifty dollars for "Family Bible" and the hundred dollars for "Night Life." I didn't have any regrets about selling those songs. At the time, I really needed the money. A hundred and fifty dollars in those days, and in my position, was like ten thousand dollars to me.
Inlander: Country music is the land of "my wife left me, my truck broke down and my dog done died." Isn't that kind of depressing?
Willie: To me, just getting the words out of my head and onto paper was an exercise worth performing. Those kinds of thoughts left bottled up inside can do more damage than good, and can probably cause everything from cancer to heartbreak. But if you sing those songs every night year after year, I believe you can also prevent a total healing because you're always opening old wounds. So what's the answer? Who knows? If you have a hit with a sad song, just remember when you wrote it, it was for you. When you sing it over and over and over, it's for the benefit of the listener. Don't let it spoil an otherwise good night. Attempt to sing the song for the audience, and try not to get too involved in it yourself. It's a very thin line, and a lot easier said than done. Sometimes I believe the reason a lot of country singers and writers have gone off the deep end was because they could not find that thin line.
Inlander: Why is music so powerful?
Willie: People are people. They laugh, cry, feel and love, and music seems to be the common denominator that brings us all together. Music cuts through all boundaries and goes right to the soul.
Inlander: Tell us a joke we can print in a family newspaper.
Willie: These guys were playing golf one day when a funeral passed by on the road next to the golf course. One of the players took off his hat and waited until the funeral procession passed. One of his fellow golfers said, "John, that's mighty respectable of you to do that." The guy said, "It's the least I can do for her. We would have been married 20 years today."
New Home, Same Sounds -- If you haven't had a chance yet to check out Sol & eacute;'s new digs at 1039 N. Division, this weekend is the perfect time to do just that. The proprietors -- the tireless, relentless Derek Almond & amp; Co. -- are throwing a weekend-long supermusicbash to mark the official grand opening of Sol & eacute; Mk. IV, featuring local and national acts, interesting people, stimulating conversation, counterculture galore and maybe even some punch and cookies.
The new all-ages live music space has better acoustics, better ventilation and more forgiving neighbors than the former space. But the real value-added bonus to this weekend's entertainment package is the deluxe live music accommodations you will receive with payment of your modest cover fee. Friday night the loud gets unleashed with Race Track, Apitomee and Soma. Saturday features a dizzying cavalcade of local, regional and nationally touring indie rock talent in the form of Kind of Like Spitting and Corrina Repp (both of Portland), Bugs in Amber (Seattle), Miss Tracy (Spokane) and singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar-burner Rachel Jacobs (New York). On Sunday evening, all hell breaks loose with Battle of the Bands Phase 4 (actual participating bands: TBA).
I can't be sure, but I'm thinking you all might want to get in on at least a little bit of that.
Publication date: 07/31/03