Is it true that when cowboys die, they go to Texas? Tonight is cowboy heaven for sure—as two forever-young good ole boys named Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson smile and press the flesh and inch their way through phalanxes of ecstatic fans on their way to the bandstand. Out front, a couple thousand of the faithful are whooping it up and pouring down the Lone Star beer at Austin’s Opry House, a true shrine of C&W. It was here that Willie put modern Country on the map in the early ’70s when he gave up on Nashville’s establishment and drifted on down to Austin to forge an alliance between hippies and rednecks.
Hordes of both—now almost indistinguishable, what with their pierced ears and long hair and pounds of silver and gold jewelry and flowered shirts and skintight jeans (and that’s only the men)—are starting their “Willie” chant. Even though the concert footage has already been shot at the Opry House for Songwriter, the movie that Willie and Kris are filming here, Willie got cabin fever after awhile and decided he just had to do a show. Since he now owns the Opry House, along with a lot of other prime Austin real estate, it wasn’t too hard to set up. Austin can never get enough of Willie, especially since he now spends most of his time in Colorado or on the road. He is still a holy man in Texas.
Backstage, Willie, still in his “Doc Jenkins” black garb from the day’s shooting, smiles his guru smile and shakes the hands of preppies in blazers and bikers in leather and grandmothers in shawls and little children and clean-cut jocks and guys who look suspiciously like dope dealers and businessmen wearing suits and leftover ’60s hippies and farmers and former University of Texas Coach Darrell Royal. They are smiling at each other so much that, if you didn’t know better, you might think this is a mob of some kind of babbling religious freaks. But no, they’re just Willie fanatics.
Willie embraces Kristofferson, who is still wearing the black outfit of the “Blackie Buck” character in the movie. Kris and Willie are the old pros of progressive C&W and their lined faces and salt-and-pepper beards show a lot of years of being rode hard and put up wet. But, as a bystander points out, they fearlessly—and recklessly—went up against heavy odds in fighting Nashville’s establishment.
“And, bah Gahd, we won, didn’t we, Willie?” rasps Kris in his window-rattling rumble of a voice, hugging Willie amid the chaos. “Yeah, Kris, I guess we did,” Willie says quietly. Then he and his band hit the stage to plead: “Whiskey river, take my mind.” The crowd erupts and doesn’t stop. It’s an old-fashioned hoedown with dancers and drinkers twirling and swirling through hours of Willie and Kris, and Kris and Willie stripping down to black T-shirts and dripping with sweat by the time they turn Amazing Grace into a Country Mass—hundreds of euphoric worshipers jumping to their feet and pointing their fingers heavenward and singing along with a Texas sermon from Matthew, Mark, Kris and Willie. And not one fight. Remarkable for a honky-tonk.
“God, Willie’s great,” Kris says a few minutes after the show, back in his modest suite at the Ramada Inn, as he picks his way through stacks of toys for his children and calls room service to order himself some rabbit food and volcano water.
Ten years ago, when they were really living the lives of Doc and Blackie, Kris and Willie existed on shots of tequila and more shots of tequila, with the occasional night out on shots of Jack Daniel’s. They were living right out there “on the border,” as Kris sings in this movie. And they were slogging through the drugs-and-alcohol diet thought essential to capture the exquisite pain of country music.
No longer. Kris pulls off his T-shirt to reveal that he’s healthy now, rippling muscles and all that. Coherent. Sane. Everything that he is not in Songwriter. Doesn’t drink or drug anymore. Runs 10 miles a day. Plays golf with Willie. Eats right. Is writing songs again after a long drought.
“Yeah, things are going real good,” he says with a satisfied sigh from his easy chair, boots up on the table. “I got married. Wasn’t no big thing, but yeah, we got a little boy now. My wife’s named Lisa. She’s a lawyer. She was in law school at Pepperdine when I met her. We had a little boy on the seventh of October—Jesse Turner Kristofferson. ‘Jesse’ for an old football coach I had and ‘Turner’ for [band member] Turner Stephen Bruton.
“Willie’s got a great philosophy—about running, about golf, about everything. Kick it back to where you can enjoy it, you know? It’s like, if you’re running too hard and you’re miserable, then ease off a little bit. He runs for pleasure, not to drive himself. I swear to God”—he laughs at the notion—”being around Willie is like being around Buddha. He gives off these positive attitudes. Next thing you know, you’re acting like him.”
He laughs again, shaking his head in wonderment as he pushes his room-service tray aside. He turns and trains the full force of his intense, sky-blue, deep-set eyes on his visitor and says seriously, “I’ll never be like him. I’ll never be able to walk directly from the golf cart to the stage. But I’ll never again put myself through the angst I used to. This film has changed my life as much as A Star Is Born did. That was a real turning point because I saw that I had potential as an actor. It was enough to clean me up, to quit drinking, you know. And this movie has justified my getting cleaned up. You always hope that working with friends will work, but working with Willie is a real bonus because the chemistry on the screen is so good. This has turned out to be the best experience of my life.”
There has been a bit of speculation in showbiz circles about Songwriter, because Willie commissioned the script himself. As Willie’s power and visibility in show business increase, there is an accompanying rise in his inscrutability—and some concern about how old debts will be collected. The morning after Willie’s big Opry House blow-out, the movie crew is spread out over a craggy, windswept hill brooding above Taylor, Texas, a good 20 miles outside Austin. Perched atop the hill is a white-columned Texas demi-mansion that could pass for a Nashville mansion. A cloud of dust kicks up along the gravel road that winds away from the house. It’s Willie, on camera, navigating a huge boat of a white Caddy convertible leaving Nashville, Texas-bound. Just as he did in real life.
After half a dozen takes Willie steps down from the Caddy and rejoins real life, winding his way through a pasture full of a good ole boy’s dream: Hollywood equipment trucks and Texas pickup trucks and Mercedes cars. He climbs aboard his sparkling Scout touring bus (named “Honeysuckle Rose” after his movie) and the door whooshes shut behind him. Settling into the deep cushions of the Scout’s forward lounge, he makes himself comfortable in Willieworld, the little magical kingdom that accompanies him wherever he goes. One of his many aides approaches him and ventures: “Willie, you need to sign this to get personalized Texas license plates. It has to be six letters.” Firing up a big tamale of a homegrown funny cigarette, Willie exhales with relief and passes it on to guests who might want a relaxing puff. He recites his choices for the plates: SMOKIN, PICKER, POTHED, NO-BLOW, SNGWTR, BAD-TV.”
After producing a mushroom cloud of smoke and studying the ceiling for a spell, Willie allows as to how he might prefer BAD-TV. Mainly because two of his crew spend most of their time videotaping anything that happens in Willieworld—they’ve banked about 800 hours of tape—to show on the big screen in the Ramada Inn bar here. Clips like Baby Football, which features Willie’s crew tossing around a lifelike baby doll that had been used in Songwriter. “One of these days,” Willie gasps as he passes the fat, burning tamale, “BAD-TV will be all you can see. Get my own satellite and run it 24 hours. Ted Turner’s doing the same thing.”
“What about Songwriter?” a Willieworld visitor wonders aloud. “There were so many crazy things going on [in the music business] that I thought this movie would be a good idea,” Willie says. “Is it a true movie? Yes. Rip Torn, for example, is doing one promoter I know a great service in playing him as he is. This is not particularly just about the music business, because who knows what it’s really like? I sure didn’t back then. This is a comedy and a musical. It’s about a bunch of guys going up and down the highway playing music and what they run into, and problems they have with this one particular publisher and this particular promoter. They’re all good-ole-boy-type people. I’m very funny. Kris and I are like Laurel and Hardy. Kris is a great straight man.”
Back when he was playing cheap honky-tonks every night, like Doc does in Songwriter, his money was sometimes collected at gunpoint. “That wasn’t every night,” Willie says, pausing to give the tamale a workout. “But it did happen. Nowadays, though, you don’t have to have a pistol. You have to have a lawyer. And that’s a lot more expensive.” He laughs quietly, and as the door whooshes open for him to return to the set, everyone lounging around the Scout seems to sort of snap to attention.