Willie Nelson: Yesterday's Outlaw
Once branded an outlaw by Nashville's rhinestone-encrusted music establishment, Nelson has lately become an inadvertent and unassailable national monument.
Before he ever imagined the high life, the whiskey nights and the Bloody Mary mornings to follow, Willie Nelson yearned for the road and its promise of freedom. As a Texas schoolboy, chopping cotton for $1.50 a day, he listened to the gospel songs of the field hands and daydreamed about moving on. “I didn’t like picking cotton one bit,” he recalls. “I used to stand in the fields and watch the cars go by and think, ‘I want to go with them.’ ”
Today, nearly four decades and a million miles later, Willie, 47, continues to heed the call of the highway. Overtaken by success a mere five years ago with the release of his album Red Headed Stranger, he simply picked up the tempo and put his foot to the floor. Once branded an outlaw by Nashville’s rhinestone-encrusted music establishment, Nelson has lately become an inadvertent and unassailable national monument. No one really objected when Willie dropped a lyric from The Star-Spangled Banner at the recent Democratic National Convention.
Since Stranger went platinum in 1976, Nelson has added two more platinums, two double platinums, four golds and a whole atticful of Grammys and Country Music Association awards. Currently, with seven LPs on the charts plus his new double LP Honeysuckle Rose, Willie has taken his guitar and his low-key persona and is trying his hand at being a movie star.
As he tells it, his starring role as Buck Bonham in Honeysuckle Rose is one he could play almost from memory. “I never did know you had to be trained to have your picture made,” drawls Willie. “Maybe that’s the whole point—not knowing anything is maybe better than just knowing a little. Besides, I can sympathize with Buck,” he adds. “He’s a married guy who succumbs to temptation on a potholed highway. I’ve been that route myself.”
It shows. On-screen, Willie projects the same earthy sex appeal and relaxed masculinity that give his live performances tension. His face is as brown and creased as a walnut, the reddish hair and beard dusted with gray. But the camera dismisses the etchings of age and lingers instead on the soulful brown eyes and the effortless smile. When Nelson is teamed with Dyan Cannon, who plays his lusty wife, Viv, in Honeysuckle Rose, the movie crackles with high voltage. “Willie does it like a real person, which is what an actor is supposed to do,” says the film’s director, Jerry Schatzberg. “He’s very natural in the love scenes because he’s had a lot of experience there. The man’s been married three times and he knows what he’s doing.”
While Honeysuckle Rose borrows freely from the singer’s nomadic, loosely plotted existence, the unabridged script of Willie’s life story is part Grapes of Wrath, part countrified Battle of the Sexes. Children of the Depression, Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, were raised by their paternal grandparents in dusty little Abbott, Texas after Ira and Myrle Nelson divorced. While Bobbie learned piano from her grandmother, Willie was given his first guitar at 5 by his grandfather, a blacksmith who took mail-order music lessons. When the old man died the following year, Willie kept his ear to the family’s wooden Philco radio, learning as many Grand Ole Opry songs as he could. “He’d pick up things just like that,” says Bobbie. “His ear is so fantastic, he doesn’t even know how good he is.”
Graduating from high school at 16, Willie left the cotton fields for a job as a disc jockey. “When I found myself singing over the radio, I didn’t think life got much better than that,” he recalls. For a while it didn’t. He joined the Air Force in 1950, but was discharged with a back injury. Afterward he enrolled at Baylor University, but spent most of his single semester there playing dominoes. Dropping out, he was earning as little as 50 cents a night with a local band when he met and married Martha Mathews, a 16-year-old Waco carhop, in 1952. “She was a full-blooded Cherokee,” Willie recalls, “and every night with us was like Custer’s last stand. We’d live in one place a month, then pack up and move when the rent would come due.” By 1958 Willie had three children to support. He made ends meet, after his fashion, as a plumber’s helper and a door-to-door salesman, while working nights playing his songs in the honky-tonks.
The Nelsons drifted to Nashville in 1960, about the time their stormy marriage was nearing its end. Martha resorted to bartending, while Willie hawked his satchel of songs on Music Row and drank up the profits at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. In what turned out to be her final gesture of compassion, Martha had to rescue Willie from a drunken suicide attempt when he sprawled in the street outside Tootsie’s and waited for a car to run over him. The last night of their marriage was even more garish. “I came home drunk,” Willie remembers, “and while I was passed out, she sewed me up in a sheet. Must’ve taken her two hours. Then she got a broomstick and started beating the hell out of me. I woke up in this straitjacket, getting pounded like a short-order steak,’ he continues. “By the time I got loose, she’d lit out in the car with the kids, her clothes and my clothes. There was no way I could follow her naked, and that was kind of the end of it.”
That was about the time his intensely personal, offbeat laments began turning into hits for better-known singers. Night Life (which Willie had sold for $150), Crazy, Hello Walls and Funny How Time Slips Away all cracked the country Top 20 by 1963, and soon he was earning $600 a week in composer royalties. (His own renditions weren’t selling then, because producers kept smothering his reedy baritone in syrupy strings.) Over the years Nelson has composed more than 1,000 songs, while successfully avoiding the old Nashville formulas. “I’d say that 99 percent of what I write has come from my own experience,” he says. “A person could probably start from my first song and go all the way to my last and—if he knew what to look for—write my autobiography.”
Several painful chapters were inspired by his second marriage, to country singer Shirley Collie. Husband and wife sang, recorded and traveled together until settling down on 200 acres near Nashville in 1964. There Willie blew a small fortune fattening hogs (“I bought them for 25 cents a pound and ended up selling for 17”) while performing at the Grand Ole Opry. When Willie hit the road again to recoup his losses, he left Shirley at home to take care of his kids. Both drifted into smashing up cars, drinking, drugs and infidelity until the marriage simply died of neglect.
Still, Willie wasn’t destined for bachelorhood. Even before the divorce from Shirley was final, he had gone ahead and married his present wife, Connie Koepke Nelson, 36, a factory worker whom he’d spotted during a club date in Cut and Shoot, Texas. “When Willie came out to sing,” she remembers, “he looked down and smiled. It wasn’t a flirty look, just a warm, neat feeling. Before the night was over he asked for my phone number, and the next time he came through Houston he called. I went to the show and that was it.”
By 1970 Shirley had moved out and Connie had moved in, but Willie’s career was going nowhere in Nashville. Then his house caught fire. “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” Willie remembers, “but I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn’t being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.” Willie saved the grass, but lost more than 100 tapes of songs he hadn’t yet recorded. Still, out of the ashes came a sense of relief and a determination to abandon Nashville for Texas. Installing his family in Austin, Willie bought a used Greyhound bus and began touring the county fairs, dance halls and violence-prone bars where he was known and loved.
Just as Merle Haggard was topping the charts with his hippie-baiting Okie from Muskogee, Willie—never a slave to fashion—began sporting long hair, a beard and an earring. With fellow outlaws like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker, he began forging the gritty Austin sound that finally brought him success as a singer. Within six months of its release in 1973, the LP Shotgun Willie outsold all his previous albums combined; he was inducted into Nashville’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame; and his first Fourth of July picnic drew 50,000 rockers and rednecks to the little hamlet of Dripping Springs, Texas. Creative control over his recordings brought Willie a string of hit LPs that hasn’t been broken, and later led to his first movie role—as Robert Redford’s manager in The Electric Horseman. Five more film commitments await, at a reported $1 million per role, but Willie insists he’s not going Hollywood. “I like making movies,” he says, “but it’s confining, and I don’t like to go too long without playing concerts.”
Willie and his extended family of 25 musicians and roadies average 250 days a year on tour, traveling in a convoy of three customized buses and two semis of sound gear. Though he could comfortably afford to fly to his concerts, the bus is a kind of spiritual haven. “I rest better because there’s no phone,” he explains, “and traveling is a big part of my life. I haven’t seen much of the country, but I’ve been all over it a thousand times, just laying in the back with the blinds drawn. I guess it’s the perpetual motion I like.”
Backed by what may be the highest-paid band in country music (members earn $750 a night—$10,000 for cutting an album), Willie’s roistering performances always start on time and usually run through 54 songs. Then he shrugs off his battered Martin guitar to sign autographs for perhaps another two hours. Whether he’s playing Caesars Palace (where he’s paid $1.5 million a year) or a little Bible Belt fair, Willie’s accessibility is his immutable trademark. “He just can’t say no to anybody,” Connie says. “I’ve seen Will so tired he can’t go any further. Then someone will ask one more thing from him and he’ll do it. He doesn’t ever want anybody to think that success has changed him.”
In some ways, of course, Willie has changed. Though he and his sidemen continue to graze on $3,500-a-pound Arkansas grass (“Most people smoke to get high,” says a friend, “Willie smokes to get normal”), he has sworn off pills and cut back on his whiskey. He offers no apologies for the marijuana (“I think most sensible human beings know it’s not something you send people to the penitentiary for”), but forbids the use of any other drugs—especially cocaine—by his band. “If you’re wired,” he says simply, “you’re fired.”
Despite his newfound willingness to set commonsense limits, Willie’s most powerful addiction is to life on the road. “It’s been a strain on Willie and me to an extent, but we’ve never had trouble between us, ever,” reports Connie. “I don’t worry about the women. I trust Willie completely. But sometimes I feel that he doesn’t need me. He’s got the road and he’s got his life. It’s real easy to feel pushed aside.” This summer Connie and the kids have been touring with Willie—a visible rebuttal to stories linking Willie with actress Amy Irving, his adulterous interest in Honeysuckle Rose. “Amy and I were friends during the movie and I hope we’re still friends,” says Willie. “Anything more is only what people wanted to write about.”
There was a time when Willie’s definition of a successful performer was “anyone who got to play music and eat.” Today he says, “I have all the material things I need and a couple I don’t.” When their life in Austin became oppressively public, he, Connie and their two children moved to Colorado in 1977. There Willie can hang his hat in a three-story chalet on 60 acres near Denver or at the family’s 64-acre ranch a few miles west in Evergreen. Back in Texas, he owns the 75-acre Pedernales Country Club outside Austin, an 80-unit apartment complex, the 1,700-seat Austin Opry House and the previous Nelson residence—a 44-acre spread with a $750,000 limestone ranch house hidden behind a wall topped with electrified barbed wire. Around Nashville, his holdings include a music publishing company and 200 acres outside town.
Inevitably, becoming a man of property, as well as the father of five, grandfather of six and paterfamilias to a musical entourage, has given Willie a sense of responsibility that is occasionally burdensome. “I’m not worried about the next car payment,” he says, “but I am worried [including numerous ex-in-laws] depend on me, and it’s a lot of pressure in some ways. But we’re making more now than we ever did, so at least if I decide to hang it up for a couple of months, nobody’s going to starve to death.” Shouldn’t his success entitle him to be a little more sanguine? “Maybe,” he says, “but I still get knocked off my feet like anybody else. I’ve had so many ups and downs in the last 30 years that I’ve learned to live with both. The successes are great, but they’re not going to last forever. And I’ve come back from a lot of failures.”