Fans will revel in self-styled exposé
THERE’S a line in an old Merle Haggard song, Footlights, that could almost have been written with Willie Nelson in mind:
“I live the kind of life most men only dream of
I make my living writing songs, and singing them.”
Willie Nelson is of course, a man who needs no introduction.
His face and loose-living image is known the world over, and his songs have become anthems for the lovelorn and dispossessed, delivered straight to the listener’s heart in that utterly distinctive and expressive baritone, the very definition of a lived-in voice, as crumpled, scratched and weather-beaten as the Texas landscapes he loves so much.
At 82 years old, after several decades of hits, he has more than earned his vaunted status as a bona fide American icon.
Yet his journey to success has been fraught with difficulties, from his impoverished roots and half a lifetime of scraping a living as a no-name music-scene hustler, through turbulent love affairs, tragedies, and personal and financial disasters.
These, just as much as the high moments, are what make his story so compulsively readable.
Whether it is due to Willie’s natural storytelling abilities or some to particularly adept ghost-writing manipulation, the whole thing flows beautifully.
There’s no flinching here, nor glorifying, but there’s a lot of music, humour, thoughtfulness and insight culled from lessons learned the painful way. It is, as the subtitle states, a long story, but it’s also the sort of book difficult not to devour in one or two sittings.
“An epic tale” that often reads like a confession, it succeeds admirably in painting a broad-canvas portrait of a unique artist, a figure that devoted fans will recognise but only half-know, a flawed, complex individual, the quintessential outsider, still — even at this advanced age — fighting to make sense of the world.
Willie Nelson’s story starts, in the way of all such celebrity autobiographies, at a defining life moment. In this case, it’s the early ’90s and the Inland Revenue Service have just lowered the boom.
The singer, they said, owed $32 million in back taxes. Everything he’d struggled so hard to achieve was under threat. The law, it seemed, had this Outlaw surrounded. But to understand just how and why it happened, the reader is taken back to the very beginning.
Born on April 29, 1933, in tiny Abbott, a no-horse speck of a central Texas town, population somewhere around 400, that had been crippled by the Great Depression, Willie Hugh Nelson was the second child of Ira, a man of Arkansas dirt-farm stock, and the still teenaged Myrle, a three-quarters Cherokee Indian. The marriage didn’t survive another six months, each being too wild in their ways.
“You’d think the absence of a mother and father would cause little kids like me and Bobbie all sorts of emotional damage,” writes Willie. “Well, I’m here to say that it didn’t. It didn’t because my grandparents – whom we called Mama and Daddy Nelson – took over.”
In this corner of the world, no one has much in the way of money, but there is an abundance of music, and of love. Abbott is a God-fearing place, but from a young age, through church and other avenues, Willie begins to explore his talent.
The anecdotes in this part of the book are sweet and funny – a four year-old boy in a white sailor suit preparing to perform a poem at a gala outdoor tabernacle meeting, but giving into nerves and picking his way to a nosebleed, and a nickname: Booger Red — but things take a hard turn just two years later, when Daddy Nelson dies unexpectedly following a bout of pneumonia. Somehow, though, through hard work, the family survives.
From the start, Willie is a wild one. A star athlete in school, and already earning local renown from playing dances and beer joints at night in order to earn a few cents, it’s clear that a town of this size can’t contain him. At 19, having been shipped home from
the Air Force on a medical discharge due to back problems, a consequence of years spent baling hay, he meets Martha Jewel Mathews, a full-blood Cherokee beauty. She is three years younger than him, but it’s love at first sight.
It also proves a tempestuous union. In the 10 years they are together, they travel the country searching for Willie’s break.
She waits tables; he helps make ends meet by selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door to door, or tries to catch work as a radio deejay, but nights are spent gigging, and drinking, which leads to a lot of problems, not least a string of infidelities. And by the time the marriage ends, they — and their three young children — are in Nashville.
On the music front, the breaks come slowly. At first, the songs he is writing become hits for other singers: Faron Young takes ‘Hello Walls’ to the top of the Country charts, with sales of two million units. Ray Price hits with ‘Night Life’ and Roy Orbison with ‘Pretty Paper’.
Patsy Cline’s version of ‘Crazy’ breaks down all kinds of doors, becoming one of the most played records of the century.
Even though he is becoming hot property as a songsmith, and finally earning well from his music, his ambition remains to make it as a recording artist in his own right.
And it doesn’t come easy. After a misfire with Liberty, he falls in with RCA, under the guidance of the brilliant Nashville guitarist, Chet Atkins, who insists on dulling the music’s edges and layering the records with strings and choirs in order to fit the mould of the so-called ‘Nashville Sound’.
The problem is, a singer like he exists beyond the confines of moulds. Inevitably, the records flop.
Still, the right people are beginning to take notice. And, as the ’70s dawn, things are changing on Music Row. Jerry Wexler, a producer with Atlantic, is a fan, and steps in with big promises.
A couple of crucial albums, Shotgun Willie and the concept gem, Phases and Stages, not only puts him on the map as a major talent, but leads to even bigger things, with Columbia Records, and an explosion of creativity and gold and platinum albums through most of the next decade that will make him Country music’s brightest star.
By then, he has already done a lot of living. He’s seen his ranch house in Nashville burn to the ground (he fights the flames in order to rescue his beloved guitar, Trigger, and his stash of pot); divorced Martha in order to marry Shirley; left Shirley to marry Connie, a road ‘girlfriend’ pregnant with his fifth child, committing accidental bigamy along the way.
He also relocates his growing commune of family and friends to Austin, a Texas town more in keeping with his increasingly hippie leanings.
Up ahead, even aside from the spectre of the IRS, are drug busts, hits, misses, another divorce, another marriage, more children, great friendships, and a tragedy no parent wants to suffer. There’s still a lot more story left to be told.
In recounting of his life in an honest, open fashion, without sensationalism or attempts at self-glorification, Willie Nelson’s memoir is, in essence, a book about three things: love, survival and music.
It makes for a fascinating and worthwhile read, even for those with no interest in his work. Fans, of course, will revel in this self-styled exposé and will find their appreciation for the songs deepening by the page.
Through it all, the only punches pulled are in connection with his children, because, he says: “... while I have every right to tell my story, I don’t have the right to tell theirs.”
Some might view this as an easy way of avoiding hard issues, but it is actually a statement that feels entirely in keeping with the character who emerges from these nearly 400 pages: convoluted, contradictory, and thoroughly human.