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July 2023: One With Willie


The first time I heard Willie Nelson was in the front seat of my dad’s 1981 Chevy C10 straigh body pickup. The kind with a vinyl bench seat, hand-crank windows, and an after-market stereo that had a state of the art cassette player. That tape player was always loaded with the hits of the day and my dad’s day. A wondrous mix of Motown, Stones, Eagles, Allman Bros, Skynyrd, Bocephus and heaping helpings of both Willie and Waylon. But, above all it was Willie. My dad and his buddies loved to sit in the shade in their webbed vintage lawn chairs on a hot summer day with nothing but the strains of Willie and the Family keeping both they and their Miller High Life cans company. They’d sit there for hours like a seated King of the Hill intro telling old stories, jokes and soaking in long stretches of conversational silence only abutted by Trigger doing a guitar run.


Phases and Stages was the tape playing in my Chevy vinyl seat core memory. And it remains my favorite Willie record. That early start is part of the reason, but as I have traversed adulthood and relationships of all kinds, the lyrics (all written by Willie) have gut punched me over and over again. Other big players were all of the ones you’d think of, Yesterday’s Wine, Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger, Stardust and Willie and Family Live.


My family had a full-service gas station that dated from the 1940s to the 1990s. My dad, uncle and other relatives loved to tell tales of younger, short-haired, clean-shaven Willie popping in for some gas and Dr. Peppers when traversing between Abbott and the beer joints on New Dallas Highway in the Lacy Lakeview/Bellmead area. Those honky-tonks were honey holes for him during the lean years and he nearly always stopped at Beheler Exxon on the way to and fro. He’d even been known to jump into the middle of a card game or round of dominoes with the regulars sitting there watching the highway and life cruise on by.


Willie was all over my youthful TV and radio with things like “On the Road Again” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, but I knew him best as the guy telling me to stay all night and stay a little longer. From the outset he comforted me. His off-kilter voice sounded like home. I grew to appreciate the nuances and strength in it. Give me Willie over Sinatra and Elvis any day. His voice isn’t just good to me. It represents safety. Good times. Family. And I’m not the only one that felt that way. Millions did, and still do.


My parents saw him live a few times in the heyday of the 70’s. I heard tales of Terlingua, Luckenbach, Carl’s Corner, all over Austin and a couple of the picnics. I didn’t get my chance until 1998. I had gone away from Willie as daily listening once I was able to control my own radio and had my own early 80’s Chevy pickup. He was a constant, but not in constant rotation. I was more enamored with the music of my generation (grunge, hip-hop, 90’s radio country). But, I’d become part of a growing number of folks my age following a guy named Pat Green around Texas. Willie was my parent’s guy and we had Pat. Well, lo and behold, some sort of courthouse benefit sprung up in Hill County and Willie was headlining a show that included Pat. There was no doubt I would be there.


The day came and it was crowded, but not overly so. A loud vocal minority of teenagers and early twenty somethings mixed with the older hippies, rednecks and hellraisers. It was a small modicum of what it must have looked like at the Armadillo World Headquarters in the 1970s, but with a wider age range. Pat came out, guitar slung super low, ballcap on backwards and did his thing to the throngs shouting “Pat F*cking Green!” He looked the cat that caught the canary, a sh*t eating grin and look of bewilderment that he was onstage in front of Willie Nelson. It set the stage for the a** kicking that Willie and Family were about to lay down. I was stoked to see the Family mostly the same as the one from my youthful dalliances. Paul English on drums. Jody Payne on guitar. Bobbie Nelson on piano. Mickey Raphael blaring away on harp. Bee Spears filling in all the right spaces on bass. Some complementary players. Poodie Locke stoically holding it all together from side stage.


Despite the unit that the Family was, it was all about Willie. Despite being official retirement age at this gig, Willie looked every bit the young zeitgeist grabbing Texas king that Pat Green was being crowned at the time. Much like Doc Holliday in Tombstone, Willie seemed to be in his prime. From the down-down-down opening salvos of “Whiskey River” through the closing reprise of the same song Willie kicked my a**. His guitar playing sounded better than it had on any live recording I’d ever heard. And his vocals were on top of the mix, behind the beat and heaven to my Texan ears.


I knew I had to get more. So, over the course of the next few years of the modern Texas Music revolution, I found time to squeeze in as many Willie Nelson shows as I could. I caught him in Gruene, Dallas, Houston, Austin and Waco. The highlight being a Margarita and Salsa Fest in downtown Waco that drew national coverage from CMT as it featured Willie, Pat, Cross Canadian Ragweed and a young band called West 84 fronted by Wade Bowen. It was pandemonium in the best way and one of the best day long concerts I’ve ever attended.


I haven’t seen Willie since he was in his early 70’s. But, if anything, I’m more of a fan now that I have ever been. As I became more attuned to the pitfalls of the music business and experienced more slices of it, I became just as much a fan of the person as the singer/songwriter. The stuff he pulled off, the people he helped and the way he used his clout was more than admirable. I’ve read books, articles, oral histories, chased ghosts, taken in hours of podcasts and continue to listen to the music.


Each year when Spotify does my yearly wrap-up, it’s not uncommon for Willie Nelson to remain my most played artist. I have an autographed photo of Willie hanging up in my office. He presides over the troubles of the day and sets the vibe. He does the same thing over Texas at large and Texas Music in particular. It’s been a very long time since he’s been a full-time resident of Texas as he is most likely found out in Maui at a poker game with Woody Harrelson these days, but Willie still presides over just about every facet of things that happen with regard to music in Texas. His influence is both overt and discreet. This industry wouldn’t exist without him. And if it did, it wouldn’t look the same or be this healthy.


I’m finally seeing Willie again this week. It’s been a minute. And he’s brought some friends along in the form of Whiskey Myers and Flatland Cavalry. At age 90, this is likely my last chance to see my musical north star perform. There is both a literal and figurative passing of the torch happening this week between Cleto Cordero and Cody Cannon. Their bands will never reach the icon status of Willie (nobody ever will), but as Willie rides Honeysuckle Rose off into the sunset, these new bands still take the gifts of artistic freedom, true expression, altruistic endeavors and the notion of family and march through the doors today that Willie knocked down 50 years ago. I know he won’t sound as good as he did when I first saw him 25 years ago or first heard him 40 years ago, but he’s still Willie. Even when he’s not on this mortal coil anymore and is living among the uncloudy days up above, his legend will still rule the lone star realm musically and otherwise.


I’m just glad I was able to be alive during his reign. See him live. Witness his impact. Study his songs. Travel his roads. Drive through Abbott. Visit Luck. It’s not hyperbole to state that he is the most influential person in my life that I don’t share blood with. He changed my life. And he changed millions of others’ lives. I’m proud we get to toast him one more time this week.


MINOR CHORDS:


-Much like Willie’s old picnics, we keep throwing River Jam out there each summer. Most years end in the red. Occasionally, we slide into the black. It’s a good time at any rate. Join us for one or all three days this year. Willie would want you to.


Sun July 9 - 15 songwriters at Lone Star Floathouse in New Braunfels, TX.


-The Texas Rangers are actually legit. Fading a little, but legit. It warms my heart.


-I’m sure someone smarter than me could explain why they start tearing up additional and connecting roads prior to fixing the road they started with.


-The second season of The Bear is even better than the first one and the first one was amazing.


-Speed trap up ahead of Selma town…Minden, LA…ask me how I know?


-Hey Norm Hitzges…we appreciate ya pal.



-This month’s recommended album: Rodney Crowell - The Chicago Sessions. Crowell comes back with his best collection of songs in years. Bluesy when it needs to be, folksy when the feeling is right…songwriting at the center of all of it.


-”Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” - Mark Twain


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