from the review in Rolling Stone by Mark Kemp, who gets it, unlike certain old fart rock crits.
"Excellent... Patoski, who's been writing Willie's story for thirty-five years for publications ranging from Texas Monthly to Rolling Stone, seamlessly weaves together the good, the bad and the ugly to form a three-dimensional portrait of the singer.... For Nelson, his hit 1980 single 'On the Road Again' isn't just a silly song he wrote for the movie Honeysuckle Rose--it's literally the story of his life. And Patoski has fleshed it out beautifully."
Willie Nelson bio is long, authoritative
Austin writer Joe Nick Patoski's epic biography includes everything you'd ever need to know about the Red Headed Stranger
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Willie Nelson needed a steady paycheck when he signed on at his brother-in-law's Fort Worth gas station in 1958. He didn't exactly hustle when customers pulled in for gas, nor did he warp-speed his way through car washes or oil changes. One co-worker, however, made an interesting discovery when he noticed that Willie left his mark in the form of lyrics scribbled on oil boxes and paper and scraps. It was another step toward the stardom he'd sought from his youthful days in the small town of Abbott, when he copied his first compositions into a notebook.
Everyone knows the broad strokes of the story. After an impoverished but largely happy childhood, Willie spent years paying dues in the lower echelons of the Texas music scene. He triumphed as a hit Nashville songwriter only to spend years trying to record his own hits by fitting into the city's formulaic approach to recording with only modest success. Frustration sent him packing back to Texas in 1971.
Things didn't change until a couple years later, when Willie and his buddy Waylon Jennings gained creative control of their recordings. In Willie's case, one hit unleashed it all: "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain," a ballad he didn't write, from his 1975 Columbia debut, "Red Headed Stranger." The label had reluctantly released the bare-bones concept album, privately denigrating the low-cost production as little more than an unpolished demo. Within five years, Willie and Waylon's success as the pioneers of "Outlaw Country" expanded country music's fan base beyond anyone's expectations, including theirs. That's the story veteran Austin journalist Joe Nick Patoski details in "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life."
Drawing on more than 100 interviews and meticulous research (disclosure: I'm cited in the book's narrative, bibliography, discography and acknowledgments), Patoski tells wonderful stories, infusing his narrative with rich detail illustrating Willie's artistic development and its roots in his family's pre-Texas years in Arkansas. He explores the colorful characters who have always surrounded Willie, such as former boss Ray Price and the singer Johnny Bush. Recounting Willie's days as singer, disc jockey, boozer and brawler, Patoski offers tales of real-life violence that would thrill any WWF fan. He also does a good job of showing how, over time, Willie's curious nature, growing spirituality and — let's be honest — affection for marijuana culminated in the mellow, beatific Willie of today.
Willie's struggles with Nashville are the dramatic heart of the book, and Patoski devotes a hundred pages to that frustrating decade. The conflict was, perhaps, inevitable, given the freewheeling tendency of Texas and Southwestern performers to move between genres or even merge them, as Bob Wills did decades before Willie. That eclecticism was alien to Music Row, where the corporate record producers who ran things were notoriously resistant to changes they couldn't orchestrate (in both senses of the word). To illustrate this point, Patoski quotes former Bob Wills fiddler and longtime Willie friend Johnny Gimble's wry remark that to Texas musicians, the Nashville radio station WSM's call letters meant "Wrong Side of the Mississippi."
Many today view the Outlaw phenomenon as Good vs. Evil, with Willie and Waylon growing their hair and donning jeans to wrest control of their records from the "Nashville Sound" that drastically dialed back country music's twang. Patoski avoids such caricatures, sympathetically explaining how RCA Nashville executive Chet Atkins, who signed and admired Willie and Waylon, couldn't grasp that unlike most of his acts, both were sophisticated enough to plot their own musical destinies. While the public considered the Waylon-Willie relationship an idyllicbrotherhood, Patoski reveals the underlying tensions. Willie, who banned cocaine from his touring bus, grew uneasy with Waylon's coke use, which fueled his envy of Willie's broader constituency. In later years, as Jennings continued to diss Music Row, Willie adopted a more conciliatory perspective, which likely explains why eight years separated his 1993 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame from Waylon's in 2001.
Throughout, Patoski avoids falling into hagiography. He unflinchingly scrutinizes Willie's infidelities and often astonishing irresponsibility as a family man. The struggles of that family, including those of his eldest son, Billy, who committed suicide in 1991, receive in-depth examination. And while duly noting his subject's generosity and his role in creating amity between 1970s Texas hippies and rednecks, Patoski also examines the downside of Willie's inability to say "no" and his tolerance for hustlers, psychos and outright crooks, even those in his inner circle.
That soft-touch nature had consequences. Willie faced negative blowback from law enforcement organizations after performing at a benefit for Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who had been convicted of killing two FBI agents. And his infamous battles in the 1990s with the Internal Revenue Service make for particularly sad reading, particularly since, in that case, the fault lay largely with his trusted accountants.
Any book this lengthy risks a certain number of factual errors. Patoski's are largely minor, such as claiming that "Russell Bridges" was the stage name of Willie friend and collaborator Leon Russell, when Bridges is actually Russell's legal name. Willie's 1984 "Angel Eyes" album with Jackie King was released not only in Japan, as Patoski states, but in America, as well. And I was surprised by his assertion that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys "were not asked back" to the Grand Ole Opry after defying the show's ban on using drums in 1944, since an aircheck exists of their 1948 return appearance.
Completing such exhaustive research can be exhilarating for any author, and Patoski's desire to share as much as possible with readers is commendable. Still, this much detail and the book's 500-plus page length have their drawbacks. Establishing context is useful; extended digressions, such as a minutely detailed history of Austin's music scene and painstaking explanations of Willie's 1970s real estate dealings, simply slow the narrative. Hard-core aficionados and future researchers may revel in such depth and color, but casual fans will likely skip to the passages about Willie's early Picnics (some of them highly crazed events) and his encounters with celebrities ranging from Robert Redford to Frank Sinatra.
This exhaustive treatment seems even more unusual, given that Willie's career is still going strong, and is as motley as ever. Today, he pours considerable time into promoting alternative energy sources and various political candidates, most recently Dennis Kucinich. The shows and studio collaborations continue, with allies as unlikely as Nashville megastar Kenny Chesney and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Simultaneously, he celebrates his roots, most recently with a Grammy-nominated salute to Texas songsmith Cindy Walker and a joint album with Ray Price and Merle Haggard.
"An Epic Life" may be, in the end, too epic, but its sprawling, at times undiscriminating, shape echoes the audacity of Willie's life. When a broader audience finally embraced his wide-ranging musical vision, Willie went further, denying any musical boundaries existed, an approach that yielded both the triumph of "Stardust" and the misfire of "Countryman," his 2005 reggae album.
It's easy to understand why, in 1970, as Willie's professional frustrations reached critical mass, that jazz musician Miles Davis, himself no stranger to storming musical battlements, wrote and recorded a song in Willie's honor. It was called, simply, "Willie Nelson."
As American as it gets
Joe Nick Patoski
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
Little, Brown & Company, 576 pp., $27.99
Willie Nelson's Trigger Cuts
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Savage Love: At A Loss (9)
Savage Love: Dan Savage
Choosing Willie Nelson to headline the post-9/11 fundraiser "America: A Tribute to Heroes"—bypassing fellow icons Paul Simon or Bruce "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen, by the way—says a lot about how we value, and forgive, our own kind. 'Cause that sumbitch Willie used to be a two-bit, drunken philanderer. He's had a handful of marriages and fathered a bunch of oft-neglected kids. He smoked a joint with one of Jimmy Carter's sons on the White House rooftop, and he serves as co-chair of the advisory board for NORML. What's more, he shorted the IRS $16.7 million in taxes. Willie's done everything but take the blame for a dead body or three along the gritty Texas honky-tonk roads of the 1970s (because you just never know).
All of this is made abundantly clear in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a mind-bogglingly thorough biography by Joe Nick Patoski, who's authored similar tomes on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena. But Willie can just as easily be viewed as a Buddha who'll give you the bandanna off his forehead and the New Balance off his feet. (Just don't ask him to part with Trigger, the well-worn guitar he plays like a bass.) His track record is full of favors extended, respects paid, and time and money donated. He even fought racism when he brought country's first prominent black singer, Charley Pride, into the fray, once kissing him on the mouth to break the ice for a dumbfounded audience of good ol' boys.
Sin and salvation. Goodwill towards man. Uncompromising individuality. These are the themes that make An Epic Life worth the chore of weightlifting a 576-pager. Patoski enhances the narrative with his depiction of the songwriter-for-hire game during the Nashville Sound days, his firsthand account of the burgeoning Austin scene that gave way to the Live Music Capital of the World, and his blunt portrayal of the complicated friendship between Willie and his commercially inferior partner in crime, Waylon Jennings.
The release of An Epic Life coincides with Willie's 75th birthday on April 29, and also dovetails nicely with One Hell of a Ride, a four-CD, 100-song box set that gleans mostly keepers from a five-decades-long recording career only slightly tarnished by overexposure. Included here are three rare, early recordings: "Man With the Blues," "No Place for Me," and "When I've Sang My Last Hillbilly Song," featuring a Hank Williams–type croon that predates his casual whine. Beyond that, the box borrows efficiently from the three phases of a career that stretched country to include jazz, folk, and gospel.
Willie's holy trinity of songs—"Nite Life," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Crazy," the bluesy number made so famous by Patsy Cline it was declared #1 Jukebox Single of All Time by NPR—represent the Upstart Songwriter Era, as do fellow countrypolitan jingles "Hello Walls," "Mr. Record Man," and "The Party's Over." To commemorate the Cosmic Cowboy Years, we've got big-band barnburners "Bloody Mary Morning," "Stay a Little Longer," and "Whiskey River," the cut Willie uses to open every concert. (This iteration also includes three must-have collaborations with Waylon, including the comical "I Can Get Off on You," wherein the two W's try to give up weed, cocaine, pills, and whiskey, thinking they could get high off their girls instead.) Lastly, there's the Esteemed Vocalist Phase, during which Willie compensated for the years his deliberate singing style went unappreciated by reinterpreting standards ("Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind"), covering others' hits ("Heart of Gold," "Graceland"), and partnering on unthinkable duets (Patoski's bio notes that "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" was recorded with Julio Iglesias as "bombers" were passed and puffed in the studio.)
It's hard to believe that Willie perseveres, given the velocity with which he's lived his life and the tragedies that've afflicted it. But perseverance is an integral part of the American Dream, and that's what made the outlaw turned icon a natural choice to bid farewell to our 9/11 heroes—that, and because he's a hero, too.
San Antonio Express News:
Book review: Willie biography captures the genius of the musician
Web Posted: 04/18/2008 10:55 AM CDTWillie Nelson: An Epic Life
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown, $27.99
Music writer Joe Nick Patoski attempted the impossible — sum up country icon Willie Nelson's life in a mere 543 pages.
After all, with Nelson, his music and his views touching millions of fans and fellow artists around the world, everyone has a story.
The good thing is that Patoski crams scores of them into "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life."
Some come from his keyboard-playing older sister, Bobbie Nelson, who talks about being reared by their dirt-poor grandparents in tiny Abbott.
Others are colorfully recalled by the likes of his old friend and fellow artist Johnny Bush, who wrote "Whiskey River," one of Nelson's signature songs.
The San Antonio resident recalls his first visit to Nelson's house in 1954, when Willie was outrunning a pot thrown by his first wife.
"She loves me," Nelson told Bush. "You got a cigarette?"
Longtime Nelson drummer Paul English, a former repo man, tells more, including how Nelson would collect payments after gigs with a handgun in his briefcase just to make sure.
The string of stories takes readers on a ride that even the most imaginative novelist could not conceive.
To be released on Monday as a prelude to Nelson's 75th birthday, the book recounts the life and times of a gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist who rose to success and fame by bucking the system, saving his art and helping to start the Outlaw Country movement in the early 1970s that continues to shake up the Nashville establishment.
Patoski tells Nelson's story, warts and all, from wives finding lipstick on his collar and the whiskey and the drugs to the iconoclast who sells vacuum cleaners when his art fails to pay the bills and — when it finally does — flees from success to save his soul and ends up finding freedom as well as fame.
Through it all, Nelson comes across as an honest, fun-loving guy who cannot say no when a friend needs help.
One fault of the book is that it sometimes crams in too much information. Rather than a novelistic narrative, the book is thick with facts. Well-researched and -documented, readers at times may be distracted in a swirl of names, places and gigs.
Still, there are profound moments, such as when Patoski describes the rednecks and hippies coming together under Nelson in Austin in the early 1970s: "The new culture welded the hedonistic attributes of the hippie lifestyle (drugs and sex, especially) onto the body of a Texas redneck. Both liked hanging in clubs and hearing music, and both liked getting high and howling at the moon just for the hell of it."
The book ends with Nelson's uplifting return to Abbott in 2006 to prevent the destruction of the Methodist Church, where he and his sister attended as children, by buying it — for more than the asking price.
With Nelson and his sister singing gospel tunes, the passage serves as a metaphor for his continual rebirth, his religious faith and his determination to prevail by doing what he believes is right.
John Goodspeed covers country music for the Express-News.
Patoski, Joe Nick. Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. Little, Brown. Apr. 2008. c.576p. photogs. index. discog. ISBN 978-0-316-01778-7. $27.99. MUSIC
Verdict: An expansive, engrossing, and epic look at the life of a true American icon. Required reading for music fans and scholars.
Background: Former Texas Monthly writer Patoski infuses his biography of Willie Nelson with an encyclopedic knowledge of
The red-headed wild-ass
New bio of Willie Nelson shines
Anyone who knows the culture of small Southern burgs can tell you about the deep vein of ornery iconoclasm that runs beneath those towns' surface of Christian piety. Some cultural scholars say that the region's wild, contrarian streak is probably part of the reason Southerners have clung to their masks of superficial amiability for so long. After all, stern Sunday lectures certainly haven't dimmed the South's weakness for hard-living, free-thinking wild-asses. Some days, the only recourse for the "respectable" Southerner is to put on a happy face and hope others don't notice the drunken uncle sleeping it off on the back porch.
Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, who celebrates his 75th birthday this month, is one Southerner who, over the years, has embarrassed many a tightly wound, churchgoing acquaintance while on his way to becoming an American legend. Now there's a big fat biography of Willie (available this Monday, April 21) in which the singer's long, complicated career as an extraordinarily talented rebel is recounted at a leisurely, steady pace by author Joe Patoski.
One of the fascinating aspects of Nelson's career is the way his lifelong iconoclasm meshed so well with the rise of an American counterculture in the late-60s/early-70s. The success of Patoski's mammoth Nelson biography comes from the author's grasp of Willie's attraction to, and acceptance by, hordes of fans who wouldn't have been caught dead listening to country music a few years before the 1975 release of the Red Headed Stranger album. That record finally brought Willie Nelson the success as a performer that he had craved for over 20 years.
After a successful career as a songwriter in Nashville, Nelson realized he would never be able to record his own songs the way he wanted them to sound in the country music capital. For Nelson, writing timeless songs for other artists ("Crazy" for Patsy Cline; "Night Life" for Ray Price; "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker) was lucrative but ultimately unsatisfying, and so he left Nashville for Austin, Texas, where he re-created himself into the American icon we know today.
The move to Austin wasn't the first time Nelson roamed to find freedom. Born in Texas in 1933, he played in a band in high school and worked as a radio deejay. Soon he was roaming here and there around Texas, looking for just the right combination of playing music and spinning records that would lead to an opportunity to record his own music. At age 23, Nelson took off for Vancouver, Wash., where his mother lived, and launched a new musical career which, although moderately successful, still didn't bring in enough money. So Nelson moved on to Nashville, where he became known as one of that city's finest songwriters. His equal reputation as a renowned and difficult wild-ass led some of the country music establishment to hold Nelson at arm's length, and thus the semi-retirement to Austin.
In the Texas capital, Nelson found inspiration, came out of his half-hearted retirement, and began to play his own synthesis of traditional country, Western swing, rock and jazz. At the same time, he began to take his health seriously, started a running regimen, ate better, and switched from whiskey to pot. In the process, he saved his own life and launched his most productive period.
By the time of Red Headed Stranger's 1975 release, Nelson had built up a new following made up of hippies who had turned on to country music and, alternately, country fans who were, let's say, "loosening up" their own lifestyles. The album was a career-making smash, led to the whole "Outlaw Country" movement (largely based in Texas along with Waylon Jennings and others), and gave Nelson the leeway to become more active in political and environmental causes. Now, nearly as many people know Willie Nelson as the guy who started the Farm Aid concerts, or began a bio-diesel fuel company, or acted in several movies, or got into big-time trouble with the IRS, or sent millions of dollars in concert receipts to South Pacific tsunami victims, or even got a Ben & Jerry brand of ice cream named after him, as know him for his stellar songwriting.
Author Joe Patowski is a very thorough, precise reporter who understands Nelson's motivations and his importance as an American icon. There is, unfortunately, a bit of a "note-dumping" feel to parts of the book, particularly in the story of Willie's early days, but when he's writing about the important turning points, Patowski shines. Interviews of more than 100 people are put to good use as the author weaves them into a three-dimensional portrait of one of the most interesting American musicians, and musical careers, of the past 50 years.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski
Little Brown, 576 pages, $27.99
Willie Nelson: a life in full
Ups, downs, booze, pot, wives, ex-wives and Julio Iglesias figure in Joe Nick Patoski's biography
By Joe Nick Patoski.
Little, Brown, 576 pp. $27.99.
On April 30, Willie Hugh Nelson — favorite son of tiny Abbott and arguably one of the most-recognizable Texans — turns 75. The musical icon's landmark will be celebrated with a career-comprehensive box set, his own issue of Texas Monthly, and this, the definitive biography of the Red Headed Stranger.
Written by music scribe Joe Nick Patoski — who's penned books on Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan — Willie Nelson: An Epic Life is just what the subtitle promises.
Based on scores of interviews (including with Nelson himself), it's a lively, substantive account, closer to the treatment given a world-historical figure than a laid-back guitar picker. It is, however, perhaps the only such biography involving pot, whiskey, cocaine, shoot-outs, groupies and Julio Iglesias.
Raised mainly by his grandparents in near poverty, young Willie — known as "Booger Red" for his habit of picking his nose until the blood started flowing — and little sister Bobbie quickly grew enamored of music, whether the conduit was Ernest Tubb or Jesus.
At 6, Willie received his first guitar, a Stella model from the Sears catalog. Four years later, when he was paid $6 for doing a short performance — more than he could make for a whole day of picking cotton — he figured this music thing might be his calling. It would eventually take him far, far from the fields of his hometown.
For Willie, On the Road Again isn't just a song but a way of life. Home is a tour bus, much to the disadvantage of his various wives and children, of course. Though part Native American, he might as well have been part Gypsy, too, for all the moving around he's done. Patoski even titles chapters by locations: Waco, Fort Worth, Nashville, Austin.
Houston pops up numerous times as Willie threads through the city.
Whether recording at ACA or Gold Star Studios, playing clubs like the Chuck Wagon and the Esquire Ballroom, doing time as a disc jockey for KRCT in Pasadena, or debuting his breakthrough record Red Headed Stranger at a local drive-in, Nelson clearly loved the Bayou City.
Local friends like Johnny Bush and Paul Buskirk sustained him through some rough times.
"Houston's hot, humid, buggy, and muggy climate was one ingredient in a strange gumbo that also included poverty, cheap guns, stoved-up passions, and redneck sensibilities fermented in alcohol; when cooked together, they fostered Houston's reputation as Murder City, USA," Patoski writes of the city in 1959. "But Big Houston was big fun, and big business."
Certainly the reader comes away with an appreciation for Nelson's tenacity in fostering his career. Despite being told time and time again he couldn't sing, couldn't play, was odd-looking, and should stick to writing great songs like Hello Walls, Crazy, and Night Life for others, he scrabbled tirelessly for work. He knew he had more to offer. And he knew people eventually would get it.
When they finally did, in Austin in the early '70s at the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon, his audiences became an odd combination of hippies and rednecks, brought together by the beatifically smiling man sporting long hair, beard and earring, playing a type of country music that both Bud-swillers and bud-smokers could appreciate. They famously came together at Nelson's annual "picnics," the first of which, in Dripping Springs in 1973, was bankrolled with a $5,000 loan from Houston lawyer Joe Jamail.
Along the way, Willie's picked up a traveling coterie of like-minded souls in an extended "Family" the flip side of Charlie Manson's that might at any time encompass wives, ex-wives, children, business associates, bikers, spiritual advisers, musicians, crazies and the occasional gun-toting heavy. Patoski doesn't judge Willie's character or actions but leaves that for the reader.
"Willie liked chaos. He liked anarchy," a band associate noted. Kris Kristofferson added that being around Willie was like "being around Buddha." Little seemed to faze him, be it his house burning down or his well-publicized battle with the IRS. And what a convincer, especially with women. When third wife Connie caught him stark naked in a bungalow with his Honeysuckle Rose co-star Amy Irving upstairs in bed, he somehow managed to calm her down, patch things up and send her on her way.
The '70s, '80s, and '90s brought Willie worldwide superstardom on a level Hank Williams could not have dreamed of. It allowed him to follow his muse anywhere: He did an entire record of standards that no one thought would work but which became his biggest seller (Stardust); he did duets with friends and heroes like Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings; he co-created Farm Aid; and he now promotes BioWillie fuel. While his recent recorded efforts are heavy on covers, he's still capable of delivering a surprise (Spirit, Teatro, You Don't Know Me).
Live shows remain where the faithful come to worship, some sporting "WWWD" ("What Would Willie Do?") T-shirts. And though the show is something of a rote experience, with a set list that's changed little in decades and incorporates more talk-singing than singing, when Willie locks eyes with an audience member, you can't help but feel a tinge of excitement. With Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Patoski has written a fine book worthy of Willie.
Bob Ruggiero is a Houston writer.
FW Star Telegram
True to a troubadour
Texas-music writer tells Willie Nelson's story with warmth and simplicity
Willie Nelson, for whom all of the above has happened, certainly has a number of bios already out there, including the must-read salt-shaker that Nelson wrote with Bud Shrake, Willie: An Autobiography. This month, Nelson turns 75 -- an apt time for Texas music writer Joe Nick Patoski to throw in his homage to one of the greatest country-music singers ever.
Minus about two decades, Patoski has been kicking around nearly as long as Nelson. He's the author of books on Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he has written for numerous local, regional and national publications. Over the years, he has become the go-to guy whenever a Texas-music writer needs an expert quote or George Jones' cellphone number. There probably aren't too many other writers, in other words, as qualified to write about Nelson.
Patoski and Nelson make for a good pairing throughout An Epic Life. Patoski writes much like Nelson sings: It's nothing fancy, but it's nonetheless warm and intriguing. Patoski doesn't go for any clever quips or turns of phrases here. Drawing on more than 100 interviews with Nelson, members of his Family band and various friends, he tells the story in a simple, readable language that reflects the earnestness of Nelson's music and, sometimes, embodies his hardscrabble life. Reading this is sort of like talking to someone who has a beer at Fred's every day.
Just about every aspect of Nelson's life and career is covered, from his upbringing to his rise to fame, to his IRS woes and beyond. Clearly, the most fascinating part comes early on, though, as Patoski writes about Nelson's family roots in Arkansas -- which has been written about before, but perhaps not as extensively or intelligently. This, without question, took the type of research that goes beyond Googling "Willie Nelson background."
Fort Worth residents will undoubtedly appreciate the words devoted to Nelson's time in Cowtown. Names and places like Panther Hall, KCUL, the Cowtown Jamboree and Bo Powell were instrumental in the development of Nelson's career, and all are acknowledged here.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life isn't as spicily written as Shrake's Willie, nor does it approach the juicier facets of Nelson's life with a paparazzi lens. Patoski takes a very simple approach here, letting Nelson's stories speak for themselves -- as they always have.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
by Joe Nick Patoski
*** 3 of 5 stars
Little, Brown & Co. Publishing
New Willie Nelson biography offers intimate details but light on revelations
10:46 AM CDT on Monday, April 21, 2008
Willie Hugh Nelson is a transient man. He inherited that quality from his parents, restless people who didn't stay married long and never raised Willie and sister Bobbie before fleeing Abbott, Texas.
So Willie has spent most of his adult life on the road, sometimes aimlessly shuffling through honky-tonks.
Abbott was always home. Even in Willie's rootless existence, the Hill County city of 300 where his grandparents looked after him remains the perennial nurturing haven.
"It keeps calling me back," Willie tells Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski in his biography of the country legend, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. "You go back to where you feel good. It's not really a big surprise to me that I can't wait to get back there again and hang out or ... take off on some of those little roads."
An Epic Life comes aptly titled. Willie Nelson is arguably the most respected and beloved Texas musician. His name, face, voice and personality are known and appreciated around the world. He's tried just about every style of music except, oh, rap and heavy metal.
Mr. Patoski's portrait reads more studied than authoritative. In the midst of 498 exhaustively reported pages, he never quite puts such a monumental figure in proper context. Especially during the final third of the book, which takes us from the '90s to the present.
This is the time to wax poetically about Willie Nelson. In the last 15 years, the bearded and braided singer-songwriter has enjoyed artistic carte blanche, much as he did during the '70s after the groundbreaking Red Headed Stranger. Since 1996's stark Spirit, he's recorded nine studio albums that cover reggae, pop, folk, children's music and ol'-time country. He's worked with young guns Kenny Chesney and Ryan Adams, as well as veterans Ray Price and Merle Haggard.
But Mr. Patoski runs rapid-fire through the latter Willie. And while we do get more details on his current marriage to makeup artist Ann-Marie D'Angelo, the mother of sons Lukas and Micah, we don't get a real sense for why this is his longest relationship. After three other wives, what is it about Ann-Marie that made her able to harness such a notorious womanizer since 1991? We don't know.
Mr. Patoski interviewed countless people close to Willie as well as the man himself, and his attention to detail is impeccable – if not overwhelming. The chapters on the origins of the raucous Fourth of July picnics offer such an excessive description of shady, behind-the-scenes characters and disorganizational intricacies that they nearly bring the book to a halt. Some things we don't need to know, Mr. Patoski.
If you've read 1988's Willie: An Autobiography, half of An Epic Life is a rehash. And even if you haven't, Willie's life has been an open book. We already know about, say, his troubles with the IRS, the stories of angry spouses and the tales of debauchery during those early picnics
Still, Mr. Patoski offers a few delicious nuggets. He describes an affair Willie had with Honeysuckle Rose co-star Amy Irving while he was married to Connie Koepke. Ms. Irving dumped him for Steven Spielberg. The book also divulges how conservationist Ann-Marie prompted Willie to embrace biodiesel fuel.
Is An Epic Life enjoyable reading? Sure. This is Willie Nelson. His quotes are colorful. His friends and colleagues are funny, too. But it's telling that the final chapter of the tome is the best. Mr. Patoski takes us to Abbott, to a local church where Willie and his Family Band are performing. It's here where we experience the heart of Willie Nelson. He's home, literally and figuratively.