If you haven't checked out Sonicboomers.com do so now, since a fine Question and Answer session with Los Angeles writer ("The Catalog of Cool") Gene Sculatti has been posted. Gene is a quintessential California cat, having grown up in San Francisco and in the Napa Valley before wandering south to Los Angeles a few decades ago. We did a lot of catching up between the Qs and As.
Sonicboomers is edited by Bill Bentley, a Houston native, Austin music writer and for the past twenty years or so, the publicist for Warner Brothers Records and for Neil Young, among numerous clients. Sonicboomers is aimed at music fans of a certain "maturity," meaning I can relate to just about every story on the site and have at least some familiarity with every contributor including Gene, Jaan Uhelszki, John Morthland, Ed Ward, and John Swenson .
Click on the link and look around
Here's the text to Gene's Q and A with me about the book:
Bob Dylan's folks didn't let him grow up to be a cowboy. Or so Willie Nelson says, recounting the two American bards' carousing at the Peckinpah corral during the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Nelson's parents don't seem to have expressed much concern about what Willie Hugh grew up to be, but they gifted him with an abiding love of music, and that--along with tales of the road and records, honky-tonk hopheads, ex-pimp percussionists and a cultural history of mid-century Texas--is what Joe Nick Patoski has pressed between the pages of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Little, Brown).
It's a big job, but Patoski's up to it. From Nelson's 1930's childhood in Abbott, Texas and his early songwriting success through his reinvention as country's original "outlaw" and his beatification as a classic American singer, it's all here. Nelson's voice is here too (the writer, a longtime Austin music journalist, had full access to his subject), but so are the voices of family, bandmates, roadies, promoters and all manner of fellow travelers who've accompanied Nelson in his restless journey from earnest Ray Price wannabe to pop icon to national treasure. What emerges is a portrait of a complex, imperfect, sweet, contrary man allotted far more than your average share of pluck and talent. Why him, Lord? God knows, but we're all the better for it.
Sonic Boomers caught up with Joe Nick Patoski on his recent visit to California, where he talked to us about Nelson, the book and the Dallas stripper who got the project off the ground.
Sonic Boomers: How did the idea to do a Willie Nelson biography come about? Nelson had already done his autobiography in 1988. What made you think there was more to the story?
Joe Nick Patoski: It really started 35 years ago, when I interviewed Willie for a since-defunct music magazine. Over the years, I always thought I had a book in me about this strange place called Texas, but I assumed it would eventually be done by some academic press. Then an agent called in 2005 and said, "I can get you money if you write me a book on Candy Barr" (legendary burlesque queen, porn star and cohort of Jack Ruby). I said, "No, I've got this Texas book in me." He said, "Well then, write it through somebody--like Willie Nelson." A light bulb went off, and I thought, "Yeah! Willie represents Texas. His story is the story of the state from the Depression to the present." So he went and got us a deal.
SB: You interviewed more than 100 people in your research for the book, including Nelson. Was he was forthcoming, or were there subjects you were steered away from?
JNP: He wasn't forthcoming only when he couldn't remember. I asked him about the breakup of an arrangement he had made to play some dates at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, and he said, "I wanted 100% of the door instead of the 80% they offered." But the deal really fell through because Armadillo management complained to Willie that his musicians and crew were carrying guns and knives, and Willie refused to rein them in. He said, "Well, if you don't like my friends, you don't like me," and that was it. These people helped him and he stayed loyal to them. That's just who the guy is. I said to his daughter, Lana, "What do people not know about your dad that you think should be mentioned?" She said, "Probably the con in him, how much he likes to pull one over on someone." That told me a lot. It's salesmanship, as practiced in Texas and the South: the door-to-door Bible salesman of yore became the cigarette salesman became the NASCAR salesman. It started in the church, but it runs through country music today. I mean, it's still "The Willie Nelson Show" with long-time friend Scooter Franks coming out to do old-time warm-up. This could be a barn-dance revue. Willie's so traditional in so many respects and yet so modern, adaptable and progressive.
SB: You write about how Nelson never really fit in with established notions of country music, particularly, following his songwriting success with "Crazy" and "Night Life," when he signed to Liberty and RCA in the 1960s.
JNP: Yeah. The country producers thought he didn't know what he was doing--singing behind the beat, altering the time signature--but his was basically a jazz approach. The labels didn't really get this, but some of the arrangers and musicians he worked with did. Those Nashville studio players told me, "Yeah, in the '60s we were listening to Dave Brubeck, we weren't listening to Hank Williams." That's always been there in Texas music, particularly in western swing, which is jazz music played by guys dressing up like cowboys.
SB: While he later essayed a whole progressive-country style, Nelson never toyed with rock 'n' roll, as other country artists like Johnny Cash and Buck Owens did.
JNP: The closest he came was covering the Beatles' "Yesterday." The interesting thing is, when he got to Austin in the '70s, he and his guys weren't rock--you already had rock groups like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers starting to do country--but that's not what he was. But then there's the story of him playing McMorris Ford, at an event to show off the 1974 models. It's a straight up family gig, with the free hot dogs, a live country band and everything, but by then the Austin hippies had got the word out on him, so they're there too. When the band comes to the instrumental break in "Bloody Mary Morning," they go into this extended jam like the Allmans or the Dead. By that point they'd matured into a freight train of a band. They could play anything.
SB: Finally, where's Willie Nelson at now?
JNP: He's still movin,' and here's what's beautiful about him: At 75, he's not Dean Martin watching cowboy movies with his teeth out. He's in the moment, constantly touring, he's got his album with Wynton Marsalis coming out, he's recording with Johnny Bush again. The main difference between him and Bob Dylan is Willie loves what he's cultivated and Dylan's freaked out by audiences and how he's touched people. Willie and his sister Bobbie are doing exactly what they were raised by their parents to do, period: play music.