Lone Star Superstar
It was 1975, and Willie Nelson was about to begin a national tour of hockey arenas and other massive concrete venues. Country music had seldom been heard in spaces of that scale. His first album for Columbia Records, “Red Headed Stranger,” was about to be released, and its sound was so spare and stark that the label’s president introduced it to his executives by saying, “It’s probably not commercial and might not be made for country radio.”
An Epic Life.
By Joe Nick Patoski.
Illustrated. 567 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.99.
Nelson wasn’t concerned. “It is my time,” he said.
Propelled by the hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Red Headed Stranger” became a huge, double-platinum success, and in the 30-odd years since, it has remained Nelson’s time. He has sold more than 50 million albums, won countless awards and honors and become a genuine American hero — not bad for a guy who’s also known as a pot-smoking, tax-dodging supporter of Dennis Kucinich.
On April 30, Nelson turned 75. The event was marked by the publication of Joe Nick Patoski’s much-needed, well-told biography, “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life”; a comprehensive four-CD box set, “One Hell of a Ride” (with extensive liner notes, also by Patoski); and this summer, the latest addition to Nelson’s seemingly infinite discography, a typically atypical collaboration with Wynton Marsalis titled “Two Men With the Blues.” Nelson himself honored the occasion by taking a rare day off from his never ending world tour, between stops in Copenhagen and Oslo.
Patoski, a veteran Texas music writer, has previously written books about two other Lone Star legends, Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He has now turned his attention to the ultimate Texas artist. Patoski has been thorough, conducting more than a hundred interviews and drawing on extensive historical research and an impressive familiarity with the 300-plus albums that form Nelson’s oeuvre. Nelson has long seemed the personification of “laid back,” but it is his quiet determination and unwavering focus that shine through the pages of this admirable biography.
These traits aren’t really surprising, since Nelson started writing lyrics at age 6 and worked his first professional gig, with a local polka band, when he was 10. His hard-partying parents took off soon after his birth, leaving Willie Hugh to be raised by his grandparents in tiny Abbott, Tex. The family was poor, even by the standards of the Texas backcountry in lean Depression years. He quickly figured out that playing the guitar might offer a more attractive, and lucrative, livelihood than picking cotton.
He joined a western swing band in his teens, singing and playing lead guitar, and refined his skills in the Air Force, on bases from San Antonio to Biloxi. After his discharge came sojourns in, among other places, Vancouver, Wash. (where he worked as a radio D.J.); Los Angeles (for one in a series of ill-fated record deals); and Nashville, where Nelson first made history with a remarkable run as a songwriter in the early 1960s.
In rapid succession, he knocked out “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”; all of these songs made the cut when David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren compiled their list of the 500 best country songs in their book, “Heartaches by the Number.” But all were hits for other singers, and Nelson knew he needed to be out front himself, presenting his music in his own way, however unorthodox his voice and unconventional his look.
Easier said than done, given the Nashville assembly line of the era. Nelson began putting together the tight-knit musical team that would stay intact for decades and building a following on the road. But it wasn’t until 1972, when the legendary producer Jerry Wexler signed him as the anchor for a country division of Atlantic Records, that someone encouraged his idiosyncratic, genre-bending sounds in the studio.
The results didn’t sell as well as Wexler hoped, and the whole Atlantic experiment collapsed, but as usual it didn’t faze Nelson — in the meantime, he had resettled in Austin, where the hippies and the rednecks were finding common ground in the renegade tradition of country music. He called a kindred spirit, Waylon Jennings, and told him “something is going on down here.”
Suddenly, the world caught up with Willie Nelson, and by sticking to his guns, he now seemed visionary rather than stubborn. A hastily assembled compilation of songs by like-minded artists was given the title “Wanted: The Outlaws” and became country’s first million-selling album. In 1978, “Stardust,” a magnificent collection of standards produced by the soul artist Booker T. Jones, was an even bigger hit, and Nelson was a bona fide celebrity. Soon, he was also a movie star, playing variations on himself in a string of films, from “The Electric Horseman” to “Half-Baked.” His addiction to touring kept accelerating — the Oscar-nominated “On the Road Again” (which he called “the easiest song I ever wrote”) was more than just a theme song; it was a creed to live by.
“How Willie Nelson almost lost everything was quite a tale,” Patoski writes. The singer’s battle with the I.R.S., a result of an investment deal gone south, gave him yet another identity in the early 1990s — this time as a tax cheat. He settled his debt through a variety of means, including the sale, by auction, of much of his land holdings and the humiliating experience of selling an intensely personal album, “IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?” exclusively through commercials on late-night television. “He didn’t do it the easy way and plead bankruptcy,” his longtime associate Kinky Friedman said. “He did it the cowboy way.”
Since then, Nelson has kept on moving. He plays state fairs, minor-league ballparks and Las Vegas ballrooms. He puts out new music nonstop, which in recent years has ranged from the God-awful reggae album “Countryman” to “You Don’t Know Me,” a luminous collection of songs by the underappreciated country songwriter Cindy Walker. His voice remains immediately identifiable, and virtually unchanged over 50 years. His appeal is all but universal, as illustrated by his collaborations with everyone from Ray Charles to Julio Iglesias to Kid Rock.
The one thing missing from “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” is a healthier dose of skepticism. Nelson has reached a near-mystic stature with his fans, but the reality is that his need for perpetual motion has also extended to his home life, where he has been through three divorces and the suicide of a son. Yet the only flaw Patoski singles out is Nelson’s excessive loyalty to his friends, even in the face of various arrests and mishaps.
Nelson’s story doesn’t have the gothic edge of Johnny Cash, haunted by the death, in childhood, of his older brother, or the quest for redemption that Merle Haggard nursed after his days as a young criminal. At times Nelson has threatened to become a punch line (and often embraced the impulse), but he has lived a sprawling, uniquely American life, and it deserves an examination this comprehensive.
At one point, Patoski recounts, Nelson “blew up” at his lawyer for presenting him with a proposal for an estate plan. When he calmed down, he explained his philosophy: “Let’s not plan. It’s a lot more fun if we don’t.”