Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Brian and Joe Nick's Brooklyn nosh about Willie

Brooklyn being the Fort Worth of New York, I've always found the borough soulful, hep, and reasonable enough in a big city context.

I like it even more after reading Brian Berger's Willie book piece in Brian, a displaced Country Boy in the Great Big Freaky City, weighs in on Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from a Brooklyn perspective (despite him being in Athens, GA, at the moment, another cool second city like Bklyn, FW, and Odessa.)

Somewhere In Texas: Willie Nelson Biographer Joe Nick Patoski

Jan 21st, 2009 by admin

Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price turned his songs into standards; Miles Davis named one of his Jack Johnson-era jams after him; he bailed Dennis Hopper out of jail after one of The Last Movie auteur’s notorious mid-‘70s acid benders; your mom may have sang along with Julio Iglesias and him; the great Carla Bozulich covered his pop-star making Red Headed Stranger en toto: this is the world Willie Nelson made, and that’s just scratching the surface. Getting deeper in is a job long overdue for a serious cultural historian and, thankfully, long-time Texas music writer Joe Nick Patoski is up to the task. While Patoski’s biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Little, Brown) isn’t the final word on his achievements as a brilliant songwriter, musician, celebrity, icon and activist, it’s by far the best Willie book yet and and an inspiring eclogue to Joe Nick’s and fans and the manWillie’s native Lone Star State, the importance of which to nearly all the musics we love can’t be overstated. Writing this on a 18 degree night in South Brooklyn, I realize I forgot to ask Joe Nick about Texas’ other unimpeachable contribution to the American experience, barbecue (mea culpa), but drop him a line at and I bet he can hook ya’ll up.

Brian Berger: Seventy-five years, 500 plus pages— An Epic Life indeed. Another word that comes to mind thinking about Willie is “persistence.” When did Willie really get you in a way that you went wow, this guy is something else, both musically and personally?

set shot?Joe Nick Patoski: The first time I took Willie seriously was seeing him play on a flatbed trailer in the body shop of McMorris Ford, a typical country band until the middle of “Bloody Mary Morning” when the whole ensemble took off on a spacey jam.

The first time I realized this was more than a music thing was The Fourth of July Picnic at Liberty Hill in 1975, which drew 75,000 and validated Willie as Something Bigger in my eyes. He’s been doing it to me pretty much ever since, up to the spontaneous kick boxing demonstration at the end of his interview with me for No Depression in 2004, and the Wat-Air water cooler sales demo he did when I brought him his copy of the book. He was so into his sales routine, he could’ve been selling me anything. And I would’ve bought it.

Brian: As a Fort Worth kid in the 1950s and 1960s, were you raised amid country music fans? I’m in awe just typing the names: Milton Brown, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Cliff Bruner, Floyd Tillman, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price— even Tex Ritter could be great and that’s not getting into jazz, blues or Tejano, Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller, etc.

Joe Nick: We weren’t country music fans per se growing up in Fort Worth, but my stepmother, who I lived with after the age of 10, had worked at KCUL before she met my dad, and I was a total radio nut as a kid, so I was always dialing between the Top 40 stations, the soul station KNOK, and KCUL and later KBUY, the country stations for Fort Worth. Country music is part of the fabric of Fort Worth, so even if you didn’t like it (and I did like it), you couldn’t escape it. The Fat Stock Show was the social event of the year in Fort Worth, everyone wore jeans and boots, and we got let out of school to go to the rodeo. I first heard Willie’s music when Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” crossed over to Top 40 radio. I used to see him on television, hosting Cowtown Jamboree, the live show from Panther Hall that aired every Saturday on Channel 11 to hype that evening’s show at Panther Hall, where Willie was a semi-regular. But even when Willie was known primarily as a Nashville songwriter, country radio in Fort Worth played his records a lot. So “The Party’s Over” was a hit in my mind long before I heard Don Meredith sing it on Monday Night Football.

Brian: I’d read quite a bit about Willie before but much of what you wrote about Willie’s roustabout Texas career was new to me. Was there anything that surprised you, as a researcher? With sides on D Records and Sarg, Willie could have ended up another Country Johnny Mathis, say— a talented guy in a fertile regional scene.

Joe Nick: So much of Willie’s musical life before hitting it big as a country music songwriter was a revelation. Maybe it’s because when Willie told the story, he kinda skimmed over that early period. To me, it was the most fascinating period: he wanted to be a performer but had to struggle to get heard. That’s the real critical period. Yeah, if ol’ Charlie Fitch responded to Willie’s demo tape, no doubt he’d be holding forth in some country club, playing the hits of the day for the local audience’s listening and dancing pleasure. The D sides were really revealing because over the course of two years, they show how much he matured as a recording artist. You can hear the change in the first versions of “Night Life” aka “Nite Life” which Pappy Daily refused to release it was so bluesy and soulful.

Similarly, his first recordings for Liberty Records, which signed him for his songwriting prowess, were very much in that Country Johnny Mathis groove. The label chief Joe Allison heard a lot of Sinatra in Willie’s delivery. Then again, what if he had had a huge hit as a Nashville recording artist under Chet Atkins’ wing and had never left Nashville? Ah, the twists and turns of this life.

Brian: One of Willie’s most important personal and professional relationships has been with Ray Price, whose work through the early 1960s at least was pretty unimpeachable. What did Willie learn from Price, both about the country music racket and the opportunities and perils of going pop? I recall a line from John Morthland’s The Best of Country Music (1984) about Price’s stubbornness being the “the mark of a true Texan boy.”

Joe Nick: Morthland nailed Price to a T with that one phrase. Price was Willie’s role model in so many ways. Willie found salvation by getting hired to write for Pamper Music, Ray’s publishing company. He found what he was looking for when Ray hired him to be a Cherokee Cowboy. That experience introduced Willie to Jimmy Day and a slew of hotshot pickers, gave Willie a real whiff what the touring life was all about, because Price had the best road band in country music, and really showed Willie how Texas was solid ground because that’s where Price made his money, no matter how long he’d been in Nashville. The experience rubbed off on Willie. One, he figured out he didn’t just want to write songs for Ray Price and other stars. He wanted to be Ray Price and perform his own songs as well as the songs of others. The experience also established his sartorial preferences. He told me he started dressing sharp – suits, ties, turtlenecks, Nehru jackets – because after wearing the Cherokee Cowboy Nudie suit, he never wanted to wear another one again.

I don’t Willie ever fussed over the perils of going pop. He wanted a hit and judging from his Liberty recordings, he was comfortable with doing pop and jazz and selling it as country. Whatever it took. Willie probably learned more from Price about the value of danceable music. Ray was king among Texas-two steppers, a reputation that was established with the song “Crazy Arms.” The steel guitarist on that classic recording was Jimmy Day and Day and Willie became best friends and long time running buddies through the Cherokee Cowboys. Ray’s association with the Countrypolitan sound may be best known through his cover of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” but his covers of “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” really epitomize best Ray’s ability to fuse country, pop, and string together into a cogent sound.

Brian: For lots of legitimate reasons but also some Yankee ig’nance, Nashville has a lousy reputation as a record town, being birthplace of “countrypolitan” and all that. As a proud owner of Nashville Was The Roughest, Bear Family’s collection of Willie’s RCA period, I’d say two things: 1) Willie’s 1960s records are mostly very good or better, even with some gauche production. 2) Chet Atkins tried— and succeeded with other idiosyncratic talents like Don Gibson, Bobby Bare, Porter Wagoner, Connie Smith, etc. There was lots of crap coming out of Davidson County in the ‘60s but moreso it just wasn’t Willie’s time yet. Do you agree or am I letting Nashville off too easily?

Joe Nick: That Bear Family collection was my compass in doing research into the Nashville period. Willie’s records in the ‘60s were generally very good, and at times sounded even better thanks to Nashville Sound embellishments. The territory covered in these recordings prove Chet and Felton Jarvis and RCA really did try to find the right sound for Willie. Seems to me they most often tried to capture the country-folk sound defined by Johnny Cash and championed by Bare, Gibson, Jennings, George Hamilton IV, et al, even though there were attempts to tie Willie to Ernest Tubb (some of his best Nashville sides were recorded with the Texas Troubadours) too, or package his music thematically, as was the case of Texas In My Soul. What became clear was throughout this period of trying to break through as a Nashville recording artist, Willie was laying the groundwork for what was to come by playing clubs in Texas, doing the roadwork and honing his live act, which is why I spend time in the book dissecting the making of the Live Country Music Concert album that was recorded at Panther Hall in Fort Worth in 1965. It shows Willie as an ascending country-folk artist who writes deep, dark songs and chooses his cover material well, as was the case of his interpretation of the Beatles “Yesterday,” who weren’t being covered by country artists. Playing live in Texas was Willie’s bread and butter, the reason he didn’t last long on the Grand Ole Opry (every Opry performance robbed him of a good weekend payday back in Texas), and where he developed his ability to work a crowd. So Nashville was not entirely for naught.

Brian: Whatever Willie’s struggles as a recording artist, he was always highly regarded as a songwriter. The late ‘60s saw the emergence of Kris Kristofferson—a fellow Texan— and Tom T. Hall, a Kentuckian, both of whom became very successful in… Nashville. Although close to Kris, as far as I can tell, Willie has never recorded any Tom T. Hall songs, although he was probably the most liberal writer in an outwardly conservative genre. Later we’d learn both Willie and Tom T. were among President Carter’s favorite musicians. Have you ever noticed this and any thoughts? If Willie can keep up with Hank Snow (on 1985’s superb duo album, Brand On My Heart) he could handle “Turn It On Turn It On Turn It On” and many others.

Joe Nick: Tom T. was part of the Nashville singer-songwriter scene that grew out of the country-folk movement so he and Willie were fellow travelers. My guess is, they weren’t tight because they came from different backgrounds and had a very different approach to performing. In the early 1970s, Willie found a new home at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin and tapped into a new audience that was wild, rowdy, and over the top in their response to his music, which Willie had ramped up and supercharged into a variant of Southern rock, regardless of his more introspective material. When Tom T. played the Armadillo, he was still doing subtle country-folk (“I Like Beer” was about as rowdy as Tom T. got). Despite that song, Tom T. didn’t sell any beer at the Armadillo, in marked contrast to Waylon and Willie. Maybe that’s why Tom T. was never embraced by the hippies in Austin. He was regarded as pretty much a mainstream country artist, even though it was obvious that he was a real thinker. That difference, in my mind, explains why he and Willie were neither soul mates nor kindred spirits.

Brian: What did you think of the “Outlaw” schtick at the time and in retrospect? One irony is that, except for Willie, all these guys probably made more good-to-great recordings under the aegis of Nashville than on their own. Willie’s two Atlantic lps (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages), were excellent but not exactly blockbusters, although they do seem to have expanded his non-country audience.

Joe Nick: The Outlaw shtick was shtick. I’m so glad Jerry Bradley weighed in for the book because he made clear Wanted: The Outlaws was nothing but a marketing ploy meant to utilize existing tracks that RCA owned on Willie and capitalize on the Willie-Waylon brand and what was going on down in Texas. The Atlantic albums were artistically significant because Jerry Wexler showed Willie the possibilities by taking him out of the Nashville mindset. But for all the hype, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages sold less than Willie’s RCA albums.

Brian: Red Headed Stranger was the breakthrough yet Willie’s discography after RHS is a minefield of brilliance, high level hackwork and the accommodation of outside production aesthetics ideas as dreary as anything Nashville threw at him. We who love Willie have learned this is just how it is, and perhaps even tried to learn from his ecumenicism but how do you explain Willie’s post-RHS discography to the casual fan? I just start with the genius: Tougher Than Leather (1983), Spirit (1996), and what I think the best of his Nashville rapprochements, It Will Always Be (2004) and tell folks to explore from there.

Joe Nick: Willie’s post-RHS discography is Clint Eastwood – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s a case of a recording artist who’d spent the previous 25 years trying to break through, and once he did, gladly took on whatever was thrown his way. Willie is still the salt-of-the-earth, a Welcome All Comers kind of guy when it comes to recording. His discography after RHS reflects that, particularly the duets. Over the past fifteen years, his records break down into Willie records, the ones he makes on the spur of the moment, and Mark records, the projects that his business advisor Mark Rothbaum helps put together, such as the Wynton Marsalis album or Willie’s collaboration with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals.

Spirit marked a sea change, moving Willie to downshift the live sound from a freight train to a more subtle approach when he took away Paul English’s drum kit and replaced it with a snare and brushes. The change, along with the death of Grady Martin, brought Willie’s guitar playing front and center for the first time since the early ’60s. The cat knows his Django swing. Your comment about It Will Always Be is spot on. In so many ways, it’s a classic Nashville production. Willie took the songs to producer James Stroud, Stroud picked the musicians to perform the music, Willie came in and sang and played his lines. The only difference was, Willie got to take the tracks back to Texas and fool around them some more in the studio. For all that Nashville rebel/outlaw hype that’s been put on Willie, It Will Always Be was about as conventional a Nashville country album could be. To me, it underscores how Willie made his peace with the business end of music.

Brian: Willie has sung many duets, both full albums and as a guest with others; my own favorite among the latter be Neil Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys,” a perfect convergence of ridiculous sincerity and genius. What are some of the duets you most treasure?

Joe Nick: I think you have to put the Julio Iglesias recording of “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” as the ultimate convergence of ridiculous sincerity and genius, mainly because it was so implausible and yet became a huge hit. illie claims the Guinness Book of World Records for duets, although I could find no such category. Doing a duet used to be a country tradition, and a means of extending one’s career by partnering with another singer. Willie’s first top ten country hit was a duet done with his second wife, Shirley Collie called “Willingly,” which succeeded more on the strength of Shirley’s voice rather than Willie’s name. On the first Bear Family box, It’s Been Rough and Rocky Travellin’, set you can hear an outtake track of Willie and Shirley dueting on “Columbus Stockade Blues,” like they were part of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, scatting their way through a very jazzy rendition of an old country chestnuts. That’s one of my favorite duets of all.

Willie took the whole duet trad to the extreme, singing duets with everybody and anybody, save for Tom T. Hall (now you mention it, I wonder why he didn’t). Willie told me the only artist he hadn’t done a duet with was Barbra Streisand which would have been interesting to say the least. I gotta say, the freestyling Snoop Dogg did with Willie on Willie’s jokey song “Superman” that was recorded in Amsterdam last April, as seen on YouTube, is amazingly simpatico. Now that he’s done hip-hop, Willie’s just about covered every form of American music there is. Going back, I’m surprised how slick Chips Moman’s production is on Willie and Merle’s “Pancho and Lefty.” That’s one of the most significant duets Willie has done, and it made Townes Van Zandt’s career. But for all that, the production sounds, well… a tad too twee for me.

Brian: It seems hokey from the outside, this affection and loyalty so many of us feel towards Willie but, unless you’re one of his ex-wives, he seems to have done far more good than ill. Interestingly even after becoming an icon, Willie hasn’t soured on people. Compare this to his musical peers Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and—I think— Jerry Garcia (as songwriter and icon), each of whom seemed weighted down by the attentions that accompanied their successes. Have you ever gotten the feeling Willie was weary of the world he made?

Joe Nick: About fifteen years ago, I was riding around Willie World in a pickup that Willie was driving, passing a joint back and forth and just talking. At one point, I blurted out, “Do you ever get tired of being Willie?” He stopped and gave me a strange “What Are You Talking About?” look. I repeated the question and asked if there are days that he didn’t feel like being Willie. He said on a day like that, he just won’t go out. He’ll stay inside. This is a person who honestly loves what he’s doing, and enjoys the adulation and attention. There’s the anecdote of the Vegas promoter back in the 1970s asking Willie if he’d rather sneak out the back way than deal with all the fans lined up for an autograph. Willie told him that he’d been working most of his life to get people to ask him for his autograph and there was no way he was going to blow them off now. That personal interaction is very important to Willie. It keeps him humble, grounded, and reminds him why he’s in this business. Despite his one name superstar status, he is a populist at heart. Dylan doesn’t want his sidemen looking him in the eye backstage because he gets hit on so much by fans. Merle sometimes acts as if he’s still behind bars or being chased. He’s not real at ease with his public although one on one, he’s an engaging, smart man. I guess Jerry has his cross to bear too. In terms of organizational charts, Willie and Jerry were fellow travelers. Both were the heads of extended families, each was an innovator and when the chips were down, knew how to improvise, and the respective sounds they were associated with had very organic foundations. I don’t know about Jerry towards the end, but Willie does not show signs of being burdened by what he’s created. I get the sense he very much enjoys being Willie Nelson.

Brian: I voted against George W. Bush the first chance I had—outside Wheatsville Co-Op in 1994, when he defeated Ann Richards in the race for Governor. Since 2000, I’ve tried to explain more than once that W. wasn’t entirely Texas’ fault. Conversely, it seems to Willie’s importance has only increased in the last eight years in that he is an exemplar—however flawed, as he’s first to admit— of the other Texas, the one we love: of Scarface and Flaco Jimenez, Big Bend and the Piney Woods, etc. How much has the last eight years effected your view of Willie?

Joe Nick: You and me both. I still don’t understand how or why Ann lost. One of the primary reasons I wrote this book was to correct the record on the public perception of Texans. Bush, who it must be pointed out was a blueblood born in Connecticut, has damaged and denigrated the Texan brand. So I wanted to explain Texas and Texans not just to myself but to others who think Bush is a Texan. He’s not. Willie, in my mind, is the most important Texan of the 20th or 21st century (although Jack Kilby, Lyndon Johnson, and Bob Wills come close). More importantly, Willie embodies all the qualities that distinguish Texans from everyone else in a good way. He’s independent, an iconoclast, an outsider, a great storyteller, an outlaw, a figure who is equally comfortable with the sacred and the profane, a contrarian, stubborn and mule-headed, a gambler and a risk taker, a traditionalist keeper of the flame and a political progressive sufficiently enlightened to think outside the box, an urban sophisticate and a farm kid from Hill County, a good ol’ boy who is larger than life and whose story mirrors the history of a state and its people from the Great Depression to the here and now.

I hope by shining the light on Willie’s life, the image of Texans around the world can be rehabilitated and refined beyond Bush.

Brian: As long-time observer and participant in the Texas music scene, who are some of your favorite overlooked bands and songwriters? At the top of my list would be The Texas Instruments— David Woody, Ron Marks, Steve Chapman and a bit later, Clay Daniel on second guitar— and Terry Allen, although he’s lived most of his adult life in California and New Mexico.

Joe Nick: I’ve always been drawn to the outsiders and weirdos, and Texas is full of them. Where to start? I do dig TI and Banana Blender Surprise, whose leader is now a city councilman in Marfa. Terry Allen’s Lubbock on Everything remains the definitive work on Lubbock and music, thanks to Terry’s sharp eye, lyrical wit, and Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar. But the real outsider from Lubbock is Norman Carl Odam, aka the Legendary Stardust Cowboy whose 1969 recording of “Paralyzed” which featured T. Bone Burnett on drums, was promoted as the “World’s Worst Record.” Wes Race, a record collector from Fort Worth who once managed Hound Dog Taylor, has an outstanding new CD, Cryptic Whalin’! Shazam! (Cool Groove) that fuses Charles Bukowski with bop.

Cuatitos Cantu, twin dwarf accordionists who had six fingers on their hands, Homer Henderson, whose “Lee Harvey Was A Friend Of Mine” remains a classic and who does Jimmy Reed better than anyone else on earth when Homer does his One Man Band thing, Steve Jordan, the avant-garde conjunto accordionist with an eye patch, Sir Doug Sahm, the best all-around Texas player I’ve ever heard and my old clients Joe “King” Carrasco, the band True Believers, and Dino Lee had their quirks. I dig Fathead Newman and Dewey Redman as Texas tenors, but I dug Rocky Morales (best known for his work with Doug Sahm) even more. And don’t get me started on conjunto and zydeco accordionists – Clifton Chenier, Rockin’ Dopsie, John Delafose, Step Rideau, Mingo Saldivar, Don Santiago Jimenez, Valerio Longoria, Narciso Martinez. The next generation of zydeco and conjunto players are working these flashy Gabbaneli models that are as outrageous to their genres as Chingo Bling and Mike Jones are to theirs.

The blues cats continue to intrigue, although I peaked in the 1970s with Robert Ealey and the Five Careless Lovers in Fort Worth, who introduced me to Curley “Barefoot” Miller, the barefoot tap dancer who was going as The World’s Oldest Teenager, Toro, the Lightbulb Eater, Finney Mo, the guitarist Johnny B, and U.P. Wilson, perhaps the greatest one-handed guitar player ever. Consider Goree Carter who whistled, or Hop Wilson who played lap steel guitar, or Bongo Joe who was doing freestyle rapping accompanied by his hand made 40 pound oil barrels and rattle-shakers on the streets of Galveston, Houston, Fort Worth, and finally San Antonio, thirty years before the Geto Boys came into being – by the by, I hear Scarface is going deep and recording a blues album his own self. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, the Ice Man (Albert Collins), all the way to Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan – outsiders all.

It all goes back to Texans being outsiders in the first place, because all Texans come from somewhere else if you do the family genealogy. One of the first Texans to be recorded was Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, a contemporary of Scott Joplin who sang and played guitar and pan pipes. Henry’s recordings were discovered in the late 60s by a record collector named Bob Hite who played in a band called Canned Heat. Their version of “Bull Doze Blues” became “Going Up the Country” and put Thomas on the map. Taj Mahal later covered Thomas’ “Fishin’Blues.”

Brian Berger ranks the barbecue states 1) Texas 2) Georgia 3) Florida and Tennessee (tie). His favorite Willie songs this morning are 1) “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” 2) “Darkness On The Face Of The Earth”3) “We Don’t Run” and “Tougher Than Leather” (tie)

Selected Joe Nick Patoski Bibliography

Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (2007)
Big Bend National Park (2006) with Laurence Parent
Texas Mountains (2001) with Laurence Parent
Selena: Como la Flor (1996)
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught In The Crossfire (1993) with Bill Crawford

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Anonymous said...

Brooklyn is the Fort Worth of NY. I like that!

I enjoyed reading about you two talking, Joe Nick.

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