Thursday 19 July 2018

Books: Willie Nelson keeps it country

Biography: My Life: It's a Long Story, Willie Nelson with David Ritz, Sphere hbk, 390 pages, £20

On the road again: Willie Nelson still tours extensively at the age of 82
On the road again: Willie Nelson still tours extensively at the age of 82
Willie Nelson: It's a long story

John Spain

The verdict on the autobiography of the legendary songwriter who went from trailer park to the White House, to owing $32m in back taxes

Back in 1977, before he became quite as famous as he is today, Willie Nelson was on a gruelling American tour with another country singer/songwriter Hank Cochran. They got a two-day break at one point and flew to the Bahamas, where Hank had a boat, to do some fishing.

Their luggage was delayed and the following morning when they went back to the airport to collect it, Willie was arrested. The customs had found a small bag of weed in his jeans.

He was thrown in jail but when he appeared in court the next day the judge let him go on condition that he never return.

Two days later, back in the US, Willie was in the White House as an overnight guest of President Carter, who was a big fan. Willie sang for his supper, there was lots of farm talk after dinner and then he and his wife retired to the Lincoln bedroom.

He lay there thinking that just a couple of days before he had been "in the pokey" and now here he was in bed in the centre of world power.

It was early for a night owl like him and he couldn't sleep - but help was at hand. A White House staffer he knew knocked on his door and offered to give him a midnight tour of the place.

They ended up on the roof, looking at the sights against the night sky. Willie's pal produced a joint and the pair of them chilled out as the stars twinkled above.

"Getting stoned on the roof of the White House, you can't help but turn inward," Willie writes in his book. "Certain philosophical questions come to mind, like ... How the fuck did I get here?"

How indeed. This is just one story from Willie's book which, although hugely entertaining, does not really provide answers. At the start of the book Willie approvingly quotes Harlan Howard, the man who wrote Patsy Cline's I Fall to Pieces: "A song ain't nothing but three chords and the truth."

It's an indication of what is to come. Willie, now 82, probably the best country songwriter ever (he wrote Crazy for the same Ms. Cline, among so many other great songs) has led an extraordinary life devoted to his music. But he tells his story in a superficial, folksy-style peppered with throwaway lines; it's funny, but it's also a clever way of not revealing much.

The IRS, for example, are "sons of bitches" for hitting him with a $32m bill for unpaid taxes when he was nearly 60, forcing him to sell off almost everything he owned at that point after decades of work. He blames a dodgy manager and tax shelters. But there is not nearly enough detail to explain how he got himself into such a mess, supposedly without realising it.

To be fair, for Willie it was always about the music rather than the money, so it might just be believable that he had not known his taxes were not being paid. But the same superficiality runs through the book, whether dealing with his various marriages, his wild times with Waylon, or a whole lot more that a good biographer would have explored in great depth.

The exception to this is the music, and this book will be essential reading for all aspiring country songwriters. Above all, it shows the 20 years of grinding failure he went through before he had enough success even to feed his family.

From the little town of Abbot in Texas, Willie was born in 1933 during the Depression and raised by his grandparents when his mother, who was a Cherokee, and his father, a fiddler from the Ozarks, took off.

Music on the radio was a central part of his childhood, listening to country stars like Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills, but also in his teens to Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. If you listen to the way he sings today, playing with the phrasing, you can hear this influence.

There were other influences as well, like the blues sung by the black workers in the cotton fields where he worked as a kid, the music made by the Mexican family who lived opposite him and the polkas played by the Czech community up the road (as a youngster he even played in a polka band).

They were dirt poor, but Willie remembers a home full of love where his granddad bought him a guitar when he was seven. By the time he was 10 he had written enough songs to fill what he called 'The Willie Nelson Songbook'. Instead of laughing, his Granny recognised his talent and encouraged him. Soon he was playing in dance halls and honky tonks and the pattern of his life had been set.

It may come as a surprise to learn that he spent many years working as a DJ in several cities, playing the bars at night and trying to get record industry people to listen to his songs. He slept in his car at times, while his family were living in the grimy trailer park later made famous by his buddy, Roger Miller, in the song King of the Road.

The best part of the book describes the years of grind, the long nights of near despair when he was turned down by yet another bar owner or record label who didn't "get" his music.

It was out of this came the great songs like Crazy, The Night Life, On the Road Again, Always on My Mind, and so on.

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