Its-Long-Story-My-Life/dp/0316403555">It’s a Long Story: My Life
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
(Little, Brown, 392 pages, $30)
We’re at a scratchy point in our history just now, as we often are, with a lot of sharp-elbows being thrown between the races, the sexes, various political and economic factions. Not the worst we’ve ever seen. But not business as usual either. If some researcher took time away from our current conflicts to identify what more Americans like and agree on than anything else, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it’s Willie Nelson and his music. (A lot of overseas precincts would agree as well.)
The depth and breadth of the appeal of America’s favorite troubadour is remarkable. Rednecks love Willie and his music (I can use the word — I am one). So do hippies, yuppies, the nerdy young woman who works at the library, the bank president with some gray at the temples, the computer geek, the construction worker, the bus driver, the wife’s gynecologist, and the cop on the beat. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the security guard at the lobby sign-in desk was listening to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” through his ear buds.
Part of what draws such a disparate lot to Willie (Willie, like Yogi, is one of the nation’s one-name people, so hereinafter I’ll dispense with Nelson) is his success at knocking down the barriers between various musical genres (with damn little help from the music industry, it needs to be said). With Willie and his band, and the many musicians he has performed with, the best of country and blues and folk and pop and R&B and gospel and jazz and even a bit of rock ’n’ roll exist peacefully, even joyously together.
Willie began his musical career as a songwriter and early on produced such straight-ahead country classics as “Crazy,” “The Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls.” The first of these was made into a monster hit by Patsy Cline, the last another number one by Faron Young. Only later did Willie find his own voice and audience as a performer.
Willie began as a country singer, and can still sing a straight country song. But his style has evolved into its own category. Much of his music has a distinct bluesy-jazzy feel to it. And one of his most popular albums, 1978’s “Stardust” with sales north of five million featured such distinctly un-country, pop classics as the title song, “Moonlight in Vermont, and “Blue Skies.”
Behind Willie’s remarkable music is a remarkable life, well rendered in It’s a Long Story,” Willie’s recently released memoir, told with the help of David Ritz. Ritz’s talent is telling the story of public figures in their own voices. He has done this with such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Don Rickles. (I can’t imagine what this last one would be like — does he call the reader a hockey puck?) Willie and Ritz tell a great story without the rampant lily-gilding and score-settling that mar so many such memoirs.
It certainly has been a long story. Willie first played beer joints in West and Waco, Texas, at age 12 with a fifteen-person family outfit called the Rejeck Band. So it has been 70 years of writing songs and performing – with some time off in there to act in a few movies. (Perhaps “act” isn’t the precise word. In The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, and a few horse operas, Willie is just Willie. No acting required.) Willie turned 82 in April, and played 150 one-nighters over the past year. An alternative name to the memoir could have been “On the Road Again,” because Willie and his band have spent a remarkable amount of their performing lives on a tour bus.
Willie’s story begins in April of 1933 when he was born in Abbott, Texas, in the hill country near Waco. It would seem a bad stroke of luck to be born into a poor farm family in a poor part of the country during the Great Depression. More bad luck when Willie’s parents, both free spirits, deserted the family before Willie was in grade school, leaving him and his sister to be raised by their paternal grandparents. But Willie remembers these formative years as being happy ones, filled with music and love. Love from the grandparents, and music at Willie’s church, from the Philco radio at home, and from the other farm hands, including blacks and Mexicans, who worked the same fields the Nelsons did. Willie from the earliest saw music as something that lightened people’s load. Made them happy. And he’s been causing lots of happy ever since.
Willie was musically ecumenical from early on. As many a poor white son of the South, he loved to listen to Earnest Tubb and Roy Acuff on the radio. Another favorite in the Nelson household and across the region was Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who played something called Texas swing. But in addition to country music, Willie also tuned in Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louie Armstrong, and others, always able to recognize the value in the best in all musical forms.
Willie knew as a youngster that his career would be music. It’s all he ever wanted to do. He had the inclination and the talent. But while Willie may have been destined for greatness from the beginning, greatness took its sweet old time catching up with him. Along the way young Willie tried to advance his career in places like Waco, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Vancouver, Washington, Nashville (where he never fit in), and finally, and most simpatico, Austin.
Along with recording and performing, and music-related jobs like being a country music Deejay, Willie also kept body and soul together with such gigs as dishwasher, grain warehouse worker, tree trimmer, carpet removal worker, and gas station monkey. He even sold encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners. Until he was in his thirties, the wolf was not only often at Willie’s door, but was often biting his bum. Readers will cringe, as I did, when they read about how a money-desperate Willie almost sold all rights to “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Times Slips Away,” and “Hello Walls” for $10 each in Houston one night.
While Willie struggled mightily to get his musical life together and profitable, there were plenty of struggles in his private life as well. Never Mr. Discipline or, in his early adult life, Mr. Fidelity, there are three ex-wives who put up with Willie’s philandering for a long time before finally giving him his unconditional release. Willie says the fourth time is the charm, and that he and his current wife Annie are in it for the duration. We can hope so.
As most TAS readers already know, if there were a Conservative Life Hall of Fame, Willie would not be a first-ballot inductee. His left-populist politics vary from naïve to daft. He seems to have no left-delusion immune system, and his cultural analysis never rises above the level of the little guy is always noble and the banker is always a crook. His religious views would bewilder a room full of theologians.
Willie has said he’s a believer in Christ’s moral message, sees His presence on earth, and accepts His message of healing love. But Willie has never applied the Abbott United Methodist Church’s “straight is the gate” rules of engagement to his own life. To the evangelical Christianity of his childhood, Willie has added Buddhist riffs, reincarnation, and other exotica. If he is a missionary for anything it is for the healing powers of music and marijuana. In religion, as in so many other areas of his life, Willie manages to be sincere without being coherent.
Willie is clearly right-brained. Not an acute analyst. Not a relate the evidence to the hypothesis kind of guy. He’s heart over head every time. And his heart has brought to life music that will live much longer than this old road warrior. For this treasure, and the pleasure it brings us, we can forgive much and give thanks.
Willie, with the help of David Ritz’s, has told his remarkable story in a breezy, easily accessible style. It reads like what you might hear if you were sitting on the front porch talking with Willie about his life and about music. And who wouldn’t want to do that?