Oc­to­ge­nar­ian, pot-smok­ing mu­sic leg­end

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DOU­GLAS BRINK­LEY bookworld@wash­post.com Dou­glas Brink­ley is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Rice Uni­ver­sity and the au­thor of “The Great Del­uge: Hur­ri­cane Katrina, New Or­leans, and the Mis­sis­sippi Gulf Coast.”

“When the go­ing gets rough and the day grows dark, you pick up your gui­tar and soothe your soul by singing the pain away.” Wil­lie Nel­son, “It’s a Long Story”

In 2012 the city of Austin erected an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Wil­lie Nel­son in the heart of the busi­ness dis­trict. School­child­ren, churchgoers, tourists, slack­ers, con­ven­tion­eers, tech geeks — every­body, it seems — now con­gre­gate around this pony­tailed shrine to out­law coun­try. The 82-year-old trou­ba­dour, who still per­forms more than 150 shows a year, con­sid­ers the open road his au­then­tic home, but Austin is a close sec­ond. If you live in cen­tral Texas and don’t like Wil­lie — god­fa­ther of the Keep Austin Weird move­ment — then you’re per­sona non grata, not worth a microwavable bur­rito from a 7-Eleven store.

Austin fig­ures promi­nently in “It’s a Long Story,” Nel­son’s well-writ­ten telling of his down-home, Al­geresque, up-from-Ab­bott, Tex. (pop­u­la­tion 300), saga. Although Nel­son is a God-lov­ing Methodist turned Zen philoso­pher, his rene­gade an­tics pro­vide this sim­ple mem­oir with a happy-go-lucky zest. A be­atific farmer of Great De­pres­sion vin­tage, he has long drawn in­spi­ra­tion from the singing cow­boy Gene Autry. “You live life based on loy­alty,” Nel­son learned from his hero; “you stay on the right side. You pro­tect your own. And when the go­ing gets rough and the day grows dark, you pick up your gui­tar and soothe your soul by singing the pain away.” (Nel­son’s priceless six-string gui­tar, “Trig­ger,” is named af­ter Roy Rogers’s horse.)

Hear­ing such im­mor­tal per­form­ers as Frank Sinatra, Jim­mie Rodgers and Bob Wills on the ra­dio in Ab­bott led to Nel­son’s fast-track ad­dic­tion to all forms of Amer­i­can mu­sic. Chas­ing young women around greater Waco, learn­ing how to play gui­tar with the gypsy fi­nesse of Django Rein­hardt and smok­ing cig­a­rettes like a ban­shee, Nel­son de­vel­oped an ethe­real style of pick­ing and living that was sui generis. His per­son­al­ity be­came two parts an­gel and one part devil. “Only mu­sic opened my heart and let the po­etry flow from my soul,” he writes. “With­out that flow I was no good. I was al­ways writ­ing songs. Some were okay, some aw­ful, but good or bad made no dif­fer­ence. I didn’t judge them. I just let ’ em hap­pen.”

When Nel­son was 10 or 11, he cob­bled to­gether his own cow­boy song­book of 12 orig­i­nal lyrics. His goal was to be the next Hank Wil­liams or Roy Acuff. Af­ter a brief stint in the Air Force, fol­lowed by two years at Baylor Uni­ver­sity, Nel­son ap­plied him­self full time to the art of song­writ­ing. In the late 1950s, he moved to Hous­ton, per­form­ing weekly at the Esquire Ball­room. Be­fore long he wrote such stan­dards as “Fun­nyHow Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” “Pretty Pa­per” and “Crazy.” Nel­son feels blessed to have such an en­dur­ing back­list. “When songs fall from the sky — even the pol­luted mid­night sky of Hous­ton — all I can do is catch them be­fore they land,” he writes. “They are mys­te­ri­ous gifts. I know they are born out of ex­pe­ri­ence and gen­uine grief.”

Nashville beck­oned next. Be­cause of his West­ern roots, off­beat ways and dis­com­fort with tra­di­tional stu­dio pro­duc­ers, Nel­son never took to the Mu­sic City. Too many hus­tlers and cor­po­rate suits for a truth­sayer of his mel­low dis­po­si­tion. Es­cap­ing the Grand Ole Opry cul­ture, he sought refuge in the Texas Hill Coun­try, where ornery in­di­vid­u­al­ism was a badge of honor. “You gonna be loved any­where you live, Wil­lie,” Dar­rell Royal, coach of the Uni­ver­sity of Texas foot­ball team, told him, “but you’ll be more loved in Austin than any­where. Whether you know it or not, Austin is your city.”

Nel­son wisely took the coach’s ad­vice. Once in Austin, he grew his red hair long and braided it like a Chero­kee, be­com­ing the ul­ti­mate cos­mic cow­boy, per­form­ing reg­u­larly at Soap Creek Sa­loon and Ar­madil­loWorld Head­quar­ters. He brought the hip­pies and red­necks of Austin to­gether in a drug-and­booze-hazed orgy of good-time mu­sic. Rec­og­niz­ing that whiskey made him mean­tongued, Nel­son turned to mar­i­juana as his drug of choice, be­com­ing “a flag-wav­ing ad­vo­cate of le­gal­iz­ing pot and uti­liz­ing cannabis in dozens of pos­i­tive ways.” (It’s pa­thetic that when­ever the name Wil­lie Nel­son is evoked, an in­evitable pot joke fol­lows. His mu­sic gets lost in that stale pi­geon­hol­ing.)

The women in Nel­son’s life have been many. He writes about most of them with en­dur­ing love and self-dep­re­ca­tion. The liveli­est pages in the mem­oir, how­ever, are when Nel­son dis­cusses his fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tions with Johnny Cash (“tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­va­tive”), Kris Kristof­fer­son (“a fire­brand lib­eral”) and Waylon Jen­nings (“a wild man, not known for tam­ing his tongue”). To­gether this quar­tet made up the High­way­men, record­ing two mar­velous al­bums to­gether in the 1980s. Anec­dotes of­fered about Ray Charles, Merle Hag­gard, Neil Young, B.B. King and many oth­ers have an al­most folk­loric ap­peal. He cred­its ac­tor Robert Red­ford for his movie ca­reer, sug­gest­ing Nel­son for a ma­jor role in Syd­ney Pol­lack’s “The Elec­tric Horse­man.”

Although Nel­son has been la­beled a coun­try and west­ern singer, what be­comes clear in “It’s a Long Story” is that, when it comes to phras­ing and tempo, he is at heart a blues-jazz singer. Re­cently, he proved his chops by play­ing vir­tu­oso gui­tar for Wyn­ton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter band. A true pro­fes­sional at tour­ing, Nel­son be­lieves that “no sit­u­a­tion is too neg­a­tive to be turned around.” Bro­ken mar­riages, the IRS on his trail, al­bums that bombed, a col­lapsed lung— no mat­ter the prob­lem, once Nel­son starts singing “Whiskey River” to open a con­cert, all worry evap­o­rates. With spir­i­tual guid­ance from power-of-pos­i­tive-think­ing guru Khalil Gibran, Nel­son’s ge­nius for show-biz sur­vival is for­mi­da­ble.

For read­ers who know Nel­son only from his great­est hits (e.g., “On the Road Again”), this mem­oir will in­tro­duce them to his three con­cept-al­bum mas­ter­pieces: “Red Headed Stranger” (1975), “Star­dust” (1978) and “Teatro” (1998). And be­cause he has cov­ered so many artists, read­ers of “It’s a Long Story” might want to play fan­tasy pro­ducer them­selves. My dream, for ex­am­ple, is for Nel­son to record Tom Waits’s “Pony,” Bob Dy­lan’s “Soon Af­ter Mid­night,” Daniel Lanois’s “Shine” and Gil­lian Welch’s “Elvis Pres­ley Blues.” (Post on­line the songs you’d like Wil­lie to record; with a two-al­bum-a-year out­put, he might just do it).

While “It’s a Long Story,” writ­ten with es­teemed word­smith David Ritz, doesn’t of­fer the lit­er­ary so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Dy­lan’s “Chron­i­cles” or Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” ev­ery page ra­di­ates au­then­tic­ity. Th­ese days, in­stead of burning joints, Nel­son in­hales mar­i­juana va­pors with a Rasta-man vengeance. A man of the po­lit­i­cal left, he has re­cently spo­ken out against the Keystone pipe­line and fos­sil fu­els in gen­eral. His Farm Aid char­ity has done more to help small-scale farm­ers sur­vive the maw of cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture than any other non­profit.

The very fact that the in­trepid Nel­son has writ­ten a se­ri­ous mem­oir is cause for cel­e­bra­tion. For Nel­son is, hands down, the un­abashed king of Amer­i­cana. “My eyes are closed, my prayers are aimed to­wards the heaven, but in my gut, I don’t feel wor­thy of so much good for­tune,” he writes. “I sing okay, I play okay, and I know I can write a good song, but I still feel like I’ve been given a whole lot more than I de­serve.”

I feel that same way about Nel­son writ­ing this heart­felt mem­oir from the high­way of life. He didn’t have to give “It’s a Long Story” to his fans, but I am sure glad he did.


Wil­lie Nel­son per­forms last year in Austin, his adopted home town. When he moved there in the 1970s, his mu­sic brought the city’s red­necks and hip­pies to­gether.

IT’S A LONG STORY My Life By Wil­lie Nel­son with David Ritz Lit­tle, Brown. 392 pp. $30

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