When Willie Nelson takes the stage at the fourth annual Heartbreaker Banquet at his Luck, Texas ranch outside of Austin, he’ll be doing so as a legend. Nelson has earned the title a few times over, thanks to a career that’s been chugging since 1956, leaving an impact on music that most artists can only dream about.
The red-headed stranger’s history is littered with names that have gone on to achieve their own acclaim, including the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It’s intertwined with countless others from across popular music and isn’t an exclusive club, as is evident from the lineup at the annual SXSW bash.
Willie Nelson today is a the new age, pot-smoking, torch bearer for country music. An outlaw who’s experienced life at all levels. His legacy has earned him notoriety as one of the most recognizable faces in all of music, but it wasn’t always looking that way.
In the late ’60s, Nelson traversed the frustrations of the Nashville scene, seeking the relief of the road against the rhinestones of Tennessee. Kinky Friedman put it best in the foreword to Nelson’s book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die:
“Like Davy Crockett before him, Willie would walk into history by way of his pilgrimage to Texas.”
“The Words Don’t Fit The Picture.”
In 1965, Nelson was established as a songwriting force in Nashville. Through songs like “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline, and “Hello Walls,” a top 40 hit for Faron Young, Nelson had broken through. As Friedman describes, Willie wrote songs “that may make you think, and some of them will stay with you for a lifetime.”
The writing was good, and it helped pay bills, but the road is where Nelson claimed to feel effective as a musician. From Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski:
“I didn’t want to sit there and raise hogs and write songs,” he said. “I wanted to be out there playing, going from town to town and playing my own music.”
Touring allowed Nelson to hone his talent and open doors for other artists along the way. The likes of Johnny Bush and Wade Ray backed Nelson, playing live shows that bucked mainstream trends and facilitated his style. From Patoski:
“It had a lot to do with me singing my own songs and performing as a songwriter…I felt it was important that they understood what I was saying . A loud band behind me would interfere with what I was trying to say.”
One of these shows at the Panther Hall would become the album Live Country Music Concert, a recording that experienced decent sales in Willie’s native Texas and floundered elsewhere (a small peek into the future). As Patoski noted, the album was an achievement for Nelson because it “showcased his work with his own band,” as opposed to studio musicians who would never be able to replicate the studio sound on the road.
Nelson and his band mates suffered for their art at this period, but it paid dividends at a personal level. Keeping a tight-knit band allowed for more care to be given to individual skill; picture a well-crafted Jazz quartet, mastering their parts and learning each other’s tendencies.
This wasn’t all that differed for Willie’s band from his Nashville contemporaries. Their look rivaled their sound when compared to the acts that inhabited the Grand Ole Opry. From Patoski:
“We dressed hipper than most of Nashville,” Paul English said. “That’s what I liked about Willie — we weren’t conformists.”
Nearing the end of the decade, songwriting royalties started to slow, and money was in short supply. This was compounded by a fire at Willie’s home in Ridgetop, Tenn. that left it in ruins and destroyed most of his possessions. The family and wildlife were safe, as was his guitar case full of “Colombian tea,” according to Kinky Friedman.
That’s the moment when Texas began to shine brighter for Nelson and his prospects. He noted as much when speaking at the Billboard Summit in 2012:
“I knew I could play in Austin and San Antonio a lot because I was already doing that,” Nelson told registrants at the Billboard Summit in Nashville on Tuesday. “I had a good following in Texas. I liked Nashville and playing the Grand Ole Opry, but most weekends I would be in El Paso on a Friday night and find it very hard to get back to town to make the required number of performances to maintain my membership at the Opry.”
The audience in Texas was shifting, Nelson noted. “There were long-haired cowboys and short haired cowboys, and the air smelled different,” he said with a smile. “I noted that everyone was getting along.”
By 1969, Nelson was itching for change, and Texas seemed like it might offer a refreshing take for his career. The chains began to loosen.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and subsequent collaboration with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” forced Nashville’s hand to combat the “outsiders” moving into their territory. Dylan noted as much in his MusiCare Person of the Year speech:
Now listen, I’m not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not going to do that. I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I’m just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway. Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable, doing their thing.
This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He’s still in Texas.
Facts like this forced Nelson and others to realize that their place might not be with the glitz of Opryland. As Jennings said in An Epic Life, “They thought I was rock and roll. They thought Willie was on another planet.”
This sentiment extended far beyond the confines of Music City, covering the larger schism between the mainstream and counter culture movement throughout America. Nelson’s daughter Lana experienced this first-hand at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July of 1969. An eclectic mix of talent converged on the Atlanta International Raceway, including Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, and Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. From Patoski:
“I wished all these people could hear Dad’s music…If they liked Blood, Sweat, and Tears, I knew they’d like him.”
Woodstock would happen a few weeks later, and it all placed some writing on the wall for Nelson and others within his circle. The problem for Willie lied in his obligation to RCA and Chet Atkins back in Nashville. By 1971, the need for change butted heads with his need to record, manifesting in the concept album Yesterday’s Wine. From Patoski:
Yesterday’s Wine was a whole concept, a concept far bolder (and riskier) than Chet Atkin’s idea of a concept, an album of songs all about Texas. Willie’s concept was about “imperfect man” contemplating his own mortality.
The album wasn’t a commercial success and marked “the beginning of the end” of Willie Nelson at RCA in Nashville. From Radio.com:
“There was, as far as I know, not that many concept albums in country music back then,” Nelson said, when asked how Yesterday’s Wine was received. “So I knew I was pushing a heavy wagon uphill trying to get that stuff out. Which is true. Commercially I don’t think it did that great. But I felt from a music standpoint it was pretty good.”
Willie’s last album for RCA would be The Willie Way (featuring Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night“) and The Words Don’t Fit the Picture, an album that acted as goodbye letter to Nashville. The title alluded to his status within the country establishment at the time, and a “joke” cover alluded to his desire for the road. All of it added up to Nelson going home. As described in An Epic Life, Willie and others were GTT…
Gone To Texas
Nelson had initially planned to move to Houston following a period living at the Lost Valley Dude Ranch, playing golf between finishing up his obligations to RCA.
Some timely events lured him to Austin and set a musical revolution into motion. The Dripping Springs Reunion in 1972 was a major contributing factor. A music festival spanning three days and featuring talents like Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and Roger Miller for thousands of fans during the first few days. Sunday featured names like Willie, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings playing for a much smaller, much different crowd. It was an early look at the environment that would breed outlaw country, make Texas its home and make Austin the only place to be. From Patoski:
What few fans there were glommed onto Willie, Waylon, and Kris — they represented a new kind of country that didn’t make them sound like old fart rednecks.
The Austin that Nelson graced with his career in 1972 was a different place than the cultural mecca it is today, and it was certainly a different place than Nashville. This was the era that gave it a musical identity, allowing its college denizens to grab onto something they could call their own, away from the classic country and old standards that rolled through town over the years.
Austin started to resemble places like San Francisco, catering to the hippie movement at places like Armadillo World Headquarters, Vulcan Gas Company, and the Broken Spoke. It was enough to lure all types of acts to the city, be it rock acts like Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground or blues legends like Muddy Waters. It really shouldn’t be a shock that Willie and many others made their way here to test out their own music.
The city allowed for artists to reveal who they really were. Names like Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doug Sahm floated around and grew among the free living residents, while established acts like Merle Haggard could and shed off the aura of rigid conservative values that followed him around. From Patoski:
In Austin, folks like Merle didn’t have to hide it. Willie sure didn’t. He signaled to the hippies he belonged by the clothes he wore, the facial hair he grew, and his open embrace of illicit drugs.
The moment that seemed to be the launching point is Nelson’s 1972 performance at the Armadillo. It bridged the gap between the “redneck” members of the community and the hippie influence. It was the key moment where he knew that leaving Nashville was the right decision, and that the risk could pay off by freeing his career.
“Something Is Going On Down Here.”
The proof of success came when Atlantic Records wanted to add a country record division. At the time, Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun brothers were an independent company with a great impact on rhythm and blues. They’d found success with acts like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin — recreated well in the film Ray — but when faced with the world of country, problems bubbled to the surface:
“There wasn’t a living ass at Atlantic Records that knew country music or was interested in it,” Jerry Said. “They wouldn’t know George Jones from Hank Jones.” (via)
The task of bringing country to Atlantic fell to two “outsiders” with a thumb on the pulse of the genre: Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson.
Sahm had a taste of success with Sir Douglas Quintet out of San Francisco, wearing Beatle-like mop tops while making hits like “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino” (Sahm was later joined by fellow Texan Augie Meyers, who would join him to form the supergroup Texas Tornados).
Sahm played American music. He mastered the steel guitar by the age of five and soon played fiddle, electric guitar, bass and mandolin; he could also sing his ever-loving ass off. Sahm epitomized the complex traditions of Texas music in a way that Willie Nelson never could. Of course, Nelson was smart. Smart enough to emulate Sahm’s redneck-hippie persona and doubly smart to hook up with Waylon Jennings, another Texas rebel. Still, when it came to Texas, Sahm was the man.
Atlantic was “gambling on the Austin sound” with Sahm and Nelson, towing a line from Nashville to bring the sound north. They got their chance to hear them at a party held during the 1972 CMA Awards:
“Ray Price, Conway Twitty, I can’t remember who all was there,” Wexler said. “But there’s Willie with his Martin, Scotch tape fluttering off the strings, an earring, and a pigtail down to his butt, without a contract. He was in bad order with the Nashville establishment because he had the pigtail and was rolling fat ones with the yerba burna…” (via)
Willie went on to play an entire album for those in attendance, including the song “Bloody Mary Morning.” Wexler walked up right after and offered to record it, saying “I’ve been looking for you a long time.”
The albums that came out of that Atlantic session would be The Troublemaker, a gospel effort that mirrored Nelson’s own life and released in 1977 by Columbia Records, and Shotgun Willie, a rough statement that provided distance away from his experiences with RCA:
The importance of these two albums in Nelson’s career should not be taken lightly; they set the stage for the flowering of the Austin music scene. Like any great musician, Nelson suffered from a severe aversion to musical stereotypes. He wanted to reach people who didn’t necessarily listen to country music. His first Atlantic studio album, Shotgun Willie, released in 1973 proved his ability to reach Texas shitkickers, hippies in California, jazz freaks in New Orleans, sons & daughters of the South, and cynical urbanites in New York City. (via)
The albums weren’t a commercial success to start, but the seeds were planted. Willie would release his landmark album Red Headed Stranger in 1975, anchored by the massive hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and continue onward into legend. From Patoski:
“I witnessed what I would later recognize as Wexler teaching Willie that he could control his own music destiny — that it was in his power to do so if he would dare to try it to do it…Willie’s outlaw movement, as far as I could tell, began in that New York studio when Wexler completed Willie’s musical training. It was something that he would never have heard in a Nashville studio.”
The outlaw movement, and Texas music in general, would gain traction and grow to tremendous levels throughout the ’70s, with acts like Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and many others flourishing with a sound that bucked the trends of Nashville to become a musical force up to present day.
The changes to Austin are visible, thanks to SXSW and its title as the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world.” The move by musicians in the late ’60s to Austin cemented the city’s identity and strengthened its status as a haven for outsiders. As Willie said on his 2013 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Austin is a different world compared to places 20 miles away.
If anything, I think Kinky Friedman puts Willie Nelson’s legacy into perspective with the right amount of grandeur and wit:
Willie is that rare bird who never bothers to sift through the ashes after the fire has gone. He is forever embracing the future, even if it slaps him in the face. Most of the time it hugs him back. So he followed the footsteps of another iconoclastic American hero who’d made the trek almost a hundred and fifty years earlier. Willie told the Nashville music establishment the same words Davy Crockett had told the Tennessee political establishment: “Y’all can go to hell — I’m going to Texas.”
Nelson’s trek to Austin is a small part of a greater story with many twists, turns, and famous faces along the way. It’s effect, however, has lasted for decades.