By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 4, 2008
An Epic Life
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown. 567 pp. $27.99
Willie Hugh Nelson, who celebrated his 75th birthday five days ago, has been one of the most important figures in American popular music for nearly half a century. He first made his mark in 1961, when Patsy Cline came out with a hit recording of "Crazy," arguably the best of the many songs he wrote in those days on Music Row in Nashville. For more than a decade he toured clubs and honky tonks all over the place, but especially in Texas, refining his distinctive, jazz-tinged style of singing country music. In 1971 he settled in Austin, and the next year he went hippie, "letting his hair grow long, growing a beard, dressing onstage in blue jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirts, with a bandanna around his neck or head."
The change was much more than cosmetic: It was a declaration of independence from the saccharine "Nashville Sound" that had sapped the life out of country music. In what became an irregular partnership with Waylon Jennings, heavily influenced by Leon Russell, the "Outlaw" style emerged, a fusion of country and rock with, again, a touch of jazz. Almost single-handedly, Nelson took country back to its roots -- as a young man, his own most important influence had been Bob Wills, the master of "Texas swing" -- while at the same time taking it into the musical mainstream, which had jettisoned '50s pop and embraced rock. "Red Headed Stranger," an album he recorded in 1974, became a huge hit and established him with the national audience. When it was followed four years later by "Stardust," an album in which he paid tribute to great popular songs of the past, he was elevated to what Joe Nick Patoski calls "a whole other level of celebrity," and he has remained there ever since. Like Ray Charles, with whom he was friendly, he has incorporated and fused just about all the genres of American popular music, reminding us that at its best our music, like our nation, is E Pluribus Unum.
He's an interesting guy, but just about impossible to pin down. This is true both literally -- "On the Road Again," one of his most famous and beloved songs, is the testament of a life forever on the move -- and figuratively. Patoski's biography abounds in tributes to Nelson's innate generosity and kindness, his inability to say no, his ardent loyalty to family and friends. Yet by the standards of conventional society, he is wild and crazy. When he was younger he spent much of his time stoned on one substance or another, and according to Patoski he is still a regular consumer of marijuana. As a young man he also "was not to be trifled with when he was drinking, demonstrating a proclivity to punch holes in walls, in doors, and windows." He has been married four times, and "his eye couldn't help wandering, especially when he was rambling on the road." He's had repeated difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service, finally settling a debt of several million dollars -- exact figures are elusive -- a decade and a half ago.
All his life he's been both a rebel and a free spirit, a combination that the American public has received with surprising equanimity, if not outright enthusiasm. In parts of the country that are culturally and politically conservative -- Texas being the most obvious case in point -- he is often more likely to be greeted with a smile than a frown. Probably this has something to do with his passionate embrace of the cowboy myth -- as a little boy he wanted to be Gene Autry, and he's never quite grown out of that -- but my own hunch is that across the political and cultural spectrum, people simply understand that he's totally genuine, devoid of artifice, and that this defuses whatever negative feelings they may harbor about the way he lives his life.
Whether it has been, as Patoski's subtitle claims, "An Epic Life" probably depends on one's definition of "epic." Leaving aside the various forms of misbehavior in which Nelson has engaged, his life has been spent doing two things -- composing and playing music, neither of which can be described as epic. Some of his songs -- "Crazy," "On the Road Again," "Night Life," "Funny How Time Slips Away" -- are as much a part of the American canon as "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind" and "Blue Skies," but these are creative rather than heroic accomplishments. The same can be said about the undeniably important influence he has had on the popular music of his time.
Patoski, though, bends over backward trying to make an epic out of it. A freelance writer with a strong interest in Texas and its music, he seems to have tracked down every song Nelson ever wrote, every engagement he ever played, every recording he ever made, and so far as I can tell he has left out absolutely nothing. In nearly 500 pages of text he supplies endless lists of band personnel, recording personnel, itineraries and anything else that crossed his desk. This does have the effect, presumably intended, of showing just how energetic Nelson is and how busy he has been, but it makes much of the book read more like the proverbial laundry list than a true biography.
As a certifiable if not committable Nelson fan, I didn't especially object to all this, but the cumulative effect is wearying and not especially illuminating. To be sure, it can be difficult to write a biography of someone who is still alive, and perhaps all this list-making is Patoski's way of avoiding problems, but in fact he's quite honest about Nelson's shortcomings as well as his strengths, and there's no evidence that Nelson or anyone close to him was anything less than cooperative or forthcoming. Given Nelson's laissez-faire attitude toward so much else in life, it's possible that he could not care less about what his biographer has to say about him.
Yet if Nelson's story is not especially epic, it most certainly is American. Born in rural Texas in 1933, raised by his grandparents in straitened circumstances, he discovered music when he was very young and seems to have known from the outset that it was what he simply had to do. It was his calling, and he pursued it with a single-minded intensity that belied his hard-living ways. "He always said he was going to be a songwriter and a country music singer," according to a friend from the early days. "You knew he was special. You just didn't know what kind of special." His timing was accidental but superb; he began his rise through country music in the '50s, just as it "was on the verge of becoming America's music." He "possessed an innate understanding of a great country song -- keep it short, keep it simple enough to work within the box that producers provide, and make it tug at the heart." With all that determination and all that talent, he made his dream come true. Stories just don't get any more American than his.
It's possible that someday a true biography of him will be written, one that discriminates between what is and is not important in his life, that resists the temptations of list-making and tries to dig into the innermost core of this admittedly highly elusive man. Patoski's book will be an invaluable resource for the person who writes that biography, and not merely because it contains so much ill-digested information. Patoski knows a lot about Nelson's music and writes about it with sympathy and understanding. If he doesn't discriminate among factoids, he does discriminate among Nelson's songs and recordings, and at times his insights are keen. Certainly he is right to pinpoint "Spirit," Nelson's superb album of 1996, as a "dramatic shift" in Nelson's career, taking him back to the simple roots of country music and emphasizing his remarkable guitar playing as well as the "distinctive" piano of his sister Bobbie. "Spirit" is nothing less than a small American masterpiece.
As to Patoski's Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, give it full credit for good intentions and sincerity. Problem is, there are about 200 pages too much of it. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.