Wil-lehh Nelson has survived 30 years of country-western music, 20 flop albums, two divorces, assorted drugs, rivers of whiskey, every juke joint and beer hall from Shreveport to Albuquerque, only to wind up Sunday night in another honky-tonk playing another one-night stand.
The Lone Star Cafe, Manhattan's cornpone, cow-hip palace and Nelson is the guest of honor at a private CBS party for 300 of Manhattan's big'uns.
It's Wil-lehh, chili and the beer.
And a long way from San Antonio, where Willie used to go around to radio stations, promoting himself and his songs. "I even had my name paged in airports," he confides. Willie Nelson's first collaboration with Waylon Jennings, "Wanted - The Outlaws," sold more copies than any other modern country album, going gold, then platinum.
At the 1976 Country Music Association Awards, Nelson and Waylon Jennings won three awards. Later that year, Nelson received the Grammy for "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain." The Outlaw's second collaboration, "Waylon & Willie," went platinum faster than any country record ever, selling a half-million copies in two weeks.
Sunday night at the Lone Star, cow-boys and outlaws, and Annie Oakley look-alikes belly up to the bar, swigging beer and shots of tequila.James Caan, wearing pinty-toe bots and jeans, walks in and greets Waylon Jennings and his wife, Jessi Colter. Instant crush of people. "I've been trying to catch up with Willie for a few years now," says the actor. "I'm his biggest fan".
Willie and Waylon and Jimmy and Jessi smile for the photographers. Flashbulbs pop. Jan-Michael Vincent shows up. John Belushi, Jane Curtin and Billy Murray from NBC's "Saturday Night Live" drop in. Andy Warhol, who met Nelson the night before backstage at the Nassau Coliseum, hasn't arrived yet. The security was so tight Saturday night (Waylon's orders) even the concert's promoter was bared. ("BUT I'M THE PROMOTER.")
Sunday night it's Laid Back Texas In the Heart of Hyped Up Manhattan, and Willie's smile is at its beatific best. The red-headed stranger, in his usual shaggy attire, is caught in a melee of disciples. "Hi Willayy, I met you in Tulsa." And if you met him once, there's a good chance he'll remember you.
It's the courtship of Willie Nelson, and it's spreading like brushfire, making the singer/songwriter the hottest country star since Hank Williams. It's Wil-lehh-mania.
Willie picks and croons with his off-beat phrasing and Texas twang. James Talley climbs up for "Willie Nelson Be Unbroken" instead. James Taylor, in jeans and tweed jacket, takes the stage, hugs Willie and goes into a slow blues.
Nelson has played for nearly three hours without a break.
By 1 a.m., the group has covered every musical category from weepers to wailers, country, redneck-rock and hillbilly hollering. The finale is "Goodnight Irene" and the crowd sings and sways, arms locked in drunken camaraderie. There are tears in Willie Nelson's eyes.
Willie Nelson is a 5-foot-8-inch 45-year-old Gabby Hayes lookalike with a fondness for baggy jeans, green and yellow imitation Adidas, worn T-shirts, and shoulder-length strawberry hair tied Tonto-fashion with a faded bandana. Linda Ronstadt adores him. So do Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, Connie, his long-legged blond wife and almost every woman who ever heard "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Sexy Willie, Nelson laughs, flashing that pearl-handled smile that would stop a semi. "Maybe my songs bring out sympathy," he says. "You know, let's hear it for the old man."
He falls in love? "Oh, all the time. Everyday. I'm falling in love right now," he grins. His wife is two inches taller than he. "I love tall women."
Nelson is relaxing in his hotel room nibbling on a fruit cocktail. "You know, I think people just identify with me emotionally as a survivor."
Born in Abbott, Tex., in 1933, Nelson began his musical career playing guitar at the age of 10. "My older sister Bobbie (who plays piano in Willie's band) got me started."
He grew up in Texas, served in the Air Force, married, had two children and made a living from odd jobs. He played and sang, and landed a job as a disc jockey working radio stations in San Antonio, Fort Worth and Houston. He moved to Nashville in 1961, wrote songs and played bass with Ray Price. He sold the rights to one of his songs, (now a classic) "Family Bible" for $50. Next, Faron Young recorded Nelson's "Hello Walls," followed by Patsy Cline's version of Willie's "Crazy" and "Night Life."
Meanwhile, Nelson's reputation as a songwriter was growing. Artists like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and later Linda Ronstadt would record his songs.
Earning the reputation of an outsider to the Nashville slick sound and the same old silly lyrics of country tunes, Nelson, along with Waylon Jenninsg, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and David Allen Coe became known as outlaws.
"I feel more like a cowboy than an outlaw," says Nelson now. He approves of the current cow-hip, outlaw trend in fashion (vests, boots, 10-gallon hats) and lifestyle.
"I think it's great. It's a real laid back, easy lifestyle. I think it's a good image to promote."
But it wasn't always so easy. Nelson spent eight painful years in Nashville, writing songs other performers made the Top 10 with, fighting for artistic control of his own albums. He recorded 20 albums in Nashville, now out of print. He is also credited with "discovering" Charley Pride. In 1969 his house burned down, and the only possession Willie managed to save was his guitar, a scarred Martin with musicians' names etched in the wood. He moved to Austin, where his reputation became legend.
In Austin, Nelson and his part-honky-tonk, part-spiritual and part-melancholy music flourished. He and Jerry Jeff Walker led the Austin revolt against Nashville and ironically his Nashville-based compadre, Jennings. The Austins ound attracted im-California; Nelson's albums, while not raging successes, weren't bombing, and finally "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," a song written by Fred Rose in 1945, made it to the Top 40. And Willie Nelson, the 42-year-old ablladeer, was discovered.
"There's a certain peacefulness in his eyes," his friend Jan Michael Vincent remarked earlier. Vincent went to see Nelson one day last year, and ended up staying for a week. "He's the guru," Vincent explained. If not the chaplain.
"A lot of people are watching me," Nelson says. "Waiting to see what I'll do. I'm supposed to be old enough to know what I'm doing. A lot of people ask me for advice."
Do they take it? Some do, some don't, but whatever, I always have an opinion on everything." And attitude which does not reinforce his image of being shy. "No, I don't think I'm shy. maybe I appear to be. I'm quiet - there's a difference. I don't think you can be shy and go up on stage."
He tugs at his scruffy beard. "I probably think I know everything - it gets me in trouble daily."
Jennings' and Nelsons' groups have been on the road since December, and as Nelson says, "I think it's important to play all kinds of places. I enjoy them for what they are. Halls, lounges, clubs. I even enjoy working motel rooms."
The future for Nelson: "I wanna quit all the time," he says. "I quit last week." The band had a few days off. "But I never quit for a good. This is fun. As long as it's fun, I'll keep on doing it."
His new album, "Stardust," is a collection of 10 standards, all of them Nelson's favorite songs as a kid. "Georgia on My Mind" has been released as a single. He listens to Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and the radio ("I'm a real button pusher").
Nelson is comfortable with success. He worked for it, waited for it and now he's enjoying it. "I was jogging this morning in the park," he says. "And two women passed me. They recognized me and stopped long enough to say they saw the concert last night. That's when I knew I'd made it.