From that day forward, English never stopped tapping his foot for Nelson.
English, who would go on to become Nelson’s best friend, bodyguard, accountant, road manager and one of the most formidable gun-toting drummers in country music, has died at the age of 87, Nelson’s publicist, Elaine Schock, confirmed to The Washington Post on Wednesday night.
Schock said she was notified of English’s death on Tuesday. She said that she did not know the exact cause, but knew from close family friends that English had been battling pneumonia.
Nicknamed “the Devil” for his famous black-satin cape and matching hat, English toured with Nelson and Family right up until the end. The two friends’ escapades, immortalized in Nelson’s “Me and Paul,” would take them from the underbelly of Fort Worth honky-tonks to some of the world’s biggest stages. “We received our education/In the cities of the nation, me and Paul,” as Nelson sings in the titular track of his 1985 album “Me and Paul.”
After decades on the road with Nelson, English told Rolling Stone in 2014 that Nelson saved his life.
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie,” he said, “I would be in the penitentiary or dead.”
We are heartbroken to learn about the passing of a beloved member of the Farm Aid family, board member Paul English. Paul served on the Farm Aid board since the organization’s founding in 1985. His talents and passion will be missed.— Farm Aid (@FarmAid) February 12, 2020
Please read Farm Ai… https://t.co/dKFLQWYvIh pic.twitter.com/MDzPShsqWI
The drummer was born on Nov. 6, 1932, in Vernon, Tex., to devoutly religious parents active in the Assembly of God Church, where English played the trumpet, he said in Nelson’s 1988 autobiography. He soon got into gangs as a teenager once he started hanging on Hell’s Half Acre, a wild strip of honky-tonks in Fort Worth. He beat up a couple guys who tried to jump him and won praise from the Peroxide Gang, a group of outlaw cowboys named for the chemicals they slicked into their hair, as Oxford American reported.
After sometimes committing up to a dozen break-ins a day, English took pride in being named on a Fort Worth tabloid’s list of “10 Most Unwanted” criminals for five years in a row, he said in the autobiography. But after getting jailed for a burglary, he tried to get back on the straight and narrow.
And that’s about the time he met Nelson.
English knew of him only from hearing his show on KCNC, and from Nelson’s voice and persona, English “thought he was an old man,” he told Oxford American. He said Nelson reminded him of an “ol’ cotton-picking, snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, stump-jumping, gravy-pot sopping, coffee pot dodging, dumpling-eating, frog-giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County, Texas.” But when he showed up to the station that afternoon in 1955, he was surprised to see Nelson was his own age.
Despite his lack of experience, Nelson liked him. He invited English to play a six-week gig at a bar for $8 a night, English recalled in a 1981 interview with Modern Drummer magazine. After that, English knew he had found what he wanted to do.
“The money wasn’t that great, but I loved playing, and I got to play in front of the girls,” English told Oxford American. “The girls loved musicians.”
It was an era when clubs stretched chicken wire across the bandstand so the bands wouldn’t get hit with beer bottles, Modern Drummer reported. After Nelson moved to Nashville to pursue his own career — the only real hiatus in the relationship — English found work playing with Good Time Charlie Taylor & His Famous Rock and Roll Cowboys. They played Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole at rough clubs prone to brawls, like the County Dump, which was literally located next to the county dump, he told Modern Drummer.
Short on cash, he made his living as a pimp, prostituting women from Fort Worth to Houston, where he purchased several rental houses. He insisted to Oxford American, “I was a good pimp. I never did beat a girl.”
Finally, though, Nelson returned to Houston in 1966, and yet again, he was looking for a drummer.
“He knew I was making a lot of money. He asked me how to get a hold of a certain drummer we both knew in Fort Worth,” English told Modern Drummer, referring, incidentally, to the same drummer who didn’t show up to Nelson’s radio show. “I said, ‘S--- Willie! I’m better’n him!’”
English was hired — for the next five decades.
They toured all over the country as Nelson and Family exploded onto the country music scene, driving in a station wagon with a trailer hitched to the back that once blew a tire on the side of the road. He told Modern Drummer that on one occasion they traveled 15,000 miles in 18 days, for nine gigs, their longest route ever. At stops from Los Angeles to New York, Nelson and English shared motel rooms, and when Nelson got too drunk, English made sure he got home safe, sometimes sitting on the end of his bed to make sure he was okay.
But English wasn’t just a road manager and a drummer and an accountant. He was an enforcer, too, pulling guns and swinging fists at anyone who dared cross the Family.
“Willie feels safe with me behind him,” English, who also served as a board member for Farm Aid, the benefit concert for farmers co-founded by Nelson in 1985, said in the autobiography. “I carry two guns, for one thing.”
He once shot at Nelson’s son-in-law’s car for laying a hand on the artist’s daughter, Lana, and once shot at steel pedal player Jimmy Day for insulting English’s dead wife, Oxford American reported. Once he “commandeered a forklift” and used it on a club owner’s Ford Thunderbird, attempting to force the guy into coughing up the band’s performance fee, the magazine reported.
“Without Paul, Willie’s story is half as interesting,” Paul’s son, Robert Paul Jr., told Oxford American. “The music’s still gorgeous, but there’s no shootout at Lana’s house. All these stories are part of the legend and serve to define outlaw as outlaw, legitimately outside the law. He was the real deal.”
Reflecting on their friendship in the interview with Modern Drummer in 1981, English recalled the first time he ever saw Nelson cry onstage. They were playing “On The Road Again” to a sold-out crowd of 18,000 people in Kansas City, Mo. Thousands took out lighters or lit matches, waving them in the air, and English looked over to see Nelson wiping tears.
“I saw him and I remembered back when he and I were driving along in this old station wagon, pulling a trailer,” English said, “and I just remembered that and thought, ‘Boy, this is sure a long way from that blow out.’”