Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and author of “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
Little, Brown. 392 pp. $30
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 “Funny How 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 Armadillo World Headquarters. He brought the hippies and rednecks of Austin together in a drug-and-booze-hazed orgy of good-time music. Recognizing that whiskey made him mean-tongued, 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.