On the road again: A conversation with Sister Bobbie Nelson

For more than 30 years, Willie Nelson has performed onstage with the same ragtag gang of bearded, road–hardened musicians.

Look closely, however, at that petite piano player, with long, auburn hair usually topped with a wide–brimmed hat. That’ll be Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister. She is not only his blood kin, she’s his oldest friend and the one musician who’s played alongside him since virtually the beginning. Her piano is the backbone of the band, which is officially called Willie Nelson and Family.

Bobbie and Willie were raised together in tiny Abbott, Texas, midway between Waco and Dallas. Raised by their grandparents, the siblings picked cotton, milked cows and faithfully attended the local Methodist Church, where Bobbie played the organ and they both sang in the choir.

At 76, Bobbie has just made her very first solo record. Audiobiography includes two guitar–and–piano duets with her brother, and a number of instrumental piano pieces ranging from church music to boogie woogie to Willie’s lounge classic “Crazy.”

“Whenever our band plays,” Willie Nelson said, “Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”

Q. Why did it take you so long to make your own album?

A. Before I went out on the road with Willie, I used to play in hotels, supper clubs, churches and all of those things. I had thought a long time ago that maybe I would have a record for sale, but I never did do that.

Then I was on the road with him all those years, and I was happy recording with him, and I guess I just didn’t feel the need to make an album on my own then.

When I was asked why I never wrote my autobiography, I said I thought I could do it best with music, because my whole life has just been music. I don’t separate myself from that piano.

Q. You and Willie started playing and singing together when you were very young in Texas. His career in Nashville started in the early ’60s; what were you doing then?

A. Well, I had never dated anyone in my life, because my grandmother was very strict. I married Bud Fletcher at 16; he was 22. Willie was 14. I was playing revival meetings with a minister; Bud organized our first band, with me and Willie and our father on rhythm guitar. Then Bud was killed in a car accident, and I had three young sons to take care of. So I moved to Fort Worth and taught music for Hammond Organ, and played in the church. I spent 10 years there.

In Houston, Willie was selling encyclopedias, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, and playing some music at night. I moved to Austin in 1965 to play piano at the El Chico Restaurant. I opened a lot of hotels and taught music, and took a job playing piano at Lakeway Resort. Then he came to Austin and started playing at the Armadillo Word Headquarters, where he joined all the forces of the cowboys and the hippies … (laughing).

Q. Willie had already been in Nashville, making records, for years before you started working together professionally in the early ’70s. How did that come about?

A. Willie said “Sister Bobbie, would you like to record a gospel record with me in New York City?” I was tickled to death. I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never been anywhere except my trips to Nashville to visit him.

I farmed out my little job playing piano at Lakeway and flew to New York City and did the Troublemaker album, the gospel album. Willie’s wife took me up to the Empire State Building — it scared me to death going up there — and then they asked me to help on the Shotgun Willie album. And that went very well.

Then Willie said “I sure have missed playing with you.” I said, I missed playing with you, too. He said “What in the world are we waiting for? Let’s just don’t stop.”

Q. And you’ve been on the road pretty much without a break since the 1970s. Was that lifestyle tough to get used to?

A. Our first band, we played about the same stuff we’re playing right now on the road. Some of the very same songs — “Down Yonder” and “Under the Double Eagle” and a lot of the country music we play.

But it was a new experience, because I didn’t drink, I didn’t do any of the habits of all of the musicians on the road, and I certainly didn’t dress the way they wanted me to dress, either. I’m use to getting dressed a little bit when I go to these cocktail lounges and perform. Or church.

Willie said “Just get you a pair of jeans, Sister Bobbie.”

I really did want to be a part of these guys. I didn’t want them to feel weird. Girls on the road, it’s another story. That used to be the rule — no girls on the road. Somebody asked Willie, what about your sister? And he said “Sister Bobbie’s not a girl, she’s a piano player.”

Q. What’s it like playing in that band?

A. You know, we are so bonded. Those guys have been so wonderful to me. In February, after we got back from Europe, I had a couple of strokes — I played three nights without anyone knowing — and when I got back to Austin, I went to my doctor and I ended up with a pacemaker.

By April I was back on the road with everybody.

Q. You’re very protective of your brother, aren’t you? Is that part of your job?

A. It’s not part of my job. It’s that I’m older than Willie, and I took care of him from the time he was born. And later, he took care of me. We took care of each other. And we still do. That bond will always be with us.


@2008 Bill DeYoung

Neil Finn and Tim Finn (1996)

The landscape of contemporary pop music would be far less interesting were it not for the semi-regular appearances on record of the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil. Tim started Split Enz in his native New Zealand, in the early ’70s, and a few years into it allowed little brother to join. By the time the band ended in 1984, more than a few truly great songs had been written and recorded.

It was in ’86 that Neil assembled Crowded House, tapping into a muse that no one, not even the arty-farty, formerly parrot-haired players in Split Enz, suspected he possessed. The band had just one American hit (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986), spending the rest of its 10-year existence keeping a large cult following extremely happy.

Crowded House’s highwater mark, arguably, was the third album, Woodface, released in 1991. The ever-restless Neil had broken up the group, determined to start anew, and found himself in Melbourne, Australia writing a batch of wonderful songs with brother Tim. One of these was called “It’s Only Natural,” and in a wink it became a prophetic title: Tim was made the fourth member of a revived Crowded House, and Woodface was born. He left the band rather suddenly during a British tour and resumed his on-again, off-again solo career with a delightful album called Before and After. Afterwards, Split Enz (with both Finns in tow) reunited for a triumphant tour of their homeland.

Inside Crowded House, Neil and his mates issued their fourth collection, Together Alone, in’93. Although it was well received in Australia and the United Kingdom, the record was stillborn in the States. Midway through the Together Alone tour, on April 13, 1994, drummer Paul Hester quit the band.

From then on, it was only a question of how long till Neil gave up the ghost for good.

Neil, Paul, Nick Seymour (bass) and sometime member Mark Hart (keys and guitar) reunited and recorded three new songs for Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House, which ends the band’s increasingly strained relationship with Capitol Records. In June, after a handful of (reportedly dispirited) promotional shows in London without Paul, Neil made the official announcement: Crowded House was no more.

For him, the next move, perhaps unsurprisingly, was toward Tim. The brothers had spent a month in mid ’94 cutting an album they called Finn, with Tim on drums and piano, Neil on guitar and piano, and everything else split between them. It was eerie like Split Enz and ethereal like Crowded House, yet it sounded like neither of those formidable entities. Bubbles were burst and expectations dashed. They had a blast doing it.

American release took nearly a year, owing to some protracted legal stuff with Capitol (and, as you’ll see, other reasons), and in the interim Tim joined forces with Irishmen Andy White and Liam O’Maonlai (the latter from Hothouse Flowers) as ALT, to make the quirky little collection Altitude. (“If you think the Finn album is non-commercial,” Tim says….)

When the dust cleared this spring and the brothers found themselves with a nice contract from the Stateside label Discovery Records, they were threatened with a lawsuit by a British band called Fin. “We could have fought it, and probably would have won the day,” Neil says (after all, Finn is the brothers’ legal surname), “but in the end we just couldn’t be bothered.” And so Finn became, in the United States and other key markets, The Finn Brothers.

The brothers were interviewed separately, just days apart; Tim was in Sydney, Neil in London. They agree on (almost) everything.

Do you think it was inevitable that you two would make a record together?

Tim Finn: It was complicated by the fact that we were both completely committed to Split Enz, and then Neil became part of Crowded House. Even then, there was sort of an unspoken desire, I think, all the time.

Neil Finn: It was something we’d talked about for a good 36 years, and in a way, it was surprising that it’s taken this long. The songs that we wrote for Woodface were intended to be for a Finn Brothers record way back then. It’s been ticking away, and the time presented itself; and we jumped in.

Do you remember when you got serious about music?

TF: I had an epiphany when I was quite young. I was standing in somebody’s kitchen and I heard Eddie Hodges sing ‘I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.’ It’s a very corny old pop song, pre-Beatles. But he had an adenoidal quality to his voice, and I guess I could relate to it. He sounded like a little boy singing, and I remember just stopping and being rooted to the spot.

NF: I guess the spur into action for me was when he started to learn piano. I remember he learned “Laura’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago when he was about 13, and I was about 7, and I felt compelled to do it myself. So I sort of learned it, and realized I could do it, and kept par with him, in a way. Or tried to. I watched from afar as he got a band together, and was very envious.

Was there a healthy sort of brotherly competition going on?

TF: I don’t think I was aware of that. It just seemed natural that he would follow my path to some extent. I guess I was entirely comfortable with the relationship and didn’t really question it. I guess he watched what I was doing and he wanted to do it too. But it didn’t annoy me or anything.

NF: I wasn’t too aware of it being overly competitive, especially in the early days because there was enough of an age gap between us to where I wasn’t really a threat to Tim. I was the little brother. I guess there was an element of competition once I joined Split Enz, in a sense that when he would write a song, I’d want to do one better or something, so it would spur me into action. I wouldn’t say at any point that there was an overt competitiveness. And even now. There is to a degree – on the tennis court, more than anything else. We kind of save it for appropriate venues.

After you left Te Awamutu, Tim, you fell in with an art school crowd in Auckland, and that’s where Split Enz began, right?

TF: We grew up in a very small town, in a very small country. I think I’d always had an artistic feeling, but I didn’t know any artists. It would’ve been a ludicrous thought. It was a huge leap for me, really.  It took me until I was 19 before I actually though that I could drop everything else. I gravitated toward them, hung out with them, took drugs with them, started playing music with them. And my whole life changed.

Neil was the little brother back at home.  Do you think he was jealous of the early Split Enz?

TF: He might have been envious.  He would’ve wanted to have done everything the same way, because what he saw from a distance of a hundred miles and six years was basically five or six young men develop an obsession, and a tremendous amount of self-belief out of nowhere.

There were no role models, we didn’t know anybody in groups and stuff, but we certainly felt that we were the best band in the world, that we were the logical inheritors of music’s next step.  It was an absurd thought, but we were completely compelled to follow that destiny.

And he saw all that, and he would’ve hungered for it.  And it also became like a talisman for him, or an icon if you like.

Even to this day, I think that Neil will never be able to escape that feeling that Split Enz were the ultimate group. Even though he was in a group that became more successful. I left in the end due to two things: One, I’d fallen in love and wanted to drop everything and be with this person who didn’t live in my part of the world, and B, I’d done a solo record which was surprisingly successful.

Did it ever become a question of “too many cooks” with Neil writing and singing away in the band?

TF: No, there was never any question.  It was a great luxury to have his songs, and it was all about the group.  It was a complete group ethic.

Neil, when you had the initial success with Crowded House, was Tim happy or envious?

NF: A little bit of both, I think. And I was a little bit pleased for myself, and a little guilty that it wasn’t Split Enz happening for me. Having spent a lot of time in that band.

He’d worked for 12 years with Split Enz, and although we’d had a degree of success in various places, nothing as sort of conclusive as what happened to Crowded House’s first album. So I think it was a little hard for him. At the same time, he was in London, kind of twiddling his thumbs a little bit.

I remember at the point we went Top Ten, rang him up – he was feeling a little distant from it all – so I suggested he come over for a few days and join the tour. He came into New Orleans, and we had a couple of really good gigs where he got up with us. And I think it sort of helped him a little bit to feel like he was part of it to some degree.

Tim, how would you describe your initial reaction to Crowded House?

TF: I was pretty in awe of Neil’s songs. That first record, I can remember listening to it for the first time and thinking ‘This is an amazing record.’ To see it go all the way like that, I guess I would’ve wished that for Split Enz, but at the same time I couldn’t deny it for Neil. It was like, he earned it, you know?

Tim joined Crowded House, then left midway through the Woodface tour.  Did it get ugly?

NF: I wish I could tell you that it got ugly. There was a couple of tense moments on the tour, one particularly in the hippie love capital of Australia where we got really nasty. Those sorts of places want to drag out the dark side of your nature.

Tim was being asked to play a role which he was very unfamiliar with, a musician playing a bit of keyboards and sort of hanging around a bit until there was a song he was involved in. And similarly for us, we weren’t use to having another strong personality onstage, and it upset the rhythm of the band a bit.

OK, what’s the hippie love capital of Australia?

NF: Byron Bay – it’s in Northern New South Wales. I remember it because we’d had a huge to-do, and I was out in the car park streaming in the car. I’d gone out to get away from it all. I was sitting in the car stewing in my own juices, and this hippie woman came up to the window and said ‘Neil, I can help you. You’ve got to let your chakra go.’ And I wasn’t in the mood.

You both participated in a Split Enz reunion tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1992.  What was that like?

TF: It was fantastic. We played to bigger crowds than we’d ever played to when we existed.  A lot of younger people coming along that had never seen the band, and they’d heard about this legendary New Zealand band!  They were from 10 or 12 years old through like 40, 50. And they went completely berserk – it was a celebration for New Zealand. I think. It felt like it.

Everybody got on really well, made lots of money, and it was an entirely positive experience. There was a live album, called Anniversary, I think, because it was 20 years from our inception.

The Finn Brothers has a lot of rough textures on it; it doesn’t sound very much like Woodface or Together Alone.

NF: It was a different time, a different place and a different state of mind. So to some extent, you surf that and you go with it. It was less sophisticated than either of those records, deliberately. Partly because we only took a month to do it. And we were playing everything ourselves.

And we were interested, with (co-producer) Tchad Blake, in making it kind of chunky and homemade-sounding. We didn’t really make it with anybody else other than ourselves in mind; we certainly didn’t want to re-create what happened with Woodface. It’s less two-part harmony oriented, partly because of the way we were writing the songs – Tim on the drums, and I was on guitar, or bass and piano. . we weren’t working with the two acoustics. It is what it is, and I’m glad of it. I think we weren’t concerned by its commerciality, and for that reason possibility it’s not a particularly commercial record.

TF: There’s certain naivete in the drumming – it hangs in there, but it doesn’t sound like anybody flash playing the drums.  I don’t have too much technique but I can hold down a beat.

The way we felt was very joyous, even though it’s paradoxically quite a moody record, there was a lot of joy and pleasure in the making of it. We would start a song and work it till it was done, rather than doing a whole lot of rhythm tracks and then over-dubbing. So every song had a day and a half, or a two-day atmosphere built around it.

We went up to the Cook Islands after writing the songs, to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of the Pacific Music Festival. We particularly fell in love with the tea-chest bass, which we’ve used on five tracks. It’s a very forgiving instrument.

Well, I have no idea what any of the songs are about.

NF: We don’t make them deliberately obscure, but we’re quite happy to leave them open-ended. For me, lyrics were the things in songs that grew on me least. I was always taken by a couple of lines first in songs, and in a way I didn’t really care what the rest of it was about. There was always a couple of lines that just hooked straight in there and set me thinking. That’s the main thing, that there’s a few images that stick out. I think some of the songs are fairly clear.

Did you feel a commercial pressure in making this record, pressure to make it sound a certain way?

TF: We didn’t think about it much, apart from just wanting to make a record. Nobody even knew we were making it. I think it’s a special record, and people who like it really seem to like it enormously, and it’ll never cross over to a mainstream audience, but that wasn’t our intention. We had very modest expectations for it.

NF: Tchad Blake is really into leaving things pretty bare, and it was partly his influence that prevented us from doing what we would often do, to double-guess ourselves and go ‘Well look, we’d better smooth this thing out a bit.’ Or ‘This is a bit lumpy-sounding, we’d better do something about it.’ He encouraged us to do a lot of one-take performances.

The first single in England was ‘Suffer Never,’ which doesn’t seem to have any hooks in it at all.

NF: The guitar’s the hook, in a way. There was just an attitude about it that we really liked, and a slightly psychedelic quality. I have often in the past been persuaded to put out the least offensive song as a single first. Which is what the record company always go for. With this record, we thought well, what’s the most deeply atmospheric thing? And I felt really attached to ‘Suffer Never’ at the time, so we pushed that out. It may have not been a commercial choice, but to me it defined the record a little better than, say. . .well, I’m more pleased with what’s going on in America, because ‘Only Talking Sense’ is probably my favorite song on the record.

Crowded House was breaking up as the album was taking shape. Did you talk about the band’s problems?

TF: Not so much during this recording period, no.  It was very pure. We didn’t really talk about much else except what we were doing. But, yeah, there has been talk over the years. Neil’s wrestled with it a lot.

Neil was very loyal to the idea of the combo, you know, the humble combo. The four-piece band, the three-piece band. He’s very attached to that notion and it’s served him extremely well.

But juggling personalities and egos and shit like that, after you get to your mid-30s. . . you’re a bit over that sort of thing.

Why did Paul drop out of Crowded House?

NF: A combination of tour fatigue, a low tolerance for the shenanigans of being in the band, promotion, photos … I think he was a little sick of himself as a jester figure. He lost his sense of humor about it a little. And I would say a degree of laziness, in that he’s a man who loves to be in front of the television with a joint in his hand and a cup of tea. And have a nap in the afternoon. And it became quite harrowing, the touring.

He was having a baby at the time, too, and I think he was feeling a conflict within himself. It wasn’t unexpected for us because he had been getting progressively less enthused about being onstage. And the shows were suffering a little. Sot to some extent when he left were kind of relieved, because at least it was a way forward. Whereas we’d been struggling with this kind of weird darkness.

Tim quit midway through a tour. Paul quit midway through a tour.

NF: It happens a lot! When Tim left it was very much a mutual thing. Paul definitely sprung it on us. Prior to that tour he had said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get beyond this tour. I think I’m really going to have to call it quits, but I’ll do the tour.’ So at the point he left, we felt a bit let down, and it made life quite difficult for a few weeks, obviously. But we did soldier on. But his timing was shocking.

Do you think the band’s lack of commercial success was a reason for his departure?

NF: It had provided a pressure for the band and Paul too. I think Paul to some extent thought ‘Well, maybe this is never gonna happen.’ I would say that contributed to his state of mind. And at the time, we weren’t feeling that there was a lot of support from Capitol. We were touring the Midwest and we had Sheryl Crow with us, who was just at the beginning of her meteoric ascent. We had noticed the difference between what her record company was doing in every city, and what ours was.  We’d arrive in towns and there’d be big window displays of Sheryl’s record and we would struggle to find ours in the shops at all.

That was discouraging, to say the least. I wouldn’t overstate it and say that was the reason the band broke up, because although we’re ambitious for our music – I love tapping into the ol’ mass psyche – it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the existence of the band. We also had other places, like England was very successful for us, Australia and New Zealand were still good, and Canada to some extent.

That must be frustrating, when everyone wants to hear ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over,’ and all the time you’d been writing progressively better songs.

NF: I believe so, yeah. On the other hand, the people we were meeting in every city were people who knew those records. We were doing shows where we didn’t do ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ Copping a bit of flack for it, I might add.

I still feel the records didn’t get the shot they deserved in America. I think Together Alone was dismissed to some extent by a lot of people in America. Partly, I think, because they didn’t listen to it enough. And it wasn’t put in their faces enough. The biggest handicap to get over with anybody, and particularly with us I think, is trying to get people to listen to something more than once. That requires keeping on it and working it until people take notice.

Were you frustrated by the albums’ lack of success?

NF: I don’t feel that they were failures in any form because of lack of commercial success. It’s easy to say that, but there’s a few people around the world whose opinions mattered more to me than the mass. And I’ve had their support in the main. So it doesn’t discourage me to the point where I feel like giving up or anything. Not even close.

But critics don’t sell records. In the end, over a period of time, you build up a certain respect level which does man something. It opens doors for you and gets you into good places with good people. So there’s part of me that’s not altogether unhappy with our career path, in the sense that we’ve never got to the point where superstardom has dictated terms to us. We’ve been successful enough to make a good living, and to tour the world, and I can continue to make records as long as I will, I think.

Why did Together Alone appear in the U.S.A. six months after everyone else got it?

NF: I can’t even remember. I think because we’d established ourselves with Woodface very strongly in England, that was fine to put it out before Christmas. But Capitol felt it would just get lost before Christmas. And what happened was, it got lost after Christmas.

Will you miss the camaraderie of the band after 10 years together?

NF: I will to some extent, but I’ve been through enough in my life now to know that you can’t just expect things like that to continue forever, that kind of chemistry. And you should be willing to let them go, rather than hang on out of some kind of nostalgia or loyalty to it. I’m proudest, really, of the fact that as a live band we were willing to go out on a limb. Every night was different. We jammed, and we involved the audience. That much I think is a rare thing and I’ll always be quite proud of that.

But in the end, it wasn’t difficult for me to let go of. Maybe it was partly because Paul wasn’t there and the chemistry wasn’t the same, but we could’ve continued and made good records. I really got to a point where I craved a new context and felt restricted by the band instead of it being an open thing. It felt like a restricting thing.

How did you decide on the tracks for Recurring Dream?

NF: We threw around a whole lot of different possibilities. And the record company in England actually researched the fan base quite heavily about what songs they really wanted on the record. And we left a couple of things here and there off that have not worn very well for us. It has to be a compromise, in a way, because there were certain songs would’ve liked to put on that we couldn’t.

So what did you leave off?

NF: ‘Chocolate Cake.’ For a variety of reasons, just as a piece of music it didn’t wear very well for me.

The Finn Brothers did a short summer tour of America. What happens next for you?

TF: I’m just going to come back to Sydney and learn how to cook. Neil wants to do another record, in some shape or form, I want to do another Alt record, and I’ve got a solo record I’ve just finished, which should be coming out early in the next year.

I think in about a year or so, Neil and I will definitely do another one.

NF: I’m going home, and I’m going to make another record, that much I know. I’m sort of enjoying the delicious feeling of freedom that having made this decision has brought. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas brewing in my head which I want to explore. I suppose technically speaking I’ll be making a solo record, but there’s gonna be a collaborative nature to it. The idea of a solo record is less appealing than getting the chance to play with a few different people and creating different sounds.

(A whole lot of water under the bridge since 1996 – and if you’ve read this far, you know. RIP Paul Hester.)






Friendly Strangers: The Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March.

– The Soothsayer, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ (Shakespeare)

We’re too loud and we’re too soft, and we’re too in between.

Say, aren’t you the fella that used to sing with B, S and T?

– The Idea of March, ‘Friends of Feeling’ (Peterik)


billdeyoungcom The Ides of MarchChroniclers of popular music history can be forgiven for confusing “Vehicle,” the one and only national hit by the hard–driving and horn–driven Ides of March, with any number of vehicles by the hard–driving, horn–driven Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Ides’ song just missed the top of the charts in April, 1970, when B, S & T was in the middle of its Top 40 hot streak.

Jim Peterik, the Ides of March’s songwriter, singer, lead guitarist and frontman, was only 19 years old when he sang the hell out of “Vehicle,” an ambitious but know–nothing kid from a blue–collar Midwestern town, and imitation – at that time, anyway – was the sincerest form of flattery.

“We got religion when we went down to the Kinetic Playground in Chicago and saw Blood, Sweat & Tears,” Peterik says. “Got real hip to their first album, with Al Kooper, and by the time we saw ’em they had David Clayton–Thomas. And they blew our shit away. I wasn’t trying to sing like him on ‘Vehicle,’ but I guess I did. He wanted to sing like Ray Charles, and I wanted to sing like him. On down the food chain.”

In many ways, the Ides of March transcended that one song. The two albums the band made for Warner Brothers in the early ’70s are like Whitman’s Samplers of musical styles from that innocently adventurous age: Ballsy rock ‘n’ roll, punchy rhythm ‘n’ blues, electric jazz, folk balladry and hippie weirdness, all laid out next to one another in an inviting and consumer–friendly package. They are, to the number, exquisitely arranged and performed.

Jim Peterik went on to a long and distinguished career in music, but the Ides of March was his first and truest love. Today, the original band is still together and making music with the same passion and poise as in their 1970–71 heyday.

“I draw so much energy from this period,” Peterik says. “When we go onstage, that’s the person I am, from that era. We were in our prime. And when people come to see us now, they take home that feeling. I’m not being mushy, but we project that because that’s the way we feel. We may look like 52, but we feel like 19.”

The Ides began in Berwyn, Illinois, with Cub Scout packmates Peterik (lead vocals and lead guitar), Larry Millas (keyboards), Mike Borch (drums), Ray Herr (guitar) and Bob Bergland (bass). In 1965 they were a British Invasion cover band called the Shondels, heavy on Hollies–like harmonies and tentative, very white R&B.

They also wrote a lot of their own material, and cut a single, “Like it or Lump It,” issued in the Chicago area on their own label, Epitome Records.

In ’66 the Shondels were “discovered” by Parrot Records, which only had one rock act anybody could think of (the Zombies). The band’s debut was “You Wouldn’t Listen,” written during an all–night sleepover on Peterik’s 15th birthday.

Tommy James &the Shondells were starting to turn up on the charts, leaving Parrot’s newly–minted teen act in a quandary. “Our record was just ready to come out, and we had to scramble for a name,” Peterik recalls. “We were all reading Julius Caesar in high school. Bob Bergland came across ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ It sounded like a name to me.”

“You Wouldn’t Listen” was a hit in Chicago, but Parrot never turned a profit on the Ides of March, and after six singles the band was dropped.

By 1968 the Ides were regularly playing James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Arthur Conley covers in their sock–hop shows, so the decision was made to add horns: Enter more school chums, Chuck Soumar (trumpet) and John Larson (trumpet and flugelhorn). Bergland began to play saxophone onstage.

Local promoters Bob Destocki and Frank Rand caught the Ides’ act when they were opening a show for Neil Diamond, and after a little negotiation took over management and started promising big things. Destocki was also a regional promotion man for Warner Brothers Records, and through his contacts he got the Ides a four–song demo deal with the label.

“We put ‘Vehicle’ last on the demo,” Peterik says. “We didn’t really value that song. The first three songs, we thought were the ones. We sent them to the label, and they went, ‘Are you kidding me? The fourth song is a smash.'”

(For the record, the other three were ‘Lead Me Home Gently,’ ‘Something Comin’ On’ and ‘The Sky is Falling.’)

Peterik had written the sexually–charged ‘Vehicle’ as a joke. “I got the idea from one of these anti–drug pamphlets they distributed in school,” he explains. “It had this picture of the sinister guy, and it said ‘The Friendly Stranger.’ It was very tongue–in–cheek.”

Produced by Destocki and Rand, the Vehicle album was recorded at CBS Studios in Chicago, which, according to Peterik, had only been used for radio and TV voiceover work. “They didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll from a hole in the wall,” he says. “They did a good job, but it was a learning curve. We were all learning together.

“I remember that kind of feeling of experimentation. I also remember 14 seconds of the master of ‘Vehicle’ being erased! We were doing background vocals, and suddenly 14 seconds were gone from the master. No way to retrieve it. The second engineer had hit the wrong button. We spent two hours thinking ‘our career is over,’ because at this time we knew we had something.

“Luckily, there was a Take One. They inserted 14 seconds of Take One, I re–did the vocals. And now I hear it every time: From the second ‘Great God in heaven’ all the way up to the guitar solo – when you hear how abrupt that first note of the solo sounds, that’s an edit. Actually, it sounds real cool.”

Cool enough to drive the song to No. 2 on the Billboard chart, in line behind the Jackson Five’s “ABC.” ( “Vehicle” hit the top in the somewhat less prestigious Cash Box ). The album never got higher than No. 55.

“One Woman Man” was actually released as a single before “Vehicle.” The two songs don’t sound anything alike. “That was more like the Association, or the New Colony Six with brass. We were a harmony band with horns at that point.”

Influence–spotters had a field day with Vehicle. “You gotta realize, we were all 18, 19 years old at the time,” Peterik says. “We were still looking for a sound. Most people have their formative years in private, because they’re under the radar. Here we are, on the radar screen, still looking for who we are.

“So yeah, there’s a real potpourri there, everything from B, S &T to a little Creedence – ‘Factory Band,’ that’s Creedence, I mean, come on – we were fans of all those bands.

“And yet we do have a sound. It’s the way our voices sound together, the way we play together, it’s still the Ides of March but obviously there’s a real palette of influences represented on the record.”

One of Peterik’s most accomplished ballads, “Home,” has a familiarly unchained melody but makes its point in a sweetly sentimental way. The band’s affection for the first Crosby, Stills &Nash album was laid bare with their jazzy, extended take on “Wooden Ships” – linked, for reasons Peterik doesn’t remember, with the Jethro Tull instrumental “Dharma For One.” And they bit off a big one with a jazzy 9–minute arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby.”

“It was hard to translate the grandeur of that in the studio,” Peterik remembers. “It was very au courant at the time. I think Vanilla Fudge had their ‘Eleanor Rigby’ at the time, I think every band had their ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ It was kind of like required.

“It has its moments. But boy, if you could’ve been there in ’70 and heard it live …”

Then there was “Bald Medusa.” “It was just a phase that Mike Borch came up with,” Peterik explains. “He said ‘Bald Medusa’ and I said ‘Cool.’ Wrote a song that made about as much sense as that title.

“It’s a dirty, very hormonal song about getting’ it on. Of course, you have the double entendre. ‘I’m Bald Medusa’ became ‘I balled Medusa,’ and that’s the way we did it live. We had a lot of fun with that. It was 19–year–old hormones talking.”

The Ides of March spent most of 1970 on the road, opening for the likes of Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. “We were the kind of band that lived very economically on the road,” Peterik recalls. “And we made money. We didn’t make money on the records, because we were always working off the record company debt. But it was a very viable business.”

Peterik has been telling this story for years: “We were on a bill, Iron Butterfly, the Youngbloods, the Ides of March and then Led Zeppelin. In Winnipeg. And it was our night, that’s all I can tell you. Zeppelin had an off night, we had an on night, and the next day’s entertainment headlines said, basically, ‘Ides of March Steal the Show.’ We did our 20–minute version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and just brought down the house.”

Years later, the Guess Who’s Randy Bachman ran into Peterik at a Nashville trade show and said, among other things, that he had been in that audience in Winnipeg. And the Ides of March really had smoked Zeppelin. “I said ‘Then it was real! I didn’t dream it!'”

Understandably, the label desired a followup single. “We wanted to release ‘Aire of Good Feeling,'” recalls Peterik. “Killer song. Warner Brothers says ‘We want something more like Vehicle. ‘ Didn’t matter that it wasn’t on the album. They wanted the same song basically re–written, so dutifully I wrote ‘Superman.'”

The second and final Warner Brothers album, Common Bond, was more cohesive – and more ambitious – than its predecessor . The Ides of March were growing up (without Ray Herr, who left before recording began). “L.A. Goodbye? is the hit that never was; along with “We Are Pillows,” Peterik was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash almost as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“Mrs. Grayson’s Farm” was inspired by a tour stop to a midwestern farm, an innocent experience – they ate hamburgers and looked at the chickens – that ultimately lent nothing to the multi–layered psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll song. “Man, is that hippie, ” Peterik laughs. “I don’t know what that is.”

The album’s tour de force, “Tie–Dye Princess,” at 11:31, blended elements of jazz, folk and progressive rock (something relatively new at the time) and still managed to avoid sounding too pretentious. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we never had that kind of inflated sense of self,” Peterik explains. “We were always the kids from Berwyn going ‘Gee, are we lucky to be here.'” The song was completely re–recorded at 3:15 for a single, which Peterik is not crazy about.

Common Bond wasn’t successful, and after a couple of half–hearted albums for RCA, the Ides of March packed it in, playing their last gig at a Berwyn high school in November, 1973.

Peterik went on to write or co–write many of .38 Special’s late ’70s hits, including “Rockin’ Into the Night” and “Caught Up in You.” He formed the band Survivor and co–wrote “Eye of the Tiger,” which made him more money than he’d ever seen in his life. He’s still counting it.

When the Ides re–formed in 1990, Bergland was in property management, Borch was installing car alarms, and Soumar and Larson were in sales. Millas had been making a good living as a producer/engineer in Chicago, and Peterik was Peterik.

“Berwyn offered us a lot of money to get back together for one show,” Peterik says. “That’s all it was gonna be. And we were having so much fun, we said ‘Hey, we rehearsed three months for this one show. Let’s not waste all this rehearsal.’ And we never looked back.”

Lost liners: England Dan and John Ford Coley

billdeyoungcom England Dan John Ford ColeyDefinitive Collection/England Dan and John Ford Coley (Rhino Records)

All through their hit-making years at Big Tree Records, England Dan and John Ford Coley fought to have their own compositions released as singles. They were almost always outvoted, and their biggest hits – from “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” to “Nights Are Forever” and “It’s Sad To Belong” – were written by others.

How ironic then, that the one song that encapsulated all the personal things that this predominantly acoustic duo wanted to get across in their music – interracial and societal love and harmony, acceptance and a plea for a unified planet – was not only penned by an outside songwriter, but became their last and most enduring hit.

Todd Rundgren’s gospel-tinged “Love is the Answer” was like a crib sheet for the Baha’i faith, to which England Dan and John Ford Coley belonged:


And when you feel afraid, love one another.

When you’ve lost your way, love one another.

And when you’re all alone, love one another.

And when you’re far from home, love one another.

And when you’re down and out, love one another.

And when your hopes run out, love one another.

Between 1976 and ’79, the pair placed six songs in the Billboard Top 40. They were viewed by many as a sort of “sweeter” version of Seals & Crofts, who certainly made their share of melodic and radio-friendly soft rock, but were apt to veer into controversial subject matter (“Unborn Child”) and lace their albums with overtly religious references to the Baha’i and its tenets.

Dan Seals, of course, was (and is) the younger brother of Jim Seals, who wrote (and sang) most of Seals & Crofts’ material.

But England Dan and John Ford Coley steered clear of controversy and sang, almost exclusively, about love lost and won, about loneliness, joy, elation and all the other landscapes of the human condition.

They met in high school in Dallas in the early ‘60s. Seals played saxophone and guitar, much like his brother, who was at that time touring the country as a member of the Champs (in their post-“Tequila” period). John Colley was a classically trained pianist; the duo hit it off and began to sing and play together in a series of suburban Texas cover bands.

(In 1964, Seals, like so many other budding young musicians, became obsessed with the Beatles and, much to the annoyance of his friends and family, briefly affected a nasal Liverpool accent. He thus earned the nickname England Dan.)

They hit the Big Time, or so they thought, as part of a country/rock band called Southwest F.O.B. (“Freight On Board”). After the group scored a pair of (very minor) hits, Seals and Colley splintered off into a part-time acoustic duo, opening Southwest F.O.B. shows around Dallas.

(This is exactly what had happened with Seals and Crofts, in California as part of a lounge act called the Dawnbreakers. As a twosome, they’d open for their own band, and soon realized they liked it a whole lot better. So did the audience.)

By 1970, Dawnbreakers guitarist Louie Shelton was producing Seals & Crofts for Warner Bros., and he brought Dan and John’s demos to Herb Alpert of A&M, who snapped them up.

It was at this point that the pair were persuaded to adopt a hip-sounding moniker; according to legend, it was Jim Seals who resurrected the name England Dan, added Ford to Colley’s name (probably because it sounded more English) and suggested they change Colley to Coley, which was how it was pronounced, anyway.

England Dan and John Ford Coley. It had a nice ring to it.

Their Shelton-produced sides at A&M did pretty much nothing, although “Simone” (included here) reached the top of the Japanese pop charts. After two albums, they were dropped from the label.

In 1976, a young songwriter (and a devout Baha’i) named Parker McGee sent a batch of demos to Seals & Crofts. Shelton cut McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” with England Dan and John Ford Coley, and it was this version – re-recorded in Nashville with producer Kyle Lehning, a friend of McGee’s – that caught the ear of Big Tree president Doug Morris.

“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” reached No. 2 in the summer of ’76 and went gold, making a Bicentennial splash alongside Peter Frampton, “Afternoon Delight” and the soon-to-be unstoppable stampede of disco.

Their first album, Nights Are Forever, was released as the single was climbing the charts. The anthemic “Nights Are Forever Without You” (another one from McGee’s treasure chest) reached No. 10 in October.

Although Seals and Coley compositions weren’t released as singles, they formed the backbone of what remains, arguably, the duo’s strongest album. Coley contributed the bouncy “Westward Wind,” about a blissful Hawaiian Islands vacation (the publishing was credited to both composers),  while Seals’ country-hued “Showboat Gambler” was a flight of fancy inspired by his grandfather’s tall tales about well-dressed gambling men sailing Tennessee’s Cumberland River.

The spiritual “The Prisoner” would not have sounded out of place on a Seals & Crofts album; it’s a (very thinly) veiled parable about the prophet Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith.

Nights Are Forever climbed to No. 17 and earned a gold record award.

The Dowdy Ferry Road album appeared in March of 1977, sending the England Dan and John Ford Coley version of Randy Goodrum’s uptempo weeper “It’s Sad to Belong” to No. 21 on the Billboard chart.

Both Seals and Coley later expressed dissatisfaction with the song and its theme of mixed fidelity.

Dowdy Ferry Road also included hints that the pair were more than capable of writing gems: Coley’s bittersweet Vietnam opus “Soldier in the Rain” and Seals’ plaintive ballad “Love is the One Thing We Hide.” Coley’s snappy “Gone Too Far” was, in fact, released as a single, but just missed the Top 20.

Jeffrey Commanor contributed “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again,” which became England Dan and John Ford Coley’s second-highest charting single in March of ’78 (No. 9 on the pop charts, it was an Adult Contemporary No. 1 for an astonishing six weeks). It had been previously recorded by a duo called Deardorff & Joseph.

“We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again” was the leadoff single from the Some Things Don’t Come Easy album, which also included several wonderful self-penned tunes (“Who’s Lonely Now.” “Hold Me,” “Wanting You Desperately” and the title track).

As disco did it best to make veteran hit parade artists look and sound behind the times, Seals and Coley released the dance track “You Can’t Dance,” which charted miserably. These guys – despite their propensity for leisure suits – were not the dance-floor type.

This was particularly evident on Coley’s “What Can I Do With This Broken Heart,” another single misfire, from the 1979 album Dr. Heckle & Mr. Jive. Here, England Dan and John Ford Coley do the hustle, complete with stabbing strings, pulsating bass (courtesy of jazz great Wilton Felder), funky guitars by Lee Ritenour and Steve Lukather, and deft keyboard work from studio pro Greg Phillinganes.

Dr. Heckle, which would be the duo’s last album, was problematic from the start. Pressured by record execs to “update” their sound, Seals, Coley and Lehning had left their familiar Nashville studio for Los Angeles, to work with an entirely new set of musicians and arrangers.

“Love is the Answer” – the only song any of them were happy with from the arduous first week of sessions – rose to No. 10 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, and spent two weeks atop the AC chart.

The duo’s final recordings, “In it For Love” and “Why Is it Me,” were released on Big Tree’s Best Of collection in ’79, with “Part of Me Part of You” and “Just Tell me You Love Me” appearing on a 1980 film soundtrack.

By then, England Dan and John Ford Coley were no more. Seals and Lehning began a lucrative second chapter in 1980 with the Stones album, which many critics suggested could – or should – have been a duo recording (“Late At Night” from that album is included here).

With Lehning at the board, Seals – the “England” long left behind – embarked on a hugely successful solo career as a country artist, notching nine consecutive chart-toppers in the 1980s.

In 2007, he and brother Jim began touring together as Seals & Seals. Both brothers are still active in Baha’i activities and fundraisers.

Coley, however, renounced the faith in 1999 and reverted to the Christianity of his boyhood (he has written a book about his experiences). He performs infrequently in the Nashville area.

As with all artists whose time has come and gone, England Dan and John Ford Coley’s enormously affecting music remains. And it remains a gift.

  • Bill DeYoung


Willie Nelson: Funny how time slips away

With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna, he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.

There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre-jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tiptoe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.

It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.

For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show business.

And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Willie never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, using the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville – and the world – was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.

When he and success found themselves at last running neck and neck on the same horse track, Willie made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight-ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.

Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”

Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.

Nelson is the original Zen cowboy – and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”

Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid back before people knew what laid back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”

The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”

Patience, as a virtue, was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.

Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933 in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees). He was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson. Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Willie’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.

Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player who loved to play and sing. He encouraged the same in his children: Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two. Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a cardboard-box piano.

Mother Myrle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrapper, a free spirit and a fun lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.

Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents, William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson. Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice, a Methodist.

But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail-order degrees, and they filled their two-story house in Abbott with song: Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.

Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (when she got a real one) night and day. The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled, as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible. Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six. He gave the boy a chord book, which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.

Willie had made his first public performance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing-along and picnic. He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white-and-red sailor suit. Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.

Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age seven, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame-red hair, his nickname was Booger Red.

Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather: The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and so the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house). His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Forth Worth.

“I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled. “Because it was new in the house. There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it. The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry. That was a regular. And everything else. I turned the dial.

“I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really. A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley. And Glenn Miller and those guys.”

Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and into what Nelson would later describe as a “shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields. Willie’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.

Cotton picking is backbreaking, hand-shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him. Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep somewhere out of the brutal Texas sun.

He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues. Their regular Methodist Church visits filled the siblings with gospel music and Christian hymns.

The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial-shopped ceaselessly, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned to love lyrics and melody.

Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart. Although Bob Wills and Texas swing were omnipresent on the Texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO in Waco, for Hank Thompson’s hillbilly show. He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams too. Floyd Tillman was a big favorite.

Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off-meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.

“My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early.

“And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”

Willie’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who’d showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.

“Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills, and probably other people that I don’t even know.”

Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.

“It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be, but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there … I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”

While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15-member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and the horn section.

He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand-printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.

Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with 13-year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Willie thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.

That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.

Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs.

“I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”

Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Willie’s musical education.

“My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. “The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30s and ’20s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”

It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact, who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”

After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start-up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).

Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16-year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.

Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).

In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign-on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.

“He was a Fort Worth pimp and part-time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up.

“So we had Paul sit over there and we put a pair of brushes in his hand. That was the first time he ever played drums – he played trombone, or sax or something in the Salvation Army. But the first time he played drums was on the radio with me and Oliver.”

Willie played songs for children at one o’clock in the afternoon, sort of a “naptime show”; one of his favorite records was “The Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He was also writing feverishly.

It was in Fort Worth in 1954, too, that Willie Nelson was first introduced to marijuana, a substance he has rarely been without in the intervening years. It has been sanding off his rough edges for four decades now.

In 1956, after relocating briefly to San Diego, the Nelson family moved in with Mother Myrle, who’d remarried (twice) and had settled in Vancouver, Washington. Old radio hand Willie talked himself into a jock job on KVAN, and within a month his 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily program was the second most popular show in town (Arthur Godfrey was first). His air name was Wee Willie Nelson.

Mae Boren Axton, who’d co-written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, visited Vancouver while working as advance publicity flak for singer Hank Snow (managed by Axton’s boss, Colonel Tom Parker, who was by then getting busy with Elvis Presley). Willie, never one to miss an opportunity, corralled her into the production room and played her a tape of some songs he’d written. Axton’s advice: If you got something to sell, go where the store is. Get the hell out of the Pacific Northwest and move to Nashville.

Instead, Nelson dragged his electric guitar and amplifier into a converted garage in nearby Portland, Oregon, and crudely recorded two songs: his own “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack,” a tune written by his pal Leon Payne. The echo–laden tapes were sent off to Starday Records in Nashville, where 500 singles were pressed (on “Willie Nelson Records”); Starday’s Pappy Dailey declined to pick up the artist’s publishing, which was his company’s option in the contract.

Wee Willie sold the singles on his radio show; for $1 you received the record and an autographed photo of W. Nelson, writer, producer and record tycoon. He sold out of the first pressing, and eventually his fans bought 3,000 records.

Willie wasn’t ready to try Nashville yet, but the bug had bitten him. Making enough money to support his family was his top priority, and when his program out-performed Arthur Godfrey in the local ratings, he demanded a raise and was promptly dismissed.

So after two years in Vancouver he packed up Martha and the kids (daughter Susie was born in Washington in January 1957) and went back to Texas. For a while, he was determined to quit the music business and be a serious and hard–workin’ daddy, but his restlessness and drive wore him down.

In Fort Worth, living with Ira and his new family again, the Nelsons tried to be a normal family, living normal hours. Nelson sold vacuum cleaners, Bibles and encyclopedias door to door, and even taught Sunday school for a while, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When the pastor learned that Mr. Nelson, respectable bible–thumper and tutor to the local children in the ways of the Lord, was often coming in on Sunday after a night singing and picking in honky–tonks and “buckets of blood,” Nelson was dismissed from Sunday school.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of it all (“I ran into a lot of the same faces Saturday and Sunday,” he’d later write), Nelson left the Christian church for good. It was at this time, he wrote, that he started reading about other religious beliefs and eventually came face to face with what, for him, would read like God’s own truth: the laws of Karma and reincarnation. These beliefs helped him through some mighty rough times.

Looking for more honky tonks to conquer, Nelson brought his brood south to Houston, a rough–and–tumble town in 1958 (son Billy came in May). Perpetually broke, he held down three jobs: He played six nights a week with Larry Butler’s band at Houston’s roomy Esquire Ballroom, spun records Sunday mornings on KCRT, and taught guitar at mandolinist Paul Buskirk’s School of Music (although, he says, most of his students seemed to know he was faking it). Buskirk remains a friend and ally; his presence is felt throughout 1993′s Moonlight Becomes You.

Nelson settled his family in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb. It was during the 30–minute drive from Pasadena to the Esquire Club one night that he plucked the opening lines to “Night Life” out of the air: “When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hangin’ round…” He rarely wrote anything down, figuring that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, it wasn’t good.

Meanwhile, Starday Records owner Pappy Dailey signed Nelson to his fledgling D Records, and cut his first “official” single on Nelson, “What A Way To Live.” But Dailey and the label man had a falling out over “Night Life,” Nelson knew it was a hit in waiting, but Dailey thought it was a blues song, not a country song, and wouldn’t let him cut it.

So Nelson recorded “Night Life” on a small Houston label, Rx Records, and to avoid a legal hassle with Dailey, he had the artist listed as “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, Featuring Hugh Nelson.”

“The musicians on there were jazz and blues musicians,” Nelson said. “Herbie Remington, the steel guitar player, was a fantastic musician who could play anything. He was one of the original steel guitar players with Bob Wills.”

To finance the session, Nelson had sold “Night Life” to Buskirk for $150; earlier, Buskirk had purchased Nelson’s song “Family Bible” for $50. He said that in those days, he figured songs were like paintings; you finished one, sold it and painted another one. He has never earned a cent from “Family Bible,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buskirk’s partner Claude Gray in 1960 (on D Records, of course), or from “Night Life,” which became Ray Price’s signature tune in 1963 and has been recorded by more than 70 artists, including Willie himself.

In 1960, encouraged by his meager songwriting success, he finally took Mae Axton’s advice and pointed himself toward Nashville in his beat–to–hell 1950 Buick; after dropping Martha and the kids at her folks’ place in Waco, he hit the highway to Music City.

The car collapsed and died like a tired horse the moment he arrived in downtown Nashville.

Willie made fast friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the watering hole just across the alley from the Opry, where the songwriters hung out and drank and bragged and schmoozed. Nelson fell in with Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis and, fortuitously, Hank Cochran. The composer (with Howard) of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Cochran had connections; when his new friend Nelson began to turn up at “guitar pullings” (late night boozing parties where writers tried out their new stuff) the tide started to turn for Nelson.

He moved Martha and the children up from Waco, and the family took a cheap trailer at Dunn’s Trailer Court, coincidentally, the very mobile home that both Cochran and Miller had inhabited when they had first arrived. Miller, in fact, used the entrance sign at Dunn’s — “Trailers for Sale or Rent” — as the opening image for his 1965 classic “King Of The Road.”

In 1960, though, Cochran was the only one of the bunch to have achieved any success. So impressed was he by Nelson’s songwriting that he waved off a $50 per week raise from his publisher, Pamper Music, and suggested they use it instead to hire Willie Nelson.

When Willie learned about this good fortune, he cried. Martha cried. The kids cried. Cochran cried. At last, Nelson was a songwriter, making a living — well, making something — with his relentless creative drive. Martha went to work as a waitress and barmaid, paying the bills, while Nelson pursued his dream. The marriage was, however, unraveling, as Nelson was pulled, and eventually pulled himself, farther away from family duties. He and his wife were both hotheads, he recalled later.

He recorded dozens of songs as demos, the same way its done in Nashville today, and shopped them to country artists (most of the so–called “Pamper demos” were issued amid lots of compilations in the 1970s).

Things began to turn around in 1961. First Faron Young, one of the Tootsie’s crowd and a consistent hitmaker since the 1950′s, cut Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Backed by another Nelson number, “Congratulations,” the single stayed at number one for nine weeks. Nelson received his first big royalty check for $20,000, and French–kissed Faron in front of all their cronies at the bar at Tootsie’s.

Two more smashes followed, in October and November, respectively. “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a smash by Texan Billy Walker (an old friend who’d also cut Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man” to considerably less success), and “Crazy” became a big hit for Patsy Cline. He wrote them in the same week.

He never seemed to be out of songs. “I just think if you’re a songwriter, if that’s what you do, it’s just kind of like if you’re a farmer,” Nelson said. “You have a natural talent for plowing a field. I’m a songwriter. It’s supposed to be easy for me, and it is.

“I can write a song about anything, at any time. Now, whether it’s worth a damn or not is debatable. But to any professional songwriter, you should be able to say, “All right, write me a song about running around naked,” and he should be able to do it.”

The songwriting royalties were startin’ to look fine, but Willie still desperately wanted to be a performer. Around this time, he took a job, playing bass in Ray Price’s road band, the Cherokee Cowboys (replacing Donnie Young, who would soon change his name to Johnny Paycheck). He so enjoyed life on the road that he spent more and more time away from home, even when he wasn’t working. With his big royalty checks, he’d often spring for a suite at whatever Holiday Inn they were staying in, so the band could party.

In the fall of 1961, Hank Cochran unwittingly got Nelson his first record deal. While on a song–selling mission to Liberty Records head Joe Allison, Cochran played a few of the demos Nelson had recorded for Pamper.

Allison fell for Willie Nelson’s songs, and for his unusually expressive voice. “For years, nobody would record him because they thought he sung funny,” Allison would later recall. “We finally decided that the best approach would just be to play rhythm behind him and stay the hell out of the way.”

That was pretty much the blueprint for …And Then I Wrote, the first Willie Nelson album, issued on Liberty Records in September 1962. Performed with a small, bass–piano–drums–guitar combo and little else to fog Nelson’s Texas baritone, the album is a classic honky tonk weeper.

Here are the earliest versions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls,” plus textbook barroom bawlers like “Undo The Right” (co–written by Cochran), “The Part Where I Cry” and “Three Days.”

There’s also the utterly strange “Where My House Lives” and the darkly beautiful “Darkness on the Face Of The Earth.” All in all, depressing songs about unhappy relationships.

“Most of the songs that I write pretty much reflect where I’m at, at the time,” he reflected. “And those were some pretty sad and hectic times in my life. I guess that’s why I was born a songwriter, so I could write about ‘em.”

Of course, the album wasn’t a hit. It’s likely that the world wasn’t ready for Willie Nelson yet. Today, Nelson wonders what his life would be like if his early records had made him a star. “I’d be burned out by now,” he believed. “I’d be dead somewhere. It’s occurred to me several times. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to. I don’t think I would’ve known what to do with success — I still don’t know what to do with it! I might be one of those guys that’s settled down in Branson and decided that’s where they want to spend the rest of their life. If I’d had some hits early, when I was 25 years old, I might’ve been tired of the whole damn thing.”

The best thing to come out of …And Then I Wrote, to Nelson’s mind, was his relationship with the great country guitar player Grady Martin. Martin was the session leader for the Nashville part of …And Then I Wrote (several of the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with Leon Russell supervising) and the two developed an easy rapport that would last. Martin played guitar in Nelson’s band for nearly 20 years and finally retired, over Nelson’s protests, in 1993.

…And Then I Wrote was the most satisfying album Willie Nelson would release until Yesterday’s Wine nine years later; with each subsequent set, with each new producer, his vocals would become a little less essential to the mix. Starting with 1963′s Here’s Willie Nelson, his producers would try to fit him into the mold of a Nashville record–maker.

But he didn’t fit; he never would. And try as they might, nobody could make a star out of Willie Nelson until they changed the mold to fit him.

His first chart single, a duet with singer Shirley Collie, Hank Cochran’s “Willingly,” was released in December 1961. Collie, a world–class yodeler and harmony singer, was a member of Red Foley’s Phillip Morris road show. By the time “Willingly” had made it to #10 in March, Nelson was romantically involved with Collie, married to a California disc jockey who’d helped Nelson’s career.

His solo single “Touch Me” went to #7 in May, but Willie Nelson wouldn’t crack the Top 10 again until he returned with long hair, a beard and a cowboy hat 13 years later.

Here’s Willie Nelson appeared in 1963, and sank without a trace, and a third album though recorded, was never released (all of Nelson’s Liberty tracks were later collected on The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings). He left the label for what he hoped would be greener pastures.

By the time Ray Price had cut “Night Life” in 1963, Nelson was deeply in love with Shirley Colley; he once described her as the best harmony singer he’d ever worked with (listen to the duo’s snazzy, jazzy versions of “Columbus Stockade Blues” — three of them — on the Early Years). Martha divorced him in 1963 and took the kids out west; after Shirley’s divorce from Biff Colley, she and Nelson were married. They bought a 200–acre hog farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville (while they were signing the papers, they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas).

Nelson wrote the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which became a Top 20 it for Roy Orbison, and briefly recorded for Orbison’s label, Monument (one single was released, and the other tracks originally consigned to the Monument shelves were issued during the Williefest that was the ’70s; the most complete collection being the Singer/Songwriter album.

Suffering from the serious bouts of depression and self–doubt that would plague him for many years, Nelson quit the performing business for a few months in 1964 to write songs and raise hogs at Ridgetop. The British Invasion was making short work of most other styles of music at the time, anyway, and country music was adding strings and big arrangement to compensate (this was the beginning of ‘countrypolitan’ music, the so–called “Nashville Sound”).

Bored with the hog farmer bit, Nelson “came back” with a vengeance in November, ironically signing with RCA Victor, where the Nashville Sound blueprints were being drawn. But vocal arranger Anita Kerr was a fan, as was A&R head Chet Atkins, and they believed Nelson’s stellar songwriting talent would override his unorthodox singling style. With some strings here and chorus there, he could be a huge country star yet. Nelson joined the Grand Ole Opry the same month.

In Nashville, he joined the cast of Ernest Tubb’s syndicated TV show as co–host. “It was a lot of fun,” Nelson recalled. “That was back when Jack Greene was playing drums in the Ernest Tubb show. Cal Smith was playing guitar, and Wade Ray was playing fiddle with me. That was the good ol’ days.”

Nelson was thrilled to be singing and playing alongside his boyhood hero. “I helped him host a little bit along, but he was the master of ceremonies,” he remembered. “He let me be the co–host because he wanted to help boost my career, I guess.”

But the powers that were at RCA were wrong; in six years and 18 albums, Nelson had never had even a minor hit with the label. Producers Atkins and Felton Jarvis tried every trick in the book — they laid on the strings, they laid off the strings, they put on steel guitars and fiddles, they put on horns, they let Nelson just play his acoustic guitar. But he resented, like so many others, having to use the antiseptic RCA studios and the dispassionate RCA session musicians.

There were some good songs—he was really cranking ‘em out by now—but the recordings were…well, they were kind of boring. “I really did get frustrated in those years,” he said, “because I was writing what I felt were good songs. Each time you put out an album that you didn’t feel had a chance, there’s 10 of your children that you feel like didn’t get a fair shot. On the other hand, I also knew that if these songs were as good as I thought they were, they’d always be good and eventually I’d be able to do them again, some way.

“When I first went to Nashville, I wanted to go in with me and my guitar and do some things. Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and I, just the three of us, we did some a few years later. I was so intimidated being in the studio with those two guys that I couldn’t find my ass with a search warrant.”

To be honest, many of Nelson’s RCA records were doomed by his performance style, too, which had become a kind of bleating monotone. He hadn’t yet found the intimate and even tender singing voice he would use on Red Headed Stranger and everything that followed.

Although there were many, many good songs, and they weren’t all overproduced (check out Nelson’s hipster takes on “Fire And Rain” and “Both Sides Now” on the 1970 Both Sides Now LP) they were nearly all overpowering, without any subtlety at all. As if he were trying too hard. (Compare Nelson’s honking 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the calm, measured reading on 1979′s Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson).

“I knew they didn’t sound like I wanted them to sound,” Nelson said. “There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the authority to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do it this way.’ I decided maybe I’m makin’ demos, but if I am, they’re pretty expensive and I’m not paying for ‘em.”

In 1965, Willie and his band were performing at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix; Waylon Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s Lounge down the street. Jennings went over to check out the traveling Texan, and a lifelong friendship was born.

“I love his writing,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that between him and Roger Miller, it would be a toss–up. Willie has written more of a wider range of country songs. But Willie is basically the greatest country songwriter that’s ever been, I think.”

He was selling records in Texas and surrounding areas, where his live act was drawing crowds, but everywhere else Willie Nelson was a washout. Nashville just didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t feel right with Nashville, either. “Just because he had on a suit and tie, or a turtleneck, didn’t mean that’s what was going on inside his head,” offered Ray Benson. “He could have been a beatnik. You have to get into the nuance of the time. If you really look close at it, you’ll see that he was really different. And he always knew that.

“He was trying to fit in, but only superficially. Because the music was so different, really — his version of ‘San Antonio Rose,’ for example, that’s almost jazz music. That’s also in the great tradition of Ernest Tubb, though. His band did stuff like that all the time.

“Willie’s musicality was probably what set him apart. The facts are, when you hit Nashville back in them days, there were two kinds of players; the people who played hot, and the people who played commercial. And that was the word they used, ‘commercial.’ Hank Garland, one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, also played on all of the Top 40 country western records of the time. And played commercial.”

At Ridgetop, Lana, Susie and Billy came to live with Willie and Shirley. Martha never did give her ex–husband legal custody, but she was getting re–married, again, and had better things to do. Eventually, she and her third spouse, Mickey Scott (an old flame from Waco) moved in just down the road from Willie, Shirley and the kids.

Ira, Willie’s dad, and his new wife Lorraine moved onto Nelson’s farm, as did sister Bobbie, her third husband and her three kids. When Lana married, she and her husband stayed in the area. Mother Myrle and her husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to a house five miles away. Musicians Wade Ray and Paul English — they played fiddle and drums with Willie — moved onto the farm with their wives too.

Even though he wasn’t selling records, Nelson was bringing in close to $100,000 a year in songwriting royalties. He still wanted desperately to be a star, and in the mid–’60s bought his first bus. He and the band began to hit the road nationally, for a month at a stretch.

Things at Ridgetop were strained, with Willie on the road all the time, and Shirley increasingly resentful, holding the reins on the kids, the hogs and a whole brood of transplanted Texans practically by herself. Daughter Susie began to rebel, staying out all night and abusing drugs; Billy apparently never got over his parents’ divorce and resented Shirley for years.

One afternoon in November 1969, Shirley opened up a piece of mail with a Houston postmark, and proceeded to read a hospital paternity bill. Willie and Connie Nelson, “Mr. and Mrs.,” had become the parents of a baby girl, Paula Carlene on Oct. 27. Mr. Nelson had put the Ridgetop address on the registration forms.

Willie had been introduced to Connie Koepke at a club in a Texas town called Cut ‘n Shoot, just outside of Houston. She was more than just another conquest of the road, of which there were many by this time. Nelson’s marriage to Shirley was coming apart; he was hard–drinking and unhappy again.

Shirley moved out shortly after the arrival of the errant hospital bill; by Christmas, Connie was living at the house with the baby Paula Carlene, Susie and Billie. Susie thought Connie, 27 was all right, but Billy never spoke to her. Willie and Shirley wouldn’t speak to one another for 10 years.

In the basement at Ridgetop, Nelson had rigged a crude recording studio where he, Cochran and the rest of the songwriting gang would play cards, get drunk and lay down new tunes. A week before Christmas, Nelson and Cochran wrote a song called “What Can You Do To Me Now?”

Willie was at a party in Nashville on Dec. 23 when someone called to say his house was on fire; Connie and the baby were home, but had escaped unharmed. He hurried home and dashed through the smoldering ruin, kicking through the ashes until he found what he was looking for: an old guitar case stuffed with two pounds of top–notch Columbian marijuana.

A friend helped the Nelsons find suitable quarters while they started looking for a place to live while their home was being rebuilt. Since most of Nelson’s performance dates were in Texas, and Texans loved him, they started looking down there. Eventually they settled on a place called the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country.

Happy Valley was closed for the winter, and so they had the place all to themselves. Nelson’s “family” was expanding even further, and several of his band members and their immediates made the move with him. Thus, the Bandera property became something like a commune, with each family encamped in a different clapboard guesthouse. Willie and Connie took the ranch foreman’s quarters.

It was here at Happy Valley, among the hills, cedar trees and verdant fields of wildflowers, that Nelson began to wonder whether he really wanted to live in Nashville after all. His lifestyle was loose, organic, so unlike the way country music performers were supposed to behave.

He hated the studio system, hated his record company, hated the fact that after 10 years of hitting the road hard, the only place he could draw any sort of a crowd was around Texas.

“I was ready to move somewhere anyway,” he said, “and it just seemed like when the house burned I didn’t have any excuses anymore. If I’m gonna look for a new house, I might as well look for one back in Texas, because that’s really where I felt I ought to go.

“First of all, I needed to go somewhere I could take my band and play, and I knew I could do it in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I didn’t have to travel very far that way, and I figured, ‘If this is my retirement, I’m gonna enjoy it and be somewhere I want to be.’

“I think I reached a point where I just said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not working. I’m ruining my health, running around all over the world trying to do something that just ain’t working.’ I was still getting songs cut, so I was making an income that way, so I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And when the house burned I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”

In Bandera, Willie began to meditate. He read Kahlil Gibran, the poet, and the philosophical works of Edgar Cayce, the prophet of reincarnation. He also began playing golf religiously (Happy Valley had its own nine–hole golf course).

In 1971, he released Yesterday’s Wine, a brilliant country music album, brimming with the mortal court and mystical spark that would ignite Red Headed Stranger (still four years away), but just as gut–wrenching and emotional as his early songs for Liberty.

It’s a concept album, telling the story of a man watching his own funeral and reviewing his life. The new songs on Yesterday’s Wine were written in Bandera, where he and his cohorts had settled into a hippie–esque, hedonistic way of life. There were drugs, and drink, and many days spent navel–gazing and nature–communing under the influence of some chemical or other.

These are the spoken opening lines of Yesterday’s Wine:

Voice 1 (Paul English): You do know why you’re here?

Voice 2 (Willie): Yes. There is great confusion on earth, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already, and his voice was heard; the voice of imperfect man must now be manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.

Voice 1: Yes, the time is April, and therefore you, a Taurus, must go. To be born under the same sign twice adds strength, and this strength, combined with wisdom and love, is the key.

With an intro like that, how could Nashville like this album?

“It was just one of those ideas,” Nelson said recently. “I’d heard of concept albums before, and I just thought, ‘Well, I can do that.”

Along with the title song and good old “Family Bible,” Yesterday’s Wine includes “Let Me Be A Man,” “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and “Me and Paul,” Nelson’s humorous song about the trials and tribulations of life on the road with drummer and closest pal Paul English (really close, because he lived at Happy Valley too).

Most importantly, the album introduced a “new” Willie Nelson and Band sound: stripped down, spartan instrumentation and quiet vocals, like a gang of spiritual cowboys around a campfire.

Except Cowboy Willie seemed to be trying to sing with the stilted phrasing of every other erstwhile Nashville star. The combination was lethal; Yesterday’s Wine was too weird, and predictably, it stiffed. He wasn’t ready yet.

The Ridgetop house was rebuilt in 1971, and everyone shlepped back to Tennessee. Willie and RCA reached an impasse over Yesterday’s Wine (he thought they didn’t promote it, which they didn’t, and they accused him of being counter–commercial, which he was). After a few contractual obligations were worked out, Willie Nelson was a free agent.

He met Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler at a guitar–pulling. Sitting on a stool in the wee hours, his old Martin N–20 gut–string guitar in hand, Nelson sang an entirely new concept album he planned to call Phases And Stages. The story of a painful divorce was told from both sides. Phases And Stages introduced a couple of songs that would become classics: “Bloody Mary Morning,” “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “Sister’s Coming Home.” It was to be a bold stroke.

Wexler told the singer he was starting an Atlantic country division, and since his deal with RCA was just about up, would he like to be the flagship artist? Nelson said yes, if he was given artistic control of the project. He was making just enough money to be cocky about it. Wexler agreed.

The first thing Atlantic did was fly Willie and his band to New York, to record there (for their very first time) with Arif Mardin. The Shotgun Willie album sessions, featuring a crack horn section and guest pickers Leon Russell, Doug Sahm and David Bromberg, were attended and written about by Rolling Stone magazine.

Phases And Stages finally arrived a year later, as quiet and reflective as Shotgun Willie had been drunk and electric. “Bloody Mary Morning” was a Top 20 hit, and Phases And Stages became Nelson’s best–selling album to date (numerous rave reviews certainly didn’t hurt). The “alternative” press was calling him cool, and it looked like he was on his way.

But the sales figures still weren’t all that great, and when Atlantic decided to shut down its Nashville operation, Phases And Stages died a quick (and painful) commercial death.

Part II: Don’t cross him, don’t boss him

By that time Nelson had already retreated back to Texas and its comfortable beer joint stages, where he was a familiar and welcome figure.

“I could be happy doing that, because I had worked clubs down in Texas all my life, and I knew all the club owners around there,” he explains. “There was a pretty good circuit of clubs in Texas, and you could work every day and not work the same one.”

Since almost all the gigs were in Texas, why not just move there permanently? Nashville just flat wasn’t happening. With the Atlantic debacle ringing in his ears, and with Happy Valley memories still strong, Nelson shifted his entire organization to Austin.

“I had come back to Texas to retire, and to play what I wanted to play when I wanted to play,” Nelson said.

“I’d been lucky enough to write some songs and have an income, so if I lived within the means I wouldn’t have to do any more touring. I was 40 years old, and it was time to slow down a little bit, I thought.

“So I came back to Texas, and I started just working around places that I wanted to work.”

Rock ‘n’ roll and country were drawing closer together, despite themselves, and in the spring of 1972, some quick–thinking promotion guys in Dallas had decided that Texas, where the burner under this melting pot seemed to be, needed its own Woodstock.

And so it came: the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion, held in a dusty cow pasture a half–hour’s drive west of Austin. Tex Ritter and Loretta Lynn were on the bill, but so were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “The old meet the new” was the idea. Or something like that.

The country Woodstock was pretty much a disaster; the 60,000 fans got wet, muddy and stoned, in that order, and the promotion men took a bath. But Willie Nelson, keen observer of people and the things that drove them, was taking notes. He used the unfortunate Dripping Springs concert as the jumping–off point for the annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, which he would begin in 1974.

“The Dripping Springs Reunion had been a financial disaster, but it was still a good idea,” Nelson said. “And I was on that show. And I saw the possibilities.

“The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat.

“I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn’t want to fight. Especially if it was hot.”

And he put his own name prominently “above the title,” helping to set himself up as the patriarch of the south’s new counter–counter–culture.

“Some of them were big, some of them were just bombs,” Ray Benson recalled. “He really wasn’t making any money at all. He’d take his publishing checks and subsidize the whole thing.”

The bill at the 1974 picnic included Kris Kristofferson, his wife Rita Coolidge (then enjoying success as a pop solo act and as a duo with her husband) and Nelson’s old bud Waylon Jennings, who was coming into his own, like Nelson, as a “progressive country” artist.

(By the fourth go–round in 1976, a three–day affair held in Gonzales, Texas, the picnics had become the largest annual musical event in the nation, and were routinely condemned by the local politicos. Which of course, made them all the more fun.)

“I don’t know how many Fourth of July picnics we’ve done, 10 or 12 or 15 or something,” he said. “They started blending into Farm Aid. We quit doing Picnics and started doing Farm Aids.”

In 1972 and ’73, Willie Nelson had found more than what he expected in Austin. He found a lifestyle, a manifesto, and an attitude. And he, a 40–year old country singer, ostensibly an “establishment figure” could relate to it.

“I found a lot of people who thought the same way I did about a lot of things, a lot of them from Texas,” he said. “And so I realized there was a lot of folks over there who would like to hear some country music, but they really didn’t have a place to hear it.

“Guys like Commander Cody were playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so I thought this would be a good spot to break country music in to those people.”

The Armadillo World Headquarters, a converted National Guard Armory, became the center for Austin’s fledgling subculture of hippies, rednecks, country and folk fans and all the strange hybrid bloodlines that were forming. It was a lot like San Francisco in its hipster heyday, Nelson said. Except much further south.

The music was changing fast too. Rock ‘n’ roll and country had been brought together in exciting new ways courtesy of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles. Troubadours such as Jerry Jeff Walker were sort of like Hank Williams, the prevailing logic went, if he’d been alive in the present age.

“I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see,” Nelson said. “I saw a whole new audience out there. And the only difference between these guys and these guys is one of them has long hair and might smoke a little dope every now and then, and the other guy over here’s got short hair and drinks rotgut whiskey.

“It was gonna be difficult for them guys to ever get together unless they had some common ground. And I knew what the common ground was. I knew that these same guys, who had their hair down to their ass, loved Hank Williams. And I knew that this guy over here, who had just got through kickin’ the shit out of some hippie, he loved Hank Williams. So there was something wrong with this.”

Austin in 1972 was like nothing else history had seen, recalled Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. “It was wonderful. We were always broke, and everybody just wanted to get high and play music. There were many, many like–minded people. People used to say, ‘What’s the Austin sound?’ I’d say, ‘There ain’t no Austin sound, there’s an Austin scene.’ We were all as different musically as you could be: Doug Sahm had his thing, Greezy Wheels, Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson, a hundred other groups. And they all sounded different. There wasn’t anybody sounded the same.”

So what was it? “It was all lifestyle,” Benson said. “Everybody liked to get high, liked to have a beer, liked elements of country music for sure, absolutely, but we were also counter–culture, whatever that was. We were takin’ the hippie thing and giving it this real Texas, country music slant.”

And above the title, smiling that million–dollar paternal smile, was Willie Nelson. “He was the father of the whole thing, no doubt,” Benson said. “He was the most successful, he was the oldest, and he was pure Texas. He knew Darrel Royall, the football coach, he knew the state representatives, these kind of guys. I couldn’t get a check cashed in Austin.

“Willie was very much in touch with the establishment from his previous days, and yet he was also very much part of the counter–culture. So he had his feet in both camps, and was accepted by both. He was our link. He was the guy who, when he said we were all right to a bunch of these straight establishment kind of people, we were all right, which opened up many, many doors which would’ve otherwise been closed.”

Willie began to grow his hair and beard, and to wear old jeans and T–shirts onstage. “I did it to piss a lot of people off, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t pissin’ nobody off any more,” he recalled with a deep laugh. The he told a story that, for him, explained everything: “We used to sit around at parties back in the drinkin’ days, sit around in hotel rooms, and crowds would come in, and there’d be more people there than you wanted.

“So we’d start sayin’ ‘fuck’ around, and the first thing you know, the guys that had their little girlfriends would leave. And then I started noticin’ that the more you said ‘fuck’ the more people’d come in.” He laughed another good Texas laugh. “Times are changing.”

The common denominator, Benson said, was, “Drugs. Frankly, all I can say is he turned on with the rest of us. He got psychedelicized, as they used to say. I think he always was a ‘seeker’ as Dolly Parton used to call him. He was always looking for more than perhaps the obvious spiritual answer.”

Nelson’s first show at the Armadillo was Aug. 12, 1972. It wasn’t long before he called Waylon, who too was getting sick of the stranglehold up in Nashville, and persuaded him to come down to play a gig in Austin. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were booked as the opening act.

“He called me and said, ‘I think I found something down here,” remembered Jennings. “So I went down there, and I looked out of the curtain, and there was all these long–haired kids. And I said, ‘Go get that little red–headed son–of–a–bitch! Get him in here!” And they went out front and got Willie, and I said, ‘What the hell have you got me into? Those are a bunch of kids!’

“And he said, ‘Just trust me.’ I said, ‘Now I know what that means in California, but I ain’t sure about Austin.’ Well, that was one of the first times that I saw this happening, and it spread from right there at that little Armadillo Club, all across the country.”

In 1975, the country music establishment was doing its best to ignore the mixed marriage between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the switch to the “countrypolitan” sound was complete, away from the hillbillies and honky–tonk tunes of the old days to a streamlined, string–laded, cloned–from–the–pop–charts sound. There was very little in the middle. Still, things were better in 1975 than they had been at the turn of the decade — both Freddy Fender and Merle Haggard had sizable hits that year with different–sounding records. But Nashville, slow to change, was still pretty much a bastion for the old guard.

Willie Nelson, meanwhile was having a great time being the King of Austin. He’d like to keep recording, he told anyone who asked, but he wasn’t gonna go back to Nashville and have to put up with all that dictatorial crap. But since he’d never had a real hit, no producer was going to let him call the shots.

Phases And Stages, although a critical success, was a commercial dud, and you couldn’t exchange a flop for clout in the studio. But the big noise from down Austin way had attracted CBS Records’ A&R guys in Dallas; over the objections of producer Billy Sherrill, the hottest hit maker in Nashville (and head man at the label’s Music City headquarters), CBS president Bruce Lundvall offered Willie Nelson a contract.

The key clause: Total artistic control — the music, the players, everything down to jacket art — was Willie’s.

Why would giant CBS give a relative nobody like Willie Nelson such freedom?

“I found out later that they didn’t,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “They just told me they did. It just so happens, on that very first album, they knew if they ‘no’ then, then I was gone. So they let me have it for a time or two, but then whenever they decided I’d had enough, they started rejecting my albums.

“And I said, ‘But wait a minute, you can’t do that. I got artistic control! But they continued to do it.”

Willie and Connie were making the log drive back to Texas from a skiing trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, when he asked her to help him think of songs to record for his first album for CBS. As she was jotting down titles, Connie reminded her husband how much he loved that old song by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the cowboy ballad called “Red Headed Stranger.” This was his favorite song to play on his children’s show back on Fort Worth radio. He’d crooned “Red Headed Stranger” as a bedtime ballad to his three kids during the early years; he still sang it to lull Paula Carlene and her sister Amy to sleep.

“All of a sudden it was like a light came on in Willie, and we started talking right away about it being a concept album,” Connie told an interviewer later. “Willie started mentioning other old songs he knew like ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,’ and he started outlining an album, noting where he could write a song to fill in the story.”

“Red Headed Stranger,” written by Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman, told the tale of a brooding rider who held a dark secret, riding from town to Western town, silently leading his dead lover’s horse behind his own “raging black stallion” and staring straight through anyone who approached him.

Nelson bracketed the song with an Old West parable: In his version, the stranger was an idealistic young preacher who’d murdered his cheating spouse in a jealous rage and then went riding in search of redemption, haunted by the memories and deadened by the sin he’s perpetrated.

He added thematic links; he added Fred Rose’s old “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” as the rider thinks back on his deepest love. Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” went into the narrative, and the old gospel standard “Just As I Am.”

Then Hank Cochran’s bittersweet “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” came into the story, as the lost preacher finds comfort in the company of a simple farm woman who understands his sorrow and accepts his fall from grace. He finds peace at last in “Hands On The Wheel,” written by Bill Collery, a lovely piece of imagery that brings the stranger full circle in a kind of blissful cowboy catharsis.

Red Headed Stranger was stitched together from disparate sources and incredibly, it all sounded wonderfully cohesive. “It didn’t take any time at all, really,” Nelson recalled. “It sort of fell together as they do, in a scary way; when you got somethin’ really going for you at all, you just start writing it. To put in ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ in that point, I didn’t think about it in a month. It had to go there.”

Released on Columbia, the Red Headed Stranger album went on to break Willie Nelson out of Texas and way, way out of Nashville; its spare arrangements (performed, as per his demands, by Nelson’s own touring band) left the focus on his warm and newly–relaxed voice.

It was as if Willie was telling the Red Headed Stranger story, with his guitar and sister Bobbie’s piano, right there in your living room (by now the band included drummer English, bassist Dan “Bee” Spears, guitarist Jody Payne, harmonicat Mickey Raphael and Bobbie.).

The album was recorded, Nelson recalled, over two days in a tiny Garland, Texas studio usually used to cut advertising jingles. The total cost was around $12,000. “It was a timing thing,” he said. “I had to wait until Red Headed Stranger came out to get another shot. CBS let me go in and do it, and accepted it the way I handed it to ‘em, reluctantly. They said, ‘When are you gonna finish it? It’s a pretty good demo, but…’

It was Bruce Lundvall, up in New York, who asked Nelson, ‘Wouldn’t it sound better with a couple of strings or background singers?’” When the album hit, Lundvall never questioned Nelson’s judgment again.

To mix a metaphor, Red Headed Stranger proved to be the straw that broke the power block in Nashville. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” spent two weeks at #1 (it went to #21 on the pop charts) and the album was a smash success.

Suddenly, Willie Nelson, who’d had so many doors shut on him in Nashville (he could show you the bruises on his feet) was the hottest thing going. His unorthodox performance style — those simple arrangements, that cozy deep voice with no strings attached — became the rabbit for the Music City greyhounds to follow. Ray Benson says he became a “pied piper.” It was time for a last laugh.

Meanwhile, because he’d dared to record outside of Nashville with a producer he actually liked and who solicited the artist’s opinions, Waylon Jennings had been branded a troublemaker. But his records were selling to a desirably young audience, and “outlaw,” dreamed up by some ad man or other, turned into a music industry buzzword. Long hair. Beard. Beer–swilling and good times. Non–conformists playing non–conformist country music. Outside of the Nashville establishment. And this is how Waylon and Willie became outlaws.

In 1975, Jennings began putting together a patchwork album, using old tracks, for RCA. His task was to pull together tracks of his own, old stuff of Willie’s, and songs by studio owner/artist Tompall Glaser and wife, singer Jessi Colter, and make an “outlaw” album out of them.

“I did the Outlaws project at about three o’clock in the morning at RCA.” Jennings recalled. “A lot of those things weren’t supposed to be released.”

He “sweetened” the old four–track tapes with harmony vocals and extra guitars. “Most of those tracks were 10 years old by then,” he said. Nelson was, of course, the linchpin. RCA was eager to get some mileage out of him by re–releasing old tracks from his long, unsuccessful tenure there. Jennings was the label’s current great white hope for tapping the younger, hipper audience, and RCA had been watching “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and the commotion down Austin way. They saw the Willie juggernaut.

Central to the album, which wound up with the title Wanted: The Outlaws, was a song Jennings and Nelson had written together in the ’60s, during an all–night poker game in a Fort Worth hotel. They had both cut versions of “Good Hearted Woman” (Nelson’s bloodless solo reading is available on the All–Time Greatest Hits CD, and Jennings had recently issued a live version.

In the studio, Jennings took this live recording, deleted his own voice in some places, and put Nelson’s in. “We were just riding around town in one of those hazy conditions,” Jennings recalled, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we go cut a record?’”

So they went in and “made” a classic country record in a matter of an hour or so. “When I first cut the one that’s got me and him on it,” Jennings said, “he wasn’t within two or three thousand miles of me.” Be that as it may, the Waylon and Willie version of “Good Hearted Woman” spent three weeks at #1 and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.

Wanted: The Outlaws became the first country music album to be certified platinum. Yep, they were outlaws, all right. Whatever worked. Whatever sold.

Two of Nelson’s best songs from the Yesterday’s Wine album, the title tune and “Me And Paul” were included on Wanted: The Outlaws. Because the rejection of that album had been a key reason Nelson had left Nashville, their success on the compilation made for an even more bitter irony. Nelson and Jennings became the toast of country music; overnight long hair, bandannas and Stetson hats became part of the country package. Uniforms and kitsch were out. Individuality, as personified by Willie and Waylon, became a thing to be prized, rather than scorned, in Nashville.

“I’ll tell you what it was, it was freedom,” Jennings said. “It was something that had never happened in country music. We just took our own lives by the reins and didn’t let nobody in.

“When I first came to Nashville, you had three hours to cut four songs, and mostly you had to use their studios, their producers, their musicians. You went in there, and what you got was what you got, and that was it. I never could do music like that. It was like an assembly line.”

Although they’d known each other since the early days, Nelson and Jennings had found they were kindred spirits; fun–loving, fiercely independent, tired of letting someone else call the tune while they danced. Or didn’t dance.

“I don’t know how two brothers could be any closer,” Nelson said.

“We’re friends, we fight…we have, we don’t anymore. Back when we was on different kinds of drugs, we would fight.”

Eventually, they cut a total of four duo albums, and two as 50 percent of the Highwaymen (there’s a third on the way as this is being written).

Yes, Nelson and Jennings are really, truly good friends. Theirs is not a friendship of showbiz contrivance. Said Jennings: “He don’t try and change me, and I don’t try to change him. Willie is the only truly free spirit that I really know. I hear a lot of people say they are, but he really is. Now, there’s other people say he’s the most irresponsible person on Earth, and we’re both right.”

Against Jennings’ better judgment; he let Nelson convince him to act in the abysmal 1986 TV–movie remake of Stagecoach. Waylon said he doesn’t hold it against his friend.

“I love Willie; he’s like my brother of the road,” he explained. “And he’s one of those type friends that, when you’ve been apart for a long time, all of a sudden you look up and he’s standing there. You pick it up right where you left off a year ago. It’s just a timeless friendship.”

After the double–whammy of Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, Nelson just go hotter and hotter (he sang the last verse of Jennings’ hit “Luckenbach, Texas” a #1 hit in April 1977).

As befits any legend, Nelson’s past came back to haunt him. As he made one album after another for CBS, his old labels, EMI (which owned the Liberty masters) and especially RCA, were reissuing his early material with new titles and with pictures of the new, bearded and bandanna’d Willie on the cover.

Eight Willie Nelson albums appeared in 1976; only two, The Sound In Your Mind and The Troublemaker, contained new material (The Troublemaker, a gospel set, had been recorded for, but rejected by, Atlantic). Between 1976 and 1987, at least four Willie Nelson titles appeared in the record bins each year. More were sold through TV ads and mail order.

Rick Blackburn, who runs Atlantic’s current country operation in Nashville, was president of CBS/Nashville during Willie’s peak years. He said that he, Nelson and the label were only too aware of the harm those continuous re–issues — of generally inferior material — were causing Willie’s rep.

“We hated it,” he said. “It diluted the market, it cheapened his price. But that’s the commercial music business. He tried to stop it, but you can’t. You don’t have the right to. In the case of Willie’s pre–Liberty demo recordings, the artist can say, ‘I’ll sue you because it was never intended to be a master,’ but of course they’d say, ‘Well, we own it.’ And you wouldn’t believe the glut of product that came out.”

Nelson’s recorded output, once he and Columbia hit Red Headed Stranger out of the park, began to reflect his own wide–ranging musical tastes. First out of the chute were The Sound In Your Mind, a hodge–podge of stuff from various places, and a Lefty Frizzell album, To Lefty From Willie. It was as if he wasn’t sure what to do after Stranger.

“The natural thing that I guess a marketing genius would’ve said to do was come with another concept album,” Nelson said, “but you just can’t run ‘em off, you can’t sit down and write one anytime you want to.

“I had some songs that I probably could’ve done, other than a Lefty Frizzell tribute album, but I didn’t have anything that I thought was that good. The songs in that Lefty Frizzell album were, to me, just as good as the songs in the Red Headed Stranger album, or in the Stardust album that came out later. Those songs are standards, as far as I’m concerned.”

He released low–key duet albums with Ray Price, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Young and Roger Miller within another two–year span.

“Honestly,” he said, “these guys were my heroes. To be able to afford to go into the studio with Faron Young, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Ray Price and do albums and have ‘em come out? That’s amazing. I was not only singing with my friends, I was singing with guys that I had listened to growing up.”

Nelson denies that these were “payback” albums, to bestow some of his commercial cache on the men who’d helped him in the early days, and who were now less than commercially viable.

“I thought they needed to be recorded,” he said of those albums. “I loved those songs, and I know a lot of other people do — Lefty Frizzell songs, Webb Pierce songs, Carl Smith…nobody’s done a Carl Smith album, so that needs to be done. Little Jimmy Dickens. There’s some more guys that I want to do albums about, once I get in a position where I can do it again.”

Nelson’s recorded output began to include standards, cowboy songs, gospel music and contemporary classics — sometimes all on the same album. To him, it all made sense.

“When I was playing clubs, the same audience would ask for ‘Fraulein,’ and then they’d turn around and ask for ‘Moonlight In Vermont,’” Nelson said. “Or they’d ask for ‘Stardust’ or they’d ask for ‘San Antonio Rose,’ and then they’d ask for ‘Mansion On The Hill.’ Those people didn’t know labels out there; they just liked music. So it wasn’t hard for me to want to record all kinds of music and sing all kinds of music.”

Everything came together with Stardust in 1978. Produced with velvety smoothness by Booker T. Jones (who was married at the time to Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla), of Booker T. and the MG’s fame, the album played up Nelson’s odd phrasing, against a setting of low–key, romantic arrangements.

But, there were no strings in sight; Stardust laid its bets on Nelson’s voice as the centerpiece. Against all odds, it worked.

Remembered Rick Blackburn: “He had started to get hot. And Willie called and said, ‘I got this idea to take 10 of my all time favorite songs, like “Moonlight In Vermont,’ ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’ and ‘Stardust,’ and do those; they’re just great songs. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re crazy. I think what you need to do is write some; you’re a great songwriter. You’ve got a roll going; do something current. To me it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.’”

The Waylon and Willie single “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” was all over the place at the time; Jones, to Blackburn, meant Booker T. and the MG’s. “Green Onions.” Who the hell did Willie think he was, with those old songs? Tony Bennett?

“He had a young demographic, which was unheard of at that time,” said Blackburn. “Country artists skewed very old. Willie was never one for a debate. Not much discussion and he says, ‘Well, thank you very much,’ and he hangs up the phone.”

Under its contract with Nelson, CBS had to putout whatever record he gave them. And so, as with Red Headed Stranger, it took on Stardust with reluctance.

Immediately, Nelson’s sensitive reading of “Georgia On My Mind” became his third chart–topping country single (after “Blue Eyes” in 1975, and “If You’ve Got The Money” the following year).

The followup, “Blue Skies,” went to #1, too. “All Of Me” was Top 5, “September Song” Top 15. And Stardust, the album that made no sense to anyone but Willie Nelson himself, eventually sold triple platinum, staying on the Billboard pop charts for more than two years. To date, it’s his most successful album.

“It was a marketing dream,” Blackburn said. “The older demographic loved the songs, even if they didn’t like Willie, they liked the songs. It brought back a lot of good memories. The young demo, they liked Willie, and they thought he wrote every song. So we couldn’t go wrong.”

Said Nelson: “I’ve always figured that the commercial end of it is somewhere in the future. The ideas that I’ve had, the music that I’ve come up with and written and played—I’ve always had the encouragement of the people around me and from the audience was playing it for. The only people who were telling me it didn’t have a chance were the record executives. The public was already telling me, ‘Hey, it’s a good idea.’”

Stardust wasn’t the first time Nelson had gone against the powers that be in the record biz — remember Yesterday’s Wine? — but it was the first time he was vindicated by enormous acceptance by a public that now adored him, and was willing to give his ideas a listen.

“As soon as I got the record companies to give me a shot, to put it out the way I wanted to d it, well, success was right there,” he explained. “And the commercialism was right there.

“All of a sudden, all those ideas that weren’t commercial weren’t commercial were selling,” Nelson said.

Waylon Jennings wept the first time he heard Stardust. “I told him, I said, ‘Willie there’s that thing in our voice that never fit anywhere else like it does there.’” Jennings said. “He had this thing in his voice. I told him, ‘That thing has been waiting.’ Because he always had this kind of a quiver in his voice — it wasn’t like a vibrato, it was just something that was there — like no other person.”

Stardust was the ultimate outlaw album. Willie had re-written the book of country music, and added another chapter.

“I’ll tell you what,” adds Jennings. “Willie does what Willie wants to do, and that’s it. You might be there for two days and miss the whole train yourself if you start trying to make him do something.”

Simply because he didn’t have to, he wrote less. His older songs popped up on his new albums all the time, in new recordings. Still do. Nelson said he’s always been reluctant to let them go.

“I’ve got hundreds of songs laying around back there, and I haven’t had an opportunity to get ‘em all recorded,” he said. “And whenever there’s an opportunity to go get one — or if it’s one that I did on one of those obscure albums years ago that got lost — there was 10 of my songs that got lost along with it.

“So I don’t give up on them. I go back and look for the ones that I think nobody heard and I’ll bring ‘em back and try to find a spot for ‘em.”

By 1980, life in Dripping Springs was becoming too much, what with all the visitors (“People were showing up at the ranch who thought I could lay hands on them and heal their crippled limbs,” Nelson later wrote) and so Connie persuaded her husband to buy a second home, a three–story Swiss chalet just outside of Denver. Here, Paula and Amy began school.

The Nelsons also purchased the Pedernales Country Club, a huge, secluded spread in Spicewood, Texas, just northwest of Austin (the Pedernales River flows between Luckenbach, Spicewood and Dripping Springs).

Willie now had his own private nine–hole golf course, the country club building was converted to a recording studio, and he had a full–scale Western town built across the street from the studio (you can see it in the Red Headed Stranger movie, and in the TV–movie Lonesome Dove, where it stood in for Fort Smith, Arkansas, sheriff July Johnson’s stomping grounds.

Golf quickly turned into a passion. “It looks so easy, and it is so hard. You think you got it and then you don’t. You think you’re turning into a great putter, and then you miss one two feet away. So I think it’s a humbling game, and I don’t know why anybody plays it,” Nelson said.

Back at the outlaw ranch: Because of the unprecedented success of the Outlaws compilation, RCA waved fistfuls of money at Nelson and Jennings and persuaded them to record an all–new album together. Waylon and Willie was released in January 1978, just before Stardust.

Ultimately, Waylon and Willie again dusted off a couple of Nelson’s older tunes, chiefly, the lovely “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way,” a highlight of Phases And Stages. But the long–haired country music “outlaws” had such a cachet that the album, which was recorded quickly and wasn’t very good, sold platinum in record time.

The album’s one/two punch was Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” It hit #1, earned a gold single, and became the best–selling of all of Jennings and Nelson’s 45s. (They had recorded together, in the same studio, this time around.)

Nelson’s solo career, of course remained his primary concern. After Stardust, there was no stopping him, and his next “new” album appeared in November (co–headlining jaunts with Jennings had taken up the first half of the year). The double–pocket Willie And Family Live was a fairly straight–forward recording of his band’s live show at the time —it was pulling sellout crowds wherever it played.

Here, Nelson sang the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” he’d already been doing for years. To this day, his shows still start with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and follow with “Stay A Little Longer” and the medley.

Willie Nelson became an American cultural icon in 1978. His contented smile, it seemed, beamed from everywhere: Rolling Stone gave him an extensive cover story, and periodicals from Peoria to Pakistan delighted in chronicling his troubled rise to the top: the hard early days as a songwriter, the rejection by Nashville, the rejection of Nashville, the “Outlaw Movement,” the Family band, the exhaustive touring schedule.

On April 25, 1978, Nelson performed at the White House as special guest of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and with Connie and the girls, spent the night. Nelson loves to tell the story about the White House aide (nameless, of course) who sat on the roof with him that night, drinking beer and smoking “Austin torpedoes,” pointing out the sights of Washington from the best vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ah, success.

Nelson release three albums in 1979; Sings Kristofferson, a rather unspectacular collection of compositions from Kris Kristofferson, an old drinking buddy and co–headliner at the early Fourth of July Picnics (Kristofferson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the moment, what with A Star Is Born and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, but he wasn’t considered much of a singer, and his records still weren’t selling).

Willie also cut a two–LP set with Leon Russell. One For The Road, recorded quickly in a rough ‘n’ ready roadhouse style. Nelson and Russell sang duets on “Danny Boy,” “Summertime,” “You Are My Sunshine” and a bunch of even stranger titles. Even so, their up–tempo remake of Mae Axton’s “Heartbreak Hotel” went to #1 in July. The album went gold.

At Christmas time 1979, the Pretty Paper album appeared. A collection of holiday tunes delivered in the quiet, unassuming Stardust style (Booker T. Jones retuned to produce), Pretty Paper joined the ever–rowing glut of county singers’ holiday albums; although the title song was released as a single, it failed to chart. Willie wasn’t concerned about it one way or another, for his star continued to rise at a dizzying rate.

In November, Nelson made his cinematic debut in Sydney Pollack’s comedy The Electric Horseman. Earlier, there had been a round of talks with Hollywood people about turning Red Headed Stranger into a movie (ultimately, it would take another seven years to happen).

Nelson had backed out of negotiations after getting the sneaking suspicion that MCA/Universal, which was offering him a development deal, only wanted a piece of his recording contract. The company had also indicated it wanted Robert Redford to star as the murdering, redemption–hungry preacher; Nelson had designs on the role himself, even though he had no acting experience at all.

So when Nelson heard that Pollack was producing and directing Redford in a film about a cowboy in Las Vegas (an updated remake of the 1962 Kirk Douglas epic Lonely Are The Brave), he called Pollack out of the blue and said, “I sure would like to be in that movie you’re making with Bob.”

Taken aback, Pollack said he didn’t think there was a part for Nelson; Willie, who’d read the script, countered that he’d like to read for the part of Leroy, who managed Redford’s title character, a showbiz cowboy.

Pollack agreed to let him try, and the audition went well, and Nelson would up getting some of the best notices when the film appeared (it was otherwise not a tremendous success). He ad–libbed much of his own dialogue.

The Electric Horseman soundtrack was released as a Willie Nelson album — although it was as spotty and fleshed out with movie–music filler — and brought him another gold album award. It went on the wall at Pedernales.

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the movie was a #1 hit in January. Although it features Nelson’s intimate and unfettered voice way out front, the song (which Willie didn’t write) isn’t much more than a string of clichés about cowboys and country stars, and the production (by Nelson and Pollack, of all people) is burdened with violins and other badly–arranged and unnecessary instruments. If Nelson had stayed with RCA, and been a success, his records by then might’ve all sounded like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”

“My Heroes” was Nelson’s sixth #1 country single in less than five years. Ultimately, he would have 13 chart–toppers, and several more as half of a duet (plus one as part of a foursome). Conversely, some of his singles barely charted at all.

That’s the way Willie worked: he put out whatever he felt like putting out, and if it had little to do with what came before, well, so what? It was as if he was purposely going in the opposite direction of his tightly–controlled RCA years.

Between 1978 and ’83, Nelson placed 17 albums on the Top Pop Albums chart. Eight of these went platinum or more, and the rest (the new CBS stuff, but not the RCA re–issues) went gold. Everything made an appearance on the Country Album chart (Stardust hovered in the nether regions for nearly 10 years!)

“Willie always had vision,” said Rick Blackburn. “You gotta listen to him.”

As head of CBS, Blackburn’s job was to approve or reject an artist’s material. When Nelson was hot, he was on fire, and it was all Blackburn could to keep up with the music as it came in.

“I encouraged it, because Willie was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Blackburn said. “I never really thought that hurt him that much. Willie was everywhere; Willie had an appetite to do all kinds of music.”

Stardust, about which Blackburn had been skeptical, remained on the pop charts for more than two years. So although, as Nelson says, CBS sometimes exercised its “veto power” over his “artistic control,” it pretty much said yes to him at every turn, especially at the turn of the decade.

“He’d bring you so much, and then you’d sit down and talk about what made sense,” said Blackburn. “The product just flowed all the time, in rough states. But good roughs. Our feeling was that it broadened your horizon. Would that fly today? It depends on the artist. Willie would be sort of what you’ve got Garth Brooks to be now. You had hits, and then there was Willie. We were selling four or five million back then. That’s a lot.”

Meanwhile, the execs at RCA were still kicking themselves for cutting Nelson loose, and the wizards in A&R (and the art department) were keeping busy churning out new riders for the Willie bandwagon. RCA charted Willie Before His Time, Sweet Memories, The Minstrel Man, Best Of Willie and My Own Way (although Willie Before His Time was assembled and “sweetened” by Waylon Jennings in the wake of the Outlaws success, and presumably had Nelson’s blessing, the rest were no more than retreads from the RCA vaults.)

Most insidious of all was 1980′s Willie Nelson With Danny Davis And The Nashville Brass, a set of musty RCA tracks featuring Davis and his hornblowers dubbed over Nelson’s vocals. Nelson, never swayed and always happy for one more acknowledgement, even penned cheerful liner notes for the album. The Nelson/Danny Davis version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” charted, briefly.

Nelson’s projects for 1980 include Family Bible, a modest collection of religious songs and hymns from his Methodist boyhood, released as a duo album with sister Bobbie on MCA and the set with his old boss, Ray Price (Price had been a co–owner of Pamper Music way back when, too).

San Antonio Rose was the first of five albums Willie cut with buddies from the old days, and it was the best. The duo put “Faded Love” on the singles charts, where it stalled at #3 in August.

The Electric Horseman had whetted Nelson’s appetite for movie acting, though, and in 1980 Pollack produced his first starring vehicle, Honeysuckle Rose.

“I always wanted to make movies, all the way back to when I first saw Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys,” Nelson explained.

“That’s the kind of movies that I wanted to make; still do. And those others came along: a movie about being out on the road again, that’s easy to do.”

Although it contained elements from Nelson’s road life, the movie, which co–stared Dyan Cannon as Willie–esque singer Buck Bonham’s loving but discontented wife and Amy Irving as his protégé–turned–lover, was pretty much the Hollywood version of the way things were. Nelson’s band members all appeared — Mickey Raphael has a couple of memorable moments with actress Diana “Mommie Dearest” Scarwid — but the “band” in the movie was fleshed out by actors (including Slim Pickens!)

Nelson’s charisma and sheer likeability carried the day, though, and Honeysuckle Rose was a success at the box office, if a modest one. The film is notable mostly for the appearance in a concert scene, of Emmylou Harris (looking radiant in 1980, and sounding like every bit the queen of country music) and for the introduction of two freshly–written Nelson songs, his first for about five years, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and “On The Road Again.”

“I haven’t ever written as much as I did in those early years, when I was hungry and writin’ for money,” Nelson said. “Tryin’ to write enough songs to keep the advances coming from the publisher. I was pretty productive in those days. But what I write (now), I feel was worth sitting around waiting for.”

Pollack has often told the story of how his new star wrote “On The Road Again,” start to finish, on the back of an envelope during a flight to somewhere or other, impressing the hell out of him and director Jerry Schatzberg.

Both “On The Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” went to #1. Nelson seemed unstoppable as he conquered genre after genre. His film career (he filmed a small role in James Caan’s Thief that year, too) opened new doors. He became a favorite guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Bill Witliff, who’d handled the script for Honeysuckle Rose, had written a script about an old cowboy embroiled in a life–long feud with a Mexican family. He’d married the daughter, the father had betrayed him and cut off his ears in the bargain, and when the cowboy had become a roving bandit, a legend had sprung up around him (he also took to killing the old Mexican’s sons when they came looking for him).

The character, and the movie, were both called Barbarosa, and when it was filmed for Marble Arch in 1981 it starred Willie Nelson in the title role, and Gary Busey as Carl, the naïve farm boy who joins him in his dusty travels.

Released in 1982, Barbarosa played in theatres for about five minutes. It is however, full of Western black humor and interesting dramatic tension, and is one of Willie’s better movies (it’s his personal favorite too). His next film was a TV–movie with Jon Voight, Coming Out Of The Ice, for which he received good notices for his portrayal of an at–peace–with–himself prisoner in a Siberian work camp!

In 1981, Nelson re–teamed with Paul Buskirk for Somewhere Over The Rainbow, an album of swinging country jazz and Western swing tunes (“I’m Confessin’,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”), big old ballads (“Mona Lisa,” “In My Mother’s Eyes,” “Over The Rainbow”) and other tunes as far from the commercial country music of the day as possible.

Johnny Gimble lent a swinging fiddle to the proceedings. Country/jazz guitarist and singer Freddie Powers co–produced the album and even sang several of the songs; “Mona Lisa” was a minor hit, and Somewhere Over The Rainbow became a gold album.

It was during this period that Nelson started working on improving his health: he quit smoking, cut back on his drinking and began running daily (he hasn’t committed to vegetarianism yet, still having a weakness for Texas barbecue and potted meat sandwiches). While vacationing in Hawaii during the summer of 1981, his left lung collapsed (he figures it was a combination of his lungs’ smoke–weakened state, his jog that morning, and the icy–cold Pacific water).

During his four weeks in a Hawaiian hospital, to make use of his down time, Nelson wrote an entire concept album. Tougher Than Leather, which would be recorded with his road band and released in February 1983, was the story of an 1800s gunfighter who eventually died in the electric chair.

Reincarnation figures in the Tougher Than Leather picture, but unlike Red Headed Stranger, it’s a difficult story to follow.

In 1982, Nelson cut the albums with Roger Miller and Hank Snow, and his old tracks continued to come back and haunt him. Monument Records assembled The Winning Hand, musty period recordings by Nelson, Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee, all of whom had long ago left the label.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard next cut an album together; the title song, “Poncho and Lefty,” had been written by the legendary and terminally under–appreciated Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt and recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album.

Nelson and Haggard hit #1 with “Poncho and Lefty” in April 1983. Although it had been recorded a year earlier, typically for Nelson it was released out of sequence. In the meantime, he’d had his biggest hit yet.

Rick Blackburn: “We were doing a duet with Merle and Willie, it was ‘Poncho and Lefty,’ I think. And Johnny Christopher showed up on the bus, drunk. He had this demo in his hand, which was the B–side of an Elvis Presley song. It was ‘Always On My Mind.’

“He brought that song in for Haggard. I was there. I think Johnny put it in the tape player and Hag said, ‘Aw, that’s not for me, Johnny.’ And Willie’s sitting there, real quiet, and he says ‘That’s for me.’ Hag doesn’t remember that story, but that song was originally pitched for him. Willie had an ear, though.’”

Indeed, Chips Moman, who’d produce a lot of Nelson’s stuff in the ’80s, came on board for the Always On My Mind project. The album, which featured “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be Me” and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” wasn’t his best, by any stretch.

But something about the bare emotions of the song “Always On My Mind” caught the public’s attention. It was a #1 country single (of course), and a Top 5 pop single. It earned a Grammy nomination for Record Of The Year. The triple–platinum Always album is Nelson’s second biggest seller, after Stardust. It was his biggest pop album, logging five weeks in the #2 spot.

Two years later, he was back in the Top 5 on the pop chart with perhaps his strangest single, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Blackburn: “He wanted to do something internationally. He always thought, ‘Let’s start thinkin’ global.’ And Julio Iglesias was the biggest thing in the international market.

We had him on CBS International; I didn’t know him, but he had a house in Florida, where he lived part of the year. His brother was a dentist down there. So Willie set out to find him. And did.

“And I guess Julio was convinced that maybe it would bolster his domestic sales, because he didn’t sell a lot in the U.S. They struck up a win–win thing and started looking for a song.”

Hal David’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” proved to be the ticket, and although Nelson and Iglesias recorded their parts separately, the chemistry was right, the single was a huge hit and went gold.

(Another Nelson/Julio duet, “As Time Goes By,” appeared on the Without A Song album at the end of 1983. Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album consisted of yet more standards in the Stardust vein, but failed to attract much attention.)

Songwriter, a movie Nelson and Kristofferson had been planning for many years, finally went before the cameras in 1984. Written by Bud Shrake, a former newspaperman and Sports Illustrated writer (he later went onto co–author Nelson’s autobiography), Songwriter was the story of a country songwriter who left the business, disgruntled, only to return as an entrepreneur and Svengali for a flaky girl singer and get revenge on the low–life club owner who’d screwed him.

The script underwent many, many revisions from Shrake’s and Nelson’s original ideas, but the final product was till pretty close to that vision, and to Nelson’s own story. Lesley Ann Warren played the girl singer, Kristofferson was hot country star Blackie Buck and ex–partner of Nelson’s Doc Jenkins. The film also starred Rip Torn as a Texas promoter with questionable ethics. Pollack produced, and Alan Rudolph directed.

Still, Songwriter was a massive failure both at the box office and at the record store (featuring Nelson/Kristofferson duets, Music From Songwriter hardly qualified as a full album from either). Promotionally, the film suffered because Nelson had shaved off his beard during some, but not all, of the scenes, and appeared in many of the promotional photographs almost totally unrecognizable.

In some of the photos and film clips, he sported his beard. People got confused, and avoided the movie in droves. (Nelson often shaves off his beard on the spur of the moment, just to give his chin some air).

He scored another #1 with Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” in August 1984, just before Songwriter came out, and teamed up with Ray Charles at the end of the year for “Seven Spanish Angels,” as unlikely a country music chart–topper to “All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”

Again, Nelson changed the rules to suit himself. The success of “Seven Spanish Angels” helped get Charles a recording deal with CBS. “One of the reasons I went after Ray Charles was because Willie said that was his favorite artist,” said Rick Blackburn. “And Merle Haggard said that was his favorite artist. Ray was like the idol, see. I didn’t know Ray Charles from you.”

In 1984, Nelson released the unlikely Angel Eyes, which presented him as the vocalist with a swinging three–piece jazz group headed up by Texas guitarist Jackie King; some of the songs are nothing less than fusion, with Willie Nelson trying to keep up at the microphone (picture him out in front of the Pat Matheny Group).

“He’s an incredible guitar player from San Antonio; he knew a lot of the same musicians around San Antonio that we knew,” Nelson said of King. The title song to Angel Eyes was torchy ballad with big, free–form jazz breaks, but the album’s unquestionable highlight was a magically weird rendition of the Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

Despite all this, Angel Eyes is one of Nelson’s few original albums to be deleted from the CBS catalog. No single was ever released from the project.

In April 1985, duet albums appeared with both Faron Young (who’d cut “Hello Walls” so many years before) and Hank Snow; in May came Highwayman.

Highwayman was one of those rare high–concept projects that worked. Usually, pairing more than two big stars on one record meant they tried to out–perform each other, on the separate fan bases cancelled each other out. But Highwayman, with Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, was a winner right out of the gate.

So where did the idea come from? “They all know I did it,” recalled Jennings. “I’ve had to rejuvenate all of their careers so many times…they’ve never known how much they really needed me.

“I remember talking about it. We were in Switzerland, on Johnny Cash’s Christmas special. And we got to doing three or four songs, and I’m positive I said, ‘Man, we ought to go cut an album.”

The song that gave the project its title was written by Jimmy Webb, and had been kicking around for a year or two. “Highwayman” was about reincarnation; specifically, the same fellow appears in the song in four different personas.

“I don’t go for that,” Waylon said. “I think it’s a little far–fetched.” As for his pal Nelson though, “He’s never tried to push me with that, and I’ve never tried to push him away from it. That’s what gets him through the days and nights — everybody has something that does.”

Actual recording of the song and the Highwayman album was, like everything else, purely an accident of time. “Cash and Willie were recording something together at Chips’ place,” said Jennings, “and I just stumbled in there.”

As for the ideas of adding Kristofferson as a fourth, Jennings said, “I think I brought that up, but all of them say they did too. So you got four liars, now you take your pick. No, really, the main thing about all of us is that don’t keep score.”

“Highwayman” became a #1 single on May 15; the album was a huge hit too, and sent Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” into the To 10 in September.

At the Live Aid concert in July, Bob Dylan remarked that it sure would be nice to see something done for the family farmer in America, so very far from Ethiopia, where all the money and support from Live Aid were going. Nelson took this comment to heart; he’d been thinking about the heartland, where the family farmers — self contained, loyal to the land where their very forefathers had toiled — were being forced out by farming corporations. An American way of life, essential and part of the backbone of the country’s economic success, was being killed off.

He’d discussed this with Neil Young while they were cutting Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” (the song would appear on Young’s Old Ways, and on the Half Nelson compilation, which collected a bunch of loose–end Nelson duets and singles, including those with Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles).

With Young and fellow heartlander John Mellencamp, Nelson formed Farm Aid, Inc., and organized a massive concert for Sept 22, 1985 to raise funds in the telethon manner prescribed by Live Aid. The all–day concert, really not much different from the Fourth of July Picnics, except better organized with bigger rock acts on the bill, was held at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

With a few exceptions, there has been a Farm Aid concert every year since 1985, with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp topping the bill.

As president of the company, Nelson signs every check that goes out. “There is this idea that people have that we have way too many farmers,” Nelson said, “that all these small family farmers and small agriculture–related businessmen should be put out of business.

“And they probably think they’re right about it. But I don’t think they realize the importance, or the way that the economy in this country was built, on the farmer. He was the first citizen, the first taxpayer. The first rung on the economic ladder. The farmer is the backbone of the country, the small family farmer, not the big corporate farmer.

“He is related to all the other small businesses. When five farmers go under in a farming community, one business in that town goes under. This has been going on for years now. We once had over eight million small family farmers; now we’re down to less than two million. And they’re knocking them off like flies.”

Since 1985 Farm Aid has granted nearly $11.5 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and service agencies in 44 states. Nearly half of the group’s grants are used for direct services (emergency assistance, legal aid and food); the rest are distributed as program grants, which include outreach, education and the development of long–term solutions.

The Farm Aid board believes that if America grew its own crops, to feed to its own people, the rest of the economic problems in the country would eventually be solvable.

“That’s why we keep doing it, to try to stop this trend of people leaving he land and going to the city,” Nelson said. “It just doubles and triples the problems in the city. And the only way for the economy to turn around is to flip it, and put people back on the land. Let a young couple go out there—take 100, 200 acres of land, make a living and pay taxes, and buy a tractor. Support the local schools, hospitals, businesses, service stations, what have you.”

He is more passionate about Farm Aid than anything that’s ever passed his way before. “The time will come when we will begin to appreciate the small family farmer, and how important it is that we get him back on the land. There’s plenty of money out there to be made if we take the natural things that grow and let them pay the bills.”

“Plenty of money” Nelson himself seemed to have, but in 1984 the Internal Revenue Service came to him and held out its hand for $2 million in unpaid income tax, from earlier, not–so–successful times dating all the way back to 1972.

“This accounting firm came to me and said, ‘You don’t need to pay that,’” he recalled. “What you need to do is get you a tax shelter, and you don’t have to pay. You can take it away and defer it later, write it off,’ all those things. And they were just full of bullshit. It was one of those shelters that the IRS wrote off as a non–allowable deal, and so anybody who invested in it — and there were a lot of us who did — lost what they put it, and at the same time, the taxes still weren’t paid.”

The accounting firm with the bad advice was Price–Waterhouse, the same guys who count the Academy Awards ballots and deliver the envelopes solemnly on TV on Oscar night. Nelson said his tax shelters included “securities and a cattle feed deal. They started going sour pretty quick in a couple of years. I knew a big mistake had been made. But it was one of those you couldn’t take back; you already had your money invested. And you still hadn’t paid your taxes.”

More albums followed: Promiseland, Partners, Island In The Sea, A Horse Called Music, Born For TroubleSeashores of Old Mexico (with Haggard) and I’d Rather Have Jesus, another religious set with sister Bobbie (it was later re–released as Old Time Religion.) There was the poorly–received Highwayman 2.

Although Nelson hit #1 with “Living In The Promiseland” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and had another Top 10 with Iglesias (“Spanish Eyes”), the songs just weren’t hitting the way they had been.

“I think the reason that those didn’t do well is because those albums were coming too quick,” he said. “We were handling them product quicker than they could sell it. They just weren’t geared to put it out that way.

“When I first got into the record business, I can remember when you could record a song today and have it out next week. And then have the whole company behind it. Webb Pierce could do it, and Faron Young could do it, and Lefty Frizzell could do it. All those guys, when they were really hot, they could more or less dictate what they wanted to do. And consequently, there was a whole lot of big hits coming in those days, a lot of great songs from the artists who were able to control what happened.”

Nelson said the marketers at CBS, for all appearances, were doing their best. “They were trying,” he recalled. “Blackburn, he was taking everything I would give him because it was easy product: ‘Oh, Willie’s sent one in again this week. Here’s Willie’s weekly album.” But I was having a big time, and they was takin’ ‘em, so…maybe it was a little overdone.”

By 1991, things were getting strained with CBS. Blackburn had departed for greener pastures at Atlantic, where he could steer the careers of hot hat boys like Tracy Lawrence and John Michael Montgomery. Nelson had one flop too many at CBS, he reckoned. That “artistic control” thing was starting to wear out its welcome.

“As long as it was sellin’ great and everything, there was no reason for them to get after my shit,” he said with a chuckle. “But when I put out one that didn’t do very well, then they had a great reason to come in and say, you know, ‘We better help you, son. Obviously, you’re slippin’.”

His movie projects continued with limited success. Red Headed Stranger made it to the screen in 1986, with Nelson, not Robert Redford, in the title role. Morgan Fairchild was cast as the cheating wife who gets her comeuppance in the form of a bullet, and Katharine Ross signed on to play the woman who redeems the stranger’s soul (replacing Angie Dickinson, Nelson’s first choice, who was busy with another project).

Made at the Pedernales town set for about $2 million, Red Headed Stranger attempted to tell the same story as the album, with an added subplot about an ornery family of wolf–trappers terrorizing the townsfolk. The subplot wound up taking over much of the film.

Despite pretty good performances (including Paul English and Bee Spears, with blackened teeth, as members of the redneck trapping clan), Red Headed Stranger wasn’t a cohesive film, and didn’t retain any of the subtlety of the album. It failed at the box office too.

Nelson bounced back with a TV–movie remake of the classic John Ford Western Stagecoach, for which he provided a title song. Nelson played Doc Holiday, in the strangely un-engaging film, with Kristofferson as the Ringo Kid, Jennings as the gambler and Cash as the sheriff. For once the stars agreed with the critics: it was pretty lame.

On the set, Nelson fell for makeup supervisor Annie D’Angelo, 20 years his junior, the marriage to Connie having lost since deteriorated into heartache, and ultimately, divorce.

Nelson and Annie were married in 1991, and they have two sons: five year–old Lucas, and Mica, four. In 1998, he starred in two TV–movie Westerns for veteran writer/director Burt Kennedy: Where The Hell’s That Gold and Once Upon A Texas Train (also called Texas Guns And The Last Texas Train).

He re–teamed with his Songwriter comrades Kristofferson and Rip Torn for Pair Of Aces (1990) and Another Pair Of Aces (1991), two unlikely comedies featuring Nelson as a wisecracking safecracker and Kristofferson and Torn as Texas Rangers.

To date, his most screen acting stint was in 1991′s The Wild Texas Wind; he took a small role as a favor to his friends Ray Benson and Dolly Parton, who’d starred.

Nelson filed a $45 million lawsuit against Price-Waterhouse, claiming their bad advice had gotten him in such bad tax trouble. The IRS, meanwhile, hit him with a $6 million bill for back taxes, plus more than $10 million in penalties and interest. In November 1990, the agency seized Pedernales — the studio, the golf course, the Western town, the fish camp, the Nelsons’ home — and announced plans to auction off the property to pay off Nelson’s debt.

“The thing started snowballing,” he recalled. “And when they came down, I knew that it was just a matter of time. I’d been expecting it for years; it wasn’t as tough it was a big shock or surprise to me.” He was not, however, prepared for the big bill they’d handed him.

“Initially, they said $32 million, then it dropped down to $17 million,” he said. “But I knew that if their accountants and bookkeepers had any brains at all, they’d see that there’s not $32 million there. That kind of figure never could have happened.”

At the public auction, one could bid on everything from the studio tasking price $575,478) to a microwave oven, a set of golf clubs given to Nelson by Jack Nicklaus, and a box containing 40 pairs of Nelson’s golf shorts.

Friends Frank and Jeannine Oakley, who run the Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase and Museum and General Store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, spent $7,000 buying up gold and platinum albums, posters, musical instruments and other personal items. Most of them are back in Nelson’s possession. The rest, the Oakleys have on display.

A group of 40 farmers, some from as far away as South Dakota, came to Texas in January 1991 to show support for Willie and protest the imminent auction of his ranch on Fitzhugh Road in Dripping Springs, where Lana and her family now resided. The American Agriculture Movement, a farmers’ lobbying group, bought the ranch for $203,840; in time. Nelson bought it back.

As for the golf course and studio, well, nobody with money showed any interest. When Nelson’s tax bill was finally settled in 1993 (he wound up paying about $9 million), he got them back. He settled unsuccessfully with Price–Waterhouse, too, and that took off some of the financial burden.

Keeping his sense of humor, Nelson titled a 1991 collection of songs Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes and sold it through TV advertising (“Who’ll Buy My Memories,” unrelated to Nelson’s tax troubles, was a heartache song from his golden age of songwriting). Recorded at Pedernales, Who’ll Buy My Memories featured just Nelson’s voice and guitar on 24 of his classic songs (the exception was “What Can You Do To Me Now,” the old burning–house song he’d written with Cochran in 1969; this would have made a good title for the album, too).

It’s a style that would soon come into vogue courtesy MTV’s Unplugged show. But Nelson did it first, and the songs on this album — including “Yesterday’s Wine,” “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” and “December Day” — are among the best recordings of his career, certainly the most personal. The Vietnam–era “Jimmy’s Road” was truly heartbreaking on the album’s intimate stage.

“Whatever talent I had going in, I still had that,” he said. “And whatever I had used to make whatever figure they said I owed them, I still had the same tools, the same music. I really wasn’t worried about it, because I knew their figures were so out of line.”

Outtakes from the Who’ll Buy My Memories sessions — from the Willie Nelson/Internal Revenue Service Tape Library — turned up on The Classic Unreleased Collection, released in early 1994 through Rhino Records and sold, via three nights’ worth of appearances by the man himself, on the home shopping network QVC.

“I felt it was good enough, and important enough to me, to spend some time trying to sell it,” he said of the three–CD or three–cassette box that to this day remains unavailable in stores. “Money had nothing to do with it. It’s just a lot of stubbornness on my part to get this music out.”

The set includes Sugar Moon, an entire album of jazzy standards recorded at the same time as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Merle Haggard’s band (Haggard had been scheduled to record, but hadn’t shown up); Willie Sings Hank Williams, a fantastic tribute set cut in the late ’80s; an entire live concert from the Texas Opera House in 1974 (an incredible performance from the height of the pre–Stranger era); outtakes from Shotgun Willie and other projects; and that elusive first single from 1957, “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack Song” (taken from a pristine disc, as the tapes could not be located). Willie answered QVC callers’ questions about the package, which contained material the IRS had returned to him after their bill was settled, and numerous tracks that CBS/Sony rejected outright. He said as much.

Yeah, okay, but a big star pitching his own stuff on retail TV? Willie ain’t Cher, that’s for sure. “I think that the music involved is a lot more important than my ego,” he said. “Naturally, I could feel like I was really a second–class citizen going on sellin’ shit, but I used to be a disc jockey and I sold it all the time.

“And I used to be a door–to–door salesman, so it doesn’t embarrass me at all to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a good piece of product; let me sell it to you.’”

During the IRS crisis, he’d accepted a job shilling for Taco Bell on TV commercials, singing a song called “The Girl With The Rose Tattoo” against a backdrop of cactus, desert sand dune and a Taco Bell drive–thru.

“When I first got the words, I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” he said of the TV spot. “I can’t do this. It sounds like I’m readin’ a menu.

“And when they sent me the melody, I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s a ripoff of a song that me and Hank Snow recorded years ago.’ They said, ‘When you get sued, we’ll take care of it. We’ll hold you harmless.’”

At the end of the day, of course, nobody sued nobody, and after the spots ran their course Willie Nelson was replaced as Taco bell shill by Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Meanwhile, things began to go from bad to worse for Willie’s son. Billy Nelson never could seem to find a place for himself. Numbed by a messy divorce in the mid–’80s, he turned to drugs and alcohol; living in Goodlettsville, Tennessee in a cabin on the Nelsons’ Ridgetop property, he was arrested four times for driving while intoxicated and, in 1990, lost his driver’s license.

The death of his mother, Martha, in 1989 doubtless shook him up too. All the family members, including Willie, came to therapy sessions and participated in Billy’s treatment programs, but it all came crashing down on Christmas Eve 1991 when Billy hanged himself at home. He was 33.

“Billy was a lost soul,” said Ray Benson, who was one of Billy’s closest friends. “And Willie felt awful about the way it all happened. Billy was a kid when Willie was a young man and had nothing, Willie said. He had no money, he was drinking a lot, the marriage was not a good marriage so he didn’t spend a lot of time at home. And Willie feels a lot of probably remorse — not guilt, but remorse — over not being able to have raised Billy right.

“But he tried, for many years, to be a good father to Billy in his adult life, Billy had demons, and problems, that no amount of fathering could do anything about. Billy was a lost soul and he couldn’t fit in anywhere. He tried. It was really a shame. He was not raised right, Willie knows that. He was not a good father to Billy. Nor was Shirley a good mother.

“As the Japanese would say, it was Billy’s karma to be this way. For whatever reason. And if I knew the answer, hell, I’d get a TV show.”

Willie didn’t record again until the latter part of 1992; he did however, keep his regular dates in Las Vegas and in Branson, Missouri. Artistically, Willie Nelson’s “comeback” arrived in the spring of 1993.

Across The Borderline was produced by Don Was, who’d engineered Bonnie Raitt’s career revival and would go on to do the same for Waylon Jennings with Waymore’s Blues Part II.

“It felt right at the time, and it was an off–the–top–of–my–head decision,” Nelson said of Was’ recruitment. “My manager, Mark Rothbaum, calls up and says, ‘What do you think about Don Was?’ And I said, ‘As a what?’”

On the album, he sang a song by Paul Simon (“American Tune,” seemingly tailor–made for Nelson), a song with Paul Simon (“Graceland”), a song he wrote with Bob Dylan (“I kind of feel like he and I are sort of equally weird, and we get along fine”) as a duet, and duets with Raitt and Sinead O’Connor.

Simon, Willie said, had been trying to get him to record “Graceland” for years. Nelson thought it was just some song about visiting Elvis Presley’s grave.

He sang “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and “Valentine,” two new compositions (“Valentine” was written for his son Lucas), and re–made 1963′s “She’s Not For You.”

The “Healing Hands Of Time Band,” with Was, David Grisman, Benmont Tench and other notables, backed Nelson up on Lyle Lovett’s “Farther Down The Line” and “If I Were The Man You Wanted,” John Hiatt’s stunning “The Most Unoriginal Sin,” Ry Cooder’s “Across The Borderline” and Dylan’s “What Was It You Wanted.”

Nelson sang the latter song at the big “Bobfest” in New York City at the end of 1992; Dylan was among the numerous guests who performed with him on the April 1993 birthday special on CBS, The Big Six–O. Shortly afterward, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Across The Borderline drove Willie Nelson stock way up for the first time in years; a young, hip audience was learning about him, almost like the young, hip audience of the ’70s had discovered him in Austin and beyond. He was truly country music’s elder statesman now, and an American musical icon — kind of like a cross between Hank Williams, Buffalo Bill Cody and Frank Sinatra. CBS/Sony had its first gold Nelson album in years; it was thrilled.

And then he left the label.

Miffed at the CBS brass’ dismissal of Sugar Moon, Willie Sings Hank Williams and another set of standards cut with Paul Buskirk, Moonlight Becomes You, Nelson declared himself a free agent. He issued Moonlight through Justice Records, an independent Texas label.

“I don’t know why Moonlight Becomes You wasn’t considered another major album, but it wasn’t,” he said. “They didn’t consider it to be commercial enough, so the powers that be at CBS at that time turned it down. They decided they’d rather have something else, and so we immediately got crossways.”

Justice Records, apparently, was simply in the right place at the right time; Moonlight sold close to a million copies.

But he couldn’t stay there permanently; an independent label just couldn’t handle an artist of his stature (CBS International continued to distribute Moonlight outside of the United States).

“I’d been with CBS a long time, and I have a lot of product there, and I have a lot of friends there,” Nelson said. “And they all worked hard, but I just felt like I wanted to do something…it was time to make a change.

“And all of a sudden, here’s Jimmy Bowen and Liberty Records, EMI, wanting to do something. Again, the timing was just perfect. I love Jimmy Bowen. It’s real easy to work with him. It was just one of those natural deals.”

Liberty, of course, was the very label Nelson had started out on, way back when; it was a different label now, with Nashville legend Bowen at the helm. The label’s first commitment to Nelson was the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings, finally bringing together his early work under one roof. It had been out in ugly dribs and tacky drabs for years on various EMI–owned labels. As a fold–open boxed set, it included an exhaustive EMI discography and a pretty good biography, too.

Bowen took Nelson into a Los Angeles studio in the summer of 1994 to cut the album that would eventually be called Healing Hands Of Time; Nelson had copywrited and recorded the title song in 1964, on the Country Willie album. It had been re–recorded on The Sound In Your Mind in 1976.

At first titled Crazy (the implications were probably too much), Healing Hands Of Time is a collection of standards (a little left–of–center this time, with “All The Things You Are,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” among the lesser–knowns in the track listing). It also includes heavily orchestrated renditions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” There’s a new Nelson composition, too, “There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone.”

At 61, he’s still cranking ‘em out. “I enjoy recording,” Nelson said, “and it’s easy to record if you know what you’re gonna do when you get in there.

“We did Red Headed Stranger in a couple of days. Healing Hands Of Time we did in two days. It was 61 pieces, and on the third day we did some overdubbing. To hear about being holed up in a studio for moths at a time is just, to me, unheard of. I guess some people work that way, but I would get bored real quick.”

Nelson completed another religious project in 1994, too. Released on tiny independent Promised Land Records, Peace In The Valley is the first in a projected series of three gospel albums featuring his late son Billy, recorded in the ’80s. Willie sings duets on some of the tracks, and some by himself or as part of a gospel harmony group, and appears with old footage of Billy in the video for the song “My Body’s Just A Suitcase For My Soul.”

It’s a heartbreaker, but a surprisingly good album. “It was something that needed to be done,” Nelson said. “It was kind of like the Moonlight Becomes You album; it was product that I had recorded and done and worked hard for, and my son worked on. It was just waiting for something to happen to it.”

True to his beliefs, the dearth of hit records doesn’t faze Willie Nelson. He figures he’s had a taste of the really big time, and he’s fine where he is, thank you.

Early one morning in May of this year, Texas police discovered Nelson’s Mercedes parked on a service road along Interstate 35 between Austin and Hillsboro. Inside the car, asleep in the backseat, was the man himself.

Nelson explained that he’d been driving home from an all–night poker game, and bad weather had forced him to pull over and stop the car. The officers found a marijuana roach in his ashtray; Nelson was arrested, posted bond and philosophically declared the incident “a part of life.” Then he drove home.

He continues to tour — on the road again and again — with the same band, on the same bus (more or less; the original bus Honeysuckle Rose crashed and burned; now there’s Honeysuckle Rose II). Drawing big crowds—not huge, just big—playing essentially the same songs.

“You would think that I would get tired of some of those songs, and usually when I do get tired of ‘em, I just take ‘em off the show,” Nelson said. “I don’t do them for a while. I think that’s one of the big secrets — well, I don’t know if it’s a secret or not — but it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. If I record songs that I like, if I happen to get a hit, then I won’t mind singing them every night. But if I sing a bunch of crap that I don’t like and that happens to hit, then I’m stuck with it.”

And he swears that he doesn’t care about the current Nashville controversy, of the old guys getting no airplay because the video–genic young bucks are all over the place.

“What’s funny to me, today they say, ‘Well, I wish I’d hear more of the old players — whatever happened to Randy Travis and George Strait?’ I knew when I heard that, I was out of luck, that they forgot about me years ago.


Essential Willie: The Top Twenty

It’s impossible to own just one Willie Nelson album. There are laws on the books that say you can’t.

Seriously, with somewhere near 200 albums in various stages of issue (some in print, some thankfully long gone), it might be hard to know which Willie is which. Do you want the crooner, the outlaw, the cowboy or the Nashville wannabe? The jazzbo or the folk singer?

A career with so many phases and stages can be hard to document (try researching and writing this story!) So here we offer a subjective cross–section of 20 essential Willie albums, from the entire 30–years–plus span of his recording life. Most of them can be found in your local record store.

Although everyone should start with Red Headed Stranger (pardon our opinion), the following are offered up in no particular order:

Red Headed Stranger (Columbia KC–33482, 1973): The definitive Willie Nelson album. As minimalist Westerns go, they don’t get any better than this tale of pain, sin and redemption. Nelson’s plaintive singing is set against stark and somber arrangements, usually just his old guitar and Bobbie’s piano, like a worship service in a lonely prairie church. If “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” in this context, doesn’t make you cry, follow the story to the final movement, the cathartic “Hands On The Wheel.” Emotions are guaranteed.

Stardust (Columbia 33303, 1978): Open fire, two guitars and Willie. This should be the standard by which all albums of standards are measured. Nelson’s singing is restrained and inviting (there’s none of the nasality that runs through Moonlight Becomes You, for example), and the band’s playing is sharp and clear, but unobtrusive. It’s a voice record, after all. Micky Raphael’s harmonica makes for a surprisingly romantic sound, and adds a jaunty, positive swing to “All Of Me.” Nelson’s “Moonlight In Vermont” may be the most romantic record ever made; certainly “September Song” is one of the most melancholy. Perfect for cold winter nights when Christmas carols just won’t do it.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Columbia 36883, 1981): Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and Freddie Powers’ guitar give this set of swing tunes the necessary bounce; “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Won’t You Ride In My Little Red Wagon,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” The agreeable Powers shares the vocals, too. What more do you need to know? After Stardust, this is Nelson’s best standards album.

Who’ll Buy My Memories (The IRS Tapes) (Sony Special Products 32981, 1991): Nelson goes unplugged, and his rugged charm and warm singing voice have never sounded better. They’re confessional songs, after all. Highlights include “December Day,” “Yesterday’s Wine,” “Jimmy’s Road” and “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way.” Still, it might’ve been nice to hear em a decade ago, before Willie’s voice took on its current overtly nasal quality (are you listening, Bob Dylan?)

Across The Borderline (Columbia 32732, 1993): Don Was coughs up a crack studio band and produces Nelson singing duets with Paul Simon (“Graceland”). Sinead O’Connor (“Don’t Give Up”), Bob Dylan (“Heartland”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Getting Over You”). Nelson does two new original songs (“Valentine” and “Still Is Still Moving”) and covers by Simon, Dylan, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. With all the bases covered, Nelson—grizzled as hell at age 59—outshines each and every one of them with his most inspired singing in years. (Check out “The Most Unoriginal Sin” and his breathtaking “American Tune.” The latter sounds as if it were written for him.)

The Classic, Unreleased Collection (QVC/Rhino, 1994): Willie Sings Hank Williams is alone worth the price of admission ($32 by direct mail by QVC), but you also get Sugar Moon, a jazzy ‘n’ swing set recorded with Merle Haggard’s band. Willie’s very first single (“No Place For Me” from 1937) and an incredible live performance from the Texas Opry House in 1974, with a “Whiskey River” so ferocious it’s scary. Here is the power of his Texas honky tonk shows. There are outtakes from Shotgun Willie and Who’ll Buy My Memories, to boot. And a pretty good booklet. Supposedly the set will be available in record stores on of these days.

The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings (Liberty 7243, 1994): Forget all those United Artists reissues, or anything on Sunset, Capitol/Pair or EMI–Manhattan. This two–CD set includes everything that Willie did for Liberty, including his first two albums in their entirety, plus a third that was completed but never released. As a bonus, it’s got the original “Night Life” single, by Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson. Elegant in their simplicity, these are the best early recordings by a long shot, full of misery and gin.

Greatest Hits & Some That Will Be (Columbia 37342, 1981): Here you get a sampling of the great stuff (“Georgia,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” “If You Could Touch Her At All”), plus some that were the best things on their original albums (“I’d Have To Be Crazy,” “On The Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”). The god–awful Sydney Pollack–produced “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” is here—don’t know how that one got past Willie—as is a second–rate version of “Good Hearted Woman,” without Waylon and played at double–speed, the way a lot of “outlaw” country was hammered home in the honky tonks. The problem with Greatest Hits is that a whole bunch of Nelson’s very best—”Poncho & Lefty,” “Highwayman,” “City Of New Orleans”—were still down the road a piece. The “Some That Will Be” weren’t, by the way.

Angel Eyes (Featuring The Guitar Of Jackie King) (Columbia 39363, 1984): Yow! This one is a sizzler, and out of print, too. But look it up, because it’s nothing less than a full–tilt jazz album with Willie in the Mel Torme role. Fusion goes fishin’ on this version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the oddest thing Nelson ever recorded (there are a few close seconds, but here he sounds like he’s trying out as vocalist for the Pat Metheny Group). On the instrumental “Samba For Charlie” Willie plays Wes Montgomery on his beat–up Martin N–20. Verrrry interesting.

Highwayman (Columbia 40036, 1983): When legends meet, the initial effect is sometimes so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter so much what they do together. Such was the case with this good–natured affair with Cash, Kristofferson and Jennings. Aside from the way–cool title song and the eerie “Jim, I Wore A Tie Today,” there isn’t a whole lot to shake the Earth. Or shame it. Even Guy Clark’s melodramatic “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” creaks under the weight of all that heaviosity. If it were just the title song, with a few more verses…

All–Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1(RCA 8336, 1988): Despite the misleading picture on the front, there’s not a bandanna or pigtail in sight. If you gotta check out the “Nashville Sound” Willie, this is the most complete one to get (Once More With Feeling is better, but it’s long out of print). Although it doesn’t include his great 1970 hippie arrangement of Roy Acuff’s “Pins And Needles (In My Heart),” All–Time does give you “Both Sides Now,” “Fire And Rain” and “Everybody’s Talking,” which almost clear the palette of the overproduced junk crammed onto the rest of the disc. Not for the faint–hearted.

Tougher Than Leather (Columbia 38248, 1983): Reincarnation is the theme, and the story line is a little too brainy at times to follow (it’s an obvious attempt to duplicate Red Headed Stranger, but the simplicity is lost in a complicated tale about a dead cowboy, a rose and some other stuff). But Nelson’s band is at its sweet, low–key Western heartbeat best on “Changing Skies” and “My Love For The Rose,” and check out sister Bobbie tinkling the saloon ivories on “Beer Barrel Polka.” Bet country radio didn’t know what to do with a single called “Little Old Fashioned Karma.”

Yesterday’s Wine (RCA LSP–4368, 1972): After Red Headed Stranger, this is Nelson’s most accomplished concept album, as a humbled man reviews the events of his life after it’s over. From the first song, “Where’s The Show,” to the last, “Goin’ Home,” its quiet, contemplative tone is captivating. Some truly classic songs: The reverent “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and the jocular “Me & Paul.” Rather than carry on the be–labored countrypolitan production sound of Nelson’s earlier RCA stuff, this one was the blueprint for Willie yet to come, for Willie Nelson, the beloved superstar. Note: Compare the confessional–sounding originals here of “In God’s Eyes” and “Family Bible” to the heart–wrenching versions sung by doomed son Billy on Peace In The Valley. Goosebump city.

Phases And Stages (Atlantic SD–7291, 1974): At the time, critics praised this concept album to the skies. It tells the tale of a broken marriage, first from the woman’s point of view, subsequently from the man’s, through a series of thinly–connected songs. Although it’s the biological father of Red Headed Stranger (that one was next) and is performed in the stark, emotive manner of some of Nelson’s all–time best work, Phases And Stages hasn’t aged as well as Yesterday’s Wine. The concept, though noble, just doesn’t hold together so well after 20 years, and it seems a little forced. “Bloody Mary Morning” has never been one of his best tunes, and “Sister’s Coming Home” was to be a shitkicking delight on Emmylou Harris’ Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979, but not here.

Half Nelson (Columbia 39990, 1983): A strange collection of odds ‘n’ sods from the first Columbia decade. Chief among them is “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” the chart–busting, if unlikely, pairing with Latin heartthrob Julio Iglesias. Then there’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys,” the Neil Young co–hab repeated from Young’s cheesy Nashville opus Old Ways, and an electronically–created Hank Williams “duet,” “I Told A Lie To My Heart,” which features Nelson singing a respectful harmony vocal to a primitive Williams demo tape. The great “Poncho And Lefty” is here, too, and a duet with George Jones on Willie’s weirdest song “Half A Man.”

To Lefty From Willie (Columbia/LoneStar KC–34693, 1977): At the height of his post–Stranger popularity, Nelson issued this low–key charmer, his best honky–tonk album. He wasn’t a huge superstar yet, so these songs, all associated with his hero Lefty Frizzell, are earnest and true. And the band played ’em like the well–oiled loser’s lounge machine they were. Best: “Always Late With Your Kisses,” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Railroad Lady.” The latter number was included on Greatest Hits And Some That Will Be.

Without a Song (Columbia 39110, 1983): Booker T. returns for another trip on the standard–go–round; although the songs are a nice lot (“Autumn Leaves,” “Once In A While”) it’s just not as good as Stardust on which it tries to capitalize. Nelson’s nasal singing has got the better of him by now, and he can’t whisper the sweet, romantic nothings like he did back in 1978. Still, Without A Song has “As Time Goes By,” the coolest of the Willie/Julio duets. And it’s better than Always On My Mind, which outsold it by about a zillion copies.

Shotgun Willie (Atlantic SD–7262, 1973): Shotgun Willie is a transitional album; he was taking side–trips into the wild country where rock, balladry and country music met in secret, but he wasn’t ready to commit yet. It’s a beer–drinking record. So you get the rollicking “Whiskey River,” in its first incarnation. “Sad Songs And Waltzes” and “Stay All Night,” set against the stodgy “Shotgun Willie” and “Bubbles In My Beer,” which harkened back to the old days when Willie was still looking for the right formula (i.e., what would sell). It was the first album, it should be noted, to employ his own band for every track. Leon Russell, Doug Sahm, David Bromberg and the Jerry Joyner Horns plugged in, too.

The Sound In Your Mind (Columbia KC–34092, 1976): First out of the chute following the mad bull Red Headed Stranger, this one is a mixed bag of standards, really old Nelson songs and popular numbers from the honky–tonks (and “Amazing Grace,” too). “I’d Have To Be Crazy” is a Rick Blackburn’s favorite song, and “That Lucky Old Sun” predates Stardust by two years. “If You’ve Got The Money” is a wonderful beer blast from honky–tonk heaven; it was a #1 single in July 1976. Nelson’s voice is wonderful throughout, sincere and comfy, and full of the confidence of the talented and the successful, and on the front cover he looks like Jesus in a bandana. Obviously, he knew where he was going, but the stitched–together song list is proof that he wasn’t altogether sure how he was going to get there.


‘This will be my statement’: Watching the wheels in New York

With his pudgy hands shackled in front of him, Mark David Chapman sat at his defense attorney’s table, facing the judge who would decide his fate. Inside the crowded federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, the man who murdered John Lennon rarely looked up from his lap, where he clutched a dog-eared paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, calmly turning the pages as best he could against the steel tug of the handcuffs.

Chapman didn’t really look like the deranged killers you see in the movies, although his hair was barely crew-cut length – he’d recently shaved his head in prison – and there were deep black circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

He was just some overweight loser. A bulletproof vest under his dingy brown sweatshirt made him look stockier than he was, like he was wearing football pads.

It was the summer of 1981, just eight months after the murder. A buddy of mine was living in Brooklyn Heights, working as a production assistant on the soap opera The Guiding Light. I’d accompanied him to the studio the day before, and watched them tape the show. Got a script autographed for my mom, who was a fan.

During an afternoon of sight-seeing, he accompanied me to the Dakota, the gothic mansion where Lennon had lived – and died – on Central Park West. I’ve stopped by there many times over the years, but that first visit, when the shock and the anger were still fresh, hanging in the air like gunpowder smoke, has stayed with me.

Bob was about to leave for the studio the next morning; if I had plans, I don’t remember what they were. In his little kitchenette, I perused Time magazine over my morning coffee – and I saw, under Milestones, the item about Chapman. He’d pled guilty in June – “God instructed me to do it” – and was to be sentenced on August 24.

That very day.

So whatever I was going to do, I didn’t do it, and I went to the federal courthouse instead. Bob convinced me to take his CBS ID badge, so I could get into the journalist section in case there were too many “regular people” there, taking up the cheap seats. I wouldn’t start writing professionally for another year or two.

Here’s the thing about John Lennon. And I’m well aware that millions of people feel exactly the same way. Let’s take the Beatles out of it for a moment – the incredible artistry, the unparalleled songs, the amazing cultural saga that publicity guru Derek Taylor called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Romance.”

The Beatles. Yeah. You get it.

I’m not one of those people who think Lennon, in hindsight, was a genius or a visionary or a deep philosopher or any of that stuff. I find it amusing when people quote him – or, more often, misquote him – with those goofy Facebook memes.

What he was, was charismatic, brilliant, quick-witted and extraordinarily talented. Lennon was so, so funny, and despite the fact that he often said ridiculous things, it was hard – impossible – to give up on him. You could not look away.

The indisputable magic of a celebrity like his was that you felt like you knew him, even though you didn’t really, and it was a really good feeling.

When that guy shot him in the back, he’d just made a new record, and started giving interviews again, after a self-imposed five years off the radar. When John “returned,” I – like so many others around the world – was just so fucking glad he was back in my life.

So it was weird to hear the prosecutor’s clinical description of the crime, step by step, and to hear the word “victim” followed by “John Winston Ono Lennon.” It brought it all home, you know? Now he was another statistic.

Two psychiatrists who had examined Chapman at length spent hours on the stand, describing his childhood fantasies about the armies of “little men” who lived in the armchairs and sofas of his family’s living room. This testimony is described in detail in the excellent book Let Me Take You Down.

I didn’t follow much of it. Sitting in the media gallery, behind the sketch artists who were drawing like mad, I watched Chapman. His puffy black eyes remained fixed on the ratty red book in his lap.

When the testimony was over, the judge asked if Chapman wished to make a statement before sentence was imposed. When the reply came – “yes, your honor,” in a hoarse whisper – you could feel the intake of air as everybody in the courtroom gasped. The woman in the seat in front of mine held her pencil at the ready over her sketch pad.

A uniformed, armed officer moved in behind him as Chapman stood up at the table. “I’d like to read from The Catcher in the Rye,” he said loudly. “This will be my statement.”

And he did. With the paperback open in front of him, he read that famous paragraph from J.D. Salinger’s teen-alienation novel, the one about little kids falling off a cliff:

I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

We all sat back, slack-jawed. The judge gave him 20-to-life. They led him away.

And that was that.

‘Let’s go out there and be a bunch of bros’: Ron Blair and the Heartbreakers

@1990, Gainesville Sun

As the bass player in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Ron Blair went from the nightclubs of Gainesville to the coliseums of the world in just a few years.

He was one-fifth of a wildly successful rock ‘n’ roll band, and just at the apex of his hard-earned career — at the time most people would’ve been content to lean back and count their money — he threw it away and started over.

In the early ’70s, Ron Blair had left Gainesville for Southern California, where the women were beautiful, the beach was nearby, and the music business, in which he hoped to make a buck or two, was a way of life. He was 23.

Four fellow Hogtown expatriates convinced Blair to join their band. The band didn’t have a name, but it did have a record deal, due to the singing and songwriting talents of its frontman. Blair knew Tom Petty well, respected his talents, and joined his group without reservation.

Within five years, the band — dubbed at the very last minute Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — was the biggest act on the road, selling out arenas from coast to coast and tearing it up in Europe and the Far East. Critics called them the American Rolling Stones. In 1980 alone, the Heartbreakers sold over three million albums; Blair, like his bandmates, amassed a sizable bankroll.

And then, abruptly, he quit.

“Some days I’ll think, ‘Couldn’t I have put up with it?'” the 41-year-old Blair says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he still lives. “At the time, it was really a gut decision. That’s kind of what I regret, that it wasn’t a real thought-out decision.

“I physically and verbally tuned out on an emotional level, rather than really thinking it out.”

Purely and simply, he says, it just ceased to be fun. That’s why he broke with the band.

Today, Blair owns and operates a swimwear shop called Shapes, on a busy downtown street in Tarzana, a Los Angeles suburb. He bought the business in 1982, just after he told Petty he “couldn’t get back on the bus” and on on another tour.

“The first couple of years we were open, there was a rumor that Tom Petty’s wife had opened the shop,” Blair says with a chuckle. “We didn’t do anything to squelch it.”

Ron Blair’s father, a career Navy man, moved his family around the world and eventually put down roots in Macon, Ga., where Ron was born.

In 1969, he chose the University of Florida for his alma mater simply because a girlfriend expressed her desire to go there; Blair was only interested in a college that “didn’t have compulsory ROTC.” On the advice of counselors, he chose engineering as a major, but what he really wanted to do was play music. He dropped out in his junior year.

Eventually Blair became part of a rock band called RGF (the initials stood for different things on different occasions). The group — which also included guitarist Jeff Jourard, later to form the Motels — was “like the Who, or a little nastier,” Blair reports. RGF was Gainesville’s resident loud and sloppy “hard rock” band. Its polar opposite, Mudcrutch, played country-tinged rock ‘n’ roll, with the kind of vocal harmonies that RGF wasn’t at all interested in.

“We used to play a lot of the same gigs,” Blair remembers. “Or even throw gigs – we used to rent the University Auditorium, split the gig and split the money.

“They were into a different kind of rock than the band I was in. But they were real good, and they had their own following around there. We did, too, but maybe a little more of the degenerates.”

Mudcrutch’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Tom Petty, was a year younger than Blair. “Tom used to impress me because he had kind of a beard, he was a real scraggly guy,” Blair says. “He looked like he drank a few beers, just really loose onstage. He looked like he was on the edge of looseness – like ‘this guy’s gonna fall off the stage!’ but then he’d keep it together and rock the whole set.”

It was obvious to Blair and everyone else that RGF and Mudcrutch were about the best things going in Gainesville. Both groups had large local followings. “But I didn’t understand what their band was about. I didn’t quite know what they were trying to do, because it wasn’t a straight-ahead thing, (and) it wasn’t a Southern Blues thing.”

In early 1972, RGF made a run for the big time. “It just came to a point where we’d played all the gigs you can play around Gainesville, and then everybody started thinking about leaving,” Blair recalls. “Tom and them were pretty smart — they were making tapes and thinking about going somewhere they could record.

“The band I was in, we just took off to Boston on a kind of a wild hair. It was either New York, Boston, or California. We ended up gettin’ froze out. It got to be October and the band split up and everybody went back home.”

Blair dawdled briefly in Gainesville before returning to Macon, where he spent a year and a half without a steady band — and, in his words, went “stir crazy.” He hung around with the Allman Brothers Band and their Macon legions for a spell (his younger sister married Gregg Allman in 1972) and, with the encouragement of friends, traveled to Southern California for a visit in early ’74.

He never went home again.

Soon he was playing bass in three different club bands, just making ends meet. It wasn’t long before Mudcrutch appeared on his doorstep.

“Tom and a couple of the guys came over,” Blair remembers. “They had just driven across the country in a truck with their cats, dogs, women and whatever, and they just showed up.

“Most of my friends had already moved out here and were trying to get something going on, and I said ‘All right, everybody’s out here now!'”

The members of Mudcrutch had made the trek with the promise of a recording deal with Shelter Records, Leon Russell’s company. But after one single, the band began squabbling internally, and the album was never finished. A year after pulling up in Petty’s truck, Mudcrutch dissolved. Shelter retained Petty, and he started recording with studio musicians.

Stan Lynch, a Gainesville drummer who’d also headed west looking for “the big gig,” called his old buddy Blair in early ’76 and asked him to sit in on some late-night demo sessions for pianist Benmont Tench, who’d been in Mudcrutch, and, like the rest of them, was now taking whatever work he could find. The studio sessions weren’t costing Tench anything; he had a friend who worked there and had invited him to record after hours.

Guitarist Mike Campbell, Petty’s songwriting partner in Mudcrutch, came along, and so did Petty. “I forget the songs,” Blair says, “but it just seemed to be real natural. It was kind of easy. I think we played pretty late into the night, for a couple of nights.

“I think it was just a natural thing. I guess everybody’s roots were similar, I don’t know, it was really kind of a magic thing. Nobody was getting in the way of each other. I don’t think anybody was trying to take over or dominate.”

It took a little record-company convincing, but soon Petty’s solo career became Petty’s band: Petty, Campbell, Tench, Lynch and Blair. After the first few sessions they worked together, it felt too good to everyone to consider bringing in more studio guys.

Blair says it was the “cause” – getting Petty started successfully on his record career – that motivated them all in the beginning.

The first two Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums did zero to little business in the United States, although the band got to be huge in England. But when Damn the Torpedoes appeared in mid-1980, they went from club dates and opening slots to headlining arenas in a real hurry. The album reached No. 2 on the national charts and went several times platinum. Suddenly, Petty was big business; the adulation, and the money, started rolling in.

“It used to be a lot of fun,” Blair explains. “The first two records were a lot of fun, and then touring up to there – even though it was a real strain – it had that kind of cause feel to it, ‘let’s go out there and be a bunch of bro’s, doing it.’

“When we started doing the third record, some heavy kind of producer guys came in and really tried to professionalize it. And from that point on, it entered the uptight era. It just got uptight from really that moment on until I wasn’t with the band any more.”

Success, Blair feels, really tested the Heartbreakers. There was a lot of pressure on Petty, too, to “keep up the good work,” and the inevitable fissures appeared between Petty and the bros in the band.

Torpedoes was the biggest record the band ever had, and there were a couple of really cool tours, but something happened,” Blair explains. “It was like the band got tense; the band as a unit got stressed.

“It seemed like everywhere we were playing was an upside-down bathtub, the sound was bad, and the bass sounded especially bad. For me, it got to be almost depressing — we’d have soundchecks, and it would be like bad group therapy.”

“He was just slowly and slowly fading away, it seemed, fading far away from us,” Petty told the Gainesville Sun in 1985. “We’re all pretty close, and we didn’t see him socially, ever. I don’t really know what it was. He was just disillusioned, I think. Big business rolls into the picture, and I think Ron was just a pretty casual person.

“It wasn’t like we were sad to see him go, either, because it’s no fun having somebody in the group who isn’t really into it.”

Blair played on half of the platinum Hard Promises album in 1981, and on the subsequent world tour. By then, he was traveling to and from the concerts separately.

“I was still there trying to do everything that was asked, being a soldier and everything, but I made a little bit of a tuneout and it sort of wedged the whole thing apart.”

Howie Epstein replaced Blair on bass in 1982, and is with the Heartbreakers to this day.

Blair and his wife designed Shapes with a “rock ‘n’ roll vibe” in mind; he says they wanted the front of the store to look like an album cover. When the couple divorced in 1985, Blair became the sole proprietor of the shop, which from all reports is very successful. Blair manages a staff of eight; at home, he has a 9-year-old son, James.

Every once in a while, he gets a longing for that rock ‘n’ roll rush. He has a pair of platinum albums on the wall, but that’s not enough to bring it back.

“Sometimes I regret it a little bit,” he explains. “I’m not a quitter, and I don’t like to think I left something unfinished. But it was like some voice told me, ‘You’re gonna go crazy. Do something else. Be independent.'”


Sleeve Notes: ‘Stone of Sisyphus’ by Chicago

@2008 for Rhino Records

In The Greatest Music Never Sold, author Dan Leroy calls Chicago’s Stone of Sisyphus “an authentic return to form,” and bemoans the fact that one of America’s most exciting and creative bands had been forced, for purely commercial reasons, to shelve such a daring, expressive set of songs.

In the 15 years since it was recorded, Sisyphus has attained legendary status among rock critics, Chicago fans, those who’ve heard parts of it and those who have only read about it.

“Save for the songs that have seen official release on compilations,” wrote Leroy, “the disc remains merely grist for the rumor mill.”

The mill stops here.

It all began promisingly, in the latter days of 1992. After hearing the first three completed tracks from the band’s work-in-progress, Warner Bros. Records’ head of A&R excitedly told producer Peter Wolf exactly what he wanted to hear: “Chicago’s back, and in a big way!”

Sisyphus was, by design, the group’s farewell to musical ennui, to the self–perpetuated rut of big, radio-friendly ballads provided by outside writers. Although it kept them on the charts, they’d come to despise the formula.

The sessions found the musicians on fire with a rekindled enthusiasm that had been all but lost as Chicago’s identity was progressively eroded away by the frustration and guilt that comes with creative soul-selling.

“We wrote songs that were more experimental, songs that were more daring in terms of musical direction and chord construction, more than anything,” remembers James Pankow, whose innovative horn charts had been an integral part of Chicago’s distinctive sound from the start. “We got into really feeling our oats in terms of being the voice of Chicago again. It had been a long time since we had made a record like that.”

Indeed, Chicago’s horn section – trombonist Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax/flute player Walter Parazaider – was virtually reborn on Stone of Sysyphus, giving the music the bite, power and swing that had all but evaporated during the ballad period. So diminished had their roles become in the studio, the horn players had begun to feel like sidemen at their own sessions.

“In those days,” singer/keyboardist and songwriter Robert Lamm says, “it had been all about survival, about staying on the radio.”

Lamm, in particular, was thrilled by producer Wolf’s pronouncement that the band needed to return to what had made it great in the first place – collaborative songwriting, jamming and workshopping the songs, experimentation. Camaraderie.

“There’d been talk of ‘Well, once you guys get a really successful album, you can do whatever you want on the next album,'” says Lamm. “And it always seemed to be the next one, the next one. So we really felt like this was the album we’d been waiting to do, where we really can say who we are, right now.”

The members of Chicago gathered in Wolf’s Simi Valley studio, each bringing fresh new ideas that would be tossed around like hot potatoes until they positively cooked.

“Peter,” Lamm recalls, “pulled me aside and said ‘You know, your lyric writing is really crucial to this. You really gotta go deep, and you really gotta step up.’ And I felt like I did.

“We really got excited about it. It became a crusade, if you will, for Peter and for the guys in the band.”

Wolf, the brilliant keyboard player, writer and producer who worked with Frank Zappa for years, says he had just one goal in mind. “I’m from the days where I tried to make every song into the best possible thing it could be,” he explains. “I didn’t do one or two songs for the record, and those are my hits, and the rest I could care less about.”

Wolf had never forgotten the illuminative musical rush of the band’s early, horn–driven albums.

Says Pankow: “This was a bit of a brass orgasm for me. I hadn’t really been allowed to stretch my wings, other than a few spots here and there. Peter had the courage to trust me, and it was really a great feeling to go uncensored.”

Wolf and Chicago spent the early months of 1993 crafting Stone of Sysyphus.

“I’m the reed player,” says Parazaider, “and Peter said to me ‘Bring all your flutes, bring all your saxes, bring the bass clarinet.’ We’re going to use everything, like you used in the old days.’ Now, when somebody says that to a player, you get the U-Haul out and put everything in it.

“I’d go out, point the car in the direction of Simi Valley every day, and could hardly wait to get there. Just to see what was up with the rhythm section laying down a tune, or somebody singing a vocal, or the horns wood-shedding something out. ”

Warner executives were not invited to the sessions; the cocooned band wanted to create Sisyphus with zero input (read: meddling) from the powers that be.

When the album was finished, Chicago’s manager proudly drove the master over to the label.

What happened next still has heads shaking, all these years later.

“Suddenly there’d been a big shakeup in the hierarchy, ” says singer and multi–instrumentalist Bill Champlin, who’d delivered some of his most impassioned vocals on Sisyphus. “There were lawyers sitting in the chairs.

“And they went ‘This is the worst Chicago album yet. We can put it out, but we’re not going to do anything with it, promotion-wise.’ ”

Wolf and the band members were told that the executives – the new guys – hated their baby.

“Sure, it had things that were not the expected pop mainstream thing, but that’s what was good about it, ” says Pankow. “It had the element of surprise and exploration. ”

Lamm was stunned. “We were completely dumbfounded, ” he recalls. “A couple of the songs, ‘Here With Me’ or ‘Bigger Than Elvis,’ although they’re bigger songs than some of the power ballads we’d been having success with, they still fall in that genre. So I don’t know what the big whoop was. We were solidly together in saying ‘No, this IS the album.'”

Sisyphus proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the band’s relationship with Warner Bros.

Neither side blinked. Chicago left the label, taking Sisyphus with them.

The musicians look back on the experience now with a mixture of regret (they all wish they’d put it out sooner) and intense pride (they’d defied conventional music business wisdom, emerging with integrity intact).

“I think they wanted another album of rock ballads,” Pankow says. “And they said ‘You guys went way outside.’ We said ‘We’re not going to be somebody we aren’t any more.’ ”



In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was cursed to roll a huge stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down just before the pinnacle was reached. In many ways, the story parallels Chicago’s career trajectory in the early 1990s. Stone of Sisyphus was going to be a triumphant return to the top; instead of ascending, it rolled back down and knocked them flat.

“You try to be as objective as you can about music, ” Walt Parazaider says, “but it’s a pretty personal thing when you’ve just finished something that you’ve loved doing and get that kind of reaction. I don’t think anybody that’s creative digs that kind of rejection, unless you’re a musical masochist. ”

As it turned out, the defeat was only temporary. The band forged ahead with Night and Day, an album of Big Band songs. Chicago entered its third decade wise, willing and eager to scale new creative peaks.

And over the years, the legend of Sisyphus grew.



Dawayne brought in a couple of ideas. What is the chorus now was his verse. I listened to it a few times, we sat together, and I said ‘I think this is your chorus. We should change this around.’ I was responsible for helping him put the song together, and arranged the song.

It was the next step forward, creatively. Maybe we should never have un-invited the suits to the sessions. I think if we’d used our business sense a little better, we would’ve had a successful project.

There’s less synthesizer on the other version. I think it breathes a little better. I always thought maybe Peter had put a few too many keyboards on the track.

Lee Loughnane



I’d told Peter and Ina Wolf about seeing Aloha From Hawaii on TV when I was a kid; Everybody was watching Elvis Presley, but I didn’t even notice him. I was just looking for my dad, who was the bass player. We brought him in to play on the song, but didn’t tell him what it was about. We muted the vocals. And that Christmas, he was over at my house and I played him the finished song. He had headphones on, and I’ll never forget it. He sobbed when he heard it.

Jason Scheff



It started out being about the band, and my frustration about being stuck in a corner. Then it kind of morphed into a bigger subject, the political landscape of the early ’90s. That in spite of all the revolution of the late ’60s, early ’70s, there didn’t really seem to be much progress in terms of humanity in the politics of this country, much less the world.

Robert Lamm



Me and my buddy Aaron Zigmund, and his friend Brock Walsh, we got together and said “Let’s come up with something funky.” We came up with this real cool funk groove, nothing like what ended up on Stone of Sisyphus. We brought Champlin in to sing on the demo, and that shows where it came from. Brock came up with the phrase mah-jong and painted that real pretty, smoky picture – the story of a guy who’s falling for this girl who works in a mah-jong parlor.

Jason Scheff



When John McCurry and I were cutting the demo, I had the lyrics written, we had the track, and I never really sang a melody. I was just kind of riffing. The rhythm of the words was there, but the melody wasn’t. I went out into the studio to do a rough vocal, and McCurry pushed the talkback button and said ‘Why don’t you rap it?’ And we both started laughing: OK, let’s try that.

Robert Lamm

I think the record company heard that and went “Wait a minute – white guys don’t do this.” Simple as that. I told Robert I thought it was an awesome piece, but you’re running up against racial lines here. I think that’s the first time Robert’s crossed any of those lines in a good long while.

Bill Champlin

Robert was just exploring another genre, which we’d been doing since Day One. I think the only things we haven’t covered are Dixieland and polkas, and give us long enough, we’ll probably do that too.

Walter Parazaider



Peter spent a lot of time with Lamm, Champlin and Pankow. I remember thinking towards the end of the album that we didn’t really spend too much time working on stuff that I brought in. I always felt a little strange about saying ‘What about me?’ I hate that squeaky wheel thing. But Peter said “Oh, that’s a great song – let’s get to work.”

Jason Scheff



A highly personal song about what I was going through in my private life at the time, just trying to be in two places at the same time. As much as we might desire it and need it, it’s not possible. Peter Wolf asked me to write extraordinary lyrics for that song, and I feel like I delivered. I’m really proud of that song.

 Robert Lamm

There was such a great vibe. We were all supporting each other during each other’s tracks. A lot of laughs, a lot of fun.

Jason Scheff



A guy by the name of Greg O’ Connor and myself wrote the song initially. We were trying to get to the hook, which is “Here With Me.” And Robert jumped on board and fashioned the verse lyric, which kind of brings you to the hook, which is about a relationship that had ended but is still carried in the hearts of the people involved. Robert treated it very romantically, more so than I could have. And I think that song is a smash.

James Pankow

Jimmy wrote the music, and we argued about the title of the song. I thought “Here With Me” was just banal and pedestrian, so I pushed to have it called “A Candle For the Dark.”

Robert Lamm



Peter said “Let’s go after corporate rock.” And I thought whoa, that’s an easy target. That’s pretty much a big, giant bulls–eye waiting there to get hit. It’s not really about Chicago, more about the whole corporate posture. I think it was right on the money.

Bill Champlin



At the same time we had this anti-corporate thing, we had this thought of “Let’s make the commercial songs even more commercial.” So they had me do a re–write on “Proud of Our Blindness,” that turned into “Cry for the Lost.”‘ I personally like the songwriting on “Proud of Our Blindness” better. But hey, this is what the producer wanted. I didn’t become an MVP singer/songwriter over the years by telling producers “Nah, I don’t want to do that. ” I’ve learned how to work in an assignment situation.

Bill Champlin



Bruce Gaitsch and I wrote it. That’s pretty much pointing the finger at management types. Do you think the suits at the label are going to get behind a record that calls them assholes? I think what Peter wanted was a record that talks about what’s going on now, rather than love song, love song, love song, love song, love song.

Bill Champlin

‘If we thought it was great, we put it out’: The story of Blue Thumb Records

@1996 Bill DeYoung

The worst thing that we could do at the label was to cut a hit record. Because every time we came close to it, or had something that smelled like a hit, Columbia would come along and steal ’em away.

– Tommy LiPuma

There was virtually no precedent when Bob Krasnow threw open the doors of Blue Thumb Records in 1968. As far as anyone knew, there hadn’t yet been an album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label, with an eclectic artist roster and a keen sense of eye-catching graphics. Blue Thumb came about in that heady, post-Sgt. Pepper era, at a time when the music business was starting to think of popular music as an art, or as a grand statement, or at the very least a little bit more than the mileage you could bleed out of an artist once the hit singles had come and gone.

“There was a sense in the air of a lot of adventure,” said keyboardist Joe Sample, whose Crusaders signed with Blue Thumb in 1970. “The music business was making big, major changes; the newfound FM airwaves meant there was suddenly a whole new branch of radio stations that played music that would never be played on an AM station. Blue Thumb was one of the first companies that realized this new set of airwaves was important for music; they were one of the very first record companies that got into recording albums. FM played album cuts, that would get up to four and five minutes.”

Krasnow, who’d cut his teeth on R&B as a promo man for James Brown, had sat in the president’s chair at both King and Buddha/Kama Sutra Records. “He’d gotten his taste of running alternative product, at a time when alternative product was becoming mainstream,” explained Ben Sidran, another keyboard man who recorded for Blue Thumb.

“Anybody who knows Krasnow knows that he’s one of the great gunslingers of the Wild West,” said Sidran. “And this was him at the top of his form, making a run at the record business.” Krasnow, who was convinced his left-of-center tastes were as right-as-rain, had had his fill of big record companies that only saw their artists in profit-making terms. Securing a finance and distribution contract from the tape manufacturer GRT, Krasnow set up his new indie label on LaBrea Avenue in Los Angeles, just across the street from A&M Records.

Krasnow lured away A&M staff producer Tommy LiPuma and vice president of marketing Don Graham, telling them, “If it doesn’t work, what difference does it make? We’ll go back and get jobs. So what? Jobs you can always get.”

In its six years of existence, Blue Thumb was never a smashing success, but Krasnow and LiPuma, both of whom stayed the course, were able to put out between 60 and 100 albums (nobody knows for sure) of music that encompassed the wild, the unusual and the blatantly non-commercial. There was pop, jazz, R&B, warning-label comedy and other things that didn’t come close to a label.

The artist roster included (among others) Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Hugh Masekela, Dave Mason, the Pointer Sisters, Marc Almond, Ike and Tina Turner, Gerry Rafferty, Sun Ra, Love, Joao Donato, Clifton Chenier and Gabor Szabo. The label issued the first batch of National Lampoon albums too, and distributed Leon Russell’s Shelter Records.

“Hits never entered the picture,” said LiPuma. “These were the glory days, when you had the beginning of FM alternative radio. It was great radio, because they played everything. I think one reason a lot of these things ended up on Blue Thumb, particularly something like the Lampoon albums, was that nobody else had the balls to put it out. If you listen to Radio Dinner, it was pretty out. The majors weren’t interested in putting out things like that. It was too controversial.”

On a personal level, Blue Thumb for producer extraordinaire LiPuma was a way out of the endless repetition of Claudine Longet, Chris Montez and Sandpipers records at A&M. Krasnow and Graham were his off-hours buddies. “We were all just having a good time, you know?” he said. “There were a lot of good chemicals going around at that time, and it was one big hang. The record business is a totally different animal today. It’s not even a question of ‘Those were the good old days,’ or whatever. I’m not even talking about that. It was a much simpler situation. There weren’t as many labels, there weren’t as many artists. The highway wasn’t as crowded.”

The Blue Thumb A&R staff, LiPuma recalled, was non-existent. “It was Bob and myself. That’s all it was about,” he said. “As far as we were concerned, if it excited us, if we thought it was great, we put it out. It didn’t matter if it was the Pointer Sisters, the Crusaders or Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, it was just good music of every genre.”

Blue Thumb’s first release was a collection of audio snippets from W.C. Fields movies. The first artist signed was Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. (Beefheart, in fact, coined the name Blue Thumb; according to Krasnow, it was to be the name of a new Beefheart blues band, but Krasnow “borrowed” it for his label.) Beefheart’s Strictly Personal appeared on Blue Thumb in 1968.

Beefheart, said Krasnow, “was like an inspiration to me. His brain, his liberated ideas, his multi-talents. To me it wasn’t even about rock ‘n’ roll. It was about where rock ‘n’ roll came from and about the linear concept of music, you know, and how it evolved. I don’t think you can make a rock record without making a blues record, and I don’t think you can make a blues record without making this other kind of record, and it all had to make sense to me, you know? I don’t care if it made sense to anybody else, but I had to understand it. So it was kind of like this complex puzzle in my mind that was simplistic in its reality.”

Krasnow made frequent trips to England (perhaps he was checking out the scene at Apple Records, where a similar laissez-faire philosophy was in effect). In 1968, he and Don Graham went to the Marquee Club, in order to sign Robert Fripp and his band King Crimson, which was then the talk of the circuit.

“They were brilliant,” Graham recalled, “and it got to the end of the set, a little over an hour of unbelievable music and people were screaming and hollering, and I was thinking, ‘This is it! We’re going to sign them and it will be huge.'” As it turned out, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun was in the club, too, and had already inked King Crimson. The Blue Thumb boys were crestfallen.

Graham and Krasnow then proceeded to the nearby Speakeasy club to drown their sorrows. “And there were these guys in the corner of the room on a little stage. And one guy was sitting in the lotus position on pillows wearing Mary Janes, playing like a small guitar and singing folk songs. And standing next to him was this tall guy beating himself with his own belt. I just thought it was weird. But finally Krasnow looks up and says, ‘These guys are fantastic.'”

At intermission, the Blue Thumb welcoming committee rushed back to the dressing room and signed Marc Bolan, the guy on the pillows, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Blue Thumb’s artwork was all done by Tom Wilkes and Barry Feinstein, from their Camoflage Productions office in the Hollywood Hills. Dave Mason, who’d left Traffic (and England) for a solo career, chose Blue Thumb in part because a lot of his friends at the time were in the “hang” circle with the artists (Camoflage was also part of a management company called Group 3).

In accordance with the label’s “alternative” stance, Mason’s contract was signed, with solemnity, in the men’s room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I read somewhere,” Feinstein said, “that Howard Hughes used to sign a lot of his deals in the men’s room too.”

Mason’s Alone Together album, released in 1970, was designed by Wilkes and Feinstein as a sort of fold-open poster. Called a “Kangaroo Pack,” the jacket included a pouch for the album, which was pressed on a multi-colored “marble” vinyl, created by dropping colored pellets into the vinyl vats at random intervals, so that no two LP’s were alike.

“It stood out as something that nobody else was doing,” commented LiPuma. “People had stopped making gatefolds. And Barry and Tom were friends of ours. So we hung out and would come up with ideas; we’d sit there and laugh about them, because a lot of them were funny and a lot were unique. And we didn’t have to check with anybody in order to get it done. We just did it.”

One day, Ike Turner complained to Krasnow that white kids were making a fortune playing the blues and Turner, a black man and a life-long blues musician, was still scuffling. The result, courtesy Camoflage, was the Outta Season cover, depicting Ike on one side and his wife Tina on the other, each in whiteface makeup and eating a huge slice of watermelon. Outta Season was nominated for a Grammy, for its cover design.

San Francisco singer and songwriter Dan Hicks was one of Blue Thumb’s most popular artists. His Hot Licks played a campy sort of acoustic ’40s swing music, and it hadn’t clicked on their one and only album for Epic. So they were up for grabs.

According to Hicks, Blue Thumb was the perfect label for him. “I guess I wanted just a few guys to deal with,” he said. “A hands-on approach, as opposed to a big company. I liked them; I liked their style. They just seemed like contemporary guys. They seemed pretty hip, to use a word that I didn’t want to use, because I’m the only hip person there is. They seemed like guys that could be friends, but still we could get a lot done.”

Hicks and his outfit made three albums for Blue Thumb: Where’s The Money?, Strikin’ It Rich and Last Train To Hicksville, all produced by Tommy LiPuma. “I knew he had a jazz appreciation, which is what I liked,” said Hicks. “So I knew there’d be sort of a common savvy there; I knew he had played tenor sax.”

The Hot Licks were one of the few acts to stay with Blue Thumb until it folded in 1974. “I think it was more popular than I was aware of,” reflected Hicks. “I say that because I still get people who say to me ‘When we were in college man, we turned your records way up and danced,’ and all this. So I hear all these stories that I didn’t know about.”

Ben Sidran and Blue Thumb were never about money and huge sales. “Back then, record companies were still interested in records that sold 30, 40,000 copies,” he explained. “The numbers people were shooting for were never that great. I do know that they sold records, and the records didn’t come back like they do today. The records they sold stayed sold.”

For a decade, the Jazz Crusaders had recorded in relative obscurity on smaller labels such as Chisa, where they’d consider a project successful if it sold 50,000 copies. Joe Sample: “If it was known as jazz, you could count on basically no exposure. One of the things we felt, and that Blue Thumb felt, was that we had to get the labeling out of music. That was the main reason we went over to Blue Thumb; it was a very exciting company. We did a Carole King tune, ‘So Far Away,’ and that song was played right alongside Creedence Clearwater and a number of the popular acts of that day.”

The re-named Crusaders cut a handful of albums for Blue Thumb, and each one moved about 200,000 units. “Tommy and LiPuma and Krasnow were young and vibrant men with tremendous love of music,” Sample said. “And they also had the expertise to back up that love. And they started signing all kinds of bands. It was the new image in music, and I think it was the best kind of image that we ever had in the music business.

“And I wish today that somehow we could go back to that kind of image, where if music was good it was simply known as music; it didn’t matter if it was jazz or rock or forms of a mixture. Every artist they signed was very unique in their own way.”

The artist roster changed in dribs and drabs over Blue Thumb’s six-year run. Dave Mason’s debut album became the label’s biggest seller. “Alone Together was a breath of fresh air at the right time,” said LiPuma, who produced the record. “The guy’s songs were incredible, his guitar playing was fantastic. He had this tie-dyed record, beautiful packaging.

“Most of the time, when you’ve got something like this, whether or not it’s going to sell a million or five million, or 10 copies, you could tell when something’s got the goods or not. There’s no question to that.”

Mason’s relationship with DiPuma and Krasnow began to sour almost immediately. “The record was a monster, and then he came back and wanted to do this record with Cass Elliot,” DiPuma recalled. “Which obviously, didn’t make sense to us whatsoever, but we let him do it, and the rest is history.” Dave Mason and Cass Elliot was a resounding flop and drove Mason’s stock way down.

Headkeeper, Mason’s next solo effort, was barely half-finished when Mason, eager to re-negotiate his Blue Thumb contract, literally stole the master tapes. Krasnow, never one to back down from a fight, issued the half-done record anyway. The strained relationship between artist and label was pushed to the breaking point, and in 1973, after lots of legal wrangling, a declaration of bankruptcy and threats across the conference table, Mason signed with Columbia Records.

“Blue Thumb came along and did what they did so well that corporate America started going after their acts,” explained Joe Sample. “And one by one, they began to offer their acts a hell of a lot more money than they could pay ’em.”

“Listen, the worst thing that we could do at the label was to cut a hit record,” offered LiPuma. “Because every time we came close to it, or had something that smelled like a hit, Columbia would come along and steal ’em away. They did it with Dave Mason, they did it with Marc-Almond; T-Rex went with Warner Brothers …” The Pointer Sisters, who scored a hit on Blue Thumb with the ’40s retro “Yes We Can Can,” were still on the label when it went down. The group’s big smashes (“Fire,” “Jump”) came many years later, on another label.

Ben Sidran recalled how he first came to be a Blue Thumb artist: “I got a phone call at two o’clock one morning,” he said. “Woke me out of a dead sleep. It was Krasnow; he had heard my first record on Capitol (Feel Your Groove). He said, ‘I want to sign you, man. What do we have to do?’ So we worked it out.

“It was clear that he was at a party at somebody’s house, he heard my record and he dug it, he tracked me down and he dialed the phone that minute. And that’s an indication of what the next four years were like for me. If Kras liked your idea, he’d say, ‘Okay, do it.’ It’s not that way today, but back then, he was trusting creative people.”

“I think,” offered LiPuma, “record companies, for the most part, worked in a disciplined and organized administrative manner. We didn’t have meetings; it was just a small group of people. If we heard something we liked, we signed it.”

“They were running it, literally out of three rooms,” said Sidran. “And they were making records that were consciously counter to what was going on. And nobody had done that. Everybody else had maybe started small and had a party, but they were making overtly commercial records. But Krasnow was going out of his way to do something different.”

Joe Sample said that Blue Thumb simply had the right vibe. “Most of the time, when you went in and spoke to music people at pop record companies, it was like speaking to someone who spoke back in a foreign language. We (the Crusaders) had nothing in common with the majority of record companies.”

Krasnow’s vision was of the label as the umbrella under which all the members of the big musical family could stand together. Bluesmen Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Nathan Beauregard and Furry Lewis all made history on Blue Thumb, on the roster right next to Mason, Hicks and the Pointer Sisters, with their Memphis Swamp Jam.

“That record only made sense if you were going to then make other records that followed in a broad way,” Krasnow explained. “It was kind of the foundation that other records could build on. It led to the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, which was a blues band, because Aynsley was John Mayall’s drummer and they had Jon Mark and John Almond in the band, and we did a record with them too, which had a whole different point of view.

“See, the whole thing only made sense to me when you did it right, and built on it that way. To make a Memphis Blues Jam record in a vacuum, then you might as well be Arhoolie Records. And just to make a Mark-Almond record didn’t mean anything either because then you might as well be Columbia Records. I wanted to do it the way I saw it. I mean how did I grow up, you know? What did it mean to me?”

In the end, perhaps inevitably, it was Blue Thumb’s non-conformity that did them in. After the label’s second distribution deal (with Capitol/EMI) went sour, Krasnow sold Blue Thumb to the Gulf and Western corporation, which owned Paramount Records and several even smaller labels, in 1972. The new owners promised to keep Blue Thumb’s rebel spirit alive, its irreverence intact. Hits would be nice, but Blue Thumb was making artistic statements.

Soon enough, however, it became apparent to all concerned that the day of the anarchic independent was drawing to a close. “The bottom line was that Gulf and Western wasn’t interested in being in the record business anymore,” LiPuma said frankly. “They had become very disillusioned. They had gotten into business with a lot of these small labels, none of which apparently did that well, including Paramount Records.

“I think they decided it was time to bail and ABC came along and offered them a price and they took it. We were certainly low on the totem pole in the deal, so we were just thrown over to ABC. And it wasn’t what you’d call a conducive place for making music and creating anything. It was one of these places where it was the hits and the hits. So we just settled, got paid off and left.”

And that was that. To Dan Hicks’s recollection, “The demise of Blue Thumb happened pretty quick. I remember going into the office and everything was stamped ‘Property of ABC.’ Everything, the typewriters, everything. I don’t know what was going on.”

Both Krasnow and LiPuma landed on their feet at Warner Brothers Records; Krasnow as a roving A&R man (later a vice-president), LiPuma as a staff producer (he was at the helm for all of George Benson’s big hits in the ’70’s and ’80’s, including Breezin’ and “On Broadway”).

In 1978, MCA bought ABC Records and so inherited all the Blue Thumb product. Very few of the original albums are in print today.

Bob Krasnow became president of Elektra Records in 1983 and enjoyed a long, successful stay at the top; currently, he’s running a new label, Krasnow Enterprises, which is distributed by MCA.

The retrospective All Day Thumbsucker Revisited was issued (on two CDs and as three-disc colored vinyl package) in 1996 by GRP Records, which is also distributed by MCA (hence, the masters were handy).

GRP’s president is none other than Tommy LiPuma. “I was looking for another logo, to put things out that didn’t fit the GRP genre,” he said. GRP/Blue Thumb has issued new CDs by Dr. John, Robben Ford, Jonathan Taylor and others. “I’ve got eclectic tastes; my tastes run a broader scope than one particular area,” LiPuma said, still chanting the Blue Thumb mantra after all the years.

“And the thing is, the logo was just sitting there.”

Oral history: ‘The Ballad of Calico’ by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

In the vast canon of music recorded by Kenny Rogers, nothing ever came close to the audacious ambitiousness of 1972’s The Ballad of Calico, a sprawling, 19-song concept album about a silver-mining town that actually existed in California’s San Bernadino Mountains in the 1880s.

It was the era of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, and The Ballad of Calico was similarly constructed – each song told a part of the story, each was performed in a different style, and each character was represented by a different singer.

It was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in those days, digging for silver long before Rogers struck gold – and then multi-platinum – as a solo act.

The group had begun as simply the First Edition, with each member sharing lead-singing duties, but after a string of hits with Rogers taking the lead, the name was changed as a commercial concession.

Their most recent release on Warner Bros. Records’ Reprise subsidiary, Greatest Hits, had sold more than a million copies. Which may explain why the label was willing to bankroll a double album written front-to-back by two unknowns (Michael Murphey and Larry Cansler), with no “surefire” hits on it.

Only six of the 19 tracks featured Rogers singing lead, and one of those was a brief reprise of another song. Kin Vassy had five, Terry Williams four, Mary Arnold two. Several were co-leads. And the album included three instrumentals.

Rogers produced the album himself.

The Ballad of Calico came in an expensive package, designed to look like an old-time scrapbook, with a parchment libretto inside featuring Murphey’s hand-written song lyrics and sepia-toned photos of the group in period costumes. Not a speck of color in the entire set.

It was, to be sure, a gamble. And Warner Brothers – which knew when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em – walked away after the lone single (the Vassy-sung “School Teacher”) failed, and the album itself rose no higher than No. 118 on the Billboard chart.

After The Ballad of Calico, the group soldiered on via MGM, under the imprint Jolly Rogers Records. There would be no hits there, either, and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition ceased to be in 1975.

That was the very year Murphey scored his first hit as an artist with “Wildfire,” a song he and Cansler had composed during their writing sessions for The Ballad of Calico.

Never issued on CD, The Ballad of Calico has taken on a mythic reputation over the years.

This Oral History of the project began in late 2019. Kenny Rogers, who was known to have a fondness for Calico, had agreed to participate … and sadly, that interview never came to pass.

We spoke with Cansler, Murphey (now professionally known as Michael Martin Murphey), Williams, Arnold (now known as Mary Arnold Miller), Glaser Sound Studios chief engineer Claude Hill and Rogers’ longtime manager Ken Kragen.

RIP Kenny Rogers, Mickey Jones and Kin Vassy.

The beginning

Murphey: I’m kind of a perpetual tourist. I love to go through state parks, and stop and look at historical markers. And I went up to see this little town, Calico. I just fell in love with the whole story of the place. It seemed to be such a paradigm, if you will, of American life. Our boom and bust mentality. You hear about some gold in California, and everybody gets in a wagon and goes out there. Or there are oil strikes in Texas, and then everybody goes to Texas.

Cansler: We had both been staff writers at Screen Gems, and after my contract ran out we stayed in touch, and by that time I’d started working with the First Edition. Kenny and I went all the way back to Houston. They had just recorded ‘Ruby’ – we always called it ‘Rudy’ – when Kenny and I were starting to hang out together. I was hired to do the string arrangements for some of their album cuts; it was a natural progression that when they decided to go live with an orchestra, they hired me to do it.

Murphey: I tended to get hired a lot at Knott’s Berry Farm, and Walter Knott had a little re-creation of Calico out there. And I saw the need for there to be possibly a musical written about Calico that could be performed at Knott’s Berry Farm. I took it to the powers that be, and they laughed me out the door.

I was on a salary to write at Screen Gems, so I said, I’m just gonna write it anyway. I got some of the tourist booklets that they handed out there, and I did a little research in the UCLA library.

Cansler: Murphey played ‘Calico Silver’ for me, and explained what research he had done, and I just went totally nuts on it.

Murphey: I started thinking I may be out of my pay grade here when it comes to arranging this stuff. So Larry said ‘Why don’t we just co-write these songs together?’ I’d already written quite a bit of stuff, so we went ahead and finished out a lot of it. We split the songwriting credits – he took the credit for the melodies, and I took the credit for the lyrics. But the truth is, sometimes I’d write a melody, and he’d give me an idea for a lyric.

Cansler: I brought Murph into a session with Kenny and the gang, and had him sing ‘Calico Silver.’ And we explained the concept – sort of like the Spoon River Anthology, where we’d go in and tell certain facets of the story, and basically create the life and death of a ghost town. And Kenny and Terry Williams both went ‘Bingo! Let’s do it.’ So at that point Murph and I really got serious about it. He took me out to the ghost town, and we walked around and studied the history for a long time. And basically just started sketching everything out.

Williams: They came up to Toronto where we were doing our TV show, played the songs and pitched us the idea of the album. I don’t think Murph or Larry ever intended for any of those songs to be commercially viable. They were telling a story, a true story about individuals who lived and died in Calico, and the town itself.

Murphey: I researched all the incredible characters who lived there, and the animals like Dorsey, the mail-carrying dog. He was an absolute hero of an animal in the 19th century. And Madame de Lil, who was a madam.

Cansler: Murph and I were going around Boot Hill out there at Calico. And there’s quite a few of the graves that had a little headstone, but no name. And that just blew us away. So that’s where ‘Write Me Down’ came from; we just expanded it, with the vocal chorus that we put in, to being the whole town: ‘Don’t forget that I existed.’

Vachel Carling was made up. But Sally Grey, and most of the names, we took from gravestones. The story of Madame de Lil was part of the record. That actually happened. And Dorsey the dog. But like anything else, you take a poetic license.

Kragen: Those two guys, I thought, wrote something exceptional. I remember driving up to Calico and going through the place, in the spirit of the idea … I felt like it should be a film. But that wasn’t our orientation in those days.

Murphey: Kenny Rogers felt like he was viewed as way too commercial. Truth is, that was his power. The guy was an incredible genius at picking songs that were likely to be hits. Critics were always trashing him for being shallow. And the big thing back then was singer/songwriters, which he was not. He didn’t write much on his own. He said ‘I want an exclusive on this while you guys finish it up. I want to be the first person to record all this stuff.’

Miller: I had no idea what a concept album was at that point. Kenny would say ‘Just don’t worry about it; we’re just playing these characters in this thing that Michael has written.’

Cansler: Once we realized that we had a green light to actually put together a project, then Murphey and I approached it from a totally different point of view. Now it was ‘How are we going to do this?’ ‘What stories can we string together?’ We combined stories. We combined characters. It wasn’t a documentary – we were just trying to catch the spirit, the loneliness of what it must have been like to be in an austere setting like that. Trying to paint a musical picture of that.

The sessions

Williams: It was two weeks in Nashville at the Glaser Brothers Studio. It was kind of like a film – we recorded it out of sequence. There were unbelievable moments in the recording itself. During ‘Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog’ there was a breakdown section, and we did this bark-bark-woof-woof around one mic, in a circular pattern. We could see each other doing it, and at the very end we just cracked up. And we ended up keeping that on the album, because it was just the spirit of the group to begin with.

Cansler: The most incredible musical two weeks I’ve ever had in my life. This amazing synergistic energy came out of everybody. We were at the Glaser Brothers night and day. Everybody in the First Edition was a great singer, and a great musician, and something happened – they caught the spirit of it.

Williams: I was usually the only one playing an instrument on our albums. Kenny, Mickey and the other guys did not. But on Calico, the group played everything. Did all the rhythm tracks. Larry Cansler played the keyboards. It was a magical time.

Murphey: They were a good band. Those guys were always on the road. And the more you play live, the better you get. Terry was a good guitar player – you could throw anything out to him, he could mess around with the settings on his electric guitar and come up with any kind of sound.

Hill: Kenny played both upright bass and Fender precision bass; Mickey played all the drums but only sang in the group parts. Kin Vassy had the best-sounding Gibson Dove I ever heard. It was a ’67 or ’68 model. And everybody played at the same time. The great pedal steel on ‘Trigger Happy Kid,’ that’s Doyle Grisham, who was the steel player for the Glaser Brothers.

Miller: Murph would show up in a camper. We would be in the Holiday Inn, and he’d be out in the parking lot. He would just bring more songs. We had a great relationship with the studio – we’d go in and cut as much as we wanted. We’d just do it all day. And we learned the songs at the studio.

Cansler: With my background as a musical director, I knew that you’ve got to have variety, or people will just tune out. It’s as simple as ‘do an up tune, then do a ballad.’ You just break things up. One of my favorite cuts is just Murph playing the guitar on that ‘Rocking Chair’ song. If you put that in any other album, it’d be “What the hell is that?” But after a big symphony piece, and then some screamin’ rock ‘n’ roll, that little thing just works.

Williams: The piece called ‘Rocking Chair,’ Murphey played the guitar on. We could not find a rocking chair that sounded good until we found the studio chair, the producer’s chair. Which was all chrome and leather. But it squeaked perfect.

Hill: We had a real harpsichord, a mini-Moog synthesizer and an electronic organ that had sound effects on it. That’s the source of the background sounds on ‘Vachel Carling’s Rubilator’ – the rubilator itself, that’s Kyle Lehning playing that thing. We did that with several overdubs.

Murphey: I tried to write songs in all genres. That’s just the kind of songwriter I am. And if I got a melody in my head that was an R&B tune, that’s what I would write. I feel like you can use different styles and different genres of music to express something … like ‘Madam de Lil and Diabolical Bill’ is a really good, almost kind of a Rolling Stones track. I wanted that ‘bad boy’ sound. But then when I wrote ‘Sally Grey,’ I didn’t even want a pop sound. I just wanted something that sounded very hymn-like. Very gospel.

Kenny Rogers (1972): “We sing the actual epitaph that is on her tombstone. That organ at the end symbolizes the casket being lowered into the ground. When it was originally recorded, I sang part of the Lord’s Prayer under the organ, but we cut that because it was too strong.”

Miller: We would go in, rehearse, and everybody would just be on their part. We just knew where we sang. So the things that Kin sang were definitely songs that Kin should do. Terry could kill a ballad. And Kenny was just Kenny. You could see which songs he was supposed to do.

Williams: I was always the high part, Mary was always underneath me, Kin always sang his part … in this case, it was kind of the same thing. I remember songs that seemed right for different singers. Kin had a powerful lead vocal, so his stuff was very powerful. Kenny was more commercial, a little bit more subdued, and he did his growls and things like that. I got stuff like ‘Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog’ and ‘Road Agent’ and ‘Old Mohave Highway.’ Mary, of course got ‘Madame de Lil’ and ‘Sally Grey’ because she was the chick!

Murphey: And of course when you have Kin Vassy in the band, Good Lord you’ve got to write some blues songs for that voice. That guy was one of the best blues vocalists I have ever met in my life. Kenny was a great blues singer too – we became friends; I would go over to his house and we would listen to five or six Ray Charles albums in a row. And he would try to sing it exactly the way Ray sang it.

Hill: We used each voice, and each combination of voices, for the betterment of the overall record. On ‘Sally Grey,’ I used two tracks for Mary’s voice – we had 16 tracks to work with – and her vocal parts overlap each other. And on the ‘Dorsey’ thing, it goes and goes and it cold-stops. You put on the next record, at the beginning, at it goes the carrying dog. And ends it. There are other things like that, to try to make it a work, not just a collection of songs

Miller: We would record, and then we’d run out to our cars, and they would play it over the radio for us so we could hear it over the radio, and what need to be fixed and stuff. And there was a genuine excitement about doing this album. We were just so proud of what we were doing.

Cansler: At some point, Kenny wasn’t there for a couple of days while we were rehearsing songs, and somebody just took the lead on it.

Murphey: It was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. It wasn’t just Kenny Rogers. All the other members of the band had a lot of say on it.

Miller: I don’t think any of us thought ‘What is this going to be?’ There were more and more songs, and it just kept going on and on.

Kenny Rogers (1978): “The process of producing The Ballad of Calico kept my adrenaline flowing for much of the eight months I worked on it. Every night I lay awake thinking of fresh ways to approach a song or solve a technical or musical problem.”

Murphey: I think what people missed about Kenny Rogers was that he was a brilliant producer. And that’s a whole separate talent. He had a mind that could keep a lot of things going at once. He was a multi-tasker. I believe that album was made on a 16-track machine, and it took a heck of a producer to handle all that. And Kenny was in the studio at all times. The guy never left the studio.

Williams: At the very end, we needed the sound of wind, and we couldn’t find anything in sound effects that made sense to us. So Mickey went out into the studio and did it with his mouth. Cupped his hands in front of his face and did the wind.

Cansler: We cut the basic tracks and the vocals, then we came out to L.A. and I added the orchestras.

Williams: Kenny had gone back to Los Angeles to start to put together the orchestral sessions, and we were finishing up in Nashville. Claude and I mixed the album, and edited it into sequence. And we’d never heard it in sequence before. I called the group over, and we just sat down and blasted this thing, at ear-crushing levels in a dark room. And it was an experience of a lifetime to hear it in sequence – the story being told. It was like watching a movie, and it all made sense.

Hill: Kin had brought some incredible marijuana back from a trip he’d made to Denver. They rolled a couple, and everybody took a hit or two and we played the record. Including me – but I was down to all I had to do was push two buttons. We finished at one or two in the morning and continued partying. There was some wine and high-end munchies. When we finished, the sun was coming up, and we all went over to the Holiday Inn and had breakfast at a big, round table. Maybe a dozen people. Everybody else in there was businessmen and politicians, and there we were in the middle of that, having a very large time.

Everybody loved it. I boxed the tapes up and shipped them to Warner Brothers.

The finale

Miller: We’re all so proud of that album. It was probably one of the best that we ever did, and we had no idea what we were doing at the time – but we had so much fun doing it.

Williams: We consider it as close to a masterpiece as we ever came, that’s for sure.

Kragen: I always felt it was one of their best projects, in that it had a lot of unusual and experimental things going on. But the timing was wrong, and it was not a commercial success. I remember feeling ‘Gee, if this had come a long a little sooner, it would have been a big hit.’

Miller: We would do things and move on. It wasn’t like everyone was going ‘Oh, I hope Calico is a hit …’ It wasn’t like that at all. At the shoot we did, where they had us dressed up in all those old costumes and that stuff, that’s the most I ever thought about it.

Williams: ‘School Teacher’ was released as a single, but it just never hooked up. I don’t know why. I thought that was a really strong record. It might have been because Kin Vassy sang the lead on it and it wasn’t Kenny. Maybe they missed Kenny. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t because none of them were good enough. It was just that it didn’t ring that commercial bell for the country, I guess.

Murphey: Vassy was never really happy with the fact that Kenny took so much of the lead on the First Edition songs, maybe that’s why he left. I kept up with him over the years; he became a songwriter in Nashville and kept a little bit of a career going.

Cansler: It always comes down to a record company putting down some cash.

Kragen: We had a feeling at the time that Warners wasn’t fully behind it. But that’s what happens when you have a lack of success with a product that you really believe in – you have a tendency to look around for excuses and reasons.

Murphey: Warner Brothers didn’t want to do double albums. They were expensive to produce and manufacture, and hard to market because you had to charge twice as much. I think if The Ballad of Calico had been compressed onto a CD today, and manufacturing costs were as low as they are today, it would have been a monster hit.

Cansler: It still holds up. Ninety percent of the music on the album works. And you can’t say that for everything these days. Kin Vassy’s performance. Terry Williams on ‘Road Agent.’ Mary’s solo on ‘Sally Grey.’ Everybody had their moments. And Kenny still sang the opening and closing themes, and just nailed it. He set the mood.

Murphey: The enthusiasm for everybody to do this was mainly driven by Kenny, who really loved Western history, and really loved California being a Western state. He knew he was going in the direction that spoke to him in his soul. About who he was and where he wanted to go.

When he accepted the Country Music Hall of Fame award, when he was inducted, the only thing he wanted thrown up behind him on the screen was the Ballad of Calico album.

Kenny Rogers (1999): “There were high hopes that it would be revolutionary, and that it would do something wonderful. It wasn’t as big a success as some of the other albums, but there’s something satisfying about doing good product. And saying  ‘A lot of you don’t know about it, but those who do, love it.’”