Country songs and tales from a balladeer
WILLIE by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake, New York: Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $19.95
SOMEONE once said a country song never lies. Country singers may sing about cheatin' hearts, but at least they admit it. That is the thing about Willie Nelson, his songs are simply stated. He's a straight shooter who tells it like it is.
Nelson is a certified superstar - a living legend, but he is not surprised at his success, he knew it would happen. He has come a long way from those cotton-picking days back home in Abbott, Texas, but he still goes back - to play dominoes with buddies like Zeke Varnon.
``Willie'' presents the balladeer's inside story. The reader finds out what it is like to ride with the gang on those notorious buses, including Honeysuckle Rose, where ``the only rule was that there was none.'' The redheaded stranger reveals his thoughts about life and afterlife. He shares his optimism, some sadness, and his warm wit.
Each chapter of his life is a song - ``I am as simple as I look, hard as that may be to understand. I am an itinerant singer and guitar picker. I am what they used to call a troubadour. I would love to be married, I love having a home, but my calling is not compatible with staying put.''
With a wry wink and a grin, he tells why mommas don't want their babies to grow up to be cowboys. Nelson spins yarns from some 20 years on the road with his loyal band of ``Texas yahoos'' from rowdy honkytonks to huge musicfests - including 15 years of Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics - ``They usually ended with me slipping into a plane in the middle of the night and flying off to Hawaii to hide for a week while the damages were assessed. Over the years I realized it could be an advantage to be unfindable before the Picnic as well.'' Nelson's nebulous presence at his picnics is characteristic of a technique he uses effectively in the book. As Nelson slips out from time to time we hear from ``the Chorus'' - his older sister, Bobbie (who plays piano in the band), and other members of his extended family - which includes the rest of the band and road crew. We also hear from ex-wives, old buddies, and acquaintances.
Beneath the stereotypical persona of an ``outlaw'' or ``leader of a band of gypsies'' lies an undercurrent of loyalty to his friends.
The band's longtime drummer, Paul English, was a streetwise hood who attests he ``was headed straight for the penitentiary.... I don't think I was ever legitimate until I started playing drums for Willie in 1966.''
As idealist and philosopher, Nelson is at his best. This former hog farmer's work to raise consciousness at the Farm Aid concerts is admirable - ``Even though I'm not kidding myself that Farm Aid can bail out all the farmers who are in need, we have proven that a little creative imagination can bring forth dramatic results....
``The world won't be changed by treaties or summit meetings. Physical conditions can't change until our minds change. The sum total of all the thoughts of all the people in the world is what will change physical conditions.''
A typical day in the life of Willie Nelson, when he is not on the road again, might include a run, then lunch - perhaps beanie weenies or potted meat product (his favorite). Then a round of golf with the band at his own private country club. There might be a casual business meeting under the big tree near the seventh tee. At ``golf-thirty,'' or sundown, it is into his 48-track recording studio to make some music with his friends - Nelson likes to do it in one take.
The man has a profound appreciation for the west Texas hill country and speaks proudly of his American Indian heritage. ``If you've ever seen an Indian head nickel, you've got a pretty good idea of what I look like side-on with my hair down.''
Sydney Pollock, the director who cast Nelson in his first movie role (``Electric Horseman,'' with Robert Redford), used the word ``authentic'' to describe him. ``He just doesn't have a false bone in his body, and the camera reads that honesty. He's incapable of telling a lie, which I think is the mark of a great actor.''
It is also the mark of a great country singer/songwriter who has some tales to tell. That is why you should read this book. Honest Injun.