_ William Morrow_
Anyone who used Cliff Notes to get through their high school reading requirements and later read the original tome likely understands why the mystique surrounding Willie Nelson may not be completely accurate.
Most fans know Nelson through his songwriting (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Crazy,” “City of New Orleans,” “On the Road Again”), recording and concerts plus second- or even third-hand accounts of his work with charities, his stumbles with the law, and his life with family, friends and fans. We know the big picture, the broad strokes and then basically take it from there as we make assumptions.
Anyone who wants to know the real Willie Nelson would do well to read his hot-off-the-presses autobiography “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road.” At 169 pages, including photos and illustrations by son Micah Nelson, it’s a quick yet satisfying read.
Sure Willie writes about plenty of well-know parts of his life — pot smoking, green energy advocacy, Occupy Wall Street support, champion of the small, independent farmer. But there are also gems even rabid fans might not know: he believes in regular exercise; had a devil of time quitting smoking; doesn’t carry a gun because of a few mishaps; and has a special thing in the bedroom he likes to do with Annie, his wife of almost 30 years. Oh, and he’s a lifetime domino player.
Long-time friend and collaborator Kinky Friedman wrote the foreword.
Everyone needs a friend like Friedman. His foreword reads a bit like a missive from a mother bear defending her cub. Friedman speaks with more than a bit of awe about Nelson’s talent and bitterly about how Nashville rejected him. That wasn’t just because Nelson’s sound wasn’t right for ‘60’s country music but also because ‘the good ol’ boys network…feared and despised his lifestyle i.e. smoking pot.’
Friedman then goes on a bit of a rant against today’s country music scene and the “corporate publishing brothels” that crank out music that fills the airwaves.
Not to put words in Nelson’s mouth – again, one could rightfully argue that’s been done by many for years – but it’s likely a fair guess that he agrees with at least part, if not all, of Friedman’s statements. The two are, after all, longtime friends and collaborators. And, this book is Nelson’s so he could have vetoed parts of the foreword.
What’s interesting, though, is that when Nelson tells his story, he never seems bitter or sour.
Perhaps that’s because of the Texas upbringing he received by his grandparents. Sure, the family was pretty poor, Nelson was born in 1939, but there was plenty of fun, too.
He recalls a 5-year old Willie reciting a poem in church “What are you looking at me for?/I ain’t got nothin’ to say/If you don’t like the looks of me/Just look the other way,” until blood started to flow from the nose he was picking.
His second vivid memory involves going with about eight other kids to fight bumblebees. “Some days I would come home with both eyes swollen shut from bee stings. What fun we had!”
If performing without pretense and fighting bumble bees aren’t two great ways to train for a career in music – not to mention having fond memories doing both — it’s tough to imagine what is.
Despite his protests to the contrary – he likes to say he’s a tough son-of-a-gun – the vignettes by Nelson, his wife and other family members and friends show he’s a hard working, gentle man who’s pretty darned forward thinking, too. He spent his childhood summers picking cotton and thinking there must be a better way to earn a buck. He tried his hand at sales and in radio before he hit Nashville.
For all Friedman’s fire and brimstone about Nashville, it’s clear from the book that Nelson didn’t think Music City was all bad. After all, a night at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge found him meeting Patsy Cline’s husband Charlie Dick and then Cline herself who agreed to sing “Crazy.” Tootsie’s is also where he met Hank Cochrane who got Willie hired by Pamper Music, owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith, one of his big breaks.
Sure, Nelson had his shares of up and downs in the early years. But in all his tales of raising hogs and roping and playing dominos and traveling and meeting plenty of folks along the way– including legendary performers Leon Russell (“the greatest musician, singer, writer, entertainer that I have ever seen or heard”) to Waylon to Hank to Patsy and Merle to Johnny and Hank and Ray Price and others – he never sounds more than grateful for the roads he took and the paths he crossed.
“Thought for the day: You have all the power there is. There is no one more powerful than you. You just must be aware of it and know it. Don’t doubt it.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Nelson, who is rightfully lauded as one of the most brilliant songwriters in contemporary music, wrote such a compelling page-turner. But what is surprising is that for all his fame and accessibility, he still has so much wisdom left to share.