Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2020
With Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Joe Nick Patoski has fulfilled a lifelong quest for knowledge, not only about a legendary singer but also more broadly about the Texas milieu they share. The biographer’s family moved to Texas when he was two years old, and he has been “trying to figure out Texas and Texans ever since . . . . I realized the answer had been right in front of me for most of my life,” meaning in the person of Willie Nelson. Most people would probably agree with Patoski that Nelson is the quintessential Texan.
Patoski also has the professional background to write this story. He has written two other book-length biographies, numerous magazine and newspaper articles as a staffer or freelancer, and liner notes for nearly a dozen country-western albums; he has served as a radio commentator on the country-western scene, manager of two country bands, and Grammy Awards judge for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
These qualifications, personal and professional, should satisfy those wondering why a new book about Nelson joins some seventeen others already published, including Nelson’s autobiography. Patoski offers something extra for those who share his thirst for knowledge: a wealth of details on the history of American music, whose particulars must be recounted if the reader is to understand Nelson’s place in it. For educational value, Partoski’s chapters on Nashville and Austin are outstanding.
The biographer presents Nelson’s life in chronological order, titling each chapter with a place name and a year, such as “Abbott [Texas], 1933” (the year of Nelson’s birth) or “Nashville, 1960.” At key points, however, the author interrupts this sequence to provide background on the Nelson family, the development of American folk music, or the intricacies of the music business. Thus, in a chapter titled “East of Western Grove on Pindall Ridge, 1925,” Patoski reveals that “[m]usic was in the Nelson blood long before Texas, back in the rugged hills of north central Arkansas.” Another chapter, on Fort Worth, describes Western swing asan amalgam of popular American musiccountry, of course, swing, jazz, pop, Dixieland, and country bluestailored for dancing, with a strong Texas flavor. Swing in Fort Worth wasn’t just a western thing, either. It was the hometown of big-band orchestra leader Paul Whiteman and numerous other swinging big-band musicians.
As for Nelson’s life, the broad outlines will be familiar to most fans; they include an impoverished but contented childhood, an early stint in a Western swing band, service in the Air Force, work as a disc jockey, and writing wildly successful songs in Nashville, Tennessee. However Nelson’s efforts to record his own work, on his own terms, were disappointing. Nashville was “the promised land” to Nelson and hundreds of other country musicians. “The home of the Grand Ole Opry and Music Row was where country music’s stars shined brightest and where the hits were made,” but Nashville was “much more than that,” as Patoski shows in generous detail. He relates that it was the city’s African American community that first established its position as a music center. Patoski describes the Nashville recording industry, the participating artists, and even the studios where they played. The radio program that was to become Grand Ole Opry, he says, was launched in November, 1925, as WSM Barn Dance.
As Nelson found it in 1960, the Grand Ole Opry was “a friendly, folksy, and family-oriented showcase of all styles of southern, western, and mountain music, in a tightly regimented format.” Nevertheless, he would have to work hard to break into the Grand Ole Opry and the Nashville recording scene. Nelson’s first job in the city was selling encyclopedias door to door. In time, the popular Faron Young asked to record Nelson’s song “Hello Walls,” which rose to the top of the country singles chart in 1961 and soon yielded Nelson an initial royalty check of $14,000.
Nelson was on his way as a songwriter. After “Hello Walls,” Nelson penned, in short order, “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” all of which made their way into the iconic book Heartaches by the Number (2003), listing the five hundred best country songs. Still, it was other singers who made these songs famous. Nelson wanted desperately to present his music according to his own vision. He formed his own band and toured the country. In 1964, he enjoyed the prestige of Grand Ole Opry membership, but he left abruptly when he realized he could not fulfill his contractual obligation to perform twenty-six Grand Ole Opry dates a year and still maintain his road-tour schedulehis larger source of income by far. Moreover, although the Grand Ole Opry was hospitable to all country genres, on Nashville’s Music Row these genres had to be kept strictly separate.
As Patoski notes, many Texan performers tend to switch or blend musical genres; Nelson found a model from earlier years in Bob Wills. Stylistic diversity, however, was not acceptable to Music Row’s record producers, who favored the commercially safer single-genre formula. That made conflict between Nelson and them virtually inevitable. As if this were not enough, Nelson’s voice and appearance also counted against him with the Nashville music companies. Finally, in exasperation, Nelson returned to Texas in 1965. Many thought this move would destroy his career, but he persisted and defied the odds. For years, Texas fans, especially in Austin, provided support and revenue even when Nelson’s record sales elsewhere were slow.
Paradoxically, the song that turned around his performing career a few years later was not one of Nelson’s compositions. It was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose in 1945 and recorded previously by Hank Williams, Gene Autry, and Elvis Presley. Nelson’s cover was part of his 1975 Columbia Records debut, Red Headed Stranger. The first recording produced by Nelson, this stripped-down concept album was initially greeted with skepticism in the music industry, but it became a popular triumph, bringing Nelson some measure of financial security and a new credibility that freed him to create the kind of music he had long envisioned. As a single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” reached the top of the country-western charts before moving onto the pop charts, where it shortly reached number 21.
With this fresh start, Nelson pioneered “Outlaw Country” with his close friend Waylon Jennings, not only loosening the hold of Nashville but also winning over large numbers of new country-western fans, especially among rock enthusiasts. Nelson had seen possibilities in Austin’s rapidly developing “hippie” music scene, dominated in the 1970’s by the city’s Armadillo World Headquarters music hall. Soon Nelson built his own Pedernales Studio near Lake Travis in Austin. He realized his dream of playing and recording his own brand of country music, strongly influenced by rock and roll, jazz, Western swing, and folk.
The “crossover” phenomenon at the heart of Patoski’s tale is one reason for the subtitle “An Epic Life.” Indeed, like the hero of Homer’s Odyssey (725 b.c.e.), Nelson has lived by his wits and taken things as they came. Epic heroes also tend to have flaws, however, and, notwithstanding his clear admiration of his subject, Patoski duly details those of his epic hero. One such flaw was Nelson’s tolerance of gun-toting by some members of his staff, leading to tension in the “hippie-oriented” venues where he performed, including the Armadillo. Conversely, the biographer also notes how Nelson’s forbearance of “scalawags” can make the way thorny for the honest members of his circle. Patoski also examines Nelson’s marital infidelities and his periodic financial and emotional neglect of his family. He reports that Nelson’s eldest son, Billy, committed suicide in 1991.
Much of the hardship in Nelson’s life, however, had other origins than his personal shortcomings. In the early 1990’s, a failed tax-shelter investmentone his accountants had told him was perfectly sound and legalled to his arrest by Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents who seized all of his property for back taxes. He acknowledged the debt and paid it all, auctioning much of his land and selling his 1992 album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? via late-night television commercials. His friends and admirers did what they could to minimize Nelson’s humiliation, for example by bidding up land prices at the auctions. Many of his supporters wanted to repay the kindness he had shown with his famous Farm Aid concerts. To Kinky Friedman, a longtime associate, the important thing about Nelson’s payment of the tax debt was that “[h]e didn’t do it the easy way and plead bankruptcy. He did it the cowboy way.”
Patoski does an excellent job of showing how, despite setbacks, Nelson exhibits a quiet resolve and an untiring focus on the goal, which has helped him to artistic success. The writer also traces clearly Nelson’s gradual but steady evolution into the gentle, laid-back secular saint he has become.
Patoski is plainly elated at having produced such an authoritative biography, based on more than one hundred interviews and scrupulous research. Nelson’s loyal fans will appreciate the wealth of detail Patoski shares about all aspects of the singer’s life. However, at times too much detail is crowded into the narrative, as in the meticulous descriptions of the singer’s real estate transactions during the 1970’s. In addition, the accumulation of detail sometimes can make for awkward syntax, as in this passage from the chapter “Fort Worth Again, 1958,” about a publishing deal with disc jockey Jack Rhodes:[Rhodes] had cowriting credits with Red Hayes on “A Satisfied Mind,” which Porter Wagoner, Jean Shepard, and Red and Betty Foley had just recorded, and would share credits on ’“Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” and “Woman Love,” which were covered by the likes of Hank Snow, Sonny James, Ferlin Husky, Jim Reeves, Porter Wagoner, and Gene Vincent. Before that, Rhodes led the Western swing band Jack Rhodes and His Lone Star Buddies (“Mama Loves Papa and Papa Loves the Women”), formerly Jack Rhodes and His Rhythm Boys, which featured Rhodes’s stepbrother Leon Payne, whose loose style influenced Willie.
Even so, in a book the size of Patoski’sespecially one purporting to relate a true-life epicsomething had to be left out. The author has concentrated on the history of Nelson’s music and its antecedents but has not truly plumbed the depths of Nelson’s artistry and creative process. After all, it was Nelson’s music that made possible one of his most epic accomplishmentsbringing together disparate, potentially clashing audiences with his blend of musical genres and compassionate portrayals of human life. Nelson bared his heart concerning his musical endeavors in 1988 with Willie: An Autobiography, and, given the consummate success of that autobiography, Patoksi’s omissions may have been for the best. Arguably, a reader needs both books to understand the full significance of Nelson’s life and work.
Patoski most certainly has accomplished what he explicitly set out to do: understand Texans and Texas, the strange land to which he was transplanted so young. In an “Author’s Note” at the end, he describes how writing the biography of Nelson helped him understand that “Texans by nature are independent, free-thinkers, open, outgoing, and friendly. Iconoclasts, they respect tradition but are not beholden to it. Whether it’s God or sin, they tend to embrace excess. The good ones have a whole lot of heart.” He adds, “I can now safely say that no single public person living in the twentieth or twenty-first century defines Texas or Texans better than Willie Hugh Nelson.”
As portrayed by Patoski, Nelson in the twenty-first century ispretty much the same old guy that Waylon had described years ago: “He’ll give you everything, say yes to anybody and trust events will turn out fine.” For all the hurt, emotional scars and financial challenges he had endured, he hadn’t changed that much. More often than not, his instincts had proved right. What Willie started almost thirty years earlier [the merging of musical genres, with peace between their respective fans] . . . was still in play.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21
Booklist 104, no. 14 (March 15, 2008): 4.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 5 (March 1, 2008): 235-236.
Rolling Stone, May 1, 2008, p. 22.
Texas Monthly 36, no. 4 (April, 2008): 64.
The Village Voice 53, no. 16 (April 16, 2008): 77.
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