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....
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