Friday, May 22, 2015

Life Lessons - Willie Nelson (with David Ritz): It’s a Long Story (My Life)

Willie Nelson’s story has been told before, by Joe Nick Patoski in a book subtitled An Epic Life. Epic! A quick search for a definition of ‘epic’ leads you to this, in the Urban Dictionary “the most overused word ever, next to fail…use them together to form ‘epic fail…everything is epic now. epic car. epic haircut. epic movie. epic album…saying 'epic win' doesn't make you sound any better, either” and you have to agree with them. Everything is ‘epic’ these days, but in Willie’s case maybe Patoski has a point. Willie (and his co-author David Ritz) have opted for something a little simpler, not epic…but just the humble admission, It’s a Long Story. Not as long as when Patoski told it, but long nonetheless. The epic life took 576 pages, the long story only 392 and that includes the index and credits for quoting song lyrics. Willie is good at editing things to fit his own perspective of what’s important in his long life. The book sounds like Willie. It’s written in his voice. Ritz, from the look of it, organized, and provided structure but allowed Willie to be front and centre telling this story himself. You can almost feel him sitting across the room from you as you read. Some pages have the flow and poetry of his lyrics, others just sound like him, exhaling a puff of smoke and a gem of a remembrance.

“A song is a short story,” he begins, “It might have been my buddy Harlan Howard, a writer I met in Nashville in the sixties, who first said a song ain’t nothing but three chords and the truth…the truth should flow easy. Same for songs and stories…the way a mountain stream, bubbling with fresh clean water, keeps flowing…but what you’re holding in your hands is something more than a simple song or a short story. It’s a Long Story is the name of this enterprise…and I’ll need a lot more than three chords.”

Well, that’s true, and Willie uses all the facility at his command to engage the reader. He’s a master of story-telling. While Patoski had all the facts (probably more so than are present here) listening to Willie’s take on it is more interesting. And what kind of details Willie dwells on is equally interesting. He wants to talk about his fight with the taxman. His unique deal with the IRS turns up again and again. Money doesn’t seem to be an issue with Willie. He earns it and spends it, he loses it, gives it away, he hires people to look after it for him. Unfortunately he hired the wrong person to look after it, and it disappeared. At least the part he was supposed to be paying to the government. So Willie fought back, he replaced his manager, with someone he could trust. The new manager was in jail when Willie hired him. Go figure. Mark Rothbaum, a young man who worked for Waylon Jennings, took the rap for Jennings when the DEA found a packet of cocaine in Waylon’s office. Willie was impressed by this act of valor, and had lost respect for his previous manager who “had never paid a single cent of the taxes” Nelson owed. The change of personnel was both timely and wise. Rothbaum advised Nelson to “take on the IRA” and managed to work out a good solution to the problems. In Willie’s telling the story seems almost mystical.

There’s plenty of mysticism in these pages. Willie’s Christian upbringing blends with philosophies from Edgar Cayce to Khalil Gibran, Norman Vincent Peale to a non-conformist Episcopalian priest in Dallas, and a healthy infusion of good weed to get to where he is today. And women too. A gaggle of wives, each of whom he loved (and still seems quite fond of). He’s a family man, with his own definition of family. His band members are family too. He might even count long-time fans who have supported him through thick and thin. He stays by the bus ‘til every fan gets and autograph or a picture. He knows who put him on top, and how to show his appreciation for them. Willie traces his career from label to label and through a variety of bands in the same conversational way. He enumerates his influences from Django Reinhardt to Ray Price, his partnerships with Paul English, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and others. He especially has kind words for his sister Bobbie the real musician in the family who has played keyboards with him for years. If there’s a weakness in the storytelling it’s only that there isn’t a whole chapter dedicated to Trigger, Willie’s iconic guitar.

Willie Nelson is loyal to his friends, there’s hardly a bad thought about anyone in the book, even though he has had problems. He yearns for a simple life, but has his own town (built for a movie but maintained as a place to play chess ever since). He’s been poor, supported by his wife who was always able to find work as a waitress when he couldn’t land a gig, and he’s been well-off. He records all the time, releasing far more albums than other singer-songwriters; and he’s never been afraid to sing other peoples’ songs adding his own style to them every time. Willie Nelson has lived eighty-two years and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s been, and continues to be, a long story, and one well worth reading.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife. 

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