Willie Nelson: “It’s a Long Story: My Life”
In 1960, Willie Nelson famously drove into Nashville in his broken-down 1950 Buick, looking to sell his songs to the city’s top music producers. Not long after he got to Music Row, his car died. After a few days in town, he hadn’t had much luck finding a home for his songs; so, one night, after sitting on a barstool and downing shot after shot of whiskey at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, he walked outside in the middle of a snowstorm and lay down in the middle of Broadway.
As he looks back on this moment in his new autobiography, It’s a Long Story (Little, Brown), Nelson wonders just what he had in mind that night. “It’s tough to know exactly what I was up to,” he writes. “I was drunk, and, as a rule, drunks do crazy shit.” Neither did he try to write a song about that night, nor was he trying to commit suicide, since he admits that he was carrying a pistol, and if he’d really wanted to kill himself, he could have shot himself in the head.
What did happen that cold, snowy Nashville night sets Nelson on a path down which he had already been headed, and from which he’ll never turn back: writing memorable songs that tell stories of faith, freedom, heroes and outlaws, whiskey and horses, and love and failure. A week after that night on Broadway, Nelson joined Hank Cochran, Harland Howard, Mel Tillis, Roger Miller, Jimmy Day, and Buddy Emmons for a guitar pull at Tootsie’s. At one of the pulls, Hank Cochran told him, “You’ll make money at this, Willie; you’re too good not to.”
So begins Nelson’s long story of his life; and a long story it is, too (he turned 82 last Thursday).
A scrappy youngster whose schoolmates nicknamed him Booger Red, Nelson was raised by his grandparents and found music everywhere he went, from the songs of field workers picking cotton or baling hay to the sounds of his grandfather’s blacksmith anvil. Nelson spent his early years as a DJ, getting to know the music industry from the flip side of the studio and learning about all styles of music. He traces both his love of music and his penchant for the peripatetic life of a singer to Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour, whose naturalness and sincerity in song, his candor in crooning the blues, and his being a wandering singer of songs deeply mark the young Nelson. By the time he was seven or eight, his grandfather, who raised him, had passed away. By the same time, Nelson had also received his first guitar and begun to realize that music and emotions could be combined. As a result, he was motivated to keep writing poems, to learn to play his guitar with “crazy precision,” to keep melodies swirling around in his head, and to use songs to overcome his shyness as a youngster.
Central to the story of his life are friends from Ray Price and Cochran to Waylon Jennings and Leon Russell, among many others. In the early ‘60s, Patsy Cline recorded Nelson’s “Crazy” and Faron Young did Nelson’s “Hello, Walls.”
Around this same time, Price recorded “Night Life.” As Nelson writes, “If I were a normal person, I’d have settled down and simply written more songs.” Instead, he joined Price’s band – the Cherokee Cowboys – as their new bass player, even though he’d never played bass before. Rolling in the dough from his songwriting, he started spreading the wealth among the band, checking into the penthouse of a hotel and inviting the boys in the band up for an all-night party. Price then advised him to be a little more prudent with his money.
Nelson reports his first meeting with his outlaw partner, Waylon Jennings, at a club called JD’s near the Arizona State University campus, where he hears a singer and guitar player who was “part-country part-rock-and-roll.” Once they met up, Jennings told Nelson, “I feel like we’re kindred spirits, hoss.” When Nelson asked why, Jennings told him, “We’re both ornery. We don’t fit in. Fact it, we don’t wanna fit in. We got a different idea of how to do things. And I suspect that’s cause we came up the same way—the Texas way.”
The rest, of course, is the history of outlaws and highwaymen.
Nelson credits Leon Russell with helping him not only put together the first of his now-famous Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, but also for helping Nelson take control of his own musical universe. Russell understood the worlds of country, blues, and rock weren’t far apart and that the picnics could help bring them together: “You bring the rednecks, Willie, and I’ll bring the hippies.”
Yet, songwriting and singing provide the warp and woof of Nelson’s life, and he reflects candidly on these aspects of his life’s story. On the writing of “Crazy”: “I kept hearing the originality of ‘Crazy.’ The truth is that, while the lyrics are highly unusual, I actually borrowed the first few notes of the song from Floyd Tillman’s ‘I Gotta Have My Baby Back.’ It wasn’t intentional … Good songwriters realize that a little borrowing now and then is part of the process. As time went on, I was flattered when other writers borrowed from me. Far as I’m concerned, all the notes are free.”
On his style of singing: “I see my style as suitable for all sorts of songs … I’m a melody man … I like stating the melody plain and simple. Simplicity is always the key. Get in there. Sing the song … My kind of singing isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s meant to reflect the imperfections of a human being like me.”
In the end, Nelson grows reflective about music and life: “Love every style,” he writes. “Love every musical thing … You will become a part of everything. And everything will become part of you.”
Willie Nelson was born to be a rambling man, and he certainly rambles on here in this book, often repeating like a refrain throughout the book the story of his now-famous run-in with the IRS over back taxes. He also repeats stories, almost word-for-word – such as the fire that destroyed his home in 1971, except for a guitar case full of marijuana he rushed into the flames to rescue) – that he originally told in his 2012 memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me Before I Die: Musings from the Road (Morrow). Nelson’s full-of-himself prose often gets tiresome, and treading the highways and byways of Nelson’s life can get downright wearisome; at least with his songs, the music redeems where the lyrics sometimes fail and falter in pedantic showmanship. At its worst, It’s a Long Story: My Life fails to completely live up to the power of Nelson’s gifted pen, and it is unclear the role that writer David Ritz played in the production of this memoir.
At its best, though, this rambunctious and meandering memoir reveals a warm, humorous man who’s in this business for the music and because he deeply loves his fans. He might have been born a rambling man, but he was also born to be one of America’s most gifted songwriters and storytellers. Nelson mesmerizes us with his gift of gab in this autobiography, regaling us with stories of his life – from his childhood and youth in Abbott, TX, to the ups and downs of his marriages, and his deep love for his family, friends, fans, and songwriting.
Nelson’s peripatetic prose may not win him any new fans, but It’s a Long Story is for fans already riding shotgun with Willie, waiting for his next album, his next song, his next reflection on society or his meditations on the state of contemporary music. So, climb aboard Willie Nelson’s bus, strap on your seat belt, and get ready to roll along with him on a wild, rambling tour of his life and music.
“Let me just pick up Trigger, my trusty guitar,” he writes. “Let me find a melody. Let me find the right words. And in one fashion or another, I’ll sing you this song.”