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Mr. Record Man: Willie Nelson

In the Houston of 1959 and 1960, Willie Nelson was just another unknown musician. But not for long.

As for how such an astute song-picker as Daily could miss so badly on "Night Life" and Willie Nelson, the guitarist laughs.

"Pappy had a good ear but he just wanted hits, and to him most hits sounded pretty much the same," he says. "He hated 'Night Life' partly because he despised what he called 'musician's music.' Nothing drove Pappy crazier than a bunch of us jamming. He didn't like it or get it. And he sure didn't want to pay for it."

"I also think Pappy just didn't get Willie's singing," he adds. "The way he phrases wasn't like most other singers who were popular at that time. Willie heard a whole lot of people tell him he couldn't sing."

...And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson's first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
...And Then I Wrote Willie Nelson's first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
He was a long way from the "Wee Willie Nelson" persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.
He was a long way from the "Wee Willie Nelson" persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.

Whatever the reason, between selling away a hit song for peanuts while he was desperately broke and relinquishing most of his rights for the soon-to-be classic "Night Life" and Daily's flat-out rejection of "Night Life" — which Nelson felt was his best musical accomplishment yet — Nelson soured on Houston. He made plans to head east.
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Could Willie Nelson have also picked up his well-known taste for marijuana in Houston? Since achieving worldwide fame and recognition, he has become one of the sweet leaf's highest-­profile advocates. Nelson has supposedly smoked a joint on the White House roof, filmed a smoke-out video with Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam and been arrested several times for possession, most recently at a West Texas U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in 2010.

He once admitted to former CNN talk-show maven Larry King on national television that he smoked just before he came on King's show. With 110,000 Facebook followers on his Tea Pot Party page, Nelson has thrown considerable weight behind the nationwide movement to legalize pot.

According to Patoski, Chapman and others who have traveled on Nelson's bus, he's a quiet guy who likes scrambled eggs after a gig, a glass or two of white wine, a lungful of killer reefer and picking some Django Reinhardt with sister Bobbie. This is the Zen Willie of today, the one who wrote the koans collected in his 2012 book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.

But back in his Houston days, Nelson was a hard-partying little dude. Larry Butler recalls many nights when Nelson was too drunk to drive home, "so he'd just spend the night with us."

"Willie loved a good party, and he'd drink right along with everybody else," adds Butler. "Of course, that wasn't helping his marriage any, but Willie's always been Willie."

The various biographies of Nelson have been quite frank about his hard drinking back in the day, and there are casual mentions of pills, which have always been around wherever musicians are working late hours. Butler was probably around Nelson more than anyone else, even Buskirk, during the Houston phase. Confronted with the question of whether Nelson was already smoking pot when he lived in Houston, Butler just giggles.

"Listen, fella, I think Willie was born with one of those things in his hand."
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Houston wasn't all that kind to Willie Nelson. According to Pasadena Police Department records, he was arrested for speeding and driving without a license — going 85 miles an hour in a 40-mph zone at 3:52 a.m. — on Red Bluff Road in July 1960. Bond was set at $80, and his wife at the time, Martha, appears to have co-signed the property receipt for $9 in cash and a set of car keys.

By all accounts, at this time Nelson was accumulating debts much faster than he could pay them, and Patoski notes that when Nelson left town hoping to land a radio job in Mississippi at the same station where Claude Gray was working, he was four payments behind on his "ugly green '46 Buick."

Once again, Nelson had to park his family with Martha's parents in Waco while he went off to chase the next rainbow. That turned out to be Nashville, after six seeks of hanging around Meridian didn't turn up a radio job or anything else that would pay a decent wage.

Nelson certainly left Houston with more songs in his notebook, some decent demo tapes of his songs and considerably improved skills as a guitarist. He got his feet wet in the studio and, although it was shunned and overlooked at the time, he recorded one of the true classics of country music.

He also released two singles on D Records and Betty Records, and had a hit song he'd written that would open some industry doors. He gained even more experience in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonk world, and Houston's joints had a reputation as being some of the toughest in the nation.

He even kept a few copies of his amazing take on "Night Life." Following Daily's rejection, he and Buskirk surreptitiously paid to have the song mastered, pressed and released as "Nite Life" on tiny Rx Records under the moniker "Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson." While it managed to get some airplay by Uncle Hank Craig on across-the-border superstation XEG, other interest in the recording was sparse.

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2 comments
gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

What a great read; best article on music in the HP ever bar none.

 
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