Larry McMurtry and Willie Nelson in Houston
In his 1968 essay collection In a Narrow Grave, Larry McMurtry wrote that Houston was "a city with great wealth, some beauty, great energy, and all sorts of youthful confidence; but withal, a city that has not as yet had the imagination to match its money."
So too it must have seemed to Willie Nelson, who had ample opportunity to come to a similar conclusion nine years before. As chronicled in Joe Nick Patoski's new biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, 1959 was a disaster in the short-term, albeit a groundbreaking year in the long view.
Nelson spent the year living in a rented house in Pasadena and toiling as a sideman in clubs all over Houston, teaching music, working as a disc jockey and selling the occasional song for a bare fraction of its worth, but never quite making ends meet for his family.
Willie Nelson in Houston
"In Houston, there was that magic combination of misery, poverty and technology that all converged," says Patoski. "It was a terrible time in his life but the richest period in his songwriting."
After all, it was here that Willie first wrote or first performed songs such as "Nite Life," "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "I Gotta Get Drunk," "Family Bible," and "The Party's Over," some of which he tried in desperation to sell for ten bucks apiece. His buddy Larry Butler did Nelson what would eventually prove to be the multimillion dollar favor of lending him $50 instead.
But Houston was more than the city that birthed some of Willie's most enduring classics. Not that he left here a superstar, as it would take some time for the world to catch up, but this was the city where a talented but still run-of-the-mill north Texas country singer very much in the thrall of Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman transformed himself into Willie!, world icon and Texas's cultural ambassador to the world.
While his musical education began in earnest in Fort Worth, he got master's degrees in both music and misery here. Here, Willie went from hillbilly singer to cosmic Texas jazzman. The city of Houston was the milieu where his ideas about music would crystallize and he could find the people who would help him find his own voice.
"My old theory was always that in the late '50s and early '60s, Houston was Nashville and Memphis combined," says Patoski. "It could have been Detroit — a center of R&B and country. If not for oil, maybe those things could have been developed, but the problem was oil was too easy a way to make quick money to gamble. Why gamble on music?"
That calculation had not quite sunk in by 1959, as Nelson was able to meet other musicians here who spoke his language — people like Butler, Paul Buskirk, Freddy Powers and Oliver English. And better yet, those people could help him hone his own. These were the people who immersed Willie in the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt that would prove such a key element of his sound from then on.
Houston, more specifically Gold Star Studio, was also the first real recording scene Nelson had been around, Patoski stresses, one far more advanced than the "rinky-dink" one in Fort Worth. Patoski says that "Nite Life" was a "fucking sea change," one of the ten pivotal recordings in Nelson's career, and he believes it simply could not have been made (or possibly even written) in Fort Worth.
As Patoski puts it in his book: "'Nite Life' was from another realm. Mature, deep, and thoughtful, the slow, yearning blues had been put together in his head during long drives across Houston. At Gold Star, he was surrounded by musicians who could articulate his musical thoughts. He sang the words with confident phrasing that had never been heard on any previous recording he'd done. Buskirk's and Willie's guitar leads were straight out of the T-Bone Walker playbook, while Dick Shannon's bluesy saxophone was pure Texas tenor, with his vibe work adding subtle jazz atmospherics. If not for Herb Remington's low-note hokum on his steel guitar and his Hawaiian flourishes, the song could have passed for race music."
And the lyrics, which would eventually prove so resonant with the hundreds of thousands of rural Texans, both black and white, then weighing urban life in the balance and often as not finding it wanting: "Life is just another scene, in this old world of broken dreams. Oh, the night life, it ain't no good life, but it's my life."
"All that shit about Willie being out of the box and unconventional, a jazz cat, a Sinatra, all that first became evident on the first recording of 'Nite Life,'" says Patoski. "It was not there on any other recording he had done before.
"For as much as people say he was unusual in the '70s, they forget he was unusual and offbeat in the '60s, and even in the '50s," says Patoski. "People told me 'Oh yeah, we used to laugh at him. That guy couldn't stay on the beat.' But they were so dumb-ass they didn't realize that it was one thing to stay on the beat and it was another to stay on the beat and improvise. And they just couldn't get it."
Another who didn't get it was Pappy Daily, the boss at Willie's label D Records. When Nelson brought him "Nite Life," which would one day become arguably the most-covered song in country music history, Daily not only passed on it, but downright hated it.
In Patoski's words, he told Nelson that "Nite Life" was "neither country nor commercial," and "if Willie wanted to write blues, he should be doing it for Don Robey over at Duke-Peacock Records, the n*gger music company down on Erastus Street in the bloody Fifth Ward."
For a man like Daily, who was born in Yoakum in 1904, "Nite Life" took too many chances. It wasn't safely white nor was it respectably mediocre, and in those days in low art no less than high, insecure boomtowns like Houston yearned above all else for gentility. The result of that exception to McMurtry's "youthful confidence" is usually mere competence.
Daily's error was a symptom of Houston's then-stunted imagination. To his way of thinking, a transcendent bluesy country tune like "Nite Life" was just plain tacky. "The fact that it was rejected because it was too bluesy, to me that's Houston in a nutshell," says Patoski.
All too often, we hate what we are. The only worthy culture is that which we import from classier locales from either afar or from arts that are viewed as "higher." (In 1959, the Nashville country music world, as much then in the throes of self-hate as ever, was on the verge of gilding every song with "classy," vaguely classical strings.)
Here's McMurtry's In a Narrow Grave again: "The arts are stolidly but dutifully supported, and there is the usual self-congratulatory talk about what a cultural center we have raised on the once-barren plain."
McMurtry, Willie Nelson's closest literary counterpart, knew whereof he wrote. He was born three years after Nelson, and only a couple of counties to the northwest. When he got to Rice as an undergrad in 1954, he was just as energetic and almost as crushingly ignorant as the rest of the thousands of newly urbanized Texans in the target audience for "Nite Life."
And yet six years later, at the same time Nelson was scuffling along in Pasadena, McMurtry was working on his master's degree at Rice and on the cusp of publishing both Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne. As with Nelson, it wouldn't be apparent until a few years after he left, but Houston had worked its magic on McMurtry, too. He came here a rustic clod and left just before he became the first widely respected Texas novelist.
In his 1999 essay collection Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry described the process like this: "Houston was my first city, my Alexandria, my Paris, my Oxford. It was the place where I could begin to read, and I did, in Rice's open-stack library. I didn't know I was going to be a writer, nor did I suspect that the contrast between old and new, province and capital, wild and settled would occupy me for most of a writing life that has now passed the forty-year mark...(E)very time I stepped into the Rice library I felt a mingled sense of security and stimulation — a rightness of some sort. I felt that I had found my intellectual home and began to relax in ways that had not been possible on the ranch..."
Houston had set McMurtry free of his upbringing. In a way, Rice had transformed him into a verbal jazzman, just as the beer joints and people like Buskirk and English had enabled Willie to relax in ways he could not in Fort Worth.
After their rejection from Daily, Nelson and friend/mentor Buskirk would smuggle "Nite Life" out on their own as Paul Buskirk and his Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson, but without Daily's clout, "Nite Life" seemed as bound for obscurity as its forlorn, doomed subjects. (Ray Price hauled the song out of the land of broken dreams in 1963.)
With the apparent failure of "Nite Life," Houston had officially rode Willie Nelson hard and put him away wet. But he was due one final humiliation. He'd already been told he couldn't sing, that his best song was crap and that he couldn't keep time. But after he was reduced to begging for a job as a sideman in a rough Canal Street dive, he was fired after the club owner told the bandleader that Willie and his eccentric sense of rhythm had no place on his stage.
And with that final kick in the ass, Houston launched Willie Nelson on to Nashville, and then Austin, and then the world. "If he had stayed in Houston we probably wouldn't be talking about him now," says Patoski. "The fact is he had to go to Nashville so he could come back [to Texas]."
With all that has changed since that time, that's no longer the case. We could keep our Willie Nelsons here so long as our imagination starts to match our money.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.