Willie Nelson's Life Story Makes a Fascinating (If Familiar) Read

Live in the '70s with some of his "Family" band mainstays: Paul English (drums), Bee Spears (bass), and Mickey Raphael (harmonica). Out of the picture is longtime guitarist Jody Payne.EXPAND
Live in the '70s with some of his "Family" band mainstays: Paul English (drums), Bee Spears (bass), and Mickey Raphael (harmonica). Out of the picture is longtime guitarist Jody Payne.
Courtesy of the Willie Nelson Collection

It’s a Long Story: My Life
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
Little, Brown and Co., 464 pp., $30

At the age of 82, the seemingly indestructible musical force that is Willie Nelson shows no signs of slowing down. In just the past couple of years — as he says in this new autobiography — he has penned a couple dozen new songs, put out five albums, pursued his pet social/political issues, and still does about 125 shows a year while splitting time between his two homes: one in Hawaii and one on four wheels. In this, the “story of a picker from Hill County, Texas who got more good breaks than bad and managed to keep from going crazy by staying close to the music of his heart,” Nelson recounts a colorful life story in and out of music. And what a life it has been.

While Ritz — a skilled writer who has also penned books with or on Buddy Guy, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and others — definitely captures Willie’s voice, there are two issues that give pause. One is the use of remembered or reconstructed dialogue that reads more as exposition than conversation (especially in the case of Waylon Jennings).

And the other is that, between Nelson’s previous 1988 autobiography written with Bud Shrake, several slimmer memoirs, and Joe Nick Patoski’s masterful Willie: An Epic Life, most of the stories in It’s a Long Story are as well-traveled as one of his Honeysuckle Road buses.  Getting tied to the bed and beaten with a broom by his first wife. Waiting in a car outside Patsy Cline’s house while she hears a demo for “Crazy.” Uniting the hippies and the rednecks at his concerts in Austin and Fourth of July picnics. Smoking pot on the roof the White House. Writing “On the Road Again” on an airplane napkin as a dare from director Sydney Pollack. And his well-publicized tax issues. All are tales retold here, with little new revelations.

That said, a good chunk of potential readers for this book are not as likely to be as familiar with these tales as say, oh, a Texas-based music-book reviewer. It’s when Willie discusses his personal relationships — often with fellow musicians like Ray Price, Johnny Bush, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard — that some life gets pumped into the story. He also has fond words and kind remembrances for Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler and the latter’s firm desire to let Willie just be Willie on record, resulting in the landmark records Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages.

As Nelson lived in Houston for several years at the end of the 1950s, the city makes frequent appearances in his recollections. From his recordings for Pappy Daily at Starday Records to a DJ gig to playing the Esquire Ballroom for manager Larry Butler (who, Nelson recalls, chose not to take advantage of the struggling songwriter), to driving “endless loops” around the city looking for work. However, these car journeys provided a lot of inspiration, as he wrote plenty of songs which would become standards like “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “The Party’s Over.”

What’s interesting about Nelson’s career overview is just how many times he was counted down and out – or told he was crazy – and managed to confound managers and record company executives (and sometimes, his fans) by doing whatever the hell he wanted to…and succeeding. Putting out one album that sounded like a spare demo and another that covered pop songs from the 1930s and ‘40s were head-scratching career moves at the time that surely gave Columbia Records execs agita. Yet Red Headed Stranger and Stardust became two of Nelson’s most successful records and helped pave the way to massive crossover success.

Some of the freshest material comes toward the end, where Willie – perhaps America’s foremost stoner – discusses his enjoyment of and love for marijuana, and is emboldened by its current level of acceptance and chances for national legalization.

“My love affair with pot became a long term marriage,” he writes. “It was, by far, the smoothest of all my marriages.”

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And indeed, when Willie’s Nashville hilltop home caught fire in 1970, he rushed into the flames to save the following: two pounds of pot and two guitars, including the legendary Trigger. The latter is a beaten-up, storied, and well-travelled Martin N-20 nylon-string classical guitar that has its own Wikipedia entry and has been the subject of an actual documentary. It’s as familiar to Willie and his fans as his braids and bandanas; constant companion onstage and in-studio for more than 45 years, Trigger is the only part of Willie that is perhaps more weathered than his face.

Contrary to its title, It’s a Long Story is actually a fairly compact, breezy read; I nearly completed it during a flight from Houston to Minneapolis on a non-Bloody Mary morning. And while it traverses a road well-traveled in terms of narrative, it’s a leisurely trip worth taking again.


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