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.

"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."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax