Willie Nelson, My Life by Willie Nelson (2015)
Willie Nelson was born on 29th April, 1933, and grew up just outside the small village of Abbott, in Hill County, Texas. His ancestral lineage has First Nations blood mixed with white settler form the Ozarks mountain range. Both his father, Ira, and his mother, Myrle, had melody in their veins, with Wille’s father being an accomplished fiddler. It was a love of music that was to define young Willie’s life and it forms the backbone of this fine autobiography.
The Great Depression was raging cross the US during Willie Nelson’s childhood. Economic pressures as well as an innate desire to wander meant that Willie’s parents effectively abandoned their two children, sister Bobbie being two years older than her brother. Although throughout this book Willie Nelson refuses to condemn his parents for their decision, it is a selfish constant which sets the scene for his life.
Willie’s paternal grandparents, whom he called Mama and Daddy Nelson, took on the responsibility for raising two small children during the toughest economic depression in the history of the USA. It was a role they carried out with great success and Mama Nelson is credited with instilling in Willie a love of music and a respect for religion. She also showed great pride in the successes of her young grandson, even when whilst still a child, he was cycling to duke joints and bars to play dance music which his grandmother didn’t approve of. The small family needed the money, however.
Willie Nelson proved to be something of a song-writing prodigy, even from a young age when he was penning lyrics and poems which were to be included in his later hits. He enlisted in the military in 1951, as the Korean War was taking place, but got his medical discharge soon after and felt no regret, throwing himself into his music to fight the battles that all aspiring musician must endure. In Willie’s case, he was obviously successful, but his journey was not without its ups and downs.
Nashville is a monster. It chews singers up and spits them out. Willie Nelson was no different, at least at the beginning. But before he entered the fray of that monstrous music machine, he got his first lucky break by working at a radio station in Oregon as a DJ, and had the good fortune to meet a guardian angel who encouraged and facilitated his first real foray into publishing one of his songs. But in an example of how fickle the music industry can be, Willie found himself again forced to undertake manual work just to pay the bills. It’s also a good example of how humble and hard-working Nelson was, and is.
When Willie Nelson was still a relatively young man, he got married and began a family. With three young daughters to raise, the twenty-something singer was desperate to provide for his children and make it to the big time. He moved from place to place and back again trying to get the break that would set him free from financial hardship. But he was a typical man of that time and strayed from his wife repeatedly. It must be said that his wife also seems to have enjoyed the company of other men. God knows what the children made of it all. Eventually the parents split.
One of the recurring themes of Willie Nelson’s early years is his penchant for affairs, regardless of whether or not the women were married, as he was. He left his wife for a married woman, wife of his friend. They stayed together when Willie eventually made his way to, and in, Nashville, setting up home just outside the city. Their families and friends followed them, including Willie’s ex-wife. It must have been a crazy scene. He left his new wife for another performer with whom he has yet more children. His family was growing but by that time Willie had made it in terms of financial success, mostly as a song-writer. In 1961, his first royalty cheque was for $3000, one hell of a lot of money at that time. Willie’s star was in the ascendancy.
Weed. Marijuana. Waccy baccy. Call it what you will, it formed a constant in the life of Willie Nelson. He became a firm advocate of the drug and is still such to this day, campaigning for its legalisation. He claimed that it mellowed him out, cleared his thinking and relaxed him. No doubt it did do all of that and more. It also got him into a bit of bother now and then. But Willie didn’t care. That’s the kind of guy he seems to be. He’s a slacker that never slacks. His work ethic appears to have always been strong and it was perhaps this, and his eternal optimism, that saw him through to become one of the most famous musicians on the planet. Of course his hits records also helped.
Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. Crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. This song, penned by Willie Nelson became one of the best selling country songs of all time. Originally released by Willie, it was Patsy Cline’s version in 1961 that was to take it into the stratosphere. Willie wasn’t complaining. Willie was counting money and smoking weed. Hit song after hit song followed. Pretty Paper, On The Road Again, Night Life, I Never Cared For You, Denver, Goin’ Home and The Party’s Over, all successful as Nelson didn’t just hit the big time, he became the big time.
Throughout his life, and this book, we hear about Willie’s friends going back over the years. With the exception of the man whose wife he stole, Nelson seems to be someone who values family and friends a lot. Musicians he met during his rise to the top appear frequently later in his life. He brings his beloved sister into his band, stating that Bobbie is the real musician in the family. He takes his ever-extending family wherever he goes. It’s as if Willie Nelson created his own clan and was happy to allow them all to share in his good fortune. It’s a decent approach to life and not one everyone would be capable of handling. Maybe the weed helped.
In this autobiography, we get to meet Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and Meryl Haggard to name but a few of Willie’s friends and associates over the years. Their lives weave in an out of one another’s, giving the reader an unique insight into what it was like to be a part of the country music scene at that time. Drunken brawls. Arrests. Being banned from a country. Rivalries. Success and failure. It’s all in this book. Special focus is paid to Willie Nelson’s tax problems when he was effectively looking at ruination because of unpaid taxes due to an incompetent and/or corrupt manager. But when many would freak and fall, Willie just kicked back, smoked a joint and became philosophical about life. He turned to his deep-seated faith, a personal blend of Christianity and Far-eastern schools of thought, to see him through. It worked. Willie’s trouble eventually went up in marijuana smoke.
This book is a very good read. It doesn’t hold back, even when making Nelson appear less than honourable. It strikes hard at elements within the music industry, especially Nashville and its corporate approach to music. Nelson is shown warts and all but, ultimately, he comes cross as a reasonably likeable person, who did right by just about everyone. Today, Willie Nelson is a left-wing (if such a term can be used for a US patriot) activist on a number of issues, including highlighting the plight of small farmers. He’s a child of the Depression who never forgot his roots,even buying home in Abbott again. It’s refreshing to read about a working class boy who made his fortune but yet appears not to have allowed it to change him. Willie Nelson has always just been Willie Nelson, and the world is a better place because of that.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Great story very well told. Some autobiographies are superficial and contrived. This one isn’t. It’s about as real as you can get. It’s a real and glorious rags to riches tale from the American heartland that might just warm your soul. It has ordinary people, stars, and stories of stars that make them look like ordinary people which, of course, they all are as the soil falls upon them. Willie Nelson is a man the reader will get to know, intimately, through reading this and, as he’s a very influential person, Rebel Voice highly recommends this book.
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