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Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Red Headed Stranger"

The daylight was lasting longer warming up each day as we enter into the spring season. We had been riding horseback outside of Helotes, Texas. The fields of coastal hay there rolled with the wind. Large Oaks provided a wonderful shade along the trails with the harmony of cicadas who sang to us as we rode. Late afternoon we made it back to the barn where Denise Posey, Renee Ramsey and I began brushing down the sweat from the horses after putting away the horse tack. The small barn had a radio where we listen to K B U C Radio while we were cleaning up from the ride when some odd lyrics came through the speaker. The song was with a male vocalist singing. “Biting on a bullet, pulling out all his hair.” The song was one of those tunes that seem to stick in your head long after the song has finished playing. The lyrics continue replaying over and over. I didn’t catch the recording artist name. It didn’t play often on the radio either but when it did, I would think, “There’s that song again.”

Several years later, I would find myself aboard a Naval Ship chipping paint while we were underway in the South Pacific. I had enlisted several months earlier now working as a deck seaman. While chipping paint I started singing this tune when one shipmate said, “What kind of song is that.” I replied, “That’s Shot Gun Willie. You know, Willie Nelson.” The Rhode Island seaman had never heard of him. However, in 1976, most of America didn’t know of Willie as I went back to singing the lyrics “Biting on a bullet, pulling out all his hair.”

The 1933 Abbott, Texas born musician had already been writing songs and singing in Nashville since 1960. He wore the proper crisp fashion to meet the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. He seem to struggle trying to receive a recording contract, although he did land a publishing contract at Pamper Music. After Nelson wrote “Night Life” recorded by Ray Price, Ray got Nelson to join up with his touring band as a bass player. While playing with Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, many of Nelson's songs became hits for some of country and pop music's biggest stars of the time. These songs include "Hello Walls” sung by Faron Young, “Pretty Paper” that Roy Orbison recorded.
It seemed that while Willie had great talent, perhaps he didn’t play too the Nashville Grand Ole Opry politics. His Bourbon drinking gruffness just didn’t fit into the Porter Wagner mold of Country Western Music. Even Patsy Cline first refused to record a song written by Nelson but later did. The song was “Crazy” and that would become one of her all time Best hits that lead the charts to number one spot and today, over forty years remains in Country’s top 100 songs.

Willie had long left Nashville moving to Austin, Texas. He would become a man of rumors, controversy and stories. Often I would hear stories about Willie hocking his guitar at a pawn shop just to pay for a bus ticket to Dallas to play a some gig and then taking his earnings to get his guitar back out of hock. Other stories would include where he live, from Bandera, Dripping Springs, to even a West Lake Hills mansion outside of Austin, Texas. He would play concerts at renowned dancehalls as “John T Floore’s” in Helotes, Texas or Gruene Hall known as the oldest dancehall of the Lone Star State. Others included the famous Armadillo World Headquarters Club which hosted a wave of music productions flared with hippie peace loving college students of UT – Austin along with a change of country rock and folk. Texas music was in reform with huge names growing from the state. Willie played them all with nightly rendezvous in places like the Continental Club on Congress Ave. or the Broken Spoke on Lamar, all in Austin, Texas.

In 1975 Willie had moved to Columbia Records with a contract that gave him complete artistic control. The new freedom allowed him to compose an album of uncommon elegance and power, one built primarily of his own compositions, but including older country songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The resulting album was met with considerable skepticism from Columbia’s executives, but Nelson’s instincts proved prescient and “Red Headed Stranger” resonated with an audience weary of the elaborate production techniques associated with Nashville studios, setting a new course for country and popular music.
Nelson’s best break likely came when he was invited to play at the White House in September 13, 1980 for former President Jimmy Carter. President Carter loved Willie’s music and while many thought of Jimmy as a Peanut Farmer, men in the Navy knew he had been a Captain of Nuclear Engineering.

Nelson’s popularity was growing with earlier strings of top recordings as the 1976 “Wanted! The Outlaws” featuring Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It was country music’s first platinum. He even began entering the movie production business in 1979. Although, regardless of his many appearances on the TV show Austin City Limits, the nation didn’t seem to take notice to Nelson until after that White House visit.
Black T-shirt wearing musicians of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson had impacted an influence that Nashville wasn’t the only place for great western music. Johnny Cash even joined the trio forming the “Highwaymen” with hit recordings “The road goes on forever and the Party never ends”. A new era through the 1990’s found a nation of straight lace white collar professionals now purchasing Harley Davidson motorcycles, tattooing barbed wire bands around their upper arms and wearing dew rag bandanas as the to be more like the bad boy “Outlaws” of country music.

Nelson would also line up a rape sheet of marijuana arrest adding to his controversy along with a $16.7 million IRS back tax debt that he managed to record “The IRS Tapes; Who’ll Buy My Memories?” which paid off all the taxes by 1993. Much of Nelson’s seized assets had been auctioned off, where several friends stepped in giving many of those auction possessions back to Willie. Later, it was disclosed that Price Waterhouse had managed Nelson’s money investing into tax shelters disallowed. Nelson won a law suite against the accounting firm for an undisclosed amount.

The controversy seems to always follow Nelson. I recall waking up reading in the American Statesman Newspaper that Willie was arrested in Hewitt, Texas, after police found him asleep in the back of his Mercedes and discovered a marijuana cigarette in the ashtray of his car. The case would be thrown out of court six months later for illegal search. Nelson had been playing poker all night and the roads dark as fog set in, his decided to take a nap.

He would then become a strong activist for the reform of Marijuana Laws pushing for legalization as the war on drugs is failing wasting US tax dollars. He has also been a strong activist supporting our nations farmers with the many “Farm Aid” concerts along with proceeds from his annual Forth of July Celebrations assisting some non-profit organization. Nelson is an advocate for horses and their treatment. He has been campaigning for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) and on the Board of Directors, Habitat for Horses where he has adopted a large number of horses. 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake; Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia raised an estimated $120,000 for UNICEF and two other organizations. He also started Bio-diesel in 2004 supporting a clean alternative for clean fuels using vegetable oil.

Willie Nelson’s Official Headquarters at has announced that the Red Headed Stranger album (1975) has been added to the United States Library of Congress: Well, his complete story surely will one day be told there too. He never stops amazing me with his rasp Texas twang picking the string of his guitar named “Trigger.” The lists of songs that have reached the top of the charts are novel by many inspired writers. “On the Road Again” or “Whiskey River” Nelson has been able to over come the once snub of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Over the years performing Award winning duets "Good Hearted Woman” (a duet with Jennings), "To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (duet with Julio Iglesias) and recent team up with World Idol contest winner Kurt Nilsen, recorded the duet American classic "Lost Highway". This duet reached the top of the charts in Norway. March 2010 accompanied Reggae artist, Mishka, in the chorus of the song 'Homegrown' on his March release CD "Talk About".

Many of his songs impact perhaps each of us in some way. Be the title “Momma Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” or “My Hero’s have always been Cowboy’s”. I looked back over what once were fields of Coastal Hay that flowed in the wind where today now rest the UTSA campus. Many things certainly have changed as I reflect back to when a former Rhode Island shipmate once said, “Willie Nelson, never heard of him”. The Red headed Stranger, no longer is a stranger among the world.
story by Roger Edison

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