So much has been written about him in the past 75 years (a good chunk of it in Texas Monthly) that we wondered if there was anything left to say. Which is why we called the people who know him best: the friends and admirers and collaborators who’ve been with him through every phase and stage of his life. Taken together, their stories amount to the very best biography of Willie Nelson you could ask for—a loving, funny, insightful portrait of the most important musician ever to come from Texas.
GROWING UP IN ABBOTT
Bobbie Nelson, 77, is Willie’s older sister. She lives in Spicewood. We went to a very small Methodist church. My grandmother was there every time the doors opened. Willie and I were practically born in that church. The first music we learned was from the hymnbooks. Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d play piano, and he would sing. Then he learned to play guitar, and my grandmother taught us to play together, showing Willie the chords on the guitar and me on the piano and telling us when to change chords. That’s the way we learned to play together. “Great Speckled Bird” was the first one she ever taught us. We also played in schools. We were the sole entertainers in our town.
Jack Clements, 75, was a childhood friend of Willie’s. He lives in West. He was just an ordinary kid growing up. He was a good student. Back then, it probably wasn’t more than one hundred students in high school, so all the boys played all the sports: basketball, baseball, football, track. Willie was a good basketball player. He was really kind of quiet, not very talkative. I lived on a farm and had horses, so when we were at my house, we’d ride and talk and play. At night he would make up songs, and he would sing about horses. The only one I really remember is “The Great White Stallion.”
Morris Russell, 77, was a childhood friend of Willie’s. He lives in Abbott. Willie and I would go to town on Saturday and see some of them shoot-’em-ups, you know? Roy Rogers and all of that. He always liked cowboy movies. We used to go to a swimming hole, and we did a lot of hunting and fishing. We did a lot of mischievous things too. We used to play the pocketbook trick. There was an old corn cellar on the main highway, and we used to put a purse out there close to the road. When the cars stopped, we’d pull it back in. And we used to fight bumblebees on Sundays. The farmers would have a bumblebee’s nest they would want out of there, so a bunch of us kids would go and fight the bumblebees. Willie got stung a few times. It was hilarious when about four or five of those bumblebees would get after one person. We’d laugh at him, but when they got after me, I wouldn’t laugh.
Faye Dell Brown Clements, 75, was Willie’s first girlfriend. She is married to Jack Clements. Willie was just a supernice teenage boy. We had a crush on each other, and we dated some. He had a great personality, and he and I sang together when we went out. It was a lot of pop music back then. I really liked him, but my mother didn’t like for me to date him because my daddy was a musician and she knew that if I fell in love with him, I would have a hard life. So about that same time, I started dating Jack. We fell in love and graduated from high school in ’50 and got married in 1951.
HONKY-TONKIN’ IN TEXAS
Bobbie Nelson We played together in Bud Fletcher’s band when he was fourteen and I was sixteen and had just married Bud. Our first job was a club in Waco, and one of our schoolteachers played trombone. We played a lot of the same things that we’re playing right now. “Beer Barrel Polka,” Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell.
Johnny Bush 73, wrote “Whiskey River” and played drums for Willie from 1954 to 1968. He lives in San Antonio. I met Willie in late 1953, when I was working with the Mission City Playboys, in San Antonio. We worked a Sunday matinee, and it was customary to ask musicians who passed through to sit in. We had been looking for a fiddle player, and this fiddle player named Cosett Holland and a little redheaded guitar player sat in one afternoon. The group wanted to hire Cosett, but he and Willie had come down from Waco as a pair. So they hired them both. Willie was married to Martha [Matthews] then, and [their daughter] Lana was about eighteen months old. He and I became fast friends. They lived in a rent house over off Labor Street, with the steel player and the fiddle player. We worked six nights a week and made five or six dollars a night in tips. His singing wasn’t bad, but he hadn’t found it then. We used to sit around and say, “To make it in this business, you have to find your own style—you can’t sound like anybody else.” I happened to make the remark that I liked his guitar playing better than his singing. Well, for some reason, he never forgot that, and he’s never let me live it down.
Paul English, 75, first began playing drums for Willie in 1956. He lives in Fort Worth. The way Willie plays, he was hard to work with. He told me one time, “Don’t worry about the song—don’t count it, just feel it.” That told me a lot