Bringing It All Back Home

Willie Nelson didn’t hit it big until he defied Nashville.
Photography by Melinda Wickman

“This night life ain’t no good life, But it’s my life.” *

Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” more than fifteen years ago—before he’d even moved to Nashville let alone returned—and sold it for $150. Of all the songs he’s written—literally hundreds, including some great ones—it’s probably been recorded by the most performers, more than seventy at last count, ranging from B. B. King to Rusty Draper to Frank Sinatra. A classic barroom lament, the sadly proud confession of a loner’s desperation, it touches everyone who’s ever clung to night in despair of the day.

Aretha Franklin’s version, Willie’s personal favorite, has a desolate uptown sound, bluesy yet brave, an affirmation reeking of pain and expensive gin. You can almost see her, all satin and ice, standing haughtily in the middle of Lenox Avenue and praying to the streetlights. Willie sings it from the roadhouse parking lot, empty gravel by the highway’s edge, wailing back at the neon challenge. He’s more defiant but less confident, his voice raw and a little dangerous, too many straight shots of bad liquor. In their different ways, you can tell, both performers have been there.

Willie, in fact, had been there all his life. Born a mere gospel shout south of Waco in 1933, raised by grandparents and assorted aunts, he played his first dance hall at the age of ten in a band with his sister Bobbie on piano and the local football coach on trumpet. It’s been night life ever since. He peddled Bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, pumped gas, joined the Air Force, scrubbed floors, disc-jockeyed, and dishwashed: the days, then, the days were barren and demeaning, forgettable failures one after another, a life to be denied. It wasn’t till the sun flared out and the neon flickered up, with Bob Wills calling everyone to “ Dance all night, dance a little longer ,” that life truly began.

By the mid-fifties Willie was living in Fort Worth and playing for beer or occasional whiskey in Jacksboro Highway honky-tonks. A regular Sunset Boulevard for rednecks, the Jacksboro strip is a single frenzied, five-mile-long barfight behind a facade of honky-tonks. Located just outside the city limits, far afield of law and property, it was a place where, in the years Willie Nelson was around, the management put chicken-wire fences in front of the stage so performers wouldn’t get hit by flying beer bottles. This was night life with a vengeance.

As the man said, though, it was his life—and he reveled in it. Aside from minimal aerial security he wanted his audiences as raucous and alive as he was, maybe even a shade reckless, as he also was. Willie Nelson was pure, unrefined redneck, and the honky-tonk is the vital focus of redneck culture—what the saloon was to an earlier Texas—the center of energy because of the very tensions it excites. If the honky-tonk world seems darkly colored with loneliness and loss—if it oftentimes ain’t no good life—then it’s only the moonlit image of the larger culture. And if anyone wanted to dance all night, then Willie was ready.

He started to write in the early Sixties, sold his first song, “Family Bible,” for $50, and saw Patsy Cline make it a huge success. He quickly followed with “Night Life,” a hit for Ray Price, then it was off to Nashville in a battered old ‘41 Buick. In the next ten years Willie Nelson wrote some of the finest music in the country repertoire—”Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Yesterday’s Wine”—and commanded yearly royalties in six figures and a niche in the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

His songs for the most part were typical country numbers on typical country themes, plaintive evocations of daily sorrows and sorry days, as simple and disquieting as classical tragedy. But subtleties emerge: there was never any pity in a Willie Nelson song, none of the banal hand-wringing so common to Nashville music; there might be anger, grief, confusion, even defeat, but never the surrender that pity implies. Nor is there any blame, another cheap refuge for small minds and bad art; Willie Nelson was, is, forever will be a rank male chauvinist, yet even his most painful divorce songs refuse to throw stones. He is a songwriter of grace, sensitivity, and compassion, qualities as rare in that profession as in any other.

He is not what you’d call sophisticated, either in his lyrics, his melodies, or his ideas, but sophistication has never been a hallmark of the country tradition—or, for that matter, of American art in general. On the surface Willie’s styling is relentlessly ordinary and everyday like a Japanese haiku, but the real measure of his songs is the truth of perception and the depth of our recognition. Any metaphor, however commonplace, that can vault cultures with a single insight, that can intersect Lenox Avenue with the Jacksboro Highway, is nothing less than powerful art.

It was Willie’s flawless misfortune, though, to arrive in Nashville just when the Snopeses took over and the grits turned to mush. Hankering after the torpid but lucrative pop market, country music abandoned honky-tonks for Harrah’s in Tahoe: it became “easy listening music,” shallow vocals floated in vanilla arrangements, all strings and no sting.

Willie’s songs made the transition of course. They seemed to work everywhere—not even Andy Williams could ruin a song like “Funny How Time Slips Away”—but Willie himself never made it. He was just too rowdy and real to ever make a credible nightclub act. Over a dozen Willie Nelson albums were released during his Nashville years, usually showcases for new songs, and they all disappeared as soon as a few “stars” had covered the tunes. He’d had a modest hit when he first got to town, his own “The Party’s Over,” but that was the only one. And it was a dozen years before he’d have another.

And all the while it was on the road, restlessly migrating to the next inevitable honky-tonk in a long stoned blur of neon

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