The men were drunk Wednesday night at Poodie’s Hilltop Bar and Grill, but the women were drunker. One of the younger ones—an Austin musician in her thirties—bought me a drink as soon as I walked in around 9 p.m. (“What’ll you have, fucker?”), before weaving off. Another, in her mid-fifties, with dark hair and a black shirt and shorts, stumbled through the crowd, stopping every few feet to hug someone and cry. She cried so hard that she moaned. Finally she donned a pair of sunglasses and walked toward the bathrooms. “Get out of my way!” she yelled.
The bar, in Spicewood, about twenty-five miles west of Austin, was packed with some one hundred locals from the area. They had started coming as soon as they heard that Poodie Locke, longtime stage manager for Willie Nelson and, since 1997, the owner of the bar, had dropped dead of a heart attack at about 3 p.m. in his nearby home. Their average age was in the vicinity of Poodie’s, who was sixty years old when he died. They gathered in small groups, bought shots, raised them (“To Poodie!”), and drank. Then they did it again. There were many long handshakes from men with long gray hair and faded tattoos. They told stories of how they met Poodie—and through him, Willie.
Poodie was as integral to Willie’s career over the past thirty-five years as just about anyone else. In Willie’s Family—that huge group of musicians, crew, staff, hangers-on, and actual family members—Poodie was the gatekeeper, the guy who made sure the equipment was set up right and the buses ran on time. He was the man who set up Willie’s amp every night and tried to keep Willie’s best intentions—especially his habit of signing autographs and talking with his fans for hours at a time—from upsetting the schedule. Like all road managers, Poodie was gruff and imposing but he was also sweet, especially to people inside the expansive, ever-shifting landscape of Willie’s world. He was a colorful character in a group of colorful characters, a guy who had relationships with Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker, and Bonnie Raitt; a guy who in a picture taken with John Belushi in the seventies looks like the genuinely crazy one; a