My Willie

Willie Nelson and I have been frequently, secretly fond of each other for years, but I’ve never written about him—until now.
My Willie
The highwaymen: The author (left) traveled on Willie’s bus.
Photograph by Jody Rhoden

I met Willie Nelson on the gangplank of Noah’s ark. Like most country music friendships, ours has managed to remain close because we’ve stayed the hell away from each other. I’ve played a few of Willie’s picnics and we’ve attended the same Tupperware parties now and then, but ironically, I didn’t really start feeling spiritually akin to him until I’d phased out of country music almost entirely and become a pointy-headed intellectual mystery writer. Now that my new novel, Roadkill, features Willie as a main character, our karma is suddenly linked—whether we like it or not.

Even when Willie produced a record of mine in Nashville in 1974 (and sang backup with Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser on “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”), he and I were still only close enough for country dancin’. Of course, we’d come from different backgrounds. Willie had picked cotton in the fields as a kid in Abbott. For entertainment he’d go out with a little homemade paddle and kill bumblebees; he would come home looking like he’d just fought fifteen rounds with God. Willie grew up never having much money or much schooling and got married and divorced about 97 times. All he ever wanted to do was write songs and sing them for people and maybe get one of those cars that roared down the highway with the windows rolled up in the middle of summer, indicating that the driver could afford that ultimate symbol of success: air conditioning.

By the time Willie finally got that car, it was about ten minutes too late to make any difference, but he did get something else far more important: He got a bus. In fact, he got three buses. The one he lives in and calls home is known as the Honeysuckle Rose. The way I first really got to know Willie was by travel-ing with him aboard the Honeysuckle Rose. It’s a floating city unto itself, with “floating” the operative word. Even the secondhand smoke has been known to make casual visitors mildly amphibious. (There is no truth, incidentally, to the widely held belief that Willie needs the other two buses to carry all the weed he smokes on the first bus.) By contrast, my own country music career never quite reached the tour-bus level. The closest I came was a blue Beauville van, out of which the Texas Jewboys poured like a thousand clowns at every honky-tonk, minstrel show, whorehouse, bar, and bar mitzvah throughout the South, to paraphrase Jerry Jeff Walker. The Beauville, like my career, was not a vehicle destined for vastly commercial country music stardom, though it did have at least one good quality: It broke down in all the right places.

Also unlike Willie, I came from an upper-middle-class home, which is always a hard cross for a country singer to bear. I got a guitar as a young teenager in Houston, and like Townes Van Zandt, the first song I learned was “Fraulein.” By then Willie and his sister, Bobbie, were already playing in beer halls on Saturday nights and in church the next morning. By the time I had my bar mitzvah, Willie had sold Bibles and written “Family Bible,” which he also sold, reportedly for $50.

Willie never went to college, but I graduated from the University of Texas’ highly advanced Plan II liberal arts program, which was mainly distinguished by the fact that every student had some form of facial tic. Then I joined the Peace Corps and worked in the jungles of Borneo, teaching new methods of agriculture to people who’d been successfully farming for more than two thousand years, while Willie continued writing, singing, marrying, divorcing, struggling, and smoking. Like I said, I don’t really know what Willie and I have in common—other than the fact that we’re both pretty fair bumblebee fighters. Probably it has to do with what Johnny Gimble, the great country fiddle player, told me once aboard the Honeysuckle Rose. He said that when he was a kid he’d told his mother, “Mama, when I grow up, I’m gonna be a musician.” His mother had answered, “Make up your mind, son, because you can’t do both.”

If Willie had been Rosa Parks, there never would have been a civil rights movement in this country because he refuses to leave his soulful locus at the back of the bus unless it’s to go onstage or onto a golf course. Golf is a passion with Willie, and it’s the one aspect of his life I find stultifyingly dull. As I once told Willie, “The only two good balls I ever hit was when I stepped on the garden rake.” Willie, of course, responded to this news with a golf anecdote. He told me about a woman who’d recently come off his golf course at Briarcliff, went into the pro shop, and complained to the golf pro that she’d been stung by a bee. “Where’d it sting you?” asked the pro. There’s an enormously humorous punch line here, but this professes to be a family magazine, so I’m afraid you’ll have to read Roadkill.

After writing nine mystery novels and traveling extensively with Willie, the idea crossed my dusty desk to write a book with him as a central character, set the scene aboard the Honeysuckle Rose, and let the bus take the story wherever the hell it went. This meant I would be exchanging my New York loft with the cat and the lesbian dance class above for Willie and his crew, who more than anything resemble a band of Gypsies who’ve broken into a Rolex factory. Willie had never been a character in a murder mystery, but he thought it might be worth a shot, so to speak.

We crisscrossed the country two years ago.Willie sang, played chess, and smoked enough dope to make him so high that he had to call NASA

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