Off the Road Again

Texas’s greatest country singer tells where his last picnic—and his last marriage went wrong.

A jab or pain above my right hipbone meant morning had come for me, no matter that I could see stars in the plum summer sky through the window. I rolled over on my pallet on the floor of the upstairs room, trying to settle into a position for a few more minutes’ sleep. I could hear the electric fan humming on the floor and felt a wash of cool air across my naked body. In hours it would be a typical Texas midsummer afternoon, 1987, my fifteenth Fourth of July Picnic—the sun so hot and the sky so bright that you couldn’t stand to look at them—but for now there was a nice, wet breeze, and I could gaze out the window and bath in starlight, the stuff that makes us all.

The pain hit again. I rolled over onto my knees, straightened up slowly and walked to the window. Abbott, in the middle of Texas, is a smaller town than it was 54 years ago, when I was born a hundred yards from where it was now standing. The sky is still clear in Abbott, the stars look close to the earth, like they did when I was a kid.

I looked at my watch. It was 4 p.m. We had come back from preproduction meetings at the picnic site at Carl’s Corner at about midnight. I must have slept three hours. Not bad. Three of four hours is a good night’s sleep for me. The thought crossed my mind that my wife, Connie, wouldn’t be at the picnic today. In the fifteen years since I had begun these annual concerts, Connie had been at nearly all of them. That first crazy but important picnic in Dripping Springs in 1973, she was eight months pregnant with our youngest daughter, Amy. It made me sad to think of Connie not being around anymore. But we had recently separated again. Apparently, my third marriage was headed toward divorce court, just like my first two.

This time I had stomped out of the house Connie had bought in West Lake Hills on the shore of Lake Austin and said I wasn’t coming back. It was after yet another argument about the same old subjects—I didn’t spend enough time with Connie and our daughter, and I smoked too much weed. For me, the choice came down to staying in the West Lake Hills house with Connie all the time when I came off the road—which meant giving up all my pals who I hung around with on the golf course or in my recording studio—or never going back to the West Lake Hills house again.

Even though I’ve been married for what seems like my whole life—ten years to Martha, ten years to Shirley, and now eighteen to Connie—I ain’t really cut out to be a good husband and a perfect father.

I am as simple as I look, hard as that may be to understand. I am an itinerant singer and guitar picker. I am what they used to call a troubadour. I would love to be married, I love having a home, but my calling is not compatible with staying put. Sorry to say, I felt the time had come when I had to move on down the road again, into the next phase of my life.

Whatever the next stage is, I don’t believe it will include another wife.

Groping in a pile of clothes on the floor, I found a T-shirt and put it on. It read, “When in doubt, knock ‘em out.” I pulled on a pair of shorts that looked like the Lone Star Flag, stuffed my feet into running shoes, and crept down the stairs, trying not to wake my daughter Lana and her four kids, who were sleeping on their pallets in what will be the living room when we finish restoring the house like it was when Dr. Sims owned it. Dr. Sims and his wife lived in this house in 1933, the night the doc was fetched by my cousin Mildred to tromp across the field to the little frame house where my mother, Myrle, was laboring to present the world with a new old soul—me.

I had bought Dr. Sim’s house earlier in the year for $18,000 and started fixing it up to look pretty as if did in 1933. I would have bought the house I was born in, but it had been torn down. Only our old bedroom was saved, and it had been moved to the other side of the highway and added to the house of a black family.

One of the first things I did after buying Dr. Sim’s house was set about removing the big signboard outside of Abbott that says Home of Willie Nelson. Me and the old buddy Zeke Varnon got drunk and tried to burn down the sign with gasoline fire, but five gallons only singed those old creosote posts and blacked my name so it looked even worse. At least I showed I was serious. I’m trying to get them to change the sign to Home of the Abbott Fighting Panthers, my old high school team.

I let the screen door close quietly and slipped into the warm, purple morning and began to run. I set a

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