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 guy who wore a wig and cuddled up to Owen Wilson in a video for Willie’s song, “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore.”
I interviewed Poodie last year about his life with Willie for an oral history we published in May (“Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!”). He had been born Randall Locke in Waco in October 1952; his mother claimed that he was voted the Most Beautiful Baby in Waco and that he got his nickname because of the way one of his sisters, describing him, said the word “pretty.” Poodie told me how he first met Willie when he was twelve years old: “He played in Ray Price’s band. I was born and raised up in Waco, about seventeen miles south of Abbott, and Ray Price played in a place called Geneva Hall with Willie playing bass. Ray Price was a big Nashville star and Willie was kind of a big deal because he was established—and he was from Abbott. I shook his hand, I was a twelve-year-old kid, you know.
“Then I met him again in 1975 when I was a roadie with B.W. Stevenson, who wrote ‘My Maria.’ Willie hired me. I was driving an old green Blazer and carrying all the gear. We had two drummers at that time, I carried all the gear, about twenty cases of Lone Star beer. Me, Paul English’s son, Willie’s son, and Connie’s little brother. When I started, I was the only guy that did it, and there was no one here to teach me what to do. They didn’t have road people that much, you know, most bands just carried their own stuff and set it up, country music wasn’t huge, wasn’t as big as it is now, just playing in bars and honkytonks, not many concert arenas. But after ‘Blue Eyes,’ was released and went to number one, everything changed. We went out for eight days and came back nine months later.”
Poodie was present for most of the big events in Willie’s modern life, such as the IRS bust (at the time, Poodie lived on Willie’s ranch), but he told me that one of the biggest challenges was the day to day “managing” of the freest of spirits. “Willie doesn’t like people that tell him what to do. You know, that kind of irritates him. If it’s something we would like Willie do that’s a good idea, instead of giving it to him as something you’d like him to do, you try to put a scenario in where he thinks his idea. He is an Indian. Don’t say, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘They said you couldn’t do this.’ I would never tell that to him. He gets pissed. He raises his head and says, ‘What do you mean they said I couldn’t do that? Who’s they?’”
Poodie told how golf had saved his life—as well as the lives of everyone else in the Family. “If all you did for a long time was chase women, snort cocaine, drink all day long, and stay up all night, and sleep seven days at a time—and we were pretty durable guys. Golf got us out of the bag, out of the hotel, got us into the sunshine. Now almost everybody plays golf. We still drink but we don’t drink and do hard drugs. I mean, people back then were giving us blow and we didn’t even know who they were. We were young and it was the ‘70s. Now we are old and it’s the 2000s. Our golf game still sucks, but we still play golf every chance we get. That’s the only way we can get away by ourselves. Golf is our life. Music supports our habit.”
And he talked about Poodie’s Hilltop, where Willie would sometimes drop in from his ranch just down the road—and where he played the night longtime friend Billy Joe Shaver’s son Eddy died of a heroin overdose on December 31, 2000. “Willie has played my club about eleven or twelve times. The night Eddy died was pretty heavy. Willie came in and played guitar for him. It was pretty amazing because Willie lost his son on Christmas. Then Eddy died on New Years Eve, two fathers who lost their sons. So when Willie started the show, we were in the office smoking a joint. Willie said to Billy Joe, ‘Okay I’m going to go start the show, you come out there when you want to.’ People in the audience didn’t know Willie was there. Willie walks out there and starts playing. I grew up with Billy Joe Shaver, I’d known Eddy since he was eight years old.”
Poodie had bought the Hilltop in 1997 so he and his buddies would have a place to hang out and drink when they were off the road. They did, and Willie’s crew and family would sit around and drink and play pool. Poodie got to know the locals, too, and many of them got up last night and spoke about him with great love—though they had to struggle to rise above the din of reminscences going on elsewhere. “Shut up!” one of the drunk women shouted in a low voice made hoarse by alcohol. “Shut the fuck up!” Some of the stories involved weed, some involved Willie. One man told a tale that involved Poodie, the San Angelo police, two young women, and a seven-and-a-half inch “doobie.” The woman who had been wearing sunglasses walked onstage without them; her eyes were puffy from crying. “My brother was going to seminiary school,” she began unsteadily, “and he got drafted into the war. My brother got his ass blown off in the war. And thank god we got him back. He came home in a box. He looked like shit but he came home in a box. And I used to cry about it a lot. Finally Poodie told me one day, just me and Poodie, he said, ‘Debbie, quit crying. I’ll be your brother and I’ll always be there for you.’” Poodie’s had all of a sudden gotten quieter. “Yeah!” one of the women in the crowd cried out. “Yeah!” Debbie finished up: “Poodie Locke adopted me as his brother and so today I buried another. And I love Poodie Locke.” Her friends stood and raised their glasses. “Yeah!” they yelled.
After another ten stories, plus a harmonica solo and a spirited version of “Amazing Grace,” the jukebox was turned back on and people continued to drink. Standing at the bar, former pro baseball player Kelly Gruber pointed at a barstool and told how Poodie had sat there the night before and pulled down a framed photo that showed him and some other old-timers, including one of tonight’s reveling women. The two had gazed at the photo and talked about the old days. “That was twenty four hours ago,” Gruber said, “right there!”
On the wall by the front door of Poodie’s are t-shirts for sale. On one side they read, “I Know Poodie Too!” and on the other, “I’ll Quit When Willie Quits.” Of course, Willie won’t be quitting any time soon—as important as Poodie was, nothing can stop Willie from going on the road. His next show is May 15 in Youngstown, Ohio, and he is set to tour deep into the summer. Poodie was there at the beginning, though, and in some weird Willie way, he’ll be there in Youngstown too, as well as every other city the Family plays.