Fresh off Sunday’s CBS prime-time telecast of Willie Nelson’s ninetieth birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this year, the four-part documentary series Willie Nelson & Family premieres Thursday on Paramount Plus. Featuring dozens of interviews with musicians, family members, bandmates, and Nelson experts (a disclaimer: Texas Monthly senior editor John Spong is among them), the series condenses nine decades of biography into two hundred fast-moving minutes.
Those of us who have been writing about Willie Nelson and his music for decades—or, for that matter, lifelong fans who have read his autobiography and other books—may already be familiar with most of the career highlights and colorful stories documented in the four-part series. But even Willie-ologists may come across nuggets we’d missed or never heard before. Here’s a handful of details we noted while watching.
1. “This is your ol’ cotton-pickin’, snuff-dippin’, tobacco-chewin’, stump-jumpin’, gravy-soppin’, coffee-pot-dodgin’, dumplin’-eatin’ hillbilly from Hill County.”
Willie Nelson’s first childhood nickname may have been Booger Red, but by the time he began working as a teenage DJ at KHBR in Hillsboro, his way with words had become much more sophisticated. “That’s the way I started my show,” he explains in episode one of the series.
The long-winded phrase apparently became ingrained in his memory: On camera seventy-odd years later, he reels off the whole thing rapid-fire without missing a beat. These days, he’s more likely to be called Shotgun Willie or the Red Headed Stranger, a nod to two of his landmark 1970s albums. So perhaps he’s now the Artist Formerly Known As Your Ol’ Cotton-Pickin’, Snuff-Dippin’, Tobacco-Chewin’, Stump-Jumpin’, Gravy-Soppin’, Coffee-Pot-Dodgin’, Dumplin’-Eatin’ Hillbilly From Hill County.
2. How Willie’s third wife met his first wife.
The story of how Connie Koepke became Willie’s third wife is one of the more salacious details in It’s A Long Story: My Life, Nelson’s 2015 autobiography written with David Ritz (who’s one of the most insightful on-camera commentators throughout the Paramount Plus series). Willie was still married to second-wife Shirley Collie when a hospital bill arrived at their Tennessee home regarding the birth of Paula Nelson in October 1969. Connie, whom Willie had met in Houston while on tour, was the mother.
But how did Connie meet Martha Matthews, who was married to Willie from 1952 to 1962 and was the mother of his first three children? Turns out it was during a literal shootout. Martha was visiting Willie in Tennessee when an incident involving their daughter Lana and her abusive husband escalated to the point that the husband started shooting at the house. In the series’ second episode, Connie recalls encountering Martha in the midst of the melee: “I just grabbed her by the skirt and dragged her down and said, ‘Get down, you’re gonna get killed!’ That’s how I met Martha.”
3. How to become Willie’s manager? Go directly to jail.
I’d heard that Mark Rothbaum’s criminal record was among the experiences that Willie considered a plus when hiring him decades ago, but I didn’t know the full story until Rothbaum laid it out at the end of episode two. In the mid-1970s, Rothbaum worked for Neil Reshen, who managed both Willie and Waylon Jennings at the time. Rothbaum had the misfortune of being the courier for an envelope of cocaine Reshen was sending to Jennings; he got caught and went to prison.
“I truly loved Neil and Waylon, and could not conceive of cooperating with the government to put them in jail,” Rothbaum explains. “It didn’t go well for me. I was given a year sentence. Once I pled guilty, Neil fired me; I was no longer of use to him. And now I was really alone—except for Willie.” Nelson’s take on what happened: “I thought that was a pretty strong thing for him to do, so I immediately liked the guy.” When the prison time was done, Willie fired Reshen and hired Rothbaum.
4. Shirtless Willie, meet dapper Julio.
We all found “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” Willie’s unlikely duet with Spanish pop singer Julio Iglesias, a bit cheeky when it topped the country charts in 1984. But leave it to legendary Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal to flesh out the details in episode three. Freddy Fletcher, Willie’s nephew, was remembering how Iglesias showed up at Willie’s studio in exquisite attire, only to be greeted by a bare-chested Nelson fresh off the adjacent golf course. Royal picks up the story from there.
“Willie greeted him, and I could see the shocked look on Iglesias’s face: ‘What in the hell have I got myself into?’ ” Royal says. “But on the third cut of the song, they nailed it. And Julio—with those white socks, white shoes, white shirt, white slacks—dropped on the floor and gave Willie a big bow. He damn sure did.”
5. What a merchandising opportunity!
Willie’s fondness for poker is legendary; many artists have told stories about visiting Willie at his ranch outside Austin or his home in Maui and losing mountains of cash at the poker table after Nelson got them good and stoned. (Jack Johnson even wrote a song about it.) Midway through the series’ second episode, Willie’s son Micah starts plucking cards from a custom-made deck that features artist renditions of Willie’s band members and others close to him.
First we see his sister Bobbie, who’s rendered as the queen of clubs; then his longtime guitarist Jody Payne as the king of diamonds. Micah keeps turning over more cards as the scene continues: Family band bassist Bee Spears appears as the joker, drummer Paul English is the ace of clubs, and harmonica player Mickey Raphael is the ten of spades. And then there’s Willie—the ace of hearts. “Keep your distance from that sumbitch,” Willie cracks when his card is shown. What we want to know is: Can we order this deck on Willie’s website? Perhaps it could be a bonus with purchases of Willie’s Reserve.
We found no major revelations in the series’ fourth and final episode—but it does include perhaps the best soundbite of all, courtesy of Willie’s son Lukas Nelson. It’s not the highest highs that have impressed Lukas most about his father’s life, but rather how Willie has dealt with the lowest lows. “Dad has been homeless, he’s had his house burnt down, he’s been through four marriages, he’s been up and down, he’s been broke, he’s fought the IRS, he’s lost a child,” Lukas says. “That’s what makes him inspiring to me: His resilience in the face of adversity.”