This week, with Willie’s eighty-ninth birthday just a couple days away, we visit with his daughter, Paula Nelson. She’s a singer-songwriter in her own right, as well as a DJ spinning solid-gold country classics for SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel and Willie’s Roadhouse, and she’ll discuss “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag.”
(Read a transcript of this episode below.)
It’s an album cut off her dad’s 1973 album Shotgun Willie, a song he wrote about his longtime drummer and best friend, Paul English, and it prompts Paula to explain how she got Paul’s name, how Paul got his nickname—”the Devil”—and how an early-seventies gunfight earned her dad his nickname, “Shotgun Willie.” She’ll also talk about what it was like to be a ninth-grade girl hanging in the studio with big stars like Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper when her dad took part in 1985’s famous “We Are the World” recording session.
But then, because the conversation was taped last fall, before Willie’s sister Bobbie Nelson died, Paula will talk about how close her Aunt Bobbie was to her dad—with a great deal more composure than either of us would be able to muster if we were talking about it now. It’s an incredibly sweet tribute to her dad’s lifelong musical soulmate.
We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with production by Patrick Michels. The show is produced by Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.
John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. This show is brought to you by White Claw Hard Seltzer.
John Spong (voice-over): This week, with Willie’s eighty-ninth birthday just a couple days away—happy birthday, Willie—we’ve got his daughter, singer-songwriter and SiriusXM DJ Paula Nelson, on to talk about “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag.” It’s an album cut off 1973’s Shotgun Willie, and it just so happens to be about the man Paula is named after—Willie’s longtime drummer and best friend, Paul English. Paula will explain how she got her name, how Paul got his nickname—the Devil—and then she’ll describe the very real gunfight that earned her dad his nickname, Shotgun Willie. She’s also going to describe what it was like to be a ninth-grade girl hanging with Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper at the “We Are the World” recording sessions.
John Spong (voice-over): But then, because this was taped last fall, before Willie’s sister, Bobbie, passed on, she’ll talk about just how close her Aunt Bobbie was to her dad, with a whole lot more composure than any of us would be able to muster if we were to try and do so now. It’s pretty powerful. Let’s do it.
John Spong: Well then, where we always start is with a ridiculous question. What’s so cool about “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag?”
Paula Nelson: Oh really, so many things. Of course, being that it’s written about Paul English, whom I was named after. And he and his first wife, Carlene, is where I got the name, Paula Carlene. I mean, the title, “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag,” because I know you’ve seen photos of him, but he would wear the big cape, and he had the long sideburns and a red cape. He always was dressed to the nines, but he looked a little bit like the devil. I think that was his plan.
John Spong: I can’t imagine anybody that would listen to this would not already know who Paul English is, was, of course, the drummer and best friend and the subject of “Me and Paul,” but also . . . I mean, a drummer gets two songs written ’bout him . . . by your dad, which is something. But always in all black with the widow’s peak in his hair and that black cape with red satin lining, in all black clothes, and just looking terrifying, but with a smile because he’s really enjoying looking terrifying.
Paula Nelson: Yeah, and he was to people who crossed him, he was terrifying.
John Spong: Was it earned?
Paula Nelson: He was the money guy. So he would collect the money. If there was any problems, and back in those days, they were all carrying pistols. I know Paul was, two or three probably. And so, he made sure that that money was collected when it was supposed to be. He was a protector. And he walked me down the aisle when I got married . . .
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Paula Nelson: . . . the second time. There was only one actual wedding. The first one was out of the phone book . . . “wedding” is between “webbing” and “welding.” But the second one was actually a real ceremony, and I asked my dad to, of course, walk me down the aisle. But I also asked Paul if he would walk me down the aisle, and they both did. And when we got to the preacher, whose name was Gerald Mann, and . . .
John Spong: Yeah, I grew up in Austin, I know Gerald Mann.
Paula Nelson: You know Gerald, yeah. We miss him dearly. Well, he asked, “Who gives this bride away?” And my dad said into the microphone, “Me and Paul,” which is the other drummer song, for Paul.
John Spong: That’s awesome.
Paula Nelson: Yeah. He was great. He was one of a kind. And up until the day he passed, every time I see him, he’d say, “Hey, Paula Carlene,” and just the biggest hug. And he was a treasure to us all.
John Spong: Oh, wow. Well, then on that note, let’s listen to it together. Because as many hundreds of times as I’ve heard this song, it just started meaning something different to me.
Paula Nelson: And I forgot to mention in the song of course, with the lyrics, “Caught pneumonia on the road / taking it home to Connie and the kids.” So I was one of the kids. That’s also very special in that song.
[Willie singing “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag”]
John Spong: Have you ever talked to your dad about the impetus or origins of writing that song?
Paula Nelson: No, but I figured the gist. After touring myself for twenty years, I realized all those lyrics make sense to me. Of course, we didn’t deal with— now, back in those days, they didn’t have the giant tour buses. They had the ones that would break down often, or lose a wheel. They weren’t quite the same size or quality as tour buses are these days.
John Spong: Well, that’s the thing, so like with Paul, he’s the drummer. And as you mentioned, he is the money collector at the end of the shows, but I want to say, I mean, he was the bookkeeper? And then some of the stuff as the organization grows, Paul doesn’t have to worry about collecting the money, maybe. Well, also, because people are starting to pay. Because now that you’re a big deal, it’s a little easier and a little different. If I read right, he kept doing the books right up until the end, after every show. But he also—
Paula Nelson: Oh yes, till the end.
John Spong: Didn’t he help design the original? Wasn’t there a bread truck or something like that that was the original bus that Paul armored up?
Paula Nelson: I’m sure. I am sure. I’ve heard stories. Of course, again, I was so young, but when I remembered seeing the actual . . . their traveling vehicles. They weren’t anything like they are today, but I know that he definitely provided security as well. But yeah, I think that his and dad’s friendship were . . . because he was . . . again, when I was born, when my mom found out she was pregnant, Paul was the first person she told, I think, even before Dad.
John Spong: Wow. Wow.
Paula Nelson: And they met where . . . my mom and one of her friends were working at a glass factory, and they heard the song “Hello Walls.” It was on the radio. And they thought, they chuckled about it, “That’s that guy that sings ‘Hello Walls,’ and we should go see him.” And this was in Houston, which is where I was born. And so they went down to the show. And Jimmy Day, remember Jimmy Day, who played steel guitar.
John Spong: Yeah, steel player.
Paula Nelson: Yeah. I guess my mom and my dad made eyes. My mom was right up there in front. They’d never seen him. They’d only heard the song, and they made eye contact and flirted. Well, Dad sent Jimmy Day to go get her on the break and bring her backstage. And here I am.
John Spong: And there you are.
Paula Nelson: I don’t think it happened that night, but that’s when their love affair began.
John Spong: That’s pretty great.
John Spong: But so, with Paul, I wonder about the friendship with your dad. Because before he joined the band, he was a hood. He’s essentially Fort Worth mafia. And successful enough at that to have bought a bunch of property, and so when he joins the band, he sold a bunch of that property to help fund the enterprise. And to fund your dad’s career. He believed in your dad that much. So of course your dad was loyal to him. But I do wonder what it was about each of them that first drew them together? Like, did they just dig each other’s company, or . . .
Paula Nelson: You know, I think it’s probably with any other friendship that lasts that long, a lifetime, that it’s that chemistry that you just find your person. You’re like, we got this. You and I are going to take on the world. And as I mentioned earlier, with him being a protector, Paul being such a protector, and again, he and dad walked me down the aisle. I guess it was probably a year or so later. The marriage only lasted a year, by the way. But I had seen Paul, I went to one of the shows, and he got up on the bus, and he gave me a big hug and he said, “Hey, Paula Carlene, how’s your marriage going?”
Paula Nelson: Or “PC,” they’d call me PC a lot too. I was known as PC for years or Paula Carlene or PC. And I said, “Well, that didn’t really work out. That’s done.” And he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and people grow apart.” And I was like, “Actually, this one actually got violent.” And he said, “Well, I wish you would’ve told me that, and I would’ve taken care of that for you.” And I said, “That’s exactly why I didn’t tell you. I mean, I don’t like the guy, but there’s no need for retaliation anyway.” But he meant it. He was through and through an outlaw, and back to your original question, I think that that’s why he and Dad bonded so strongly, is because they’re both outlaws from the get-go.
John Spong: Right. Well, it makes me think. So the album that this song is on is Shotgun Willie. And of course, your dad got the nickname Shotgun Willie when your sister Lana had a problem with a husband, which . . . I mean, I’ll let you tell the story. I think you know where I’m going.
Paula Nelson: Well, I think there could be many, actually. There could be many, but I do know that the first time my mom met my dad’s first wife, Martha, who was Lana, Susie, and Billy’s mom. And then there was Shirley in between. And then there was my mom. But the first time my mom ever met Martha was . . . I believe it was Ridgetop, Tennessee, if I’m not mistaken.
Paula Nelson: But they went to see Martha, and Lana had come down from the street and her husband at the time had hit her. And my dad found out about it. And so, he got in his truck or car or whatever he had at the time. And he drove down to that guy’s house, and he walked up and just slapped the guy right back, hit him back for hitting his daughter. I guess about fifteen minutes later, that guy came around back, with a bunch of his buddies, and were shooting at the house, at where we all were. And my dad went out with . . . I don’t know. The one I heard was it was a pistol. And he went out and Mom said he was doing like this James Bond thing behind trees. He was like . . . pyoon! And then dodging behind the tree and then shooting back at these guys. And Martha, this is again the first time my mom had met Martha. They had just met, and they’re dodging bullets on the floor in the kitchen. And Martha stands up and starts screaming, “You . . . ” Screaming at him. And my mom pulls her and says, “Are you crazy? Get back down here.” They bonded from that moment on. There may have been more stories like that, but that’s definitely a good one.
[Willie singing “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag”]
John Spong: Well, so to change it completely, a mutual friend of ours said that you went with your family to the recording of “We Are the World.”
Paula Nelson: I did.
John Spong: And I am an absolute nut about that. I have found all these outtake videos. I’ve found documentaries about it. It is so wild to watch that, because it was such a huge thing. Because you and I are about the same age, went to high school in the eighties. And so, that song was so massive, and everybody was in it, and you were there?
Paula Nelson: I was there. I was there and it was somewhere in L.A., and it was just this giant room. And like Bob Geldof. I mean, Bob Dylan, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner . . .
John Spong: Stevie Wonder . . .
Paula Nelson: . . . Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder.
John Spong: . . . Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Lionel Richie.
Paula Nelson: All of them.
John Spong: Kenny Rogers.
Paula Nelson: They were all there. Yeah, it was just like, I am not a . . . I dork myself out in front of celebrities all the time. And it’s because I grew up with people bothering my dad, and they didn’t mean to. But we’d be out at dinner, and he’d be mid-bite, and someone would come up and say, “I don’t want to bother you, but I’m going to.”
Paula Nelson: And I saw that happened so often that I just . . . if I see celebrities except at that concert, except at that “We Are the World” show, because it was just, they were everywhere. And Cyndi Lauper, I was like, hi, I just wanted to say . . . I think I was fifteen. “I just wanted to say hello and I’m a huge fan.” And Michael Jackson, got a picture with Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan.
John Spong: Oh, wow.
John Spong: Well, who were you most starstruck by? Who floored you, do you remember?
Paula Nelson: They all did. I’d say Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, definitely, because he . . . and Cyndi Lauper. Because those were the . . . all those guys were huge on MTV. I mean, they were huge anyways, but they were MTV when it was really MTV, when it was really music videos.
John Spong: When M stood for music.
Paula Nelson: Yes, exactly. Michael Jackson, I think, was the biggest one, and he couldn’t have been kinder. And in fact, everybody that I met there was just as wonderful as they could be. I didn’t meet anybody with attitude. Or everybody was glad to be there.
John Spong: No assholes at all? Nobody was a jerk?
Paula Nelson: Not one asshole.
John Spong: Huh.
Paula Nelson: Ah-uh. Yeah, yeah. I mean, which is sometimes hard to find in the world of music.
John Spong: One of the things that struck me about the rehearsal or getting it down was when they did all the solo parts, some of the singers, your dad being one of them, didn’t need to rehearse. They gave him his lines and it was kinda one take. Whereas with other people, it was just harder. And I know Huey Lewis, there’s a pretty well-known footage of him taking like ten minutes to get his part right, and it’s weird.
John Spong: Because if you watch, you can see Daryl Hall in the background, growing increasingly frustrated and animated with his frustration as they have to take again because Huey didn’t quite get it. And I mean, what a room full of people to not get it exactly right in. I think it was really hard for Huey, but . . .
Paula Nelson: It went on till like five, six in the morning.
John Spong: You stayed for the whole thing?
Paula Nelson: I was there the whole time, the whole time, and loving it. I was like, this is an MTV dream come true right here to see all these guys. I mean, it went on until the sun came up. That’s how long it took to get it all done.
John Spong: Wow. Who did your dad pal around with that night? There were only three country artists there, it’s him, Waylon, and Kenny Rogers.
Paula Nelson: Waylon, yeah. Probably, Waylon. Probably, he and Waylon.
John Spong: Were there other families and kids there or was it just y’all?
Paula Nelson: I’m thinking it was pretty much just us. I don’t remember. I mean, maybe it was because I was so self-centered in the moment, like, this is all about me and MTV. It’s not about me. It’s obviously for a great cause, but I’m really digging this. Everyone that I love is in the same room.
John Spong: Well, I like that if your dad was the only one that brought his family, that’s kinda country.
Paula Nelson: Yeah, it is.
John Spong: He was also the only person there from Abbott, Texas. It makes perfect sense.
Paula Nelson: Yeah, yes. Jessi was there. Jessi was there with Waylon. But I don’t think Shooter was there. I think he was too young, especially because we were up till the wee hours over the morning.
[Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Perry singing “We Are the World”]
John Spong: Tell me about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Paula Nelson: Oh, that’s a beautiful thing. We were on tour. I was on tour with my band, and so, I refused to use my dad’s name, even though people would hear about it and they decided they were going to put it on their marquee next to Burger King in giant letters, “Willie Nelson’s daughter,” in tiny, tiny letters, “Paula Nelson.” And I would get people saying, “Sing ‘On the Road Again’” and heckling from the crowd. And those were tough years.
Paula Nelson: One time, we had some technical difficulties and some guy yelled out, “If your dad was here, he could fix it.” And I was like, “What? That makes no sense at all.” Anyways. But I realized that all they’re knowing or hearing is that it’s Willie Nelson’s daughter. That was the reason I didn’t want anyone to know, is because then they’re going to expect more out of me than just me. And so, I had all these original songs, but I could see where the audience was like . . . because they didn’t catch on and it’s different than what they thought it was going to be. It wasn’t “On the Road Again.”
Paula Nelson: And so, I thought, well, we need to do some covers. So that when we play, at least we can throw out a cover that the audience will go, “Oh, I know this song,” and engage them that way. And so, we were trying to figure out which one to do. And I was driving down the road, and on the radio was the Creedence, John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” And I thought, oh, that’s a great song. That’s a great song. But I wanted to change it up from the original. I didn’t want it to sound exactly like the original.
Paula Nelson: And so, I went to the band and I said, “Let’s do this song, but let’s slow it down, something to the effect of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,’ that kind of feel.” And so, we did. And so, we had recorded it in the studio and we only had the rough versions. And I went and took the rough version to my dad and we were sitting on the bus, and he listened, and he said, “Paula, this is good.” And I said, “Thank you.” And he said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, this is really, really good.” And I said, “Thanks.” And he kept saying, “Paula, this is good.” And I thought, I think he thinks I wrote it. Because I changed it from the original. And so, I said, “It is. I wish I had written it.” And he said, “You didn’t?” I said, “No.” And maybe a little smoky-smoky there.
John Spong: Yeah . . .
Paula Nelson: No, no, that would be John Fogerty. And so, he said, “Well, I’d love to sing on it with you.” And I said, “Okay.” And so, we did, we recorded it on my album . . .
John Spong: Little City.
Paula Nelson: Little City, yeah. And that was with my band, and we had already recorded it. And so, he just came in and sang his part of the duet. And then a couple years, maybe two or three years later is when Buddy Cannon and he did the album To All the Girls, which was the duets album with all of those great ladies on that album. And I was just so unbelievably honored to be a part of that collection of amazing female artists. And so, that’s where it came to be.
John Spong: That’s you and Mavis Staples and Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow and just all those badasses.
Paula Nelson: Oh my gosh, yes. And so, it was such an honor. In fact, when he told me about it, when he told me they were doing it and asked me to be a part of it, we were on the bus. And he asked me, and it didn’t register. It didn’t quite register. I was like, “Oh, okay. Sure, thank you.” And then my Aunt Bobbie said, “You realize what he just asked you.” And I was like, “I don’t think I do. I’m not sure. I’m not really sure what he meant,” but I just smiled and nodded like, “Okay, thank you.”
Paula Nelson: And then I realized, oh, this is an album with all of these amazing female artists, and he’s just asked me to be a part of it. So we went into Buddy Cannon’s studio and recorded it, that version there. And so, number one, the fact that I got to sing it with him twice was amazing. And then out of nowhere, my dad’s manager, Mark Rothbaum, sent me an email saying that the folks from Big Little Lies, which was my favorite show at the time, still is.
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Paula Nelson: I mean, I was just an avid watcher and they wanted to use it for the season finale. And I could not believe it. I was like, this just keeps getting better and better.
John Spong: Well, but another thing that’s really cool in there, and a real compliment to you, is that their version—your dad’s version—is a lot like yours. They completely went to school on your arrangement. And then they release it as a single. It goes to what? It goes to number seven on the iTunes U.S. songs chart, number three on the Billboard digital U.S. sales chart . . .
Paula Nelson: Yeah.
John Spong: I mean, that’s impressive.
Paula Nelson: Yeah, like I said, there’s been so many great things about that song. But it’s one of my proudest moments. And especially because we got to sing it onstage. I did some touring with dad and we would get up and sing it onstage, and it was just magical.
[Paula Nelson and Willie Nelson sing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”]
John Spong: Have you ever talked to your dad about the album Shotgun Willie? I mean, there he was, finally with his own band in the studio, and it’s in New York, not Nashville. And so for me, I’ve always loved his old, pre-hippie stuff from the sixties which came before this, which is what you play on your radio show at SiriusXM, so obviously you love it too. But for a lot of fans, this record is the turning point. Has your dad ever said anything about what that album meant to him?
Paula Nelson: Well, I think all the things that you just said, the fact that he was able to break out of the Nashville mold and do it the way he wanted to with his band instead of session players. My first thought when you mentioned that was when I first heard the song “Shotgun Willie,” and the line “Sitting around in his underwear, biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair”. . . Again, I was like almost five and I did not understand what that meant. Nor did I want the visual.
John Spong: You had probably had the visual that morning, unfortunately.
Paula Nelson: I did. I was like, wait, wait a minute. I don’t want to see him sitting around in his underwear, and I’m not quite sure what the biting on the bullet part means and the pulling out the hair. I don’t quite understand. As I got older, I figured out, okay, I know where he’s going with that for the most part. But I haven’t ever really asked him about the lyrics or about the album. You mentioned the Sirius thing, that is when . . . because when I was growing up, the last thing that I wanted to do was be associated with my dad. When we were little kids, we would get up on, do the gospel, during the “Will the Circle Be Broken” and “Uncloudy Day” and “Amazing Grace.” But as I got older, I was like, I was interested in boys. I didn’t want to be up on the stage with my parents. And I also didn’t like the attention that it brought. I didn’t want people staring at me or . . . I didn’t want anyone to notice me or know about dad. But now, since I’ve been doing this job almost seven years now, and again, not only my dad’s music but all these different artists that we play at Willie’s Roadhouse, that I was able to look into the library and go, oh, I’d never heard any of these songs, from Faron Young to Lefty Frizzell, to . . . you name it, Eddy Arnold, all this great music that you hear the hits, but I had never heard these major songs. It has been such a great education for me to . . . and a very bonding experience with my dad to be able to talk about Floyd Cramer or Hank Cochran.
John Spong: Yeah.
Paula Nelson: Yeah. Like I said, I then turned into an MTV kid in the eighties and off and running. I didn’t start singing on my own until my late twenties. But I didn’t know about all this great music until I started working where I do now. And so, I’m extremely grateful. My dad will text me and say, “I’m listening to you on your radio. It sounds great. You’re sounding great.” And that’s a huge bonding experience that I wouldn’t take anything for.
John Spong: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, bonding over music is a distinct thing. And then that song that provides the connection becomes really, really important. And I was actually thinking about that when you were talking about doing gospel songs as a little girl with the band. I mean, those are the songs that your dad and aunt played growing up when life was really, really hard, and their parents split, and then the granddad who’s raising them dies. And to be able to . . . you’re retreating into that song when you’re sitting in the living room with a guitar and a piano at the age of seven and five. And when the two of them play “Uncloudy Day” together, they’re going back in time a little bit. Basically, they’re closing off the whole rest of the world. They are communing with each other in a way nothing else in the world could help them commune.
Paula Nelson: Yeah. And they still do that today onstage. I got to see them play recently here at the Circuit of the Americas. They did that show a few weeks back. And of course, there had been such a long period of time where they weren’t playing. And that was so hard on both of them, especially because they’re used to seeing each other almost every day. And I think there was a documentary here a while back, probably like fifteen years ago, I’m guessing. But there was a beautiful scene in that documentary where dad was sitting at the bus, and Aunt Bobbie was brushing his hair.
John Spong: Oh man.
Paula Nelson: I mean, I could cry just thinking about it. Just the bond that they have together is . . . A brother and sister bond is usually strong anyways. But like you said, with those guys, with Aunt Bobbie and dad, they went through all of these hard times together. And even though they’re a few years apart, they’re pretty much twins.
John Spong: Yeah, yeah. What’s the great line? Dizzy Gillespie said it about Charlie Parker or the other way around, nobody knows for sure which . . . or at least I can’t remember which, but he said, supposedly, Dizzy said about Charlie Parker, “He’s the other half of my heartbeat.” And it’s that for your dad and aunt.
Paula Nelson: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, exactly. And so, that’s a beautiful thing to see.
[Willie Nelson singing “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag”]
John Spong (voice-over): Alright, Willie fans. That was Paula Nelson talking about “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag” and a whole lot more. Big thanks to her for coming on the show. A big thanks to our sponsor, White Claw Hard Seltzer. And a huge thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe. Maybe tell a couple friends about us. Visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. And please check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music. Oh, and be sure to tune back in next week to hear Vince Gill talk about Willie, Ray Price, and “The Healing Hands of Time.” But in the meantime, happy birthday, Willie. We will see y’all next week.