This spring, I learned more about Willie Nelson than I ever wanted to know. Over the 22 years I’ve lived in Texas, four of them spent working at Texas Monthly, I’ve only heard snatches of song titles and lyrics. It’s not that I don’t think Nelson is a good musician; I just didn’t think about him, mostly because country music wasn’t my thing. But it wasn’t until I helped fact-check our list of all 143 Willie Nelson albums this April that I actually sat down to intentionally listen to him.
While country music hasn’t typically resonated much with me, there is one artist I’ve always loved: Dolly Parton. Her 1994 album Heartsongs: Live From Home was a staple of my childhood in New Jersey and Dallas. It was also an outlier in my parents’ collection of Nigerian artists, gospel music from across the Black diaspora, and the collected works of Bob Marley and Michael Jackson. Heartsongs was such a fixture in my childhood that to this day, if I start to sing the first line of “In the Pines” around my siblings, at least one of them will join in.
I’d always assumed that someone had given the Parton album to my parents when we immigrated from Nigeria in 1996, as a kind of “Welcome to America” primer, and that not finding it too objectionable, they’d put it in our musical rotation. But this year, I listened to the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, which discussed the Black origins of country music; one guest even made the case that Parton created “immigrant music.” The show made me more curious about how Heartsongs made it into our lives. In February, my mom came to visit me in Austin, and one night she left her phone in my room blasting country music on Spotify. Turns out that my mom has loved country music since her teenage years in Nigeria, and she’s the one who added Heartsongs to our family collection.
“Is Willie Nelson one of the country musicians you used to listen to?” I messaged her in April, while I was in the thick of reading about, listening to, and seeing more of Nelson than I ever have in my entire life.
“What happened?” my mom texted back immediately.
After I reassured her that Willie is still in good health—and made a mental note that I should give more context before asking about aging celebrities out of the blue (especially in the age of COVID-19)—she told me that she loved his music. Two of her favorites are “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.”
By then, I’d already spent days in Willie Nelson world for work, but my portion of the project hadn’t brought me to those two songs, though I knew their titles. I wanted to hear the songs my mom loved, so I put them on. I listened to “Mammas” first, and I’ll be honest, I was only half-listening. The song itself was less interesting than the conversation it started with my mom. I texted to ask why she loved country music; she wrote back and explained that she found it relatable and loved the distinct voices of country musicians like Parton and Don Williams. She also told me about how she’d had an impressive tape collection by the time she and my dad met. I’d never known that.
“Mammas” finished playing and I put on “On the Road Again.” Again, I started out only half-listening, but then the lyrics quickly caught my attention. “On the road again / Just can’t wait to get on the road again / The life I love is making music with my friends / And I can’t wait to get on the road again / On the road again.”
That hit me right in the gut. It was April 16, just over a month since I’d started social distancing because of COVID-19. I hadn’t physically been around my friends for that long, and it had been even longer since I’d been with my family. I had been looking forward to so many things this year, but now there would be no flights to L.A. or New York to visit my favorite Texpats, no road trips with friends for concerts, and no large celebration for my sister’s graduation from UT. As I would later hear David Kessler explain on Brené Brown’s podcast, I, along with everybody else, had abruptly lost the world I knew. Up until that moment of listening to “On the Road Again,” I had barely allowed myself to acknowledge these losses, let alone mourn them. For the first time since COVID-19 made it to the U.S., I began to cry.
I also just really missed my mother. I called her up later to ask more about Willie Nelson and country music, and we talked for over two hours. I got to hear about how my teenage mother would dance to pop music at parties, but gravitated toward country music in quiet moments of solitude. Soon our conversation blended into talking about the Nigeria of her youth, which had a sense of safety and freedom she still misses, and my parents’ lives before they were my parents. Country music has always been personal for my mom. When artists like Nelson sing about their lives, loves, and losses, my mother has seen herself in their lyrics. Nelson has been through his fair share of trials and tribulations, and so has my mother. It’s what makes his music relevant to her. As she explained with another Nelson lyric (from “Shotgun Willie”), “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.”
I’d long avoided country music (except for Parton) because it didn’t seem like it was for me. From the outside looking in, the genre seems dominated by white men glorifying a kind of cowboy culture that has all but erased the Black cowboys and musicians who made country what it is. Listening to “Shotgun Willie,” in which Nelson makes a casual joke about somebody profiting by selling sheets to the Ku Klux Klan, certainly didn’t help that. Recently, musician and Arlington native Mickey Guyton spoke with Rolling Stone about her struggles as a Black woman in country music. She recounts a conversation with her husband, who pointed out that she was struggling because she was running away from everything that made her different. “I had to go through my whole time in Nashville, every song I was writing,” Guyton said. “I was writing other people’s songs. I wasn’t writing my songs. Just because my story is different doesn’t mean it isn’t country.”
Guyton is part of a rich but overlooked tradition of Black country musicians that I’m still learning about. Last year, the “yeehaw agenda,” a movement to celebrate Black cowboy culture, prompted discussions about how white people have appropriated and erased Black Western history. There’s still a long way to go to make country music more inclusive.
Meanwhile, I asked my mom about “Shotgun Willie.” She hadn’t noticed the racist lyric, she said; she’d been focused instead on the line about what it takes to make a record. She heard the lyrics that resonated with her.
I may never be the world’s biggest Willie Nelson fan, but my mother’s given me a newfound understanding of him. You’ve got to live a lot of life to make 143 albums, good and bad. In that space in my heart where Dolly Parton has monopolized the limited room I have allotted to country music, I’ve squeezed in “On the Road Again” (but definitely not “Shotgun Willie”). Getting a bit more familiar with Nelson has made me think more critically about what I know about Texas, country music, and the role of Black Americans in both. But the biggest takeaway is that I feel a lot closer to my mother.