“I’ve learned I have the perfect person to steer me. When I’m contemplating one of life’s difficult decisions, I generally consult with Ben Dorcy. Bless his barely thumping heart, Ben is my canary in the coalmine. When faced with a difficult decision, I observe Ben and do the opposite of what he does.”
— Willie Nelson (with Turk Pipkin),
The Tao of Willie, 2007
“Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway,” read the lyrics to “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson’s 1980 paean to the itinerant touring life. Thirty years before Willie wrote those lines—on a plane, of all places—Ben Dorcy III was already the proto-road warrior.
Known far and wide as “Lovey,” after his preferred endearment for everyone he meets, Dorcy is credited by Willie with being the first-ever roadie—and as “the world’s oldest living roadie” by nearly everyone else.
Given the tangled switchbacks of history, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Dorcy, who turns 90 in May, started as a bandboy in 1950 for Hank Thompson—in that day, more a personal valet than the seasoned road crew celebrated in songs by Motorhead and Tenacious D, or on screen in the 1980 cult classic filmed in Austin, Roadie, starring Meat Loaf. In the 65 years since then, Dorcy has toured and/or worked with Ray Price (with whom he relocated to Nashville for half a decade), Elvis Presley (“when he was young”), Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Leon Payne, Johnny Bush, Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Willie, among countless others lost to time.
This colorful legacy extends beyond the stage, where he served as a muse of sorts to Waylon Jennings (“Ode to Ben Dorcy”), Red Sovine (“Big Ben Dorsey the Third”), and Kinky Friedman, who based a character on him in Roadkill, his novel set aboard Willie’s bus. Even before he found his life’s calling, Dorcy was already a veteran of the nomadic lifestyle: Dropping out of high school in San Antonio, he toured with the Ice Capades, a kind of ice-skating spectacle, and may have been bound for the Winter Olympics before WWII interceded. He served on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, and still carries shrapnel in his knee from a Japanese Zero at the Battle of Cape Gloucester. During a five-year diversion to Hollywood in the sixties, he was a deliveryman for Nudie Cohn (tailor to the Singing and later Rhinestone Cowboys), and later a gardener and chauffeur for John Wayne, whom he met while playing a Tennessee Volunteer in The Alamo (filmed in Brackettville). Along the way, he danced with Ann-Margaret; rubbed shoulders with Sinatra, and shared a private joke with Marilyn Monroe.
Dorcy was the first inductee into the Roadie Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2009, and he now serves a new generation of Willie disciples and denizens of the road—performers like Kevin Fowler, Cory Morrow, Josh Abbott, Cody Canada (who he insists on calling “Cody Canadian”), Jack Ingram, Jamey Johnson, Brooks & Dunn, Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, and especially Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, who have kept him on the road for much of the last decade. In Dorcy they discovered a living embodiment of the principles that drive them, so to speak, toward the elusive horizon.
Or, at the very least, they’ve been on the receiving end of Ben’s living credo, and his advice to all those who fall within his purview:
“Get your shit together.”
This oft-repeated motto recently adorned the commemorative T-shirt for the third annual Ben Dorcy Day, held February 22 at the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, on the northwest outskirts of San Antonio. Mr. Floore, whose venerable Hill Country dancehall was established in 1946, was dubiously memorialized for his mercantile prowess in Nelson’s song “Shotgun Willie” (“John T. Floore was a-working for the Ku Klux Klan…/Made a lot of money selling sheets on the family plan”), and Floore’s was both where Dorcy first met Hank Thompson on Halloween night in 1950, and where he met Willie a decade later. It was also there, in the venue’s green room—now rechristened the Ben H. Dorcy III Green Room (as certified by commemorative plaque)—at a Willie Nelson show in October 2012, that John Selman, Willie’s tour manager, had the brainstorm for a concert to unite the successive generations that Dorcy has left his mark on.
“I was sitting right here at this desk looking at all these posters,” says Selman. “I thought, ‘Let’s have a Ben Dorcy Day while he’s still here.’”
“Before Poodie passed [aka Randall “Poodie” Locke, Willie’s long-time stage manager, who died in May 2009], he asked that everybody take care of Ben,” says Joel Schoepf, with whom Selman shares custodial duties in looking after Dorcy. Together they took the idea to Floore’s Managing Partner Mark McKinney, who enlisted General Manager Becca Payne to handle logistics, and the inaugural event launched February 20, 2013.
Every year since, many of the above and more have traveled to Floore’s, a way of bringing the road to Dorcy. At last month’s celebration, Randy Rogers served as unofficial emcee, and Wade Bowen, Josh Abbott, Corey Morrow, Ray Wiley Hubbard, William Clark Green, Johnny Burke (sitting in for a sick Kevin Fowler), and Doug Moreland (who created a chainsaw sculpture bust of him for the green room) all came together to honor Dorcy in his natural element. The man of the hour sat onstage for most of the show, but debarked early so he could get to the merch table in plenty of time to sign autographs. (Proceeds from the event go toward his living expenses.)
Also playing that night were clips from a feature-length film about Dorcy’s storied life, King of the Roadies. The documentary is co-directed by Amy Nelson—“Willie’s youngest daughter . . . that we know of,” she says—and her cousin Trevor Doyle Nelson. The camera (which Willie bought them, earning him an Executive Producer credit) “has been rolling for three straight years, through a million private moments,” says Trevor Nelson, steadily chronicling Dorcy’s life.
There’s a tenderness about the film, in large part because of the Nelsons’ close connection to Dorcy. “We grew up around Ben,” says Amy. “He doesn’t have any surviving family; our road family is his family.” Trevor adds: “There are a handful of people who are highly respected in this world who have banded together around Ben to support him. It’s interesting that he’s spent his life serving people, and now they’re here for him.”
An impressive roster of famous musicians are interviewed for the film, some of them elevating Dorcy into the mists of legend. Johnny Bush calls him “an enigma” (even though “I don’t know what enigma really means”). Jack Ingram calls Dorcy “one of us,” in The Godfather sense. Kinky Friedman labels him “a talisman,” “a spiritual hall of fame all to itself” and, quoting his own “Wild Man from Borneo,” “A hairy, scary, legendary screaming souvenir.” Selman compares him to Forrest Gump.
But one of the most enduring testaments to Dorcy’s influence is another visual document, an amazing never-before-seen-by-the-public videotape shot on the Highwaymen’s first tour, March 15, 1990, in Niagara Falls, New York, which has been passed down by insiders from one to the other. In it, Willie, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny and June Carter Cash hold a spontaneous roast for Dorcy in the Eagle’s Nest banquet room of the Niagara Falls Convention Center. (In a telling detail, given that Dorcy was intentionally kept out of the loop, his name is misspelled in the hand-lettered sign.)
Colter, who appears to be the ringleader and chairs the proceedings from a makeshift dais, speaks at length to Dorcy’s character, calling him “one of the most loyal people I’ve ever run into,” and presents a “Master of the Impossible Award to the Good Doctor Ben Dorcy,” so named because “we have seen him pull things out of the air that nobody else could do.” Waylon tells of the time Dorcy was driving him to a show in Houston and they were running late. From the back seat, Waylon demanded they turn down a one-way street to save them two minutes, over Ben’s spirited objections. When a cop pulled them over and told Ben to roll down the window, he just hooked his thumb over his shoulder at Waylon. Willie, wearing a “World Peace by 2000” T-shirt, says, “People are trying to remember Ben Dorcy stories; I’m trying to forget Ben Dorcy stories,” before launching into two or three—including one long story, widely repeated elsewhere, in which his first wife put Dorcy in the hospital. Willie’s current wife, Annie, holding one of their toddlers, weighs in from the floor: “I guess I owe Ben my sanity, because if it wasn’t for his timing, we’d probably have four kids.” And Cash, calling Dorcy a straight shooter, presents him with an original Gene Autry cap pistol. Four-term Niagara Falls Mayor Michael O’Laughlin even makes an appearance.
But it may be June Carter Cash who carries the day: After a heartfelt preamble in which she notes Dorcy’s selflessness, and how some of those early in his career “used him sometimes like a slave,” she summons her nerve and relates a story from when she toured with Thompson in the early fifties:
Ben could do something that the other boys couldn’t do. And I didn’t really realize what that was until we got near the end of the tour. When we crossed the line going into Oklahoma, I woke up in the middle of the night, about midnight, and I heard this roar – I mean, all the boys were outside, Hank Thompson and all the band and Ben Dorcy, outside, singing their heart out. Something like, ‘There’s a green light, let out your clutch…’ [a 1948 minor hit by Thompson, later recorded by Ernest Tubb]. They were just singing with the greatest gusto, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t they come ask me to sing ‘There’s a Green Light’ as we crossed the border? It’s my first time to go into Oklahoma with this group. And what was happening, I found out a little bit later – they were a little bit afraid to tell me – was they were outside seeing who could pee the furthest. Without splattering. And I would like to say, for Ben Dorcy, that Ben peed the furthest without it splattering.
The participants in this year’s Ben Dorcy Day happily volunteer their own Ben stories, which show no sign of subsiding. Singer Josh Abbott, backstage in Ben’s green room before the concert, throws yet another log on the campfire of tall tales about Dorcy, recounting the events of a recent concert down on the border:
“We were coming back from Laredo or somewhere, and we knew we were going to get stopped by Border Patrol. So I told everyone, ‘Make sure there’s no pot on the bus. Sure enough, they pull us over and make us get out. I’m pissed off; I’m in my underwear, it’s four in the morning. They bring the dog, and on the side bay where we keep our luggage, the dog starts going nuts. The bus is in my name.
“So they open up the bay, and the dog’s going ballistic on this one bag. The band’s all telling me, ‘I swear, I don’t have anything.’ Lovey’s out there smoking his pipe. The bag is locked, so the agent says, ‘Whose bag is this?’ We’re all looking at each other, and Lovey says, ‘It’s mine.’ And you could see the faces on these Border Patrol guys—‘Are you serious? We’re not going to bust a 90-year-old guy for pot.’ Finally, they just went, ‘Alright, you guys are good to go.’” Dorcy interrupts him in the middle of the story to work out the arrangements for the next weekend’s run.
But Randy Rogers cautions against the impulse to turn Dorcy into living history. “I don’t feel like I’m carrying around some kind of heirloom,” Rogers says evenly. “He’s my friend. And I’m very protective of him. The sonofabitch is solid gold.”
Once Dorcy’s certain that things backstage are running smoothly, the guest of honor joins me on a tour bus belonging to Paul English, Willie’s long-time drummer, which he drove down from Austin specifically for this purpose. Dorcy, frail and with a voice so soft it’s almost impossible to make out at times, runs through a few of his obligatory stories that I’ve heard elsewhere: The time Hank Thompson’s drummer threw him in a snow bank and the bus went off and left him; the time he took Willie’s clothes to the bus, leaving him without a stitch to wear. Most of the good stories he won’t tell, since they would betray secrets he’s promised to take with him when he goes. But he tells me one I hadn’t heard before, involving Johnny Cash:
We was at a service station in Encino,” Dorcy says, “and he got out of the car. It was brand new — I’d say only five or six months old – and he walked around the car and said, ‘We’re gonna need a tire here.’ I said, ‘No, Cash, these are brand new tires.’ So he pulled his gun out of his boot and shot the tire out, and we had to get a new one.
Apocryphal? The gospel truth? Live long enough, and you own the past. Like Waylon Jennings says in his “Ode to Ben Dorcy:”
“He’s the talk around the campfires and the tales get mighty tall/
Big Ben’s a living legend and he will outlive us all.”
Dorcy will be traveling with Willie this Saturday, March 14, to the Austin Rodeo. On the road yet again.
(March 15, 1990, Niagara Falls, New York, at a makeshift “Ben Dorcy Roast” on tour with the Highwaymen):
“One time, me and my first wife, Martha, had been having a few problems at one point, and Hank Cochran and I went down to a place called the Wagon Wheel in Nashville – y’all know where that used to be. And we was having a couple of drinks, it was about two in the morning, and Martha was bartending down there. So we got into it, kind of. Who knows what was said? Who knows whose fault it was? But we got up to leave, and she picked up a shot glass and threw it at me, and it hit the wall, bounced off and hit Hank Cochran in the jaw. So we take him to the hospital. He’s there getting his face worked on at 2:30 in the morning, and the doctor is there, and I’m giving this doctor all manner of trouble. I said, ‘What qualifications do you have to be working on this man? He’s in show business; his face is part of his future.’ I said, ‘If you were any good, what are you doing working this time of night?’ Hank is saying, ‘Let him sew me up!’ About that time, I look up and here comes Ben Dorcy, and he’s got a big turban around his head and there’s blood everywhere. He said something, and I think Martha hit him in the head with an ashtray. Am I making this up or is this true?
So Ben is working a little bit for Faron Young. And Faron had Shelley Snyder, who was his manager at the time. So Shelley is telling Ben that he can make him rich off this injury that he has received. So he pretends he’s talking on the phone to this lawyer at an insurance company, and he says, ‘No, a million dollars won’t touch it.’ Ben says, ‘Take the money!’ Shelley says, ‘Ten million or nothing, hoss,’ and he slams the phone down. Ben says, ‘Take the money!!’ The same thing happens for several days in a row. Shelley’s talking to the guy, now it’s down to a thousand dollars. Ben’s saying, ‘Take the money!’ I could go on and on, but I won’t.