There have been songwriters who forged a career off one hit. If you look at the list of Willie Nelson's solid hits – bearing in mind that even his second-tier compositions have brought home plenty of bacon – it's pretty much mind boggling:
Whiskey River, On the Road Again, Crazy, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,
Hello Walls, Good Hearted Woman.
Joe Nick Patoski writes about Texas, and calls this book the "culmination." It's a whopper, like the Lone Star State itself. His subject is a person far bigger than ordinary life, so it makes sense he's from Texas, too. Writer of some of the greatest, and I do mean the greatest songs of his era, Willie Nelson has the personality and the history to match the world he grew up in. Super-size.
Born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, son of a pool hall owner, Willie, with his sister Robbie, started doing music by the time he was a teenager in the barrooms and beer joints of his native state. He moved to Nashville to establish himself as a songwriter but really started to gain traction when he migrated to Austin, developing a maniac strain of rock, rockabilly, pop and country that became known as Outlaw music. Outlaw because it flew in the face of the country music establishment, and because the men involved in it – Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Nelson himself – were rough-cut and rowdy. Nelson by now was making piles of money but would throw away chances for big shows in order to play to local crowds.
Patoski's book has been painstakingly researched. He avows that the task was not easy, since he was tracing the life of a man whose very ethos was to destroy all behind him on his side-winding way to fame. How do you describe the bridges of an inveterate bridge-burner?
Patoski gets behind the scenes into the parties, tours, women, marriages, divorces, and drugs. As is generally known, Willie Nelson is something of a spokesperson for the benefits of the natural high, touting "weed" (marijuana, mushrooms, et al.) over "speed" (amphetamines, cocaine). Patoski recounts that when the Honeysuckle Rose tour bus was famously busted and yielded several pounds of grass and a bag of psychedelic mushrooms, Nelson, in reference to a recent outbreak of e-coli, quipped that it was a good thing he hadn't been carrying spinach at the time - that could have killed him.
Along with his remarkable songs, electric performances, and many music awards, Nelson is well known for his foundation, Farm Aid, which began as a series of yearly concerts and has become the voice of the often despised or forgotten small farmer in America.
Willie is a curious mix of gravel-voiced rounder and pig-tailed philanthropist, whom some who know him compare to the Buddha at least, if not right up there with Jesus. Patoski, who has to grapple with the disparities between Nelson's bizarre brand of patriotism and his anti-war stance, describes the scene when, after 9-11, "a group of entertainers gathered in a studio for a somber, emotionally charged performance and fund-raising telethon...it was Willie who led the gathering in a closing number, 'America the Beautiful.' He was the voice, and the face, of the nation." But in February, 2008 (perhaps after Patoski's book had gone to press) Nelson suddenly and with typical recklessness told loony-lover radio talk show host Alex Jones that he thought the World Trade Center buildings had been purposely imploded, as he had witnessed with old casinos in Las Vegas. The prime suspect: the U.S. government, of course.
Maybe this is an evidence of Willie's age and unshakeable status as an American music icon. Never one to hold back much, the grizzled outlaw can now say whatever he likes, even criticizing the government, with no fear of being "Dixie-Chicked." Or maybe he knows that no matter what happens to him on the national music scene, he'll always have a foot-stomping, table-slapping, beer-guzzling, wild-eyed audience in the dives of dusty small town Texas.