Free Willie

A gospel album on a Denver record label is the latest step in the rehabilitation of Willie Nelson's career.

"It's amazing to me, but she and I never had any problems at all, and we still don't. We've always been the closest. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong, and I'm sure she feels the same way about me." When asked what traits of Bobbie's he wishes some of his ex-wives might have had in greater abundance, he guffaws so lustily that he nearly drops the telephone. "She has a lot of great qualities," he finally chokes out. "She has great beauty, talent, brains. That's a triple threat right there."

Grandfather William's 1939 death meant that Willie and Bobbie had to rely on each other more than ever. Fortunately, their love for a variety of music, ranging from Bob Wills's Western swing to the show tunes of George and Ira Gershwin, gave them common ground. When Bobbie married Bud Fletcher, a fiddler with a band called the Texans, in 1946, it wasn't long before Willie was also part of the lineup. (He'd made his professional debut three years earlier, playing guitar with a local polka combo.) He kept making music throughout his school years but was forced into odd jobs, like tree-trimming, to keep clothes on his back. Following a stint in the Air Force in 1951, he found more enjoyable work at a Pleasanton, Texas, radio station. He served as a disc jockey at various outlets, including one in Vancouver, Washington, until the late Fifties, when he quit over a salary dispute. Returning to Texas, Willie wound up selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

Throughout this period, Nelson was writing songs, but aside from a single from 1957, "No Place for Me"/"Lumberjack," which sold around 3,000 copies, he wasn't having much luck. That began to change three years later, when his "Family Bible" became a national hit for entertainer Claude Gray. Even bigger smashes followed, including 1961's "Hello Walls," recorded by Faron Young, and "Funny How Time Slips Away," by Billy Walker, as well as Patsy Cline's classic 1962 rendering of his composition "Crazy." But Nelson's projects fared worse when he was the one singing them. He put together a slew of albums during the Sixties, first for Liberty and later for RCA, where his protector was Chet Atkins. But even Atkins couldn't shelter him forever; by the early Seventies, with twelve artistically interesting but commercially flaccid long-players behind him, he lost his RCA contract. He later moved to Atlantic and issued a critically acclaimed record (Shotgun Willie) that actually moved a few copies--though not so many that the label was eager to retain his services.

Moving on to Columbia in 1975, he cut Red Headed Stranger for $20,000. But instead of going in the tank, its lead single, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," climbed to the top of the C&W charts and established Nelson as the creator of a new musical form: outlaw country. Suddenly he was hot, and he took advantage of the opportunity by releasing a blizzard of albums. Outlaws, a 1977 anthology that he shared with Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter, made a significant impact on the rock marketplace, accelerating interest in such Nelson recordings as 1977's To Lefty From Willie (a tribute to Lefty Frizzell), 1978's Stardust (a collection that included country covers of Broadway favorites) and the 1979 Christmas release Pretty Paper. Along the way, he even became a movie star of sorts. Honeysuckle Rose, a 1980 film in which Nelson co-starred with Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving and Slim Pickens, was a box-office success despite its rather formulaic approach, while the more obscure 1984 flick Songwriter, co-starring Kris Kristofferson and Rip Torn and directed by the accomplished Alan Rudolph, is a frequently hilarious tale that still holds up today.

Somewhere along the line, though, Nelson's momentum began to flag. The reason had to do in part with his willingness to release anything and everything he could, whether it was worthy or not. He shared albums with Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and Hank Snow, and he dueted with pretty much anyone who asked. The most absurd of his partners was Julio Iglesias; their rendition of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" became a top-five smash in 1984 even though it may be the worst track Nelson has ever made. More frustrating for fans, Nelson went through long periods during which he didn't bother to pen any of his own tunes. He chalks up these periods of writer's blocks to his prolific nature during the Sixties.

"It had a lot to do with the fact that my early years of recording ate up a lot of songs," he says. "When you put ten songs on an album and you put out thirty albums, well, there's three hundred of your best things gone. Or at least they've gone through the first cycle. You can always come back and do them later, but you've got to give them time. And those times were when I would do a Lefty Frizzell album or a Stardust album--to just bridge myself from one spot to another in my career until I could write some new stuff.

"Sometimes I get guilty because I haven't written in a while, and I'll make myself sit down and write something. But usually it's not that great, because it's forced. The ones that I finish are worth doing, usually. If I see one that I don't think is any good, I'll throw it away before I finish it, because I wouldn't want to have to sing it every night in case I needed to. But the best stuff I write comes whenever I least expect it."

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