By Dave Thomas
If you’re not an anti-marijuana crusader, if you don’t have a Justin Bieber poster above your day bed, there’s a pretty fair chances you like Willie Nelson. But being a Willie Nelson superfan requires a little more education.
It’s easy to like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” It takes commitment to know all the words to “I Never Cared for You.” It’s easy to know Willie’s guitar is named “Trigger.” It takes some research to know the name of the fellow that takes care of it on the road. It’s easy to remember Willie Nelson was born in Abbott and lives near Austin. But do you know his connection to Fort Worth? San Antonio? Bandera?
Fortunately, the Red Headed Stranger is no more a stranger than he is red-headed these days. All you have to do is want to learn and Willie Nelson U. is in session. Here is your required reading:
“The Facts of Life And Other Dirty Jokes” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road,” by Willie Nelson: When Willie rolled out the “Roll Me Up and …” book to go along with his 80th birthday and his “Heroes” album, everyone else got the memo: “Don’t be a critic, the man is 80 years old. Just say it’s great.” But this one jerk couldn’t be dissuaded from saying “Hey, it’s the same book he released 10 years ago! Right down to the same golf jokes!” I couldn’t help it. It was true. Pick either book for a mix of philosophical musings, history and humor, but you don’t need to read both.
“Willie Nelson Family Album” by Lana Nelson and “Willie Nelson: Heartworn Memories” by Susie Nelson: The “Family Album” is essentially a scrapbook, a trove of not-seen-elsewhere photos, some news clippings a little biographical exposition and enough song lyrics to pad out the effort to a respectable thickness. But “Heartworn Memories” is a surprisingly effective effort, written through the perspective of a daughter who saw a side of Willie even the most dedicated biographer couldn’t reach. Surprisingly frank at times, it’s the go-to source for understanding Willie’s tumultuous home life.
“It’s a Long Story: My Life” by Willie Nelson: The latest entry on this list and, for the superfan, superfluous. However, this relaxed and comfortable conversation with Willie is the perfect entry-level bio for the curious. A fast read, it covers all the bases, but doesn’t linger long on any.
“Willie Nelson: The Outlaw” by Graeme Thomson: Written by an Englishman, “The Outlaw” offers up a whole new perspective on Willie Nelson, albeit one with an odd spelling every few pages. Thomson left no stone unturned in conducting interviews, talking to heavyweights such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard in addition to longtime associates such as Zeke Varnon, Larry Trader and Johnny Bush. In only a few pages, the book offers perhaps the most definitive look at the most off-limits topic in the Willie universe — the suicide of his son Billy.
“Willie” by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake: This 1988 book was the top word for a long time, if you liked your Willie recollections unsullied by tiresome and lengthy examinations of his IRS troubles (which happened in the early 1990s). The genius — and the lasting significance — of the book is that most chapters are followed by “The Chorus” … stories, explanations, memories by his friends and family. Particularly telling is the one from first wife Martha, who clarifies that she did not sew up a passed-out Willie in a bed sheet and beat him with a broom handle: “The truth is, I tied him up with the kids’ jump ropes before I beat the hell out of him.” Sewing, she says, would’ve taken much too long.
“Willie Nelson, An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski: This is the definitive biography, though, like every other book on this list, it kinda skates through everything that happened after the IRS thing was settled. Still, when I’m old and gray, I’m going sit in my South Texas barn every morning and read a little bit from the gospel of Patoski-describes-Willie-in-Austin-in-the-1970s.