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Book Review

On the road with a true free spirit

Author Joe Nick Patoski chronicles the rise of Willie Nelson (above). Author Joe Nick Patoski chronicles the rise of Willie Nelson (above). (JEFF GENTNER/GETTY IMAGES)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steve Morse
June 18, 2008

Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown, 545 pp., $27.99

Catch this scenario: Willie Nelson is arrested in the Bahamas, fined $700, and released in time to perform on the White House lawn the next day for President Jimmy Carter. Nelson is invited to stay and climbs up on the White House roof that night to smoke a joint.

Truth is stranger than fiction, right? That's what you find in this rollicking biography that details Nelson's music, outlaw antics, sharp complexities, and uncommon generosity represented by his Farm Aid concerts and his frequent benefits for friends. It all sprawls over 500-plus pages that move as quickly as Willie's tour bus down the endless road. Longtime country music critic Joe Nick Patoski presents some blatant hero worship, but also understands Nelson at the core, enhanced by hours of interviews with him.

One of a handful of superstars known by his first name, Willie became so big that Frank Sinatra once opened for him, and Bill and Melinda Gates gave him $1 million to sing at their 1994 wedding in Hawaii. His larger-than-life career not only features millions of record sales, but found him losing $300,000 at dominoes in a single day in Las Vegas, though that was chicken feed next to the $16 million he had to pay the IRS to get it off of his back.

Willie is a bona fide enigma, "the outsider that the powers-that-be could neither rein in or figure out," writes Patoski, chronicling Nelson's rise from encyclopedia salesman in his native Texas to country and pop star. Willie is shown as a constant free spirit (his Nashville house once burned down and all he saved was his guitar and a "stash of Colombian gold marijuana"), one who hires a bizarre road crew full of outcasts.

Regardless of lifestyle, Willie is renowned among fellow artists. He was the first star to endorse black country singer Charley Pride (taking him on tour as his opening act), and he rented some of the 218 apartments he owned in Austin to musicians such as Lucinda Williams. He also rented to "dope dealers, topless dancers, and trust-fund brats to make it interesting," writes Patoski.

Nelson's family life has often been a mess. He has had three wives and seven children, one of whom committed suicide. Willie's response to life's upheaval is generally to keep hitting the road. "Whatever problems were caused by liquor, pills, women, friends, or family . . . they tended to disappear on the lost highway," writes Patoski. Indeed, Willie's bus once covered 15,000 miles in 18 days.

The author unveils many details of Willie's early, hard-luck days. Willie used to play behind a chicken-wire screen to dodge flying beer bottles at such roughhouse Fort Worth clubs as the Bloody Bucket and the Country Dump. That was before he had songwriting success by placing No. 1 hits "Hello Walls" for Faron Young and "Crazy" for Patsy Cline.

Later, Willie took the country and pop worlds by storm, despite his unusual, behind-the-beat vocal phrasing. He eventually reached such rarefied air that he dated actress Amy Irving, performed duets with everyone from Paul Simon to Julio Iglesias, and signed a three-year, $11 million deal to endorse Wrangler Jeans. Someone in Austin marketed a bumper sticker that said, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Willie."

Still, it is his casualness that jumps off of these pages. He refuses star treatment, once telling a promoter who wanted to feed him lobster (while giving the crew hamburgers) that he'd have a hamburger, too. The most vivid example of this antistar attitude is when his hometown of Abbott erected a billboard that said "the Home of Willie Nelson." Willie burned it down.

He remains a character. When he suffered carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn't play his guitar a few years ago, he asked to "have helpers roll his joints," Patoski writes. And when singer Kris Kristofferson called Willie a latter-day Buddha, Willie deflected such mythology by saying he has a simple message: "The most important thing is to breathe. Inhale and exhale and everything else will be fine."

Willie is an original, and it's hard to imagine that one person could have done so much with his life. As Patoski notes, "He could quote the Bible, Edgar Cayce, the Dalai Lama and Roger Miller with equal ease." To subtitle this book "An Epic Life" is an understatement.

Steve Morse is a freelance writer who can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

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