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400 pgs., 978-0-316-40355-9, $30.00 hardcover (also available in audiobook and other formats)
May 5, 2015
Reviewed by Rod Davis
Willie Nelson’s new memoir is out. You’ll buy It’s a Long Story: My Life without any elaboration from me. Because Willie. Because the red-headed stranger has actually been our friend for years.
So let’s get straightaway to the bullets that emerge from this latest of many books about his life, music, and philosophies. He doesn’t say so, but we all know that Willie Nelson is the closest thing to a Texas icon we’ve had since Davy Crockett—both of whom wisely fled Tennessee for Texas. Davy had a storied if truncated career here, but Willie blew the roof off. While his songwriting speaks for itself, through the narrative of his memory we get a real sense of this citizen-musician’s larger impact.
• Willie gave Austin an enduring musical presence and maverick validity. His rejection of corporate control of artists and attempts to lock him into a genre became guideposts to a generation of pickers and singers.
• His reach went far beyond country. He played with everyone worth a pack of guitar strings. Just the casual references in his book document an array from Patsy Cline to Django Reinhardt to Sinatra to Ray Charles.
• He created Farm Aid. Willie drew critical attention to the vile corporate economics that threaten America’s most fundamental industry and family way of life: feeding the rest of us. This was a populist benchmark.
• He championed the positive effects on body and mind of pot—and in particular as an alternative to alcohol, coke, and pills. Musicians live and often die in a world filled with addiction. Finding another way was no a small feat, despite the jokes and occasional arrests. But his stubborn path yet may prove more beneficial to both health and justice than has been realized.
• People genuinely liked Willie and still do—for any man, let alone a musician, that is saying something. He doesn’t claim to be a saint, but he does have a soul, and he tries to abide by his faith and a sense of what is right.
• He has a home on Maui, near the hippie/surfer town of Paia. My sister, a math teacher, lives nearby in Makawao, and so did my mom, born in New Braunfels to find her final home in Maui and to be thrilled when Willie moved there. That Willie got the vibe of the island says much about him.
• Okay, that was a personal digression, but it leads to a larger point: Willie is all about family, in his case as extended as they come. Granted, in his first marriages he sometimes ske-diddled when he should have ske-daddled, but he always owned it — no excuses for his failings. Throughout, he maintained a constant love for all his wives, his children, and his friends.
• He fought the law and the law didn’t actually win. Call it a draw, but Willie’s battle with the IRS over past-due taxes ended up a lot friendlier than it had any right to. It was how Willie, and his close friends and advisors, chose to handle it.
Reading the memoir begs the question of how the resilient, driven little kid from Abbott turned into an 82-year-old popular legend instead of a narcissistic jerk, as is too often the case with extraordinary celebrity. Buddy Cannon, his “main go-to writing partner” these days, nailed it in a conversation with Willie about an unexpected recent recording success:
“No big mystery,” said Buddy. “It’s a hit because it’s your philosophy. People like the way you think.”
“But I’m thinking that my thinking isn’t all that clear.”
“That’s what they like about it. Neither is theirs.”
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Texas-based writer Rod Davis is the author of the novels South, America and Corina’s Way and the nonfiction American Voudou. www.rodavisauthor.com
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