This article was written by Todd Copeland, then editor of The Baylor Line, and published in the Line’s Spring 2001 issue.
Today Willie Nelson is one of the world’s most famous musicians, but in 1954 he was just another face in the crowd at Baylor.
WILLIE NELSON’S TOUR BUS, FEATURING ITS TELL-TALE “Comanche at Sunset” mural, stood in a guarded lot behind Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, where Nelson had just performed to a capacity crowd. About twenty autograph-seeking fans had gathered nearby in the cold darkness of early November.
With my media pass, I was waiting next to the bus’s door beside Gator Moore, Nelson’s longtime bus driver. To pass the time, I asked him about life on the road with Willie Nelson. “It’s just one stop after another,” he told me, adding that they were in a hurry to leave for the next day’s gig in Kansas City. Assistants scurried in and out of the bus. I double-checked my tape recorder and glanced at my notes. But with every passing minute, my scheduled interview seemed less of a sure thing. Time was slipping away.
And then, with some quick words about what to expect, the media coordinator ushered me inside the well-appointed Honeysuckle Rose III. I sat down on a couch and, a minute later, watched Nelson emerge from his personal quarters at the back of the bus. There was a quiet, private air to his movements as he slowly closed a sliding door behind him. But when Nelson turned to shake my outstretched hand, it was with the same warmth and openness that are on display every time he takes the stage to the raucous cheers of an audience.
Up close, Willie Nelson looked exactly like I thought he would—long braids of red hair hanging down the front of a sleeve-less black T-shirt, jeans and New Balance running shoes, a closely trimmed white beard, and those wide-set, wary brown eyes set in a gaunt, wrinkled face that has become a Texas icon. And despite the late hour, the sixty-seven-year-old country music legend looked bright-eyed as he sat down at a narrow table for his routine, post-concert media time before his fleet of tour buses would begin the overnight caravan to the next stop on a seemingly endless tour schedule.
To my surprise, Nelson gave the impression of having all the time in the world. Not that I intended to overstay my welcome. In my hands was a short list of questions designed to elicit details about the brief time that Nelson spent as a Baylor student in 1954. But instead of a bedrock of precisely remembered details, what I drilled into during the next thirty minutes was a rich vein of pure Willie—anecdotes and one-liners told with winks and slyly arched eyebrows.
“I remember a good friend of mine,” Nelson said of his Baylor days. “His name was Chambers, and he and I went to school there. He worked part-time in a funeral home. We had made a surfboard to pull behind his boat out on Lake Waco, and we were out there one afternoon. I was in the back, and we had a big wreck. The surfboard ran over me and knocked me out. I woke up in this funeral home in Waco, and he was standing over me with a knife and all sorts of stuff. I said, ‘Wait, wait. I’m okay!'”
It should come as no surprise that the relaxed, yarn-spinning raconteur in Nelson feels right at home on his tour bus. He spends almost as much time on it each year as he does at his spread thirty miles west of Austin, which includes a nine-hole golf course, a recording studio, and a replica old-West town called Luck that he had built as a movie set. When Nelson was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1998 with the nation’s highest award in the performing arts, President Bill Clinton said, “The American highway has been Willie Nelson’s second home. In fact, I think that bus of his has gone more miles than Air Force One.”
Nelson’s sister, Bobbie, who plays piano in the band, travels with him on the bus, as does his oldest daughter, Lana, and her own daughter, Rachel Fowler, who manages the willienelson.com website. Pictures of friends and family, including the smiling faces of some of his seven children and numerous grand-children, covered a bulletin board behind Nelson’s seat at the bus’s table. In homage to the musician’s Native American bloodlines, an array of colorful necklaces made of beads and feathers dangled from the bus’s mahogany molding above his head. And next to his arm on the table lay a pile of glossy reproductions of his portrait from the cover of the 1996 album Spirit, ready to be autographed.
It’s a stretch to connect this current image of Nelson’s fame with the version of him as a Baylor student in the spring of 1954. Back then, living with his first wife, Martha, and their four-month-old daughter in his grandmother’s home in Abbott, the twenty-year-old Nelson was two decades away from achieving celebrity with Red Headed Stranger, his 1975 breakthrough album. Going to Baylor, Nelson acknowledged, was a foray into a more traditional life than that of a honky-tonk troubadour. A degree would be something to fall back on if his dreams as a musician didn’t pan out.
“If I wasn’t going to be in the music business and make it playing the guitar, I wanted to go to Baylor and get a law degree,” he told me. “I went there long enough to realize that I really wanted to play music more than I wanted to be a lawyer.”
In effect, Nelson said, going to college caused him to zero in on his professional goals as a musician. Baylor thus can be credited—albeit in the form of a backhanded compliment—with having helped Nelson become the internationally renowned musician that he is today. Nevertheless, Nelson’s four-month stint as a Baylor student, lasting from March to July 1954, is one of the most thinly detailed items in both his biography and Baylor annals. To the extent that it exists, the information about Nelson’s col-lege career is a loosely stitched piece of folk-lore, composed of colorful campus rumor and Nelson’s own passing references to the subject.
As a result, most people are surprised to learn that Nelson ever attended Baylor. And then their surprise quickly turns into puzzlement. What, they wonder, could have attracted him to the Baptist school? Indeed, Baylor and Willie Nelson make strange bedfellows. It doesn’t take a degree in cultural studies to see the profound distance between the conservative, religious values that Baylor represents and the public persona of Willie Nelson—a long-haired, self-styled outlaw who traditionally opens his concerts with “Whiskey River” and openly discusses his fondness for smoking marijuana.
But that’s a view distorted by a contemporary perspective. If you want to gain a more accurate appreciation of the pairing of Baylor and Nelson during the spring and early summer of 1954, you have to be willing to do a bit of old-fashioned detective work, prying into the past without prejudice. And a good way to start is by paying a visit to Nelson’s hometown of Abbott to talk to the locals who knew him way back when.
On a cold, overcast day in mid-November, I pulled into the gravel parking lot next to the Abbott Post Office and parked between two big rain puddles. Jimmy “Doc” Bruce, the local postmaster, had agreed to give me a tour of the town on his lunch break. Tall and lean with deep-set eyes, Bruce immediately proved to be a living repository of local history. He told me he had spent all of his seventy-three years in Abbott, living in only two different houses. “I’ve managed to keep moving to a minimum,” he wryly noted.
He began our tour in front of the post office, located at one end of a short block that includes the red-brick Abbott City Hall and the Cash Grocery and Market. Bruce pointed across the street at an empty lot where Frank Clements’s barbershop used to stand. Clements cut hair there from 1932 until his death in the 1980s, but his claim to fame was having given a young Willie Nelson one of the budding musician’s first jobs. The barbershop stood close to the old Interurban station in Abbott, and in the 1940s Nelson signed on to polish customers’ shoes on Saturday afternoons and, afterward, sing a song. “Frank used to say that Willie only knew one tune, but he could play it all afternoon,’ Bruce said.
A small farming community, Abbott started out in the 1880s as just a few houses and businesses along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or the Katy, and was settled by families with roots in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Back in 1929, when Nelson’s young parents, Ira and Myrle, moved there from Arkansas with Ira’s parents, its population was only slighter larger than it is today—around four hundred. It was there that, at 1:40 A.M. on April 30, 1933, Willie Hugh Nelson entered the world.
As we drove away from the post office, Bruce pointed to a small plot of land and said it had been the location of the extended Nelson family’s two-story house in which Nelson and his older sister, Bobbie Lee, had been born. “I don’t remember too much about him back in high school,” he said. “I’m six years older than he is. But I lived neighbors to him all the time he was growing up.”
Nelson was only six months old when his parents separated and his mother moved to the West Coast. A few years later, his father, a mechanic, also left Abbott and his children, relocating to Fort Worth. The task of raising the youngsters fell to Nelson’s paternal grandparents, known as Mama and Daddy Nelson. According to Nelson and others, his grandparents reared the children well. Theirs was a house filled with music. When Nelson was six, Daddy Nelson, a blacksmith, bought him his first guitar out of a Sears and Roebuck catalogue and taught him the D, A, and G chords—the essential ingredients for any country song. Mama Nelson, in turn, taught Bobbie how to play piano and read music.
The Nelsons were church-going folks, attending the steeple-topped Abbott United Methodist Church, built in 1899, that sits on the other side of the Abbott Baptist Church from their first home. Nelson and his sister sang in the choir. In his 1988 autobiography, Nelson wrote that he “was one of those kids who kept going down front when the preacher called for converts at the end of each sermon. I’d see somebody next to me start to the front, and, well, there I’d go again. I joined the Methodist Church at least thirty times when I was a kid.”
“Willie came from a poor family, but he had a good Christian upbringing with his grandparents,” Bruce said. “People thought a whole lot of that family.”
As we continued down the road, Bruce added that Nelson has owned the land he was born on, as well as a big chunk of the adjacent property, for several years. He then pointed to an unpretentious white two-story that Nelson bought in the 1980s and subsequently restored. The house had once been the home of the doctor who delivered Nelson, Bruce said, adding that Nelson has lived in it at times, especially when his troubles with the IRS became dire in the early 1990s.
Bruce guided me down a dirt path alongside the house to show me the screened-in back porch that Nelson added after his 1991 marriage to his fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, with whom he has two sons. To the south, beyond a row of trees, stretched one of the many fields of blackland prairie that border the town and fuel its modest economy.
As Bruce and I returned to the post office, he said Nelson is the kind of guy who stays close to his roots and that “he has a good reputation as far as the people of Abbott go.” A few years ago, he noted, Nelson staged a concert in nearby West to benefit the Abbott Fire Department. “I feel sure that anytime anyone from Abbott would call on him, he would come to the rescue,” he said.
Funny how time slips away
Nelson has joked that Abbott is so small that both the city limits signs are on the same post. It’s true that a drive from one end of town to the other lasts about the length of an average country song—if you drive slowly.
After dropping off Bruce, I made the two-verses-and-one-refrain trip over to Abbott High School. When I asked the secretary in the superintendent’s office if copies of the school’s yearbooks were kept in the library, she looked me over for a second and asked which year I was interested in. “The 1950 edition,” I answered. She smiled and said, “Oh, you want Willie. It’s just right back here.”
After retrieving the volume from a walk-in vault that occupied the entire back corner of the room, she handed it to me and noted, with no small amount of pride, “This copy has been to David Letterman’s show and back.” For the next ten minutes, I sat at a small table in the superintendent’s office flipping through the 1949-1950 edition of The Panther. Sure enough, there was Nelson’s senior portrait—a somber-faced boy with a stylish pompadour staring up at me from the page.
Nelson’s graduating class numbered twenty-three and included many students whose surnames—Hlavaty, Janecka, Ozymy, Pustejovsky, and Urbanovs —testified to the town’s ongoing Czech-flavored culture. This was a close, loyal group, matching the camaraderie of Nelson’s later musical entourage. When the class celebrated its fifty-year anniversary this past year, they sent photographs of the event to Abbott’s favorite son, who was predictably on the road.
Like most of his fellow students, Nelson (always identified as Willie Hugh) participated in a little of everything. He was in Future Farmers of America for three years and served as the group’s song leader, foreshadowing his work as one of the founders of the annual Farm Aid concerts. He also acted in theater productions both his junior and senior years—an interest that would later manifest itself in roles in such movies as 1979’s The Electric Horseman and 1997’s Wag the Dog.
At five-foot-nine and 130 pounds, Nelson was a small teenager, but he nevertheless was an eager member of the school’s sports teams throughout high school. In addition to playing softball and volleyball and running track, he held down spots on the baseball, basketball, and football squads. Nelson was a guard, Number 57, on the boys’ basketball team in the spring of 1950. One of his team-mates was Tom Dawson, a 1955 Baylor graduate and an Abbott native now living in Dallas, who told me about growing up with Nelson. He said Nelson was a pretty good shot on the hard court and that, all around, “he was just a good guy.”
Dawson was a year behind Nelson in school, and he attended the same Methodist church. Like Bruce, he remembers Nelson living as transparent and ordinary a life as the other children in town. “Abbot was a farming community, just like it is today,” he said. “When we were little, sometimes school would let out for six weeks so all the kids could pick cotton, because that was a big industry. Willie and I picked cotton together.”
Picking cotton became an important source of income for the family after Daddy Nelson died in early 1940, when Nelson was six. Impoverished, the two children and their grandmother, who worked in the school lunchroom, had to move to what Nelson has described as a shack. They glued copies of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the walls to keep out the wind. But it was also around that time that Mama Nelson bought a radio, an event Nelson has said “opened up the world to us.”
Nelson quickly developed a particular love for the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and immersed himself in the country tunes of Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams. But he also appreciated Frank Sinatra’s style and avidly listened to jazz on a station out of New Orleans.
It wasn’t long before the musically inclined Nelson children began performing on their own. “My sister and I had been around music all our lives, and I guess it was just a natural thing that we started picking it up,” Nelson told me. He and Bobbie would ride down to Waco on the Interurban, an electric train that ran between Dallas and Waco from 1912 to 1948, to perform on Mary Holiday’s Amateur Talent Show, broadcast live on radio station WACO.
Nelson was ten when he became a professional. “When I started playing music, my grandmother made me promise I’d never go on the road, because she felt like that’s where all the evils were. And she was right,” Nelson said. “But one day this polka band asked me if I would go down to West, which was just six miles from Abbott, to play in their band. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll be glad to: I went down there and made eight dollars—more than I made picking cotton all week. But she was really upset because six miles down the road was too far.”
After playing with the John Rajcek Bohemian Polka Band in area dance halls, Nelson put together a hand-illustrated book of fifteen of his own songs, titled “Songs by Willie Nelson—Waco, Texas.” In his autobiography, he writes that “at the age of eleven I was already a show-business kind of guy, a kid from Abbott claiming to be from the big town—Waco.”
Nelson continued to develop professionally in the following years. His sister married a local man named Bud Fletcher, and brother and sister both played in his band—Bud Fletcher and His Texans. They landed gigs in some of the larger venues in the area and had a radio program on KHBR in Hillsboro.
This relative stardom, of course, did not go unnoticed among Nelson’s peers. “When he was in high school, he was always busy on weekends, playing in various parts of Hill County and West,” Dawson said. “Musically, I think he was particularly gifted. As far as I know, he played by ear.”
After graduating from high school in 1950, having just turned seventeen, Nelson struggled to find his course in life and began his itinerant ways. He tried out for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College but didn’t impress the coaches. After moving to Tyler with his friend Zeke Varnon in the summer of 1950, where Nelson suffered a forty-foot fall while working as a tree-trimmer for Aspundh, he joined the Air Force and went through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in December of that year.
After nine months of moving around in the service, including a stint in radar school in Biloxi, Mississippi, he was given a medical discharge because of a chronic back problem. He returned to Abbott and started playing honky-tonks again.
A few months later, while playing at the Thirty One Club on Corsicana Road in Waco, Nelson met Martha Jewel Matthews. She was a head-turning, black-haired sixteen-year-old who worked as a carhop at the Lone Oak Drive-In on New Dallas Highway. They promptly fell in love, and only three months later the eighteen-year-old Nelson married Martha in Cleburne in February 1952.
The young couple’s marriage, by all accounts, was tumultuous and peripatetic. After living in Abbott with Mama Nelson and in Waco with Martha’s parents for a while, they moved to Eugene, Oregon, to be close to Nelson’s mother. In 1953 the couple relocated to San Antonio, and Nelson supplemented his musician’s income by working as a disc jockey at KBOP in nearby Pleasanton. But by the fall of 1953, they had moved back to Abbott, where Nelson continued to play nightclubs.
On November 11, they had their first child, Lana, in nearby Hillsboro, after which the young family moved to Fort Worth to be close to Nelson’s father and sister. For the next few months, Nelson worked as a disc jockey in Denton and then at KCNC in Fort Worth, and he played three or four nights a week in honky-tonks located in notoriously rough parts of town along the Jacksboro Highway and in the Northside Bar Circuit.
And then, on March 9, 1954, Willie Hugh Nelson was admitted to Baylor University, at the time home to nearly six thousand students. He moved back to his grandmother’s home in Abbott and signed up for a full course load of fifteen hours for the spring quarter. The promise of a college education awaited.
Always on my mind
One of Nelson’s fellow freshmen that year was Jack Loftis, a 1957 Baylor graduate who started working at the Houston Chronicle in 1965 and now serves as the paper’s associate publisher, executive vice president, and editor. A year and a half younger than Nelson, Loftis grew up in Hillsboro just north of Nelson’s hometown of Abbott—where he began what has become a longstanding friend-ship with the musician.
“My aunt lived in Abbott, so I was down there some,” Loftis said, adding that Nelson also regularly came up to Hillsboro on the Interurban. “He’d get off with his guitar and start playing on one of the street corners on a Saturday afternoon. The people who took Willie lightly back then have all come around and now hold him in awe:’
Loftis had his eye on Nelson from early on, partly due to his own musical aspirations during high school and at the beginning of his time at Baylor. “I saw Willie perform in one of his first bands, with Bud Fletcher,” he said. “They played all around in West, particularly at The Nite Owl. Willie looked like a kid. He was quiet—a little bit on the shy side—but his personality would come out when he got on a bandstand. When I was going to Baylor, I played guitar in a band called the Nu-Tones, and we played around West and Waco. We played rock and roll, but we called it rhythm and blues back then.”
Loftis added that he and Nelson were part of a loosely organized group of Baylor students who lived in the Hillsboro area and com-muted back and forth to Baylor. Nelson was living in Abbott and going to Baylor on the G.I. Bill, Loftis told me, and he would sometimes hitch rides down to Waco.
“Willie got into the mix with us,” Loftis said. “The rule was, though, that if Willie wasn’t there, don’t wait on him. I remember that Willie would throw his guitar in the car occasionally. Between breaks at school, he would sit out there in the car and show us some chords and things?’
Loftis said there was a bustling night life in Waco at the time, mentioning some of the clubs in which Nelson had already played by then. “There was a place called the Terrace Club, out on the high-way toward Dallas,” he said. “They brought the big stars in. There was also a place called Scenic Wonderland—a huge club on LaSalle Avenue, toward the Circle—that brought in big-name acts?”
As for Nelson, Loftis remembered that “he was working all the time he was going to Baylor, playing in bars. He had worked as a disc jockey before, and that was what he thought would be his field. He would talk about his experiences in the Air Force. His wife was working as a barmaid at a place called Scotty’s, and we’d go in there occasionally?”
With a laugh, Loftis told me that he offered some words of advice when he learned Nelson had decided to leave Baylor: “I told him, ‘Willie, you’ll never make it as a musician. Stay in school.’ Of course, after he left Texas, I didn’t see him for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I was hearing these songs like ‘Hello Walls; `Crazy; and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away,’ and they were writ-ten by Willie Nelson. He wasn’t a big-name recording artist then—the studios shied away from him—but he wrote some dynamite songs that people like Patsy Cline recorded. Those songs are sheer poetry, really.”
When I told Nelson about Loftis’s reminiscences, he asked me to convey his greetings to his “old friend from The Nite Owl:’ Then his gave me his own account of what led to his enrollment in Baylor and how he spent his time both on and off campus.
“Why did you decide to go to Baylor?” I asked.
“Well, it’s close to Abbott—just a few miles down the road,” he said. “I had a little G.I. money coming for school from the Air Force, so I decided to take advantage of that and go to Baylor.” “Were you playing honky-tonks while you were a student at Baylor?”
“Yes, I played practically every night that I was going to school there.”
“I imagine that cut into your study time.”
“Quite a bit,” he said. And then, with a smile, he added, “It didn’t leave enough domino time.”
When Nelson decided to use his G.I. Bill money to give college a try, Baylor would certainly have seemed like a comfortable destination. Coming from a family and a working-class community steeped in the values of evangelical Christianity, Nelson would have found in Baylor’s campus culture familiar mores. In fact, only a few years after leaving Baylor he was baptized and taught Sunday school at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
Nelson was also representative of the large percentage of Baylor students who had grown up in the region surrounding Waco. As the only major, four-year university in the area, Baylor was a natural choice for many local students in search of higher education. Such young men and women included the likes of Jack Loftis in Hillsboro and Tom Dawson, who commuted to class in Waco with two other Abbott-based Baylor students, Tyne Moore and Weldon Morgan.
But as a veteran, Nelson fit Baylor’s demographic profile in a manner that’s even more unique to that time. Immediately after the conclusion of World War II, Baylor’s enrollment swelled with veterans returning to college on the G.I. Bill. By 1954 their presence on the Baylor campus had significantly declined, but veterans still numbered around eleven hundred, composing roughly 18 percent of the student body. Like Nelson, many of these men were married and had children. And coming out of the military, they added a dash of worldliness to the campus culture; they smoked, cursed, and were more career-minded than the typical Baylor student of the pre-war era. “Baylor likes to think of itself as very conservative,” Nelson told me. “But I had a good time while I was going there. I had some good teachers. And in class, I made some new friends.” All in all, Nelson would have found more similarities than differences between himself and his fellow students.
But there were, of course, a few exceptions. Take class attendance and study habits, for instance. In contrast to many of his classmates, Nelson’s late nights playing honky-tonks left him with little time to crack the books. And then there were the temptations of The Rendezvous, located on Fifth Street. “The Rendezvous downtown was a great place,” Nelson said. “That’s usually where I ran off to during some of those serious courses at Baylor. I’d go to The Rendezvous, and we’d play dominoes.”
One of the classes Nelson took during the summer quarter of 1954 was Speech and Radio 105, or “Introductory Radio and Television,” which was taught by George Stokes. One would think that Nelson, having previously worked as a disc jockey, would have been a standout student in such a class. But Stokes, who taught at Baylor for many years before retiring in 1983, told me he couldn’t recall having had Nelson as a student. “He might not have come to class much,” he noted.
And when I talked to Dr. Ralph Lynn, who taught Nelson in History 103, “Europe Since 1660,” the ninety-one-year-old Baylor legend responded to my inquiry about Nelson with slightly incredulous laughter and said, “I have no memory of teaching him.” After I assured him that Nelson was, in fact, one of his former students, he observed in classic Ralph Lynn fashion, “Well, I’ve been trying to corrupt the youth of America for a long time, but I had no idea that I’d done so well by having once taught Willie Nelson.”
While Nelson claims to have gone to Baylor to study law, it’s also been reported that he studied business at the school and, alternatively, that he was enrolled in a farming program. The truth is that Nelson took a total of six courses at Baylor—most of them standard fare for freshmen, such as classes in composition, plane trigonometry, and business. And it’s fair to say that when he withdrew on July 10, 1954, halfway through the summer quarter, he was not on the dean’s list.
“I’m not really sure when my G.I. Bill money ran out at Baylor, but that’s about the time I left town and started moving around,” Nelson said. And then he added, with a laugh, “Now that I had my education.”
On the road again
Five years after leaving Baylor, and following a good deal of “moving around,” Nelson was living in the Houston area when he wrote the first songs that set him on the path to stardom. “In 1959 I was playing a club out on the Hempstead Highway called the Esquire Club, but I lived over in Pasadena, which was a good hour’s drive over and back every night. So all I had to do, coming back late at night, was to write songs,” he said. One of those songs, “Family Bible,” was soon recorded by Claude Gray and went to number one on the country charts.
After moving to Nashville in 1960, Nelson had another one of those late-night compositions, “Night Life,” recorded by Ray Price. But his biggest hits as a songwriter came in 1961 when Faron Young recorded “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy.” Both songs made it into the Top Forty on the pop charts and have since attained the status of classics. In fact, “Crazy” is credited with being the number one jukebox single of all time.
During the next forty years, of course, Nelson rose to fame as a recording artist in his own right, cutting more than two hundred albums that, while naturally tending toward country music, represent traditions as diverse as gospel, blues, jazz, pop, and even reggae. Stardust, his 1978 genre-crossing collection of standards, established him as a musician beyond labels, and he has stayed remarkably relevant to the changing tastes of subsequent decades through social activism, constant touring, and scores of highly praised recordings.
Willie Nelson has style like Texas has sky, and it’s what has given his music its definitive touch. Eschewing the standard three-chord formula for country songs, Nelson cut a unique path as a songwriter by crafting jazz-influenced pieces, such as “Crazy,” that feature a variety of major and minor chords. In live performances he talk-sings his lyrics in a flat, subtly nuanced tenor and exaggerates his signature off-meter phrasing. Entering on the backbeat, he compresses verses into a few bars and then fills the remaining time with masterful guitar improvisations that feature distinctly south-of-the-border touches.
Before interviewing Nelson, I was part of the diverse crowd that packed into the cavernous Billy Bob’s on November 5 to hear and watch him perform. Playing “Trigger”—his famously beat-up, forty-year-old modified classical Martin guitar, about which he has said “I hope we wear out on the same day”—Nelson ran through a forty-one-song set that was front-loaded with all the gems people expect to hear, such as “On the Road Again,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Like his song selection, his backup band has remained unchanged for decades, with his sister a steady presence on piano.
An hour later on the bus, Nelson expressed satisfaction with his night’s work. “I really do enjoy performing live, and I thought we played fairly decent for tonight’s show,” he said. “The crowd was incredible. There’s not anything better than that.”
Despite reaching his late sixties, Nelson hasn’t slowed down much as a touring musician. He still plays more than two hundred shows a year, even recently serving as the Dixie Chicks’ opening act. And many of his performances are charity benefits, such as the annual Farm Aid concerts that he started in 1985. He’s made Waco a frequent stop, most recently playing at the now-closed Midnight Rodeo a few years ago.
But Waco has also been the setting for a few recent experiences that Nelson would rather forget. Most notoriously, he was arrested on May 10, 1994, on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge after officers in Hewitt, a Waco suburb, found him sleeping in his silver Mer-cedes Benz on the access road of Interstate 35 and saw a marijuana cigarette in the ashtray. After a night of playing poker with friends in Hillsboro, Nelson had pulled off the road for a nap on his way back to Austin. But the case against him was thrown out the next year after the evidence was suppressed by the judge as having been illegally seized due to a lack of probable cause.
Another incident that still stings was the cancellation of a concert Nelson was to have played on November 14, 1988, in Baylor’s newly constructed Ferrell Center. The show was organized to raise funds for about six hundred people who had lost money in a failed bank in nearby Leroy. Dr. Herbert Reynolds, then Baylor’s president, nixed the scheduled concert in mid-August of that year after learning Nelson had recently performed at a concert to support Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist convicted of killing two FBI agents in the 1970s during a gunfight on a South Dakota reservation. Following that concert, Nelson’s shows had drawn protests from police groups in the Northeast. “Should Nelson decide to use his influence as an entertainer in more positive ways to the benefit of society,” Reynolds said at the time, “I will introduce him myself at the Ferrell Center.”
In response, Nelson told the Houston Chronicle, “They do really make me mad when they tell me I can’t play in Waco. Waco’s my hometown. It gets my red Irish hair up. Some pressure was applied, or maybe this guy felt sanctimonious, like his hallowed hall was too good for me to play in.”
Nelson nevertheless kept his date in Waco, performing instead at the Heart 0′ Texas Coliseum. Before the concert, he talked to the local paper about the Baylor cancellation. “What surprised me was why they asked me in the first place,” he said. “I couldn’t figure why Baylor wanted me to open their building. They didn’t like me all that much before. It was an unfortunate thing.”
When I asked Nelson about the scuffle with his former college, he was philosophical about the matter. “They might have had a couple of reasons why they thought they didn’t like me,” he said. “But they didn’t know me, so how could they not like me?”
Jack Loftis said that while Nelson’s notoriety does prejudice some people against him, almost everyone finds him to be remarkably down to earth and likeable in person. “Here’s a man who has done it all, been all around the world, but he could still be from Abbott,” Loftis said. He then told me about driving up from Houston to attend Nelson’s first “picnic,” held in the Hill Country town of Dripping Springs in 1973. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he said. “It was like Woodstock. There were cars abandoned on the side of the road, and there were so many people you couldn’t move. I ran into Willie, and he brought me and my wife up on stage. We just had a great time.”
Tom Dawson related a similar experience. In 1985 he was in Las Vegas on a business-related trip and learned that Nelson was playing there that night. On a whim, he called Nelson’s hotel and left a message. “I didn’t think I’d even get through to him, but twenty minutes later he called back,” he said. Nelson provided his old high school basketball teammate with a free ticket and a backstage pass.
Another Baylor graduate who has known Nelson for some time is former Texas Governor Ann Richards, a 1954 Baylor alumna. “I knew Willie’s name when I was young because I grew up in Lakeview, which is not that far from Abbott,” she told me. “He played at the SPJST Hall nearby, and some people who lived in Lakeview would go there and dance. They talked about him because he was just a kid in high school.”
Richards said it was only many years later, in Austin, that she came to know Nelson personally. Just a few months apart in age from the musician, she appeared on a nationally televised show held to celebrate Nelson’s sixtieth birthday. Richards said there’s something special about the man from Abbott. “There’s a certain mysticism about him,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but there are people, who are not into Willie for his music, who come from foreign countries just to be around him—much like people go and sit at the feet of a guru.”
Nelson went through Baylor much like a rolling stone, gathering no moss and leaving little evidence of his passage. For most of those who had the random luck of sitting next to him in class during those four months, he probably came off as just another quiet guy who looked, talked, and acted a lot like themselves. Nowadays, of course, they might proudly mention to friends their brush with the early version of the man who would come to be known the world over as simply “Willie.” That is, if they remember him at all.
Todd Copeland ’90 is editor of the Line.