“It may be the best book ever written about the life of Texas’s greatest gift to the world.”—Kinky Friedman
This last April Willie Nelson turned 75-years-old. In his career, which has spanned nearly his entire lifetime, he has been a western swing player, a womanizer, a songwriter, an Air Force mechanic, a DJ, the savior of country music, an outlaw, a felon, a father, a liar, a hillbilly, a hero, a hippie and, obviously, a musical icon of epic proportion. It’s only fitting that Joe Nick Patoski’s Nelson biography should be subtitled An Epic Life.
Patoski, a journalist (he has also written books on Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughn) and fellow Texan, has known Willie Nelson since their first interview in 1973. His research is exhaustively thorough, and includes a fascinating, encyclopedic knowledge of the Texas music scene, past and present. His portrait of Nelson is entertainingly, and sometimes uncomfortably, intimate, beginning with five year old “Booger Red’s” first public performance and following the little boy through an amazing series of triumphs and an equally staggering number of tragedies on the road to becoming the musician and the man we know as Willie.
It’s clear, as Patoski recounts Nelson’s formative years and provides recollections from Nelson’s sister Bobbie Lee, childhood friends and neighbors, other musicians and Willie himself, that Texas figures prominently in his life—is as important to his identity— as music. Not to mention how important Willie Nelson’s music is to the identity of the state of Texas, his presence in, and influence on, the Austin music scene is a big part of how it came to be the “Live Music Capital of the World”.
It’s also clear that, in addition to his talent, it’s Nelson’s lifelong, unwavering belief in himself that got him through hard times and enabled him to go anywhere he wished over the years. Well, it might have been helped a little by a few well-told lies along the way. A significant portion of the first few chapters of An Epic Life is spent regaling the reader with tales of a young Willie Hugh bullshitting his way into bands and onto stages, into radio jobs and out of sticky situations. He may be a legend now, but he was always confident. Early on he learned that he could do anything he put his mind to, saying, “If you want something to happen, pretend it has already happened.”
It was this attitude, in part, that got him his first royalty check for $14,000 (for “Hello Walls”). That brought him back to Texas—and live performing—after a period of songwriting in Nashville in the ‘60s. It also led to a recording contract that gave him complete artistic control (and to Red Headed Stranger), and that generated many positive things for him over the years like a movie career, a good golf game, Farm-Aid and BioWillie.
Not that it’s been all double-bogeys and giggles at the back of the bus, of course. Patoski pays equal attention to some of the darker episodes in Nelson’s life. He relates, in unflinching detail, an upbringing of extreme poverty, multiple marriages and numerous affairs, difficult friendships (Waylon Jennings) and working relationships (rampant cocaine abuse by his band “ruined” his pot high, so Willie instituted the “You’re Wired, You’re Fired” road rule), family misfortunes and trouble with the law (for his involvement with NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) as well as for possession, for performing at a Leonard Peltier benefit and for the IRS incident (1990) when, in response to a $16.7 million tax bill, Wilson released The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? and used the profits to help pay back the IRS.
Willie Nelson may be an original American hero, but obviously, he’s no saint. He’s not exactly a sinner, either. He’s a singer. He’s a songwriter. He’s a picker and a philosopher. And yep, he’s a pot-smoker. He’s a Texan and a gentleman, and that’s the Willie Nelson Patoski presents in An Epic Life. At any given moment, he is who he is. “When I’m up I’m up,” he says, “When I’m down, I’m down.” He doesn’t believe in planning, insisting life’s a lot more fun if we don’t.
Even after all these years, Willie Nelson is living in the present moment. It is, he says near the end of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, “The only time I can do anything about.”