The Unbroken Circle: The Willie Nelson Story (Part Two)

The Unbroken Circle is usually a feature where I discuss classic country songs, though in this case, it’s the second part of a career retrospective on Willie Nelson.

Read: The Willie Nelson Story (Part One)

As the 1960s came to a close, Willie Nelson’s commercial success halted as his artistic fever grew. Even Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” came as more of a parting gift than anything else, given that she, along with Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, perished in a plane crash in 1963.

Producer Chet Atkins was determined to make Nelson a star, but it was all for naught. Nelson signed with RCA Nashville in 1964, but it wasn’t the star-studded move that made him what he’s known as today. The announcer even introduced him as “Woody Nelson” at his Grand Ole Opry debut. And despite the hayseed image depicted in Nelson’s debut for the label, Country Willie – His Own Songs, the music wasn’t made to reflect it. Atkins had total control over song selection, arrangements, and personnel, insisting on using a core group of session players for every recording he made.

Country willie album cover

And despite the already-established Nashville Sound clashing with Nelson’s peculiar vocal style, there were other problems that fed his frustrations with Nashville. For one, he disagreed with Atkins’ insistence on using studio players, given that he wanted to play the music that he’d eventually play with his road band. Second, on the personal front for Nelson, two marriages ended in divorce, fueled partly by issues with alcohol. In Nashville, he was a loser, but on the road – where he truly thrived – he was a star, particularly in Texas. Of course, his commitment to the Opry meant he always eventually had to return to pay his dues, which would have been alright if his records were selling. Nelson blamed Atkins’ lack of promotion for his poor sales.

“I didn’t think it was bad,” Nelson said in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. “I was having fun being rejected. You know, they liked my songs, but they didn’t care for my singing and phrasing, a little crazy, so to speak. I was probably stubborn, and not really wanting to do anything anybody wanted me to do. But they weren’t all wrong.” 

Waylon Jennings, like Willie Nelson, would endure a complete transformation before finding himself as an artist. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives.

As frustrations mounted, Nelson stopped by a gig in Phoenix, Arizona, to catch a budding talent who had been tearing up the local circuit. His name was Waylon Jennings. Inspired by Nelson, Jennings asked him for advice on how to further his career. As told in Willie: An Autobiography, Nelson told him, “Whatever you do, Waylon, stay away from Nashville. Nashville ain’t ready for you. They’ll just break your heart.”

Jennings became Nelson’s stablemate in 1965 at RCA, Nelson’s advice be damned. Like his friend, it didn’t take Jennings long to grow frustrated with Nashville’s controlling recording system, but that’s a story for another time. As for Nelson, as success worsened his songwriting grew dark and depressing. The creativity still flowed, though, like the ode to his home state through the concept album Texas in My Soul. But with 1970’s Both Sides Now and Laying My Burdens Down, he fell completely off of the charts. Change was in the air for Nelson, as it was in the world in general. Student demonstrations in support of the Civil Rights movement and against the Vietnam War came in tandem with the arrival of hippie songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Even Johnny Cash was popular with the counterculture, given his infamous 1968 Live at Folsom Prison album and popular network television variety series, The Johnny Cash Show. Everyone moved ahead while Nelson seemingly got left behind.

Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’ was just one sign among many of a sea of change headed for Nashville in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Luckily for him, he still had his songwriting royalties. He used part of them to buy a farm east of Nashville, concentrating solely on writing, even though his heart yearned for greater solo success. On Christmas Eve, 1970, Nelson’s farmhouse caught on fire. He saved his signature guitar, Trigger, but lost dozens of demos and unreleased songs. The accident became the kickstart he didn’t know he needed. While the house was being rebuilt, Nelson and his girlfriend settled in Bandera, Texas.

Well, scratch that. This move wasn’t quite the revolutionary move that would make Willie Nelson Willie Nelson, so to say, but it set the wheels in motion. While in Bandera, he got a regular gig at John T. Floore County Store, a dancehall that catered to long-haired hippies and city kids that found themselves out of place in beer joints yet returned to them anyway out of a love for the music they heard. And, as it turned out, it wouldn’t be long before those disjointed hippies found common ground with the rednecks and cowboys, in Austin. It would simply take someone to pull it all together.

It was there that an emerging music scene emerged that catered to an artist like Nelson who grew less concerned with labeling his music for commercial purposes. In coffee shops around the University of Texas campus, a new crop of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle emerged, and those offbeat poets blended right in with someone like country-rocker Michael Martin Murphy. Everything came together when the Armadillo World Headquarters, an old armory, was converted into a concert space in 1970. An outdoor beer garden was added in 1972. Soon, outlets like Rolling Stone and Time were writing about the music that blended everything from country to rock and blues and beyond, labeling it early on as “cosmic cowboy” and “progressive country” music. Nelson soon left Bandera for Austin and found a fitting home at the Armadillo.

Music like ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac’ was part of the budding ‘progressive country’ movement.

The young crowds were full of people as free-spirited and restless as the artists who played to them. Nelson ditched his turtlenecks and suits for jeans and a straw cowboy hat, and let his hair grow out longer. Though the turf was initially unfamiliar to him within his home state, Nelson became a star who gravitated naturally toward the looser atmosphere, and encouraged Waylon Jennings to come check it out, who was initially taken aback but came to love the scene very quickly. As told in Michael Streissguth’s Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville, “Waylon turned around and said, ‘Go get that little red-headed son of a b****. What’s he got me into?”

Another pivotal moment came via the Dripping Springs Reunion, an undeniable disaster, but one that led to something more. A music festival held on a remote, 7,000-acre ranch just outside the titular place in March 1972, the initial bill included names like Buck Owens, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller. The problem? The event was poorly promoted, and fans simply didn’t show up. As told in Texas Monthly, Nelson said, “That first Reunion didn’t draw because the promoters didn’t know how to promote it in Austin. They spent all the money in Dallas, the big cities. They didn’t let the local people know where to go.”

Nevertheless, Nelson saw the event as a good idea in spirit. It was, after all, there where where Waylon Jennings heard Billy Joe Shaver play a song inspired by Nelson, titled “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” prompting Jennings’ own landmark album of Shaver songs, Honky Tonk Heroes. So another festival was held in 1973, spearheaded by Nelson … who ran it even more poorly than the first one. It wasn’t because of a lack of promotion, mind you. It’s just that sanitation was a moot point, fans suffered heat exhaustion, fights constantly erupted, and the electricity cut out – and the first festival, held on the Fourth of July, was far from an isolated incident. If anything, things only got worse at future events, including one where Nelson was sued by the city for bringing “moral pollution.”

Jerry Wexler. From ‘Rolling Stone.’

Still … it was that initial poorly promoted festival that convinced Nelson to stay in Austin at a time when he was still committed to his flailing Nashville duties. He still recorded albums for his label. In fact, his creative adventures in the early ‘70s continued to alienate Nashville listeners while proving to be riveting and groundbreaking works. Examples included Yesterday’s Wine, a spiritual-cosmic concept album well ahead of Nashville’s time, and The Words Don’t Fit the Picture Any More, which contained the first version of “Good Hearted Woman.” Back in Music City, Nelson met Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, an R&B legend who produced hits for artists like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Perhaps as a twist of ironic fate given his upbringing, Nelson was signed on to Atlantic as the label’s first country signing … well, almost, that is. He was still bound by his RCA contract. He found his way out of it through manager Neil Reshen, the person responsible for helping Waylon Jennings negotiate a deal with his label that allowed him to record his own albums with his own band and producer. Reshen also helped Nelson negotiate a buy-out and leave RCA for Atlantic, where Nelson’s career would soon be reborn.

Join me next time, where we’ll discuss Nelson’s iconic artistic and commercial run through the 1970s and his pivotal role in the growing Outlaw movement.

READ: The Willie Nelson Story (Part Three)

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