Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
Joe Nick Patoski
$27.99 Little, Brown
One Hell of a Ride
4 CD box set
A few weeks back, Willie Hugh Nelson turned 75. Photographers got busy marking the event, emerging from their darkrooms with studied black-and-white reverences to Nelson’s lived-in, ready-for-Mt. Rushmore face.
One such photograph dominates the cover of Joe Nick Patoski’s new biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Little, Brown), an Annie Leibovitz portrait of Nelson in profile. Leibovitz offers us Nelson’s face as landscape: a tranquil Texas plain criss-crossed with dry bed arroyos that might at any moment brim over in a flash-flood smile. That characteristic smile is absent here, but a good deal lurks beneath the weather-worn surface, and author Patoski, who’s said he always wanted to write a real Texas story, dug down to the wellsprings for this one.
Epic Life is the size of the final Harry Potter volume, but there’s more homespun magic woven through this reckoning of Willie’s story than even Harry could shake a wand at. In 567 pages, Patoski chronicles the transformation of a Depression-era Abbott, Texas, kid known as “Booger Red” into the multi-platinum selling “Red Headed Stranger” who would, in turn, emerge anew as the “Hillbilly Dalai Lama.”
The book is full of voices — Patoski conducted more than 100 interviews — which lend his pages the feel of a PBS documentary. Imagine Ken Burns sitting at the round end of a bar, and give him a long evening’s elbow room in which to narrate a life story so full of incident it might crowd two and a half lives. In Nelson’s story, Patoski found what he was after: a Texas-sized tall tale.
Patoski treads lightly on unpleasantness: Willie’s unevenly parented (but loving) upbringing, his reckless early lifestyle, four marriages, I.R.S. property seizure, and more come off as something less than heartbreaking loss. In some ways, Patoski might be channeling Willie’s own kicked-back, Zen master demeanor as he writes. Even so, Patoski frames up the story straight and level as a stick-built home, confining himself to folksy narrative reporting and letting Willie’s family and friends reflect upon larger meanings.
The only thing this impressive biography lacks is a proper soundtrack. Gratefully, Sony has provided one: One Hell of a Ride, a four-CD box set of 100 songs, has been released to coincide with it. Patoski even provided another 8,000 words on Willie for the box set’s liner notes.
No wide-ranging collection will satisfy every fan, but Sony has come close. Drawing a representative sample of Willie’s career from 59 albums, the set begins and ends with “When I’ve Sung My Last Hillbilly Song,” the first version recorded in 1954-’55, and the last in 2007. In between, there are many intriguing cuts, especially from the ’60s, that hint at Willie’s mature, signature sound: distinctive guitar picking, his vocal phrasing, and the evolution of a honky-tonk aesthetic that ultimately transcends genres.
Given all the chart-toppers in Willie’s legacy, the box set still avoids becoming merely a greatest hits collection. And for every regrettable inclusion, such as “To All the Girls We’ve Loved Before,” Willie’s duet with Julio Iglesias, there is a gem to soften the blow. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter” from 1980 is an exuberantly swinging echo of Bob Wills — young Willie’s role model — featuring Johnny Gimble on fiddle, Paul Buskirk on mandolin, and Freddie Powers lending delightful vocals.
Taken together, book and box set bring into focus a remarkable career: from being Nashville Willie — a misfit in that town, writing landmark songs like “Crazy” for others — to becoming Willie the “Texas Yoda” — a man who finally came into his own by going back home.