1976 was the Bicentennial of America and it was a big year for me.
A journalism major at Southwest Texas State University (SWT), I won statewide in reporting and columnist writing awards for news, entertainment, fine arts and humor.
My confidence was high, but being honored as Investigative Reporter of the Year Award at the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Press Association in Tucson that April, made me feel unstoppable.
By early May, I interviewed the one and only Elvis Presley in Memphis–an incredible feat at the time. That summer I scored an interview with Clint Eastwood at the McNay Art Institute in San Antonio.
How could I follow those up?
‘Cousin’ Jerry King and George Strait
A friend of my family, Country Music DJ legend Jerry King, was able to arrange a sit down with Willie Nelson for me. I’ve known King since the days he was part of “Jerry & Ray” with Ray Smith in the early 1960s.
Smith lived on the Southside of San Antonio, around the corner on Commercial Avenue, from my childhood home on West Ansley Blvd.
Jerry and Ray would perform on our front porch, along with my Uncle Sherman Sanders, for family and neighbors. Smith passed away in 1973, I believe and King carried on with his fabled career at KKYX.
It was Jerry King who played the first song of George Strait ever aired on radio.
Nelson was at his peak.
I did my research. King was kind and helpful. I went to the now legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, where a fellow classmate and wanna-be country singer named George Strait would sometimes appear.
Strait, tired from the weekend gigs, would sit next to me in the hall outside our business class in the BAM (Business-Agriculture-Math) building.
Most of our conversations were small talk as we crammed for class, but I do remember him as a sincere and conscientious guy. Plus, he was the student who turned me on to the Cheatham Street scene.
From King and the staff at Cheatham Street, I learned two things about Nelson that might have helped me.
1. He had a sister named Bobbie. My sister is Bobbi.
2. He liked Manske Rolls, a local treat–a better and larger version of a cinnamon roll.
The Interview and Lone Star Beer
“All I can say is thank goodness for our grandparents,” Willie Nelson told me. “If it weren’t for them, I’m not too sure where Bobbie and I would be, or if even we would be.”
It was the fall of 1976. Nelson was in San Marcos, Texas for a show in conjunction with the Chilympiad, a festival and cookoff to determine winning contestants who would be graduating up to compete in the World Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua, near Big Bend National Park.
I had seen Nelson play a few times, the first being at a touring Grand Ole Opry show at age seven, in 1963. It was in the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium. Roy Orbison, Minnie Pearl, Claude King, and Don Gibson were also there.
In 1972, Nelson joined other music and radio personalities at a Country and Western Stars versus Your Favorite DJ’s Basketball Tournament for charity at San Antonio’s McCollum High School’s gymnasium. It was there future Country and Western DJ Hall of Famer, “Cousin” Jerry King was able to help me in for my first significant high school reporting interviews.
Jana Gower, the editor for the University Star, Southwest Texas State University’s student newspaper, would interview him later that evening. Although her interview would be much longer, as managing editor it was okay by me, because I had scored (with Jerry King’s help) some quality time with him that early afternoon at Gil’s Broiler on LBJ Drive.
We sat in the far back booth of the narrow restaurant, him with his back to the front counter and door. It’s hard to fathom that at this point in life, Nelson was already 43, a year more than what Elvis Presley would be just 11 months later, the year of his death.
Nelson wiped the crumbs of a Manske Roll from his famous mouth and began talking about his paternal grandparents. Not long after his birth on April 29, 1933, Nelson’s mother, Myrle Marie Greenhaw-Nelson, died. His father, Ira Doyle Nelson, a mechanic, remarried and moved away. Nelson and his sister Bobbie moved in with their grandparents.
Willie and Bobbie were taught music and sang gospel songs in their local church in Abbott, Texas.
“My Grandpa, William, was a blacksmith, and he bought me this guitar, you see, and showed me a few chords,” Nelson grinned. “I was six.”
By the next year, he wrote his first song and by age ten, Willie was playing guitar with a local band called Bohemian Polka. He became their lead vocalist by high school and enjoyed singing the music of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell.
He joined the Air Force in 1950 but was discharged because of back problems. Nelson went to Waco and studied at Baylor University for a couple of years but continued to be drawn to country music.
“Yeah, I knew I needed to be in the music business by then,” Nelson said. “I cut my teeth deejayin’ here and there (in Texas), but started out with Dr. (Ben) Parker, there at KBOP down in Pleasanton, and moved out to Vancouver (Washington) for a spell. That’s when my writing started to take off.”
“In the late 50s, while Elvis was joining the Army, I moved back to (Houston) Texas to join D Records,” Nelson explained. “That was pretty much a worthwhile time for writing songs and then I decided to go up to Nashville.”
During this period in Houston, Nelson penned classic country hits like “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” “Mr. Record Man,” and “The Party’s Over” which were recorded by artists such as Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
He joined Price’s band as a bass player in 1960 while living in Nashville and by 1962, Nelson recorded his first album.
“Well, that album helped me out and I have to say I was proud to get a contract with the same label as Elvis, with RCA (Victor in 1964), and was asked to join the Grand Ole Opry,” Nelson recalled. “I eventually came back here (to central Texas), we started this July 4th Picnics (in 1973), and the rest is history.”
That history includes 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, 1978’s Stardust and 1980’s Honeysuckle Rose. He evolved into one of the founders of what was called “Outlaw Country,” to buck the Nashville system, with friends like Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. Along the way he recorded mega-hits such as “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Pancho & Lefty.” Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson became The Highwaymen.
When I asked what plans he had “going on now,” he grinned.
“I’m kind of doing what Lone Star Beer is doing. I’m marketing myself to the college crowds, people like you.”
“We call it the ‘Youth Market,’ so I’m informally sort of teaming up with them (Lone Star) and they make sure I have plenty of beer.”
I thought he was joking with me, but later noticed during his show, he raised a can of what would eventually be known as “The National Beer of Texas.”
“Cheers,” he winked, and took a big swallow. His entire band had Lone Stars lined up.
On the Road Again
Jennings and Nelson ended the 1970s with giants hits “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Good Hearted Woman,” and began the 1980s with “On the Road Again,” and “You Were Always On My Mind.”
Willie Nelson became a bona fide movie star in 1979 with the success of The Electric Horseman, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. He starred in Honeysuckle Rose with Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving in 1980. This led to roles in Thief, Barbarosa, Wag the Dog, and Stagecoach.
In 1993, Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998.
On April 9, 2015, Nelson twittered that he “just completed filming Waiting For The Miracle to Come with Sophie Lowe. She’s an amazing talent.” On May 5, 2015, Willie Nelson’s autobiographical book, “It’s a Long Story,” was released.
Today, he has been restless like most of the world dealing with the pandemic and anxious to be on the road again. His album, “First Rose of Spring,” was released during the peak of summer but he was unable to tour and promote it as usual. Concerts in Alabama, Kansas, New Jersey, Indiana and Oklahoma were postponed.
In September, he took his Farm Aid 2020 to SiriusXM on “Willie’s Roadhouse” for a virtual concert. John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and others joined in.
The Orpheum Theater in Memphis is set to host him on November 22, 2020. Other dates on the schedule include Abilene, Texas-March 19, 2021; New Buffalo, Mississippi-April 23, 2021; Lexington, Kentucky-April 21,2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 26, 2021; Nashville, Indiana-April 28,2021; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-August 5,2021; Brookings, South Dakota-August 11,2021; and back to Texas in Arlington-August 21 and New Braunfels-October 8 & 9, 2021.