Veteran Texas scribe Joe Nick Patoski (coauthor, “Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire,” 1993), well-equipped to pen a 75th-birthday look at Willie Nelson’s eventful life, begins with a knowing look at his subject’s Abbott, Texas, roots.
Born in 1933, the product of a quickly broken marriage, Nelson was just a boy when he realized that writing and performing music promised an escape from poverty and cotton picking. After bouncing around Texas as a journeyman musician and DJ, he finally landed in Nashville, where his success as a songwriter (author of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls”) led to an RCA recording contract.
But Nelson, a cardigan-wearing anomaly in a town full of Nudie-suited establishmentarians, found no commercial or creative satisfaction as a worker on producer-executive Chet Atkins’s “countrypolitan” assembly line.
Only after he relocated to Austin in 1972 did he find his groove among the wide-open city’s cosmic cowboys. Flying the “outlaw country” banner, he morphed into the long-haired, dope-smoking, peripatetically touring Willie universally venerated today.
Drawing on interviews with Nelson and his widely extended “family,” Patoski pulls together a rich narrative that keenly comprehends Nelson’s artistic and geographical perambulations. The author is especially fine in the early going, colorfully recalling Willie’s many years on the beer-joint circuit and the cast of sketchy characters who trod those hardwood floors. But Nelson doesn’t get any free passes: Patoski dwells in depth on his capriciousness, quick temper, hard-partying lifestyle, infidelities and four tempestuous marriages, as well as his headline-making ’90s tax case.
The result is a warm, honest portrait of a compulsively footloose, restless artist at home in any musical style‹country, Western swing, jazz, gospel, standard pop, reggae, even polka‹and truly at home only on his tour bus.