Choosing Willie Nelson to headline the post-9/11 fundraiser “America: A Tribute to Heroes”—bypassing fellow icons Paul Simon or Bruce “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen, by the way—says a lot about how we value, and forgive, our own kind. ‘Cause that sumbitch Willie used to be a two-bit, drunken philanderer. He’s had a handful of marriages and fathered a bunch of oft-neglected kids. He smoked a joint with one of Jimmy Carter’s sons on the White House rooftop, and he serves as co-chair of the advisory board for NORML. What’s more, he shorted the IRS $16.7 million in taxes. Willie’s done everything but take the blame for a dead body or three along the gritty Texas honky-tonk roads of the 1970s (because you just never know).
All of this is made abundantly clear in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a mind-bogglingly thorough biography by Joe Nick Patoski, who’s authored similar tomes on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena. But Willie can just as easily be viewed as a Buddha who’ll give you the bandanna off his forehead and the New Balance off his feet. (Just don’t ask him to part with Trigger, the well-worn guitar he plays like a bass.) His track record is full of favors extended, respects paid, and time and money donated. He even fought racism when he brought country’s first prominent black singer, Charley Pride, into the fray, once kissing him on the mouth to break the ice for a dumbfounded audience of good ol’ boys.
Sin and salvation. Goodwill towards man. Uncompromising individuality. These are the themes that make An Epic Life worth the chore of weightlifting a 576-pager. Patoski enhances the narrative with his depiction of the songwriter-for-hire game during the Nashville Sound days, his firsthand account of the burgeoning Austin scene that gave way to the Live Music Capital of the World, and his blunt portrayal of the complicated friendship between Willie and his commercially inferior partner in crime, Waylon Jennings.
The release of An Epic Life coincides with Willie’s 75th birthday on April 29, and also dovetails nicely with One Hell of a Ride, a four-CD, 100-song box set that gleans mostly keepers from a five-decades-long recording career only slightly tarnished by overexposure. Included here are three rare, early recordings: “Man With the Blues,” “No Place for Me,” and “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song,” featuring a Hank Williams–type croon that predates his casual whine. Beyond that, the box borrows efficiently from the three phases of a career that stretched country to include jazz, folk, and gospel.
Willie’s holy trinity of songs—”Nite Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” the bluesy number made so famous by Patsy Cline it was declared #1 Jukebox Single of All Time by NPR—represent the Upstart Songwriter Era, as do fellow countrypolitan jingles “Hello Walls,” “Mr. Record Man,” and “The Party’s Over.” To commemorate the Cosmic Cowboy Years, we’ve got big-band barnburners “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Stay a Little Longer,” and “Whiskey River,” the cut Willie uses to open every concert. (This iteration also includes three must-have collaborations with Waylon, including the comical “I Can Get Off on You,” wherein the two W’s try to give up weed, cocaine, pills, and whiskey, thinking they could get high off their girls instead.) Lastly, there’s the Esteemed Vocalist Phase, during which Willie compensated for the years his deliberate singing style went unappreciated by reinterpreting standards (“Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind”), covering others’ hits (“Heart of Gold,” “Graceland”), and partnering on unthinkable duets (Patoski’s bio notes that “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” was recorded with Julio Iglesias as “bombers” were passed and puffed in the studio.)
It’s hard to believe that Willie perseveres, given the velocity with which he’s lived his life and the tragedies that’ve afflicted it. But perseverance is an integral part of the American Dream, and that’s what made the outlaw turned icon a natural choice to bid farewell to our 9/11 heroes—that, and because he’s a hero, too.