Less than a week after turning 82, Texas hero Willie Nelson offers fans what he's dubbing the definitive memoir of his life.
A collaboration with the celebrated music bio writer and Thomas Jefferson High School graduate David Ritz (who's worked on boffo-socko titles from Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy and more), It's a Long Story: My Life lays out the musical roads, personal relationships and evolving philosophies of Nelson in endlessly entertaining fashion.
This book resembles neither the first Nelson autobiography published in 1988 nor the exhaustive third-person tome put out by music journalist Joe Nick Patoski in 2008. While those titles provided worthwhile insight and excellent stories, readers of It's a Long Story (out Tuesday from Little, Brown) will finally get the sense that Nelson is sitting before them spilling everything he can remember.
Ritz, the talented craftsman, certainly helped Nelson organize, flesh out and frame the events of his life to achieve such an effect, but you still imagine every sentence in the subject's tone and cadence. It's a wonderful thing if you love ol' Willie - and who doesn't?
The new book's chronological account of Nelson's eight decades is interlaced with scenes from a dark and defining moment in the early '90s. Throughout the book he keeps returning to the time when the Internal Revenue Service came down on him regarding millions of dollars of unpaid taxes. Would he declare bankruptcy as he'd been advised, or would he attempt to take care of his debts in a way that felt more natural to his creative spirit?
To ponder such a serious, life-altering quandary until the end of the book allows a bit of drama to simmer on the back burner as you move from Nelson's 1930s childhood to the surprisingly prolific musical forays of the last few years. The added tension is welcome but not necessarily more powerful than any of Nelson's other memories.
The most touching sections have to do with the Abbott, Texas, upbringing that fed Nelson's lifelong spiritual faith and alternately encouraged his endless itch for the wilder side of life. Although his and sister Bobbie's mother and father were both wanderers who didn't take an active role in raising them, he always portrays them as emotionally available rather than negligent. Nelson's paternal grandparents handled his day-to-day raising, and the passages describing them are packed with vivid imagery and emotion.
As Nelson gained a love of both secular and nonsecular music from the family's Philco radio, he also developed affinities for farming, sports and anything else that passed time in his small town. The childhood and early adult memories of working all kinds of jobs will show casual fans a well-rounded Willie that they didn't know beyond the musical-road-warrior aspect of his life.
Same goes for unflinching accounts of his four marriages, which produced seven children. While he stops short of describing in detail his experiences as a father (and explains that decision eloquently toward the end), he paints a full-color picture of himself as a husband over the years. It's often not pretty, but the cheating, the fighting and the making up are all presented with the calm perspective of time and forgiveness.
Just as crucial as immediate family are Nelson's musical brothers and sisters - everyone from encouraging label figures like Jerry Wexler to collaborative compadres like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. The chapters dealing with Nelson's famous move from Nashville's controlling environment to Austin's musical freedom are some of the most fascinating in the book, even if Nelson actively rejects the terms "outlaw" and "progressive country."
Amazingly, Nelson manages to inject plenty of thoughts about his musical influences and stylistic curveballs over the years. He's been a voracious student of every major American musical style and demonstrates through the memoir a real understanding of how all those sounds work together in history.
He also provides extended forays into the making of signature albums and songs. We get his backstories on bringing "Crazy" to Patsy Cline's house in the middle of the night, making the career-altering album Red Headed Stranger in an unassuming studio in Garland, and scaring his label half to death by covering American standards on Stardust.
Before you ask, yes: Nelson tells us exactly how he developed his love affair with marijuana and how he believes it shaped his character. It makes for some of the funniest and most, ahem, enlightening passages to be found in the memoir.
There's so much more to Nelson's life in these pages, but it'd be impossible to mention all the gems to be found in It's a Long Story. Nelson has spent decades on the road building this story - do yourself a favor and take a day or two to read it.
It's a Long Story: My Life
Willie Nelson, with David Ritz
(Little, Brown; $30)
Willie and Dallas
In addition to recording Red Headed Stranger at Garland's Autumn Sound Studios and working as a radio DJ in both Fort Worth and Denton, there are other references to and memories of the D-FW area in Willie Nelson's It's a Long Story:
- As a child in Abbott, Texas, Nelson too an electric train from Waco to Dallas to attend the State Fair with his first girlfriend.
- During a period when he and several family members were living in Arlington, Nelson writes, "I'd often run over to Dallas ... Dallas saw itself as highfalutin. But Dallas also had a vital country music scene." He goes on to remember the Longhorn Ballroom and the Sportatorium.
- Nelson writes that he was in an airport intending to travel to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard the news about the assassination of President Kennedy. The tragedy sent him into a time of reflection and grieving on his new Tennessee land.
- While we won't give anything away, look for a story involving the Longhorn Ballroom, Charley Pride and segregation. It's a doozy.
Before you read, listen
Below you'll find two Spotify playlists -- one containing Willie Nelson's signature recordings, another containing songs and artists mentioned in his memoir as influencers.