I’ve always liked the sound of Willie’s voice. My dad used to have a couple of his CD’s from the nineties but as I’ve got older, I’ve gone back to his classic seventies output via a rather handy compilation.
Sony launched the “Essential” series in the noughties. They were well put together compilations which generally spanned the complete career of the featured artists and spanned at least 2 CDs (Springsteen had three discs). I had a few of them and they were always good for sticking in the car for the commute to work. The covers were usually a black and white photo with the artist name at the top. The sleeve details were better than your average low end compilation that just been copied over from an old vinyl reissue.
I had put a selection of them on our in-car iPod when we went mad and bought the Roomster. These included the Essential Willie Nelson.
It was N that picked up the track initially. It was the chorus line that stuck:
“After taking several readings, I’m surprised to find my minds still fairly sound.“
The song goes on to describe the scrapes that Willie and Paul got stuck in. It first appeared on Willie’s 1971 album “Yesterday’s Wine”. Willie was very much a concept album man, in a similar vein to Sinatra during his Capitol years. Willie recorded the album when his career was in a lull. His records were not charting fantastically well, his tours were losing money and his Tennessee ranch had burned down. To top it all he was divorcing his second wife Shirley Collie, after she had found a maternity department bill for one of Willie’s extra marital children.
Willie moved to a new ranch in Texas and recorded the album in two days. He married Connie Koepke, the mother the daughter whose birth had led to his divorce.
The album is the story of an “imperfect man” from cradle to grave. It faired poorly again but is now recognised as one of Willie’s best. “Me and Paul” was released as a single.
The titular Paul was Paul English. Paul started playing with Willie’s band in 1955. Paul blagged his way via his brother Oliver. He could play trumpet but Willie was after a drummer. He played the beat backward initially but eventually got the hang of it and Willie hired him. Willie saw that Paul was worth keeping around for the more dicey situations that the band encountered.
Paul has a few other business interests. He owns a used car lot and after drifting out the band became Willie’s car dealer of choice. He was eventually rehired for the princely sum of 30 dollars a day and is still there. His other speciality was acting as Willie’s muscle when promoters weren’t as forthcoming with payments as they should be. Paul strongarmed them as necessary.
The song catalogues some of the scrapes that he and Paul have gotten into. Starting with getting busted in Laredo, they move on to Milwaukee where they were refused boarding of the plane. Willie thinks they like to pick on him and Paul. We are then backstage in Buffalo. Whisky was consumed and they don’t recall if they even went on stage. Then we’re back to the chorus one last time.
“It’s been rough and rocky travelin’ But I’m finally standin’ upright on the ground After takin’ several readings I’m surprised to find my mind’s still fairly sound
I guess Nashville was the roughest But I know I’ve said the same about them all We received our education In the cities of the nation, me and Paul“
The song is charming. Willie suggests that they are victims of a suspicious society but there is a twinkle in his eye. Knowing what he, Paul and the extended family got up to and also how Willie wasn’t accepted in Nashville and moved to Texas, I’m sure hell was being raised. It features plenty of detail which is something I love in songs. Country as a genre excels at this. There are countless examples – George Jones’s “Good Year For The Roses” is a fantastic example – “After three full years of marriage, it’s the first time that you haven’t made the beds.” Some of my favourite songwriters are very adept at similar techniques – Richard Thompson, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, even Nick Cave. It’s these things that humanise the songs and make them resonate with everyday experience. Even as a bloke, it’s the mundanity of the ritual in “Say A Little Prayer” that sticks in one’s mind.
Willie is still going strong churning out excellent albums well into his eighties. He takes risks still experimenting with country, jazz and even reggae. He’s just about to release an album with Merle Haggard called “Django and Jimmy”.
They have a crack at “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” which has a Django Reinhardt chug in the background.
But one of my favourite of Willie’s skills is his sleight of hand. This is a fantastic card trick. Please stick with it all the way through as it is a trick that keeps giving.