I was drunk. It was dawn. Those are two facts I am certain of. I was strolling down an empty two-lane country road. That’s a third fact. Then let impression and imagination step into the story. Some details are foggy, but the sky is cloudless, not quite blue yet, still gray, but lightening, like worn white sheets, cool and comforting. The song of a few birds rise from some random trees. It is late April, early May, 1974, slightly past the height of wildflower season west of Austin. The startling outcroppings of bluebonnets have receded, and sporadic stands of swirling flames of Mexican Blankets have replaced them. There are Prickly Pear and the occasional juniper cedar, spared for some reason by generations of Hill Country cedar choppers. Most of this section of land has for decades been routinely cleared for small herds of scrawny cattle. But since LBJ and other visionaries dammed up the Colorado in 1942, the speculators have been buying and dividing, and the county’s been angling roads around undeveloped parcels, seemingly heading nowhere, but eventually descending toward Lake Travis, where a few camp homes, saved for wealthy city dwellers or rented to hippies or near-do-wells, nestle somewhere near the water. There is no breeze. I am the only thing moving across the landscape.
|Willie Nelson. by sculptor Clete Shields|
I have been abandoned by my equally drunk friends—Claud, Tim, and Neal. Actually, I am unsure exactly who sits in my car, and who scoots over into my seat, when I neglect control of the wheel to take a piss. Claud, I am sure, is here. Fact four. Tim and Neal are good bets. Sometimes Tim would drive up to Austin after his finals at Rice for a post-semester celebration. Neal and I are roommates, a year away from graduation. What I remember or reconstruct is that Neal and Tim and I are celebrating the end of the semester with homemade tacos and refried beans, Shiner beer, and tequila. One thing leads to another shot and at some point we decide we want to appreciate a sunrise at the lake. These were the good ole days when people drove drunk and somehow remembered to stop at red lights and always managed to avoid wayward joggers and bicyclists. Things have certainly changed. These days, someone would be dead or arrested. (Don’t do as I did, children.)
So it was still dark, and I was driving as steadily as I can. We navigate the roller coaster of Ranch Road 2222, famous for its sharp curves that carry you over the Balcones Fault line and into the new world. Some people say the Balcones Fault is where the “East” ends and the “West” begins. For sure, once one crosses and enters the Texas Hill Country, there ain’t no more farming. We make it to Ranch Road 620, which runs parallel west of the city about 15 or 20 miles from downtown. Drive on it long enough and you ride the top of Mansfield Dam that temporarily halts the flow of the Colorado River, thus creating Lake Travis, home to notorious Hippie Hollow where men and women swim naked. Hell, they walk around and sun bathe naked, tempting like sirens, motorboat loads of straight families with binoculars hoping to glimpse what freedom looks like. In the east, the sky begins to brighten. I peel off to the right on a narrow road, heading west again, thinking the Lake must be over there somewhere. We drive around for awhile, and wonder where have all the road signs gone. Where are we? Where is the lake? I need to piss.
|Willie, downtown Austin|
It was Claud. It was always Claud, chemistry major at UT, smart as a whip, funny as a knife, always the guy with the practical jokes. A fact I insist upon: Claud climbs behind the wheel of my car. While I stand by the side of the road, returning to the dry earth some of its precious liquid, my car pulls away, at moderate speed, proceeds for several hundred yards, and then approaches a rise, crosses over and disappears into the radiating nub of the corona of the rising sun.
Did I tell you I was drunk? And I was twenty-one and attending the University of Texas. And the semester was over. And I felt free. There I stood in the cool air of a Texas dawn. I am wearing my pointy-toe cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, a pearl snap button cowboy shirt. A bandana around my longish hair? Sure. I don’t remember, but it would not be unusual for me to be dressed so. But what happened next I do remember because this moment was and remains one of those moments of light, enlightenment, lightness, where what we know and what we experience come together in a unity, in an explosion of joy.
I zipped up my jeans, tucked in my shirttail, and began walking along the side of the lonely, neglected road, away from the lake I had been searching for, toward the sunrise, toward home, not knowing how long Claud’s joke would last. And this is a fact: I began singing, loudly, jubilantly, maybe even foolishly,
It’s a bloody Mary morning
Baby left me without warning
Sometime in the night.
So I'm flying down to Houston
With forgetting her the nature of my flight.
As we taxi down the runway
With the smog and haze reminding me
Of how I feel,
Just a country boy who's learning
That the pitfalls of the city
Are extremely real.
Willie Nelson, originally from Abbot, Texas, 125 miles north of Austin, was forty-one years old when the album Phases and Stages appeared. The song I was singing, “Bloody Mary Morning,” begins side two. Do you remember when music came on vinyl records with two sides? It was like there were second beginnings, second chances, in those days. A couple of years before, Nelson had abandoned Nashville, where he experienced solid, but moderate and frustrated success. Recently, he had divorced for the second time and lost his home in a fire. He needed a change, perhaps a new career, even. So he moved to Austin. In the next three years, from 1973 to 1975, Nelson reinvented himself blending, as we Austinites of a certain age always say, our unique mixture of hippie and redneck cultures. He released three albums, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, and The Red Headed Stranger, each one developing bit by bit the eclectic and electric persona that became the moral and aesthetic center, of, to use Jan Reid’s phrase, “the improbable rise of red-neck rock.” I could call these the midlife crises albums—declarations of freedom, expressions of regret, and explorations of a new self.
|Your Essential Magnificence, by James Talbot|
Recently, in reading Joe Nick Patoski’s biography of Willie, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, I was, now that I think about it, struck, stupidly, about how ambitious, how conscious, how quietly manipulative Nelson was in re/creating himself. “Well, the short-hairs in Nashville won’t listen to me, so I’ll grow my hair and move to Austin,” I can almost imagine him saying to himself. Just like Elvis and Rick Nelson (another of my favorites), Willie wasn’t getting his share of the cash from the hippies. Willie went so far as to recognize his music, his own being, as a product like beer. Patoski quotes a representative from Lone Star beer telling how Willie came to him and told him they were in the same sad boat. The kids won’t listen to his music and the kids won’t drink Lone Star beer for the same reasons: their parents liked it. So they worked out product placement deals and advertising campaigns around Willie and Lone Star as the next cool thing. I bought Willie and ignored Lone Star. But nowadays the hipsters in Austin, and the rednecks, are still drinking Lone Star.
|Close up of Your Essential Magnificence|
Those who have followed Nelson’ career know, however, that he never stood still. After teaming with Waylon Jennings to help invent Outlaw Country—which basically meant country music without the Nashville strings, literal and figurative, or we could call it country music without bullshit—Willie began placing himself in the center of a greater American culture. Step one, to my mind, was the album Stardust, an album of songs from the Great American Songbook, which won Nelson a Grammy for best country male vocalist, and so far has sold over five million copies. He assembled this album, lived in this record, just as Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra would. Willie was always an interesting and intentional singer, but with Stardust he began a second or third career in which he becomes sometimes an astonishing singer and interpreter of classic songs, whether they be country, jazz, blues, pop, folk, or rock and roll, everything from “Will the Circle be Unbroken” to “Georgia on My Mind” to “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Graceland.” In many ways, he has become something beyond a songwriter or performer, and reached a cross over status something like an icon or treasure. He sort of reminds me now of one of his heroes, Louis Armstrong, someone about whom one simply forgets all the labels.
Over the years, since my drunken revelry, I seldom followed Willie’s music closely, like I did Leonard Cohen’s or Dylan’s or Paul Simon’s, or Joni Mitchell’s, for that matter. In 1996, while I was living in an apartment in the process of getting a divorce, I purchased the album Spirit. After listening to it a few times, I found myself so depressed, I shelved it. It is a quiet but powerful record, and I recommend it if you want to cry. Still, even though I haven’t been purchasing each new record, it’s not like Willie is not a constant part of my life. Knightsmama wore out her copy of Across the Borderline. When I pulled out the CD to download it for the trip, it was cracked and broken. When I visit my sister The Queen Bee, who hasn’t lived in Texas for thirty years, the first thing she does is make a batch of margaritas and “puts on some Willie.”
|Stevie Ray Vaughan, |
by sculptor Ralph Helmick
For all of these reasons, on a recent trip to Austin—while still anchored in East Texas—I made sure I visited Willie’s statue in the center of town. I am re-beginning my pilgrimage in my home town, in downtown Austin, on Willie Nelson Drive and visiting Willie’s statue, placed there by the city of Austin on April 20, 2012 (4-20, if you’re a code breaker). Willie Nelson is not a native to Austin—very few of us are. But somehow he embodies the character and personality of what the best of Austin has striven for, a smiling rural acceptance of one’s fellow humans blended with a knowing urban skepticism of power. It is a love of tradition balanced by a fierce individualism. This is a fact: American art and ideas don’t get much better than Willie Nelson.
While I was at it, I made my way to the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake. I also drove by two sculptures along South Congress Avenue created by two men I like to call friends. Right near the Congress Avenue Bridge is the “Bat Sculpture” by Dale Whistler, whose work commemorates the Austin spirit all around town. Further south is the iridescent throne by the multi-media artist most people know by his last name—Talbot. When Knightsmama and I begin to contemplate leaving Austin for good because of all the changes that are being wrought, I remember the cultural roots of Austin that made all these people move there in the first place. Before us, it was country boys and girls wanting a little liberal sophistication offered by the University and state government. Next, it was us Rednecks wishing to be Hippies. Now, it’s Hipsters wishing to be whatever they think Austin offers.
|Nightwing, by Dale Whistler|
In five days, the Caravan hits the road again, leaving Hundred Acre Woods in Wills Point by way of the highway that “brung” us here, Interstate 20. In January 4, when we learned of The Buckaroo’s stroke, we caught 20 in Columbia, South Carolina, and drove straight through to Tyler. On March 30, we will hop back on to 20 and ride it until it ends in far West Texas. We will have driven almost the entire length of it, approximately 1450 miles on this one road, which is 1539.4 miles long. An odd accomplishment. But one we will all celebrate by singing with Willie, “On the Road Again.”
Soundtrack Double Feature: Willie Nelson: "On the Road Again."
Willie Nelson: "Bloody Mary Morning."