Willie Nelson's life may already seem like an open book, thanks to his rich country songwriting catalog. Now he's reflecting on his brilliant career and his colorful friends in a new memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, published by Harper Collins. Here are three excerpts.
I went to Nashville because Nashville was the marketplace, and if you wanted to succeed in country music you had to go to Nashville -- so I went to Nashville. I drove there from Houston in a '51 Buick. I had been teaching guitar at Paul Buskirk's music studio. I taught a class where I had about twelve full-time students. I loved teaching guitar. I could play pretty good, so I would knock out a few blues licks to impress the class, then jump into Mel Bay's book and teach little fingers to play. It was and still is a great way to teach. By the time you went through the first book, you had learned a lot about reading music, and I was learning as much as I was teaching.
I had just recorded "Night Life" with Paul Buskirk's band. He was the best rhythm guitar player I had ever heard. Dean "Deanie Bird" Reynolds played great upright bass, and I played lead guitar. I had also just written "Family Bible," which was recorded by Claude Gray. I sold the song for fifty dollars, because I needed the money to pay my rent. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. So when I hit Nashville, I had a record and a No. 1 song.
I met Hank Cochran at a bar called Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, which is right across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. All the artists and musicians who played the Grand Ole Opry would spend a lot of time at Tootsie's. It's where I met Faron Young, who turned out to be a great friend and who recorded my song "Hello Walls," which became his biggest hit.
Tootsie's was also where I met Charlie Dick, who was married to the great Patsy Cline. He heard and liked one of my records on the jukebox, so I played him a tape of "Crazy." He took me to Patsy's house and woke her up so she could hear it, too. I remember I was embarrassed to go into their house -- it was past midnight -- so I stayed in the car. She came out and made me come in, and she recorded "Crazy" the next week. It was the biggest jukebox song of all time.
Back to Hank Cochran -- Hank heard me jamming with Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons one night in Tootsie's. He was a writer for Pamper Music, which was owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith. Also, there were Harlan Howard, Ray Pennington, Don Rollins and Dave Kirby. All great writers. Hank had a fifty-dollar-a-week raise coming but told Hal Smith to hire me as a writer and give me the fifty dollars-a-week instead. It was fantastic, and I thought I had hit the big time!
There is a new singer in town who has a great voice and a good heart and is doing really well. His name is Jamey Johnson, and he is doing an album of Hank Cochran songs. Hank wrote some great songs, like "Make the World Go Away" and "A Little Bitty Tear." We did one the other night that I had only recently heard for the first time called "Livin' for a Song." It was me, Jamey and Kris Kristofferson singing on that one. I'm glad Jamey is kicking the can on down the road, so people don't forget Hank and people like him. Thank you, Hank, wherever you are.
The best country singer of all time was, and still is, Ray Price. His bass player Donny Young, who later became Johnny Paycheck, quit and I was hired to replace him. I had never played bass in my life, but when Ray asked me if I could play bass I said, "Can't everybody?" Jimmy Day tried to teach me on the way from Nashville to Winchester, Virginia, which was Patsy Cline's hometown. It was a struggle for us both. Johnny Bush played drums for Ray, but I played bass, so he was screwed from the get-go. I asked Ray later how long it took him to realize I was no bass player. He said the first night, but he kept me around, so thank you, Ray.
Ray had his band dressed in pink and blue Nudie suits with sequins. Donny was about fifty pounds lighter than I was, so the suit was a little snug, but after a while on the bus eating truck-stop food, it began to fit better. I opened with the band and sang a few Hank Williams songs and told a couple of Little Jimmy Dickens' jokes. Then I would introduce Ray. Most of the way through my show there was a lot of heckling, like "Where's Ray? We paid to see Ray Price!" It was a very humbling experience. I understood very well what they meant, and I too was glad when Ray came on. Later, when Johnny Bush opened for me, he had to listen to, "Where's Willie? We paid to see Willie!" It's all funny now. We actually have a new CD called Young at Heart coming out next year. Here I go plugging my music again. Bite me.
Ray Price helped us out on the CD and sang great, as usual, but he's been a little under the weather lately. He told me he had to cut back. His exact words were "I'm only living six days a week now." Now that's funny!
I met Waylon Jennings one night in Phoenix, Arizona, at an all-night restaurant next to the Holiday Inn where I was staying. We hit it off pretty good right from the start. We were both from Texas and were already called "outlaws." I don't know about Waylon, but I ate it up. It was good for my image. Waylon asked me if I thought he should go to Nashville. I asked him how much money he was making in Phoenix, and he said four hundred a week. I told him to stay where he was. I was getting like five hundred a night, but the commissions, hotel, fuel, food, and traveling took it all. I thought he had a better gig than I did. Fortunately, he didn't listen to me.
We stayed great friends all the way. We disagreed on almost everything and argued like old married people. We were on different drugs. He liked speed, and I didn't like speed. I was going too fast already.
The Highwaymen tours were the most fun I ever had before or since. Kris and Waylon would argue about politics; [Johnny Cash] and I would laugh a lot. Later on they would call me just to hear a good joke. I loved John and Waylon. They are dearly missed to this day. Kris and his wife, Lisa, came by this week on his way to somewhere. He looked great. We laughed a lot, burned one down and solved all the world's problems. I love you, Kris; you're the real deal!
From Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die by Willie Nelson. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Collins.