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Cover Story

How North Texas Played a Role in Willie Nelson’s Story

We will absolutely take any excuse to put Willie Nelson on the cover of our magazine.
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Ray and Willie. Getty Images

Willie Nelson’s story is a Texan one, of course, no matter how much time he has spent in Nashville or Hawaii or on the road again. It begins in small-town Central Texas and ends—hopefully not any time soon—a few hours down I-35, in Austin and its environs. But almost everyone forgets that North Texas was the setting for some of the country music icon’s early adventures. I’ll get to that in a second.

I’ve been aware of Willie Nelson pretty much as long as I have been aware of things. I grew up in West, Texas, a short jog away from Abbott, the tiny farming town in which Willie was born and raised. He played his first shows in West, one in a bar that used to stand on the edge of my grandparents’ property, a fact that rarely escaped mentioning. When I was a kid, there was a huge billboard on the side of the highway outside of Abbott with a painting of him—braided and presumably mid-song—crowing that it was his hometown.

I think a storm took most of that sign, and they eventually had to tear down the rest. It’s pretty much the only legend of Willie that couldn’t survive.

Willie spent a lot of time in Abbott around the time of his troubles with the IRS, but I never saw him there, even though I had friends in Abbott and have drank beers in the town square more than a time or two and even was sucker-punched there once. That would have been a good story, better than the one involving the punch. I did see him, onstage at least, in Austin, when I attended a taping of Austin City Limits in the late 1990s. I have never seen the episode and I’m not sure I want to see the kid-on-Christmas-morning expression on my face. Whatever they aired did not contain all that he played, almost three hours of material.

All of which is to say, I’m a huge Willie Nelson fan, I’ve even read the autobiography he wrote with the great Bud Shrake, and I still didn’t know a ton about his time in Fort Worth and Dallas in the 1950s. Not until I read Me and Paul: Untold Stories of a Fabled Friendship, his new book (written with David Ritz, who spent his adolescence in Dallas). The friendship of the subtitle is the one between him and the late Paul English, who was his longtime drummer and best friend and about 15 other things over the course of five decades.

English spent the back nine of his life in Lake Highlands. That Dallas tale is for another day. The part of Me and Paul we excerpted for our January issue involves the beginning of English’s relationship with Willie, specifically a wild trip to Dallas in the mid 1950s that somehow involves (among others) Jack Ruby, David “Fathead” Newman, and Ray Charles. It’s online today, and you can read it here.


Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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