Texas country legend Willie Nelson has been such a fixture of the American soundscape over the last five decades that it might have become easy to think of him more as the stoic figurehead he’s become than the trailblazing rebel he once was. Nelson forged his career in the booze-soaked Honky Tonks of the Lone Star State, building an audience slowly over time with rapturous live shows that drew thousands from all around. Nashville noticed, and in many of the pages that fill the 567 tome that is Nelson’s biography, the appropriately subtitled Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, author Joe Nick Patoski does an outstandingly thorough job exposing a Nelson who always marched to the beat of his own bong, fighting with label execs at Columbia who were too tin eared to understand what the Redheaded Stranger was putting down. “Did he make this in his living room?” one executive once asked after hearing his first offering to the major. “It’s a piece of shit! It sounds like he did this for about two bucks. It’s not produced.” The reply he got back: “That’s the whole idea.” Willie still possesses this independent spirit, and brings it to Philly this Friday. Below, some of the memorable quotes and scenarios from An Epic Life.
Willie Nelson, on the violence that permeated early shows at Texas Honky Tonks: “It wasn’t a big deal when somebody got into a fight. When there was a fight, you played louder. Some people came in looking for trouble. Some people came in and found trouble. Some people drank too much. Some people danced too close to somebody’s girlfriend. That shit was always going on.”
Billy Cooper, Nelson’s longtime bodyguard and chauffeur, on drugs: “LSD, THC, STP, NAACP, we were doing the whole alphabet. We’d go, ‘Let’s try two of these or this and see what happens.’”
Willie, on The Country Music Machine: “Nashville is the store. If you have something to sell, you go to the store.”
Willie, on the music of the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels Band and the Marshall Tucker Band, which influenced him: “It sounded great if you had the right chemical mixture in your body. It was a really hard-core, heavy metal, rock kind of country.”
Ex-wife Connie Koepke, on Willie’s seething hatred of motel doors: “One time we were at a motel and he didn’t have his key, and he was, by God, going to kick the door down. This was after drinking whiskey, and I told him ‘Stay there.’ And I ran the full length of the parking lot and got another key and ran back before he kicked the door down. I can’t tell you how many doors Will has kicked down; sometimes he even had a key in his pocket.”
Harmonica player Mickey Raphael, on the several months Willie quit smoking marijuana on doctor’s orders due to a bout of pneumonia: “He was a bastard to be around. I was so much hoping he’d get a joint.”
Willie, just after he broke Sinatra’s attendance record in Vegas, to hotel owners who stood baffled as he lingered in the lobby to sign autographs for all the fans until there was no one left: “I’ve worked 35 years to have people ask me for autographs, and I’m not about to turn them down now.”
Fri., May 27, 3:30pm. $25-$89.50. With Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Lee Brice and Brantley Gilbert + more. Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave. 215.878.0400. manncenter.org
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