Willie Nelson Part Two
It’s so good to rest and listen to Willie Nelson, after you have a bad day, like what I had, which I’m sure you don’t want to know, which is alright with me, I’ll tell you later, for right now it’s Willie Nelson Part Two that I’m interested in, and not about how it was a warm day so I dive in a pool full of solid ice, that will be in a future blog, and not in Willie Nelson Part Two.
Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas, on April 29, 1933, during the Great Depression, to Myrle Marie (née Greenhaw) and Ira Doyle Nelson. He was born on April 29, but his birth was recorded by doctor F. D. Sims on April 30. He was named Willie by his cousin Mildred, who also chose Hugh as his middle name, in honor of her recently deceased younger brother. His parents moved from Arkansas in 1929, to look for work. Nelson’s grandfather, William, worked as a blacksmith, while his father worked as a mechanic.
Nelson as a junior in Abbott High School’s Annual, 1949
His mother left soon after he was born, and his father remarried and also moved away, leaving Willie and his sister Bobbie to be raised by their grandparents. The Nelsons, who taught singing back in Arkansas, started their grandchildren in music Nelson’s grandfather bought him a guitar when he was six, and taught him a few chords, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age seven, and when he was nine, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summer, the family picked cotton along with other citizens of Abbott. Nelson disliked picking cotton, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky tonks from age 13, and continuing through high school. Nelson’s musical influences were Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Django Reinhardt, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
Nelson attended Abbott High School, where he was a halfback on the football team, guard on the basketball team and shortstop in baseball. He also raised pigs with the Future Farmers of America organization. While still at school he sang and played guitar in The Texans, a band formed by his sister’s husband, Bud Fletcher.The band played in honky tonks, and also had a Sunday morning spot at KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas. Meanwhile, Nelson had a short stint as a relief phone operator in Abbott, followed by a job as a tree trimmer for the local electric company, as well as pawn shop employee. After leaving school, in 1950, he joined the United States Air Force for eight to nine months.
Nelson’s high school football portrait, c. 1950
Upon his return, in 1952, he married Martha Matthews, and from 1954 to 1956 studied agriculture at Baylor University, where he joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, until dropping out to pursue a career in music. He worked as a bouncer for a nightclub, as a partsman in an autohouse, saddle maker and again tree trimmer. He later joined Johnny Bush’s band. Nelson moved with his family to Pleasanton, Texas, where he auditioned for a disc jockey job in KBOP. The owner of the station, Dr. Ben Parker, gave Nelson the job despite his lack of experience working on radio. With the equipment of the station, Nelson made his first two recordings in 1955: “The Storm Has Just Begun” and “When I’ve Sung My Last Hillbilly Song”. He recorded the tracks on used tapes, and sent the demos to the local label SARG Records, which rejected them.
Nelson then had stints working for KDNT in Denton, Texas, KCUL and KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas, where he hosted The Western Express, taught Sunday school and he played in nightclubs. He then decided to move to San Diego but, when he was unable to find a job there, he hitchhiked to Portland, Oregon where his mother lived. When no one picked him he ended up sleeping in a ditch and then hoping a freight train bound for Eugene. A truck driver drove Nelson to a bus station and loaned him $10 for a ticket to reach Portland.
Nelson was hired by KVAN in Vancouver, Washington and appeared frequently on a television show. He made his first record in 1956, “No Place for Me”, that included Leon Payne’s “Lumberjack” on the B-side. The recording failed. Nelson continued working as a radio announcer and singing in Vancouver clubs. He made several appearances in a Colorado nightclub, later moving to Springfield, Missouri. After failing to land a spot on the Ozark Jubilee, he started to work as a dishwasher. Unhappy with his job, he moved back to Texas. After a short time in Waco, he settled in Fort Worth, and quit the music business for a year. He sold bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and eventually became a sales manager for the Encyclopedia Americana.
After his son Billy was born in 1958, the family moved to Houston, Texas. On the way, Nelson stopped by the Esquire Ballroom to sell his original songs to house band singer Larry Butler. Butler refused to purchase the song “Mr. Record Man” for $10, instead giving Nelson a $50 loan to rent an apartment and a six-night job singing in the club. Nelson rented the apartment near Houston in Pasadena, Texas, where he also worked at the radio station as the sign-on disc jockey. During this time, he recorded two singles for Pappy Daily on D Records “Man With the Blues”/”The Storm Has Just Begun” and “What a Way to Live”/”Misery Mansion”. Nelson then was hired by guitar instructor Paul Buskirk to work as an instructor in his school. He sold “Family Bible” to Buskirk for $50 and “Night Life” for $150. “Family Bible” turned into a hit for Claude Gray in 1960.