Perhaps nothing in Willie Nelson's long, strange life as singer, songwriter, soft touch, good-natured wastrel and golf fanatic is stranger than this: A man club owners once refused to hire because they loved his songs but hated his voice became America's favorite singer of classic pop, seller of millions of copies of Stardust.
"That cat can sing," said Frank Sinatra. "That cat's a blues singer. He can sing my stuff, but I don't know if I can sing his."
Blues singer, jazz singer, country singer: Nelson's duet partners run from Webb Pierce to Ray Charles to Wynton Marsalis. At 75, who knows what tricks he still has up his T-shirt sleeve?
Born dirt-poor and orphaned young, he has slept in the White House, raised millions for family farmers, campaigned for the legalization of marijuana and been busted spectacularly by the IRS. His best friends are Paul English, a pimp turned drummer, and Darrell Royal, the football coach. But thousands of people who have barely met him, and millions who never met him at all, consider him a friend.
Why? I'm not sure that Joe Nick Patoski, in his long, loving and exceedingly well-researched biography, ever makes that clear. It's a very readable book, but although Patoski has known Nelson for decades, it lies beyond his gifts to convey the man's whimsical, Buddhalike quiet. Nor does he do full justice to the music. Despite many references to Nelson's casual relationship with the beat, he does not find room for close analysis of how Nelson's music, and poetry, work.
Nelson is a complicated man with a gift for expressing complex emotions in three-minute chunks of melodic rhymed verse. Booker T. Jones, who produced Stardust for Nelson, calls him "a farmer that found out he's a musician. He comes from where I come from in the music, from making $6 a night playing to 4 a.m."
David L. Beck is a reporter and editor with whom Willie Nelson once offered to share a joint during a backstage interview in Las Vegas. Beck says he declined.