What Would Willie Do

What Would Willie Do

Jan 8, 2020–I’m reading Willie Nelson’s autobiography.

And it’s distressing me.

Because everything he did in his journey to country music sainthood, I did the opposite.

He was a rebel and a rounder. He would skip school.

I was teacher’s pet.

We both share a love of writing–songs, words, stories.

But every time I opted for security and comfort, he rejected those things and did the unexpected. He had superstars like Patsy Cline singing his songs, but Willie wanted to sing them himself. He played bass in Ray Price’s band, but Willie wanted to be up front leading his own band. He was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, but Willie quit so he could play more big clubs and stadiums.

Where normal people (me) would opt to stick to the job with insurance and buy the house, he walked away from an endless list of great jobs and burned his house. Not literally. But when his nephew called to tell Willie his house was burning down, Willie asked, “Is the garage on fire?”

“Not yet,” his nephew replied.

“Then take my car and park it in the garage,” Willie said. “Insurance is gonna pay for all this. Might as well pay for a new car.”

As a teen, he hopped a train with his best friend.

As a teen, I had the chance to hop a train. A buddy and I decided after too many beers we would find a train in Iowa and ride it to the west coast. The next day he called and said let’s go. I, the good son, said, that’s stupid, and backed out. I always wonder how jumping into that boxcar would have changed my life.

Of course, Willie and his friend did go through with it. But leaving Fort Worth, they only made it as far as Weatherford, then hitched back home. So it probably would not have been a life-changing event for me, either.

But the fact is, Willie did it.

I’ve played in bands. Been on the road. I’ve written songs, and like Willie, went to Nashville to pitch them. We sat in Tootsie’s, saw Chet Atkins, played tunes for a producer, and worshiped at Ryman Auditorium.

But I went back to the farm, became a teacher, stayed married, invested cautiously. Willie kept pitching. And selling. And playing. And, after realizing Nashville wasn’t a fit for his sound and soul, he carved out the legendary career labeled–by Nashville–Outlaw Country.

Regrets? That’s not what this is about. I didn’t want to be a “Willie Nelson” and could not have been. I know that sounds like sour grapes, or Yesterday’s Wine. But I tasted enough of that life to understand a little about it and how it felt, and it just didn’t reach into my soul as it did with Willie.

I believe we all end up where we are supposed to end up.

When I was gallivanting about in my 20s, I wondered why my peers stayed in their hometowns, married early, and held steady jobs. Now I realize that how anyone spends their life is not for anyone else to judge.

My only earnest wish is that we do what we love. Some self-help guru was writing a book on success, when he realized the most successful man he ever met was a tollbooth operator on a Mississippi River bridge. Every day as hundreds of commuters crossed the river and dropped coins in the basket, the operator gave each a friendly wave and a sincere smile. He had a world full of friends. He had a job he loved, and was performing it with passion.

Just like Willie.