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Gary Borders: A tribute to country music icon Willie Nelson

Gary Borders
Gary Borders
Gary Borders

My dad is the primary reason I have been a Willie Nelson fan for more than 40 years, hearkening back to when I mainly listened to rock ‘n’ roll and did not think country was cool.

Country was Porter Waggoner in a silly suit, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, and Eddie Arnold. My dad listened to Eddie Arnold incessantly. Eddie was probably a delightful gentleman, but to a long-haired teenager’s ears it was like listening to elevator music. I thought if I heard “Make the World Go Away” one more time, I would have to go far, far away.

Then my dad, who died five years ago, discovered Willie. Eddie was relegated to the stacks. Soon, “Hello Walls,” “The Party’s Over” and “Night Life” were playing on the phonograph I bought my parents for Christmas when I was 16. Even though Willie was still playing traditional country standards in the early 1970s, there was a level of quality to the lyrics, his distinctive voice and impeccable guitar playing that hooked me. He has been playing “Trigger,” a Martin N-20 guitar that is nearly as famous as him — and a bit more weatherbeaten — for 45 years now.

“Phases and Stages” debuted in 1974, followed by “Red Headed Stranger” the next year. Willie gained a new generation of fans and was on his way to becoming a Texas icon. And I’m still a fan.

As a birthday gift, my wife bought me Willie’s latest CD, “Brand of Brothers” recently. It contains 14 new songs, eight of which were co-written by Willie and producer Buddy Cannon. At 81, his voice has lost a bit of range, but his songwriting skills remain strong — and he can still make Trigger sing.

From “Wives and Girlfriends”:

I love my wives and I love my girlfriends, but may they never meet.

            May they never know each other when they pass on the street.

            I might be a Mormon, or I might be a heathen, or a gambler, I just don’t know.

            But I love my wives, and I love my girlfriends, so turn ’em all out

            And let ’em all go.

And from “I Thought I Left You”:

            You’re like the measles.

            You like the whooping cough.

            I’ve already had you.

            So why in heaven’s name can you just get lost?

            I thought I left you.

            Don’t you think it’s time you’re leaving me.

Now that’s country. Willie also recorded a new Billy Joe Shaver tune called “Hard to be an Outlaw.” It bemoans what has happened to country music these days, with an endless stream of songs about drinking beer, girls in tight jeans, and pickup trucks.

Even at his age Willie is on the road again at least a dozen nights a month. We were lucky enough to catch him in mid-June at an outdoor amphitheater in Boston on the harbor while on vacation there. He played nearly two hours nonstop to an appreciative crowd of 5,000 or so.  He performed a few songs from “Band of Brothers,” but it is hard to judge a new song in that large a venue.

With the CD, I have come to appreciate the songs. The Red-Headed Stranger, whose beard and braids now are streaked with gray, has put together a masterpiece that is drawing strong reviews from music critics.

This is Willie’s first album dominated by songs he wrote in more than 15 years. The fellow who wrote “Crazy” more than 50 years ago still has what it takes to write a catchy, often gut-busting funny song.  He is a living American treasure. People will be recording his songs decades after the “country” singers on popular FM radio are long forgotten.


Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.
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