willie nelson and booger red -- 8/6/21

Today's selection -- from It's a Long Story by Willie Nelson. A school-aged Texan named Willie Nelson became enamored of becoming a cowboy and a singer:
"My first foray out of the tiny world of Abbott into the larger world of Texas was a six-mile bike ride to West, where there was a large community of Czechs. They spoke in different accents, attended the Catholic church, and had nothing against drinking beer. I was fascinated by the presence of these people who had crossed a great ocean and somehow wound up in Hill County.

"I was fascinated by the very fact of being alive -- that my heart beat to the rhythm of life under the sun of the huge Texas sky, that my eyes took in the amazing sights of cotton gins and horse-drawn plows and far-off fields scorched brown under the summer heat or blooming green grass in the early days of spring.

"My eyes were even more amazed by what I saw on the screen of the Best Movie Theater in West -- an even wider world whose heroes were more than mere men in white hats who shot straight and caught the bad guys. They were men who cradled guitars in their arms and sang the stars down from the heavens. They moved through the world serenading away the sinister side of life. Even though they were macho men who feared no rustler, they sang sweetly, effortlessly, and proudly. I saw that a cowboy hero is a romantic lover of life with a song on his lips, a funny sidekick close by, and a beloved horse on whose back he rides the trails of life.

Willie Nelson

"First viewed in the small movie theaters of West and Hills­boro, Texas, the Western became an early and beautiful obses­sion. The Western was all about daring and danger. Up on the big screen, these fearless cowboys were my first heroes. Their moral lessons, like the lessons of the Methodist church, were clear. You live life based on loyalty. You stay on the right side. You protect your own. And when the going gets rough and the day grows dark, you pick up your guitar and soothe your soul by singing the pain away.

"Their songs -- eternal anthems like 'Happy Trails to You' and 'Back in the Saddle Again' -- weren't sung in church, but they entered my soul and informed my heart with the impact of the holy hymns taught by [the grandmother who raised me] Mama Nelson. They were all about the great adventure. Early on, I yearned for a great adventure of my own.

"Years later I learned that these songs, whether written by Gene Autry or tunesmiths out in Hollywood, signaled the start of a category called country western music.

"Like most every little boy in the America of the late thirties, I wanted to be a cowboy, whether Wild Bill Elliott, Lash LaRue, Eddie Dean, Whip Wilson, or Hopalong Cassidy. But how can you be a cowboy without a horse? And living in a one-horse town like Abbott, that can be a problem. Fact is, Abbott was a no-horse town 'cause the only steed belonged to Mr. Harvel, who lived two miles outside town.

"On a sunny day in summer, I'd walk out to his place and ask if I could take a little ride.

"'Sure thing, little Willie,' he'd say. 'Just don't go too far.' Sitting on top of that old nag, I pretended to be Tex Ritter riding the plains of Wyoming until a friend spotted me and called out, 'Hey, Willie. You look like you 'bout to fall off that thing.'

"'Not gonna happen,' I said. And it never did. Been a com­fortable rider all my life. From an early age, I was also comfortable writing poems. I liked stringing words together and telling little stories. I liked the fun of rhyming, the easy flow of expressing my feelings.

"Mama and Daddy Nelson were big on proper speech. In addition to giving us music lessons, they taught us elocution. And though Bobbie and I were essentially shy country kids, they encouraged us to perform before the public, especially when the appearance was part of a religious event.

"The seminal event happened when I was four or five. My grandparents had given me a poem to read in front of a gala outdoor tabernacle meeting in Brooking, Texas. The day was part revival, part picnic. You'd eat, you'd pray, you'd hear some preaching, you'd do some singing. This went on all after­noon. Mama Nelson had dressed me up in an all-white sailor suit. The outfit brought me pride, but the idea of reciting a poem in front of this huge audience gave me jitters. Just before I was set to go on, I started picking my nose. I was nervous and didn't realize how deeply I had dug into my skin. When I hit the stage, red blood was pouring all over my white suit. Right then and there, I ditched the poem and improvised a new one on the spot.

What are you looking at me for?
I got nothing to say
If you don't like the looks of me
You can look another way

"That's how I got the nickname Booger Red."

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Willie Nelson


It's a Long Story


Back Bay Books / Little Brown and Company


Copyright 2015 by Willie Nelson


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