Willie Nelson’s life may already seem like an open book, thanks to his rich country songwriting catalog. Now he’s reflecting on his brilliant career and his colorful friends in a new memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke M...
Willie Nelson’s life may already seem like an open book, thanks to his rich country songwriting catalog. Now he’s reflecting on his brilliant career and his colorful friends in a new memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, published by Harper Collins. Here are three excerpts.
Nashville I went to Nashville because Nashville was the marketplace, and if you wanted to succeed in country music you had to go to Nashville — so I went to Nashville. I drove there from Houston in a ’51 Buick. I had been teaching guitar at Paul Buskirk’s music studio. I taught a class where I had about twelve full-time students. I loved teaching guitar. I could play pretty good, so I would knock out a few blues licks to impress the class, then jump into Mel Bay’s book and teach little fingers to play. It was and still is a great way to teach. By the time you went through the first book, you had learned a lot about reading music, and I was learning as much as I was teaching.
I had just recorded “Night Life” with Paul Buskirk’s band. He was the best rhythm guitar player I had ever heard. Dean “Deanie Bird” Reynolds played great upright bass, and I played lead guitar. I had also just written “Family Bible,” which was recorded by Claude Gray. I sold the song for fifty dollars, because I needed the money to pay my rent. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. So when I hit Nashville, I had a record and a No. 1 song.
I met Hank Cochran at a bar called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which is right across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. All the artists and musicians who played the Grand Ole Opry would spend a lot of time at Tootsie’s. It’s where I met Faron Young, who turned out to be a great friend and who recorded my song “Hello Walls,” which became his biggest hit.
Tootsie’s was also where I met Charlie Dick, who was married to the great Patsy Cline. He heard and liked one of my records on the jukebox, so I played him a tape of “Crazy.” He took me to Patsy’s house and woke her up so she could hear it, too. I remember I was embarrassed to go into their house — it was past midnight — so I stayed in the car. She came out and made me come in, and she recorded “Crazy” the next week. It was the biggest jukebox song of all time.
Back to Hank Cochran — Hank heard me jamming with Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons one night in Tootsie’s. He was a writer for Pamper Music, which was owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith. Also, there were Harlan Howard, Ray Pennington, Don Rollins and Dave Kirby. All great writers. Hank had a fifty-dollar-a-week raise coming but told Hal Smith to hire me as a writer and give me the fifty dollars-a-week instead. It was fantastic, and I thought I had hit the big time!
There is a new singer in town who has a great voice and a good heart and is doing really well. His name is Jamey Johnson, and he is doing an album of Hank Cochran songs. Hank wrote some great songs, like “Make the World Go Away” and “A Little Bitty Tear.” We did one the other night that I had only recently heard for the first time called “Livin’ for a Song.” It was me, Jamey and Kris Kristofferson singing on that one. I’m glad Jamey is kicking the can on down the road, so people don’t forget Hank and people like him. Thank you, Hank, wherever you are.
Bass 101 The best country singer of all time was, and still is, Ray Price. His bass player Donny Young, who later became Johnny Paycheck, quit and I was hired to replace him. I had never played bass in my life, but when Ray asked me if I could play bass I said, “Can’t everybody?” Jimmy Day tried to teach me on the way from Nashville to Winchester, Virginia, which was Patsy Cline’s hometown. It was a struggle for us both. Johnny Bush played drums