Jukeboxes, Beer Joints, and the First Willie Nelson Songbook
Music was an opportunity, and it took you places too. By ten years old, Willie Nelson had started writing songs and now he became a performer too, strumming acoustic guitar in John Rejcek's orchestra, a family ensemble of brass instruments and drums that played polkas, waltzes, and schottisches at Czech dances. Mr. Rejcek sired 16 children in all, but he took a shine to little Red and his musical aspirations. The night Mr. Rejcek paid the ten-year-old six dollars for doing what came naturally was a revelation to Willie Hugh. It didn't take him long to realize that was as much money as he could make on a good day in the cotton fields. Only, playing music felt good and didn't leave him wasted and hurting, and strumming a guitar didn't make his fingers throb the way the thorny cotton burrs did.
The stage was where Willie was meant to be. "I felt right at home up there," he said. "That was what I wanted to do. It seemed normal for me to be on a bandstand."
He also played on the courthouse steps in Hillsboro and at Frank Clements's barbershop in Abbott, where he shined shoes and sang a song for fifty cents a pair. By his twelfth birthday, Willie had finished his first songbook. Written on manila paper by hand in cursive script that resembled a lariat, "Songs by Willie Nelson, Waco, Texas" featured an index and the lyrics — some handwritten, some typed — of 15 original songs, including "The Moon-Was-Your-Helper," "Sweethearts Forever," "I'll Wonder Alone," "Only True Love Lingers On," "You Still Belong to Me," "Long Ago," "Faded Love and Wasted Dream," "The Storm Has Just Begun," "Hangover Blues" ("You can keep yo rotgut whiskey / you can keep yo gin and rye / I'll quit waking up with headaches and a wishing I could die / Don't want no hangover blues / You can keep yo hangover blues"), "I Guess I Was Born to Be Blue," "So Hard to Say Goodby," "Teach Me to Sing a Long Song," "Whenever," "Gold Star," and "Starting Tonight." At the end of each lyric, he wrote "THE END" and "WILLIE NELSON," the W and N done with a practiced flourish. On the last page, he wrote "HOWDY PARD" in lariat script and drew small cowboy hats on the borders.
At the invitation of his friend and classmate Roy Gene Urbanovsky, he also joined the Urbanovsky family's jam sessions out at their farm near Brooken, and when Bernard Urbanovsky got married, he hired thirteen-year-old Willie to play at his wedding, along with the dance band Bernard fronted, the Czech Mates. Willie promised Mamma Nelson he'd be home by 11, played the gig, and was paid five dollars for his services.
By then the kid was old enough to have figured out that if there was money to be made in music, it was in the beer joints and dance halls, two of the few places where people spent money freely even though America was at war. He knew he was already condemned to hellfire and damnation by loitering in beer joints, and Nancy Nelson let him know she was not happy her boy worked in places like that. But she allowed it, since he went into such places out of a desire to help provide for the family.
The dens of temptation were a short bicycle ride away, clustered three miles south of town just across the line separating Hill County and McLennan County on Abest Road. The beer joints that became Willie's training ground for performing and for learning songs were Albert's, Frank Clements's place, known as the First and Last Chance, and, a few hundred yards up the hill, Margie Lundy's Nite Owl, the hardest of the honky-tonks hugging the line.
The jukeboxes in those joints helped form his musical tastes. He could feed nickels into the record machine and play the same song over and over to figure out the chords and lyrics. He wasn't the only one. Others poured nickels in for more personal reasons, which usually involved heartbreak, misery, or love lost. The honky-tonk was where you went to find somebody or to forget somebody. "I learned everything on the jukebox," Willie said, including the words and musical structure of every song.
Jukeboxes were programmed with records that would inspire beer drinking, the kind of music that amounted to white man's blues, whether it was sob songs such as Floyd Tillman's scandalous "Slipping Around," one of the first widely popular cheatin' songs, Hank Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart," or "Walking the Floor over You," by Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours ("Ernest personified what I thought someone from Texas should sound like," Willie later recalled), or "Always Late," "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," or "I Love You a Thousand Ways," by Lefty Frizzell, a hard-core honky-tonker from Corsicana, just northeast of Hill County, or anything by Bob Wills.
From Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Joe Nick Patoski, and reprinted by permission.
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