Willie Hugh Nelson, born in poor Abbott, Texas, was the product of parents who put music before him. Itinerant wanderers, Ira and Myrle Nelson left baby Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, in the care of his grandparents a mere three days after he was born so they could go out and play music with a band.
"There are three days I know that I'll be blue/Three days that I'll always dream of you/And it does no good to wish these days would end /'Cause the same three days start over again."
Nelson became a perpetual traveler, always on the road, and, at 75, he hasn't slowed down. In an industry in which artists go years between CD releases, Nelson issues two, three, sometimes more albums a year. Amazingly, despite the output, he can reach career bests even now. In 2008 he has released two such stunners: "Moment of Forever," a contemporary country CD, and "Two Men With the Blues," a live jazz album with Wynton Marsalis.
Patoski's book is exceedingly well reported. He covers everything: Nelson's storied relationships with his four wives. The cheating. The drinking. The marijuana use (naturally). His prickly relationship with Outlaw peer Waylon Jennings. There's much ado about the 4th of July picnics in Texas that started as sex and drug bacchanals only to become family-friendly annuals. We read about his songwriting ( Patsy Cline's signature "Crazy" is a Nelson song) and the origins of his trusty guitar, Trigger. And there's more: the IRS troubles; the suicide of Nelson's son; Nashville's failure to grasp Nelson's brilliance; the star's accessibility to his fans and how he champions the use of biodiesel fuel.
If that laundry list leaves you winded, you've caught on to the primary problem with Patoski's exhaustive tome: He overreports. He doesn't show us; he tells us. He obviously has great affection for the fascinating Texas legend, and he knows his subject. But ultimately Nelson remains as fuzzy as his beard, even a bit one-dimensional.
The amiable Nelson cried when "Honeysuckle Rose" co-star Amy Irving dumped him for Steven Spielberg, Patoski reports, but that aborted affair seems to be the most emotion and drama we get from this character despite far greater travails (the loss of his son; the IRS snafu). And too much detail is lavished on Nelson's ancestors in textbook dry prose. About Nelson's birthplace, Patoski writes, "In 1910, Hill County produced more cotton than any other county or parish in the nation except Ellis County, the next county north."
Some 400 pages go by before we get to the past 20 years, which have been arguably Nelson's most musically adventurous. But Patoski must race through this era before he runs out of pages and collides with the back cover.
Patoski captures the button-down, officious aura of record company backrooms quite well, though. Some of the most engaging passages deal with flummoxed executives who could never figure out Nelson. One amusing anecdote concerns Nelson's delivery of "Red Headed Stranger," his first record for Columbia Records in 1975.
"Did he make this in his living room?" one producer cried after hearing its parched, Old West sound. "It sounds like he did this for about two bucks. It's not produced." Naturally, Nelson pulled off the conceptual album's distinctive sound, and it's now considered one of the all-time classics.
Maybe a figure like Nelson is just too mythical for biography. Though Patoski's effort is valiant, his book isn't as lovable as its evergreen subject.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown, 576 pages, $27.99