Recollecting Willie

Willie Nelson has been called a spiritual leader, an outlaw and a guru.

Some even say they’ve seen him heal people.

In anticipation of Nelson’s upcoming Asheville concert, Mountain Xpress readers wrote in to share connections with Willie — bonds that transcend his music. Cherie Adam, a Baltimore resident who e-mailed her story to Xpress, has never bought a Willie Nelson album. Yet it was the Texan’s voice that sang an unfamiliar tune to her in a dream, shortly after her husband died in a kayaking accident.

“It was about making peace with life and coming to terms with death,” recalls Adam, describing the song. “I got up just as the sun was rising, got my guitar, and tried to reconstruct the song and the feeling behind it.”

Her efforts must have been successful, because a couple of years later, a recorded version of Adam’s song that her brother-in-law played for a group of World War II veterans brought tears to their eyes. “So I guess you could say Willie’s spirit was there then,” Adam explains, “along with that of my late husband, who had been a very independent, adventurous but stormy soul, too.”

Willie, as he’s affectionately known to most everyone, is somehow connected to his listeners by a bond forged with his own pain, yearning and pleasure. This link doesn’t necessarily come from his music. It’s his unmistakable image and underlying truth, laced with uncommon faith and dogged persistence. “If America only had one voice, it would be Willie’s,” Emmylou Harris has said.

He’s a self-appointed but widely accepted patriot who served in the Air Force but is a lover of peace. He’s had four wives, six kids, a collapsed lung and a massive bankruptcy (due to back taxes). Right after he wrote the song “What Can They Do to Me Now,” his house burned down. He’s been famous and he has been infamous. He was raised by his grandparents and has his own adopted “family” (plus blood sister Bobbie Nelson on piano) that he travels with, playing more than 200 gigs a year. He smokes pot — and he plays golf. He just got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do, wrote a book called The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes (Random House, 2002), and lent his name to a signature brand of small-batch bourbon whiskey.

Let’s just say the man has some experience.

At 69 (as of April 30), Willie is also very easy for us, for America, to relate to. Many people have grown up with him, knowing him first through hits written for others — such as “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, in 1961 — and, later, through his own music and movie roles.

“Willie Nelson was a part of [my] social education early on,” says Jason Hill, who was born in Austin, raised in Oklahoma, and now lives in Charlotte. “My very first live-concert memory was when I was around 6 or 7 and my mother [took] me to see Willie in Norman, Okla. My most vivid memory is sitting on the side of the stage [his mother had backstage passes], and one of Willie’s female backup singers [stepped] on my hand.”

“Willie bridged the generation gap between my father and I,” says G. Craig Hobbs, an e-commerce Web developer for Black Box Studio in Asheville. “Willie’s music is the last vestige of truth to be found in American popular culture.”

This truth has a way of endowing otherwise-ordinary objects into relics that are treasured by their owners — such as the coffee cup used by Tom Kerr, author of The Underground Asheville Guidebook.

“I just read that request for Willie thought-sharing as I drank from my coffee mug with Willie’s [image] plastered all over it in bandana-red graphics,” Kerr tells Xpress. “His birthday is within a day of mine, and I [once] heard him play on his birthday. Afterwards we were waiting for the crowd to thin out, leaning against the stage watching the crew dismantle everything. My friend told a stagehand that it was my birthday, too, and the stagehand gave me this coffee cup, which Willie had been drinking out of all night. Every once in a while I pull it down and remember Willie.”

Last year, a man identified only as “Josh” shared his own unanticipated Willie experience with Ann Hepperman on the public-radio show “This American Life,” demonstrating the extent of “the Willie connection.”

As a joke, Josh had his Caller ID list him as Willie Nelson, never dreaming of the more than 500 calls it would generate to his home. Some people wanted to say “hello” or reminisce about meeting Willie; others wanted money, romance, approval or help with mortal illnesses or family problems.

“‘I think that people connect him with kindness and gentleness, and they want to be soothed by him,'” Josh told Hepperman. “‘And my feeling is that Willie probably gets more of these calls than your average celebrity, because he is so kind and gentle and has that aura.'”

And for Xpress readers and others who call on Willie, either literally or figuratively, Willie answers. One caller to Josh’s answering machine asked Willie to help him fight liver disease, which had taken the life of the caller’s wife and was threatening to take his mother. “[Calling Willie] was my only choice,'” the man said later, “‘and I thought that it might hit some of a heart chord when he heard that message.

“‘It helped me.'”

Willie is on the road again to support his newest record, The Great Divide (Lost Highway, 2002), produced by Matt Serletic (Matchbox 20, Santana). The release features duets with several star performers, including Lee Ann Womack, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight and Bonnie Raitt. Its title track was written by Willie (with Jackie King), with others contributed by lyricists including Bernie Taupin (known for his collaborations with Elton John), Serletic and even Cyndi Lauper. Several talented session musicians took part, including Kenny Aronoff, Lee Sklar, Reggie Young, Matt Rollins, Greg Leisz and Mickey Raphael.

A track on The Great Divide might best describe the connection Xpress readers and others share with Willie. “Recollecting Phoenix” was penned by Matchbox 20 front man Rob Thomas, a favorite writer of Willie’s. The chorus has the wistful, time-worn and gentle feel of Nelson’s own best work: “But now I think I get it/I think I understand/It’s all about hope/And where you go when you get it.”

Many people, even people who aren’t his fans, turn to Willie Nelson when they have hope — or when they need it. And, as “This American Life” host Ira Glass observed, “One way to measure the faith, the pure, old-fashioned faith, that we put in celebrities, is to examine what we ask of them.”

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