Notes From Red-Headed Pen Pal Willie Nelson

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Dave Shiflett headlined “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America: Notes From a Red-Headed Pen Pal”:

Willie Nelson needed something to do during the lockdown, so he decided to write some letters—to the Almighty, to friends living and dead, to his younger self….The result, as collected in “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” is a mix of mash notes, fond memories, a hill-country homily or two, and some world-class examples of filler material, including this gem: “It was raining cats and dogs!” “How could you tell?” “I stepped in a poodle!”

A crack of that caliber would earn most books a trip to the fire pit, but Mr. Nelson’s fans won’t mind. They’ll also enjoy his retellings of fabled events from his life, including mistakenly mailing a bill for a girlfriend’s maternity services to his then-wife; asking a nephew to pull his car into a burning garage in order to collect the insurance money; and creating hits like “Crazy,” “On the Road Again” and the epic “Red Headed Stranger.” What fans and other readers will cherish most is the tone of the project, alternately raucous, reverent and bittersweet.

Mr. Nelson, now 88, has traveled a long and interesting road. His journey didn’t start out in first class. He and sister Bobbie—the recipient of perhaps his most heartfelt letter—were initially raised by grandparents. “After my granddaddy died,” he recalls, “times were even tougher. For Thanksgiving dinner one year, we split a can of soup!” He felt flush when he began making $8 a night playing in a polka band….

His blossoming songwriting talent was not accompanied by a similar escalation in business smarts. “I sold my songs Family Bible and Night Life—lock, stock, and writing credits—for $50 and $150, respectively,” he writes. He thanks crooning cowboy Faron Young for refusing to buy his early hit “Hello Walls” for $500. “He said I was crazy and instead loaned me $500.” Young’s recording of the song hit the top of the charts. “My first royalty check was $25,000!” The hits kept coming, including “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Crazy,” “I Gotta Get Drunk” and “The Party’s Over.” His secret to songwriting success: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Several letters go to friends and associates who helped him along the way, including event producer Gino McCoslin, a genius-level hustler. When Mr. Nelson confronted him about selling twice as many tickets as there was capacity at a Dallas venue, he responded: “Hell, the airlines do it all the time.”…

The years have mellowed him, a process enhanced by a strategic switch from whiskey to marijuana….He has also maintained a passion for politics. He writes plugs for family farmers…and for the Equal Rights Amendment and says we should get rid of the Electoral College….

Mr. Nelson tells us he’s itching to get back on the road. But he does promise not to preach from the stage. “Because of music’s ability to heal and unite us, my audiences don’t hear me talk politics at my shows. We’ve struck a bargain and have come together to share in the music and the love and the good things that come from it.”

Like most people who have been alive for nearly 90 years, Mr. Nelson is on intimate terms with life and death. His remembrances of departed pals are heartfelt and often humorous….The late Roger Miller is remembered for stellar quips, “like when that cop pulled you over and said, ‘Can I see your license?’ And you replied, ‘Can I see your gun?’ ” Another day, while “we gazed at the incredible clouds in the sky, you said, ‘Just think what God could’ve done if he had money.’ ”…

He’s clearly not allergic to tradition. In a letter to his children he preaches a sermon that has held up well across the ages: “It all starts with the Golden Rule—with treating others as you’d like to be treated.”…

Mr. Nelson has been generously sprinkled with the fairy dust of American greatness and success. Even the tree company that paid him 80 cents an hour later shelled out $100,000 for a command performance. He takes it all in stride and counsels perseverance to those impatient for glory. “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese”—words worthy of the greatest of sages.

Dave Shiflett posts his original music and writing at

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