Abbott, Texas, and Maui, Hawaii, are separated by more than miles, as the former is a tiny central Texas hamlet with a population less than 500 and the latter a tropical paradise visited by more than 2 million tourists annually.
Yet to country music icon Willie Nelson, Abbott and Maui for all their differences are the places he calls home. Abbott is where he grew up; Maui is where Nelson retreats to when not making his living performing concerts across the country. The two locales are prominent in Nelson’s new book “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road.”
Nelson connects other disparate dots, offering insight into the experiences and thoughts of an influential and successful artist while keeping things light. “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” collects Nelson’s observations, memories, anecdotes, lyrics, and assorted bits of philosophical this and biographical that, ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages.
What rescues “Roll Me Up” from being little more than a kind of curious, yet oddly captivating soup pot of autobiographical fragments is that the book brings in the voices of family and friends, which add texture and context. His wife, Annie, sister Bobbie, several of his children, and a few band characters supply first-person accounts of their experiences with Nelson in vignettes tucked amid the author’s own extemporaneous meanderings.
The cut-and-paste nature of it all actually helps underscore the dichotomies at play in all that it means to be Willie. He’s a country-music legend who more than once found himself at odds with an industry that branded him as not country enough. He’s a staunch family man who had ongoing commitment issues. He’s a pothead and tireless worker. He’s Maui, where friends come by for long games of poker in a mancave named after Django Reinhardt, and he’s Abbott, where he picked cotton as a child to bring money into the household, studied hard in school, and sang in the church.
Fairly typical of the book is a five-page piece that begins with a journal entry from the summer of 2011 detailing the pleasure of sharing company with friends before the writing detours into a couple of dirty jokes, then focuses on an attempt to shoot a music video in Austin, pays a compliment to Aretha Franklin, and concludes with a funny (albeit X-rated) exchange of tender pleasantries between the singer and his wife.
“Roll Me Up” bounces around from commentaries on topics such as Farm Aid, Occupy Wall Street, guns, and God to Nelson’s personal stories that draw in his fellow Highwaymen, plus Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, and more recent collaborators Snoop Dogg and Jamey Johnson. A lengthy and cohesive section dubbed “Family” provides gravity for this orbit of topics.
Throughout “Family,” Nelson’s wife and children from multiple unions weigh in on the practical, spiritual, and emotional resources springing from the patriarch, while Nelson explains what he draws from those close to him. And family is not a blood issue, as the circle includes band and crew members who have been with Nelson for decades.
Nelson and the other voices in “Roll Me Up” accentuate the positive almost to a fault. Instead of glossing over the death of his son or his financially crippling tax battle with the IRS in the early ’90s, perhaps Nelson could have shown how he applied the wisdom deployed throughout the book to overcome the pain and difficulties that arise no matter how charmed the life. Still, this book helps explain how one man can be responsible for a body of songs that spans the pious “Family Bible” (definitely a product of Abbott) and the irreverent “Roll Me Up” (which reeks of Maui).Scott McLennan can be reached
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