Rolling Stone magazine’s long profile of Willie Nelson last year made a startling observation. It suggested that for all the ways the country star is legendary — as a songwriter, road warrior, guitarist, tax dodger, pot smoker, cofounder of Farm Aid, wearer of pigtails — he’s essentially a private person.
“You never get to know him like you should, but you know there’s more there than what you’re seeing,” Loretta Lynn is quoted as saying.
Maybe that’s why Nelson’s new memoir, “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” is so invaluable. He’s as mythic as any American musical icon, yet we feel, incorrectly, as if we know him. His songs, from “Crazy” (made famous by Patsy Cline) to “On the Road Again,” are part of our collective soundtrack, but who, really, is the man behind those words?
Befitting a renegade who turned 82 last week, “It’s a Long Story” lives up to its title. Nelson starts at the beginning, in the tiny Texas town of Abbott out in the Hill Country. His mother and father were free spirits who weren’t always in the picture, a trait Nelson inherited, but he credits his grandparents with raising him and his older sister, Bobbie, in a household full of the love and unshakable faith that have stayed with him ever since.
Assisted by David Ritz, the celebrated co-author to various music stars, Nelson writes the way he sings and plays guitar — with conversational ease and grace.
This is not the only time Nelson has turned a gimlet eye on his past. His first autobiography appeared in 1988, and over the years he has peddled a series of books devoted to his philosophy, including 2012’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road.”
His tall tales are as surreal as you might expect. He remembers getting thrown in jail for pot possession in the Bahamas and, a few nights later, staying at the White House at President Jimmy Carter’s invitation. (Yes, Nelson got stoned on the White House roof.) Then there was that time Ray Charles invited him to play chess in total darkness with pieces marked in braille: “I got my ass kicked.”
The book’s central notion is that Nelson has always been a wild child, even from the very beginning. “Mama Nelson [his grandmother] had to tether toddler Willie to a pole in the yard to keep him from wandering off,” he writes. “Don’t know where I’d have gone if I could have, but I had the itch early on — the itch to look beyond the bend in the road.”
His passages about his childhood help explain his career’s freewheeling arc. When you realize he grew up surrounded by music — at church, in the fields where his family picked cotton, from the Philco radio that channeled everything from gospel to mariachi — the scope, volume, and unruly variety of his catalog suddenly make sense.
Happily, he devotes lengthy stretches of “It’s a Long Story” to some of his classic songs and albums, including 1978’s “Stardust,” on which he threw his disapproving record label a curveball by recording pop standards. To this day, Nelson is in awe of why songwriting has always been second nature. “[Songs] are mysterious gifts,” he muses. “I know they are born out of experience and genuine grief . . . The deepest songs expose vulnerability. They strip me bare and leave me amazed.”
There’s a lot to unpack in his personal life, too, especially when it comes to women. “My relationship to the female sex is a major theme,” he announces at the start of the second chapter, before expounding on his tumultuous first three marriages until he finally found the love of his life, Annie, who’s still by his side. His second marriage crashed and burned when his wife opened a hospital bill for the birth of a daughter — by another woman.
Nelson is not prone to kiss and tell about his contemporaries, though, and he’s not settling any scores here. There are heroes to salute, from Texas fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills to French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, both major influences. One of the last of his breed, Nelson also pays respects to his fellow outlaws, describing Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash as “rugged individualists and great American heroes” and Merle Haggard as “my forever friend.”
If there are any antagonists lurking in these pages, it’s the evildoers at the Internal Revenue Service, who nearly dismantled Nelson’s life’s work when they busted him for tax evasion in the early 1990s. He still looks back on those turbulent years with raw disgust.
He partly blames his missteps on a cutthroat manager, but when the IRS finally relented and settled on a reduced payment, it was as if the dark clouds had parted. His reflection on that moment gives the book, and his life, its defining statement: “When it’s on us, seems like the storm will never pass. But it always does.”
IT’S A LONG STORY: My Life
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
492 pp., $30