BOOK REVIEW: Willie Nelson: A Graphic History – T.J. Kirsch

Willie Nelson: A Graphic History

It’s hard to imagine a “wild” kid nicknamed “booger red” by his peers because he picked his “nose out of nervousness” rising to international acclaim in the music industry the way Willie Nelson did. Told chronologically, this graphic history, seldom leaving a stone unturned, reveals Nelson’s amazing perseverance throughout his life (along with some good fortune that was pivotal throughout his career).

We also learn that though Nelson’s determination to be a free spirit in charge of his own destiny, how he became a music pioneer. As well as brushing against the law over tax payments and marijuana; Willie Nelson: A Graphic History with great humour explicitly tells the reader how he often got into hot waters with the women in his life (often due to a lack of discretion).

Coming from humble origins, Willie couldn’t (despite his heart’s desire) initially pursue music full time. Upon graduating, Nelson needed a full-time job. His legacy from enlisting in the air-force was discharging and working as a tree trimmer earned Willie back injuries and almost a finger’s loss. Marrying young and having his first child resulted in Willie having money problems and so his first wife and firstborn child lived with him in his grandparents’ home.

Despite having a young family and money problems; Willie did not give up on music. His first opportunity to record his songs came when he landed a job as an On-Air DJ at local radio station KBOP where Willie had access to recording equipment to record songs. On his next DJ venture at Kvan Radio, Willie was able to sell a couple of thousand copies of his record “No Place for Me” via mail order. Willie also played in bands (as he had done since he was a child) but often had difficult relationships with other musicians “because his phrasing and timing were so unusual” and “sometimes got fired” as a result.

When Willie was eventually signed to a record label; his money troubles were not over. Upon signing to Pamper Records, Nelson could only afford a three-wall room trailer for him and his family. Nonetheless, Nelson’s persistence eventually paid off. Whilst Patsy Cline had initially rejected the first song Willie offered to her; the second, “Crazy”, would be her biggest hit. In the 1970s, when Nelson was more established and signed to Columbia; he continued to be persistent by going against his record company’s advice and released a covers LP called Stardust, which stayed in the Billboard charts for over ten years.

Whilst perseverance was an essential skill for Willie; having good friends and luck also played a role. Willie was fortunate that band leader Larry Butler refused to buy several songs for $10 apiece including “Crazy” because they were “too good”. Living in a three-roomed trailer inspired the song “Hello Walls”. Willie initially wanted to sell the rights to Faron Young for $500. Thankfully Young refused, and Willie released “Hello Walls” which topped the country music charts for nine weeks. Nelson’s first royalty check was for $14,000.

Naturally having one’s house burn down cannot be seen as a stroke of luck, however, when this befell Willie in 1970, “despite protests by the firemen”, Nelson was able to retrieve two guitar cases which contained his rosewood Martin Classical guitar he got a year earlier (to replace his Baldwin guitar) and two pounds of “Columbian pot”. A few years later, with Jerry Wexler’s assistance from Atlantic records who “seemed to understand where Willie was coming from artistically”; Willie was able to record a gospel themed album and his biggest-selling LP to date: Shotgun Willie.

Whether it’s coming up for the catchphrases for his radio show, breaking taboos by kissing Charlie Pride on stage or putting on festivals; Nelson is undoubtedly a pioneer. In the 1970’s Nelson was positively coined as an “Outlaw Musician” for breaking “out of the rigid Nashville mould of country music”. His July Picnic festival in Texas, which he started on 4th July in 1973, grew from a one day to a three-day festival. In 1975, the Texas Senate declared the Fourth of July “Willie Nelson Day. In the 1980s, Nelson would begin “Farm Aid” which continues today. As well as raising $7 million in the first year; Nelson was able to convince artists including Bob Dylan and Neil Young to perform. Nelson also has several cannabis ventures including “Willie’s Reserve”.

Willie’s infidelities and the drama they created are well documented, including his affair with Shirley Collie which resulted in divorce to his first wife, Martha. The dialogue between Shirley and Matha when Shirley collected Martha’s children on behalf of Willie when he was due to see them is captured. A few years later, Shirley would discover the hospital bill for Willie’s child’s birth to his girlfriend on the road: Connie Koepke.

Nelson’s eldest son’s death, the influence of Khalilk Gibran’s writings on Willie, becoming a movie star, forming supergroup The Highwaymen with artists including Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson are also deftly covered. Willie Nelson: A Graphic History is not as long as other nbm graphic novel releases such as Elvis and Bob Marley in Comics; seldom a stone is left unturned or glossed over. The illustrations by a motley of adroit artists continue to meet the exceptionally high standards nbm has previously produced; the injection of colour in some segments such as when Willie is on stage would have been welcomed.

What allows Willie Nelson: A Graphic History to stand out from amongst other music biographies is the focus on the man himself as opposed the number of records sold (millions!), number of artists who have covered Willie’s songs (which is a lot!) and crowds were drawn to his life shows (over 50,000!). Willie is the man and Willie Nelson: A Graphic History celebrates him in style.

Willie Nelson: A Graphic History is available Now. 

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