[JPL] Radio days excerpt from a new biography of Willie Nelson

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Sun Apr 13 07:31:15 EDT 2008


Posted on Sun, Apr. 13, 2008
Radio days

Special to the Star-Telegram
Willie Nelson biography, part one of two
Editor's note: Born in Abbott, by age 22 Willie Nelson had moved to Fort
Worth. In this excerpt from a new biography, we learn how Cowtown helped him
absorb a lifetime's worth of cultural influences.
Fort Worth, 1955
>From the neon American {fllig}ag that {fllig}ew above the Tarrant County
Courthouse to its sordid underbelly, Fort Worth was a toddling town full of
contradictions. It was never a fort, but a camp, and not a very organized
one at that; the same year a military presence was established on a bluff
above the Trinity River, in 1849, Fort Worth's first Hell's Half Acre, a
strip of brothels, bars and gambling joints that serviced the troops, sprang
up adjacent to the camp, attracting the likes of Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid. Eighty years later, another Hell's Half Acre attracted the
likes of Bonnie and Clyde. What was left of that version in 1955 looked good
enough to a young man from down around Waco.
"Foat Wuth" was a hide-and-horns town that proudly wore its Cowtown and
"Where the West Begins" reputations like a giant rodeo belt buckle. The
music that came out of Fort Worth re{fllig}ected the city's wide-open
nature. It was the "Cradle of Western Swing," where Bob Wills and Milton
Brown emerged from the Light Crust Doughboys to create the sound that came
to be known as Western Swing.
Of all the honky-tonk, bar and club clusters around the city, none rivaled
the Jacksboro Highway, Texas 199, which ran northwest from downtown toward
rugged country and some of the biggest ranches in the state. There was
something for everybody on "Jaxbeer Highway." Though gambling was illegal,
several casinos set back from the road did brisk business, equipped with
roulette wheels and blackjack tables that conveniently folded into cabinets
in the wall and with underground tunnels for quick getaways.
Sandwiched between the nicer neon-lit establishments were meaner spots, many
of which draped chicken wire in front of the bandstand to keep {fllig}ying
beer bottles from hitting the hired entertainment whenever fights broke out.
They carried nicknames like the Bloody Bucket and the County Dump that were
well earned.
Willie Nelson came to this Fort Worth in search of someplace better than
where he'd been. He put his salesmanship skills to use, picking up work
selling Bibles, encyclopedias, Singer sewing machines and Kirby vacuum
cleaners, enough to bring wife Martha and daughter Lana up from Waco.
"Willie was a very good salesman," his sister, Bobbie, said. But Willie had
bigger ambitions than making Salesman of the Month. He talked his way into
selling ads for KDNT, a small 250-watt radio station broadcasting from
Denton, and hosting a country music program.
A fellow announcer, Lee Woodward, noticed the redheaded kid. "He had these
lively eyes behind this laid-back look that said, 'I'm not gonna give you
anything unless you ask.' I thought, here was a guy straight off the farm.
He sounded like it, too."
Willie didn't stay at KDNT long, because he hustled another radio gig in
Fort Worth with a salary higher than the $40 a week he was making, minus the
expense of driving to and from Denton. KCNC was a low-wattage daytime
station at 720 on the radio dial, run by a cranky fellow named Jim Speck.
Willie Nelson's Western Express came after Melody Time at the noon hour.
Willie called Woodward not long after he settled in at KCNC station, telling
him about an opening for an announcer at the Fort Worth station. Lee won the
job. "That's when I discovered the real Willie," he said.
"I saw him with his guitar in the studio booth where he did his show,"
Woodward said. "He would play his guitar and sing along to the records he
was playing. He was singing songs. Every time he did it, the phones would
light up. The management figured out real quick he must be doing something
right, because nobody called when we were on KDNT together. He invented this
The diminutive announcer with {fllig}aming red hair read his commercials
live with his guitar strapped around his neck, strumming along to the ad
copy. He sang and played at live weekend remotes from the furniture
department at Leonard Brothers Department Store downtown, where he
interviewed salespeople from various departments who were touting the Big
Specials of the Day. He strummed his way through remotes from the Bomber
Grill at 10th and Houston and commercials for American Auto Salvage and
Clardy automobile air-conditioners.
Every afternoon from one to one-thirty he played children's songs, such as
Tex Ritter's Blood in the Saddle, in anticipation of nap time. No song was
as popular for napping as Red Headed Stranger, a song written by Edith
Lindeman and Carl Stutzby made popular by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, a
family entertainer from Charlotte, N.C. Willie would play the song for his
daughter, Lana, and say hi to her on the air.
Several times Lee accompanied Willie on afternoon drives in his beat-up '47
Ford two-door sedan to the Jacksboro Highway to visit clubs. "They were
rough places," Lee said, "but Willie would act like he'd entered Valhalla.
His eyes would get wide and he'd say, 'One of these days, I'm going to be
playing here.' That's what he was shooting for. That's where he wanted to
Fort Worth was a hard city in that respect. The club business was controlled
by the gangster element, the kind of folks who imparted life's lessons
without a {fllig}inch. He might have been a star in the imaginations of some
radio listeners, but the clubs were another matter.
Still, music was all around him. Less than a mile from the KCNC studios, a
stern band director who hated jazz named G.A. Baxter was turning out a
generation of students at I.M. Terrell High School who would reinterpret and
redefine American soul and jazz music. IMT was the "colored" high school for
African Americans in Fort Worth, which remained staunchly segregated down to
the water fountains at the "Monkey Wards" (Montgomery Ward department
The first notable out of this parallel universe, a slight, small-framed
saxophonist named Ornette Coleman, was already on the path toward recording
The Shape of Jazz to Come, which would set jazz and the greater arts scene
in New York on their collective ears for decades. In his footsteps was
another saxophonist who played in a full-bodied style, named Curtis Ousley,
who would achieve fame as King Curtis, the honker behind Aretha Franklin,
Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Wilson Pickett, the Coasters and Buddy Holly.
Music knew no color lines, and good music wasn't found just in Fort Worth.
Thirty miles east in Dallas, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Marty
Robbins and Billy Walker were recording monster country-and-Western hits at
Jim Beck's homemade studio on Ross Avenue.
Occasionally Willie would drive over to check out the action. "There was a
big difference between Dallas and Fort Worth," he said. "You noticed the
change somewhere around Grand Prairie, it got a little more high-falutin'.
Fort Worth was still a Cowtown and wanted to stay that way."
On Saturday nights, Willie and buddy Joe Andrews could check out the Big D
Jamboree, the country "barn dance" staged inside the wrestling ring of the
Sportatorium, a tin-sided 6,300-seat arena that also hosted wrestling and
gospel shows.
The main drawing card every week was a major star like Johnny Horton, Webb
Pierce, Carl Perkins, Carl Smith, Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash.
TV was broadening country music's horizons more than Elvis and his wiggling
hips. The Big D Jamboree was broadcast on KRLD-TV. Tennessee Ernie Ford
hosted his own variety show on NBC-TV, while the Grand Ole Opry launched its
own filmed series sponsored by Falstaff Beer.
TV brought Paul Buskirk -- whom Willie had seen play at the Round Up in
Dallas -- into sharper focus. Buskirk played banjo weekdays at WBAP-TV,
Channel 5, on a local variety program called Jones Place. Buskirk was
equally proficient on mandolin, guitar and dobro, as well as banjo, and
possessed a broad knowledge of all different kinds of music like no one
Willie Hugh Nelson had ever met.
Buskirk introduced Willie to the singer in his band, a scrawny, scruffily
handsome young man named Freddy Powers. He'd come from Seminole, Texas, a
hardpan, sparsely inhabited piece of {fllig}at, dry scrub. Paul told Freddy
that Willie was writing some interesting pop songs and shared their interest
in Western Swing and swing in general.
Paul occasionally joined Willie on Willie's Western Express radio show on
KCNC in Fort Worth. Freddy Powers visited Willie in the studio several
times. "I was pretty much impressed with his songs," Freddy said.
Paul cut a track on a song Willie had written called Heartaches of a Fool,
with Freddy singing vocals, at Jim Beck's, but the recording was never
released. At least his songs were good enough for someone else to record.
Willie was learning a lot, but he still wasn't satisfied. If someone offered
him a shot of whiskey, he'd drink it and keep drinking until the bottle was
gone, which led to nights when he didn't come home. He took his first
knowing drag off a marijuana cigarette behind a building on East Belknap. A
lot of musician friends smoked. "I was smoking for six months before I
realized I was getting high," he said.
But the presence of family kept him out of serious trouble. There were
plenty of kinfolk with an eye on him.
Photos supplied by news researcher Jodie Sanders.
>From the book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski. Copyright ©
2008 by Joe Nick Patoski. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and
Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
by Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown, $27.99
Publication date: April 21
Coming tomorrow: In 1965, now an established songwriter and a new member of
the Grand Ole Opry, Willie returns to Fort Worth to record a live album at
the legendary Panther Hall.

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