“I believe that all roads lead to the same place – and that is wherever all roads lead to.”—Willie Nelson
I’ve been a music fan since Willie, Waylon and the boys first attained outlaw status, and Willie was “On the Road Again” forever changing country music.
That was also about the time I was on the roads around Mount Pleasant, Texas, in my Chevy van: the one with the desert mural outside and orange shag carpet inside. The same one in which life-long friend Oscar Elliott and I cruised back then while listening to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
The Red Headed Stranger was on my mind again last week for a couple of reasons. One was an article about him in the recent issue of the AARP magazine. The other was the 1,500 or so slides from my early photography work I’m sending off for conversion to digital media. Those Kodachrome moments include shots from my first Willie concert—the concert that almost wasn’t.
It all started with a phone call from another long-time Mount Pleasant friend, Randy Brogoitti. “Willie is doing a concert in Longview,” he said. “You wanna go?”
We were both recent graduates of what was East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas. I was in Mount Pleasant. Randy was just down the road in Kilgore. “Sure,” I responded. I was all in and all excited.
The excitement was short-lived when a few days later, Randy called back, “Bad news,” he said. “It was a scam. Somebody sold tickets and took the quick road out of town.”
I’ve seen Willie several times over the years since, but what happened next is one of the best Willie stories I can tell.
“Good news,” was Randy’s next call. “Willie heard about what happened and he’s coming to Longview to do a free concert; doesn’t want his fans to be disappointed.”
We arrived early at the Jaycee Expo Hall at the Longview fairgounds securing seats near the front, then watched as the faithful fans flocked for the night that Willie was on the road to Longview.
People watching is something I’ve long enjoyed, but the people coming in that night were a little different than what a naïve twenty-something-year-old from a small East Texas town was used to watching.
Pocket half-pints and strange smelling smoke slowly surrounded us as show time neared. Fearful of a second-hand smoke buzz or worse, we surrendered and escaped toward the back near an exit where both crowd density and atmospheric quality was substantially improved.
Sometime later, K.C. and the Sunshine Band took the stage for two hours delivering what has remained with me as the quintessential 1970s live performance.
It was way after 10 p.m. when a white Mercedes stopped outside the expo hall, doors opened and the high-flying crowd enthusiastically cheered Willie, unmistakable with signature ponytail, headband and entourage of musicians. Straight off the road without rehearsal or warm up, Wille and his band performed for three hours without a break staging what I have remembered as the second quintessential 1970s performance of that night.
Fast-forward 30 years and up the road from Center to Carthage at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame where the reveal of inductees for 2003 was set and an older Willie, accompanied by Ray Price was making the official announcement.
An older me with press credentials snagged a spot mere inches from the podium where I captured pictures of Willie as he shared the news that Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Bush were soon to be the newest hall of fame members. I was also afforded the opportunity to follow and photograph the legendary duo through the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum where they viewed exhibits and reminisced about old times making music together.
I savored the moment myself recalling all of the roads and the years between Mount Pleasant in a shag carpeted van and the almost wasn’t a concert by Willie that lead to that day in Carthage.
The levity of those roads and years did not escape me last week. Neither did the fact that they have led to now reading about Willie in the AARP magazine and an increased appreciation for the improved air quality at most Willie venues since one night long ago up the road in Longview.
(All photos by Leon Aldridge)