April 23, 1997
Willie Nelson was on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, having a lot of fun with the fact he has finished paying the settlement for the $32 million he owed the IRS in back taxes, interest and penalties. He got into that mess because, for one thing, he was a little naive earlier in his singing career, and this column is here to tell you I don’t know him now, but I knew him then, slightly, and briefly.
Nelson, who calls himself “a guitar player from Abbott, Texas.,” went to Nashville as a young man and for years wrote some great Country and Western songs that other singers turned into big hits. He didn’t make it as a singer.
Bent on a singing career, he returned to Texas, to the Austin area, and started performing in saloons, clubs and what have you. That was when Darrell Royal, then football coach at the University of Texas, “discovered” him.
Royal, a native of Hollis, Okla., and an all-American under Bud Wilkinson at OU, was a connoisseur of country music. He knew all the greats and predicted Nelson soon would be among them.
They became friends, and that’s how it happened that in 1973, Royal brought Nelson to the National Football Coaches’ Golf tournament in Buena Vista, Ark. Royal was a low handicap player, and Nelson was just taking up the game.
I was running NCAA Films at the time, and it happened that I was there, along with Kemper Peacock, our producer-director from New York City. We were there to shoot interviews with a dozen or so top coaches from around the country.
Allow me to digress for a moment to point out it was an interesting trip for Kemper. He flew into Wichita, where the Sniders lived, and that evening had to suffer through a school function involving our daughter Amy. Next morning, we rented a car to drive to Lawrence, and on the way, Kemper, who was driving, was stopped for speeding over 90 mph.
We had to follow the trooper into Topeka, where he watched Kemper stuff an envelope with cash and drop it into a mailbox.
Justice was served, and Kemper then drove over 90 mph to Lawrence, where we had to shoot a piece for a film we were doing for the Kansas State High School Activities Association. Next, we boarded a charter plane and flew to Buena Vista and the golf tournament. With us were cameraman Bob Jones and soundman Dave Weizar, whose name I never learned to spell, but that’s close. Both were from Kansas City.
On the golf course, the first group we saw included Royal and a skinny guy, clean shaven with short dark hair, wearing jeans, a white tee shirt and white sneakers. Royal introduced us to Willie Nelson. He said he was having a little party that night at the condo he was staying in, and he invited us to come and hear Willie sing.
None of us had heard of Willie Nelson, and he didn’t look like much of an entertainer, but it was an invitation from Darrell, and we were honored. We went, and to this day we’re all glad we did.
There was a good crowd there, and after a drink or two, Royal introduced Nelson – and laid the ground rules. Basically, they were: shut up and listen, or leave. No talking, and no moving around, except when Willie took a break, and if you don’t like the rules, leave now.
Nelson sat on the floor, his back against the wall, played his guitar and sang. He sang his own songs, like “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Crazy” and many more whose titles I’ve forgotten or never knew, and other country hits.
Kemper, Bob and Dave had brought lights, and we filmed and recorded all of it. Royal sat, seemingly mesmerized, and only once did he have to interrupt Nelson and tell one of the guests to shut up or get out.
From that night on, we followed Nelson’s career, which went like a rocket. We followed him from the slick, clean look to the long hair, ponytail, beard and beads; From regular clothing to the muscle shirts; from saloons to the biggest arenas in the country, and on to television and the movies; from brushes with the law to the incredible IRS action that almost wiped him out.
But he declined bankruptcy and paid the debt, and Sunday night the word was that when he paid his tax bill this year, he was at. Last free and clear of all liens. Any way you look at Willie now, you have to give him credit for paying up.
There’s another note about that little concert in Buena Vista, and the film we made of it. We made a composite print and sent it to Royal, as a gift. Then, when Nelson got really famous, we looked for the originals where our stuff was stored in New York.
When we didn’t find them, which was highly unusual, I called Royal and asked if he still had his print. He said he’d look, but he never found it, or so he said. Very strange.
Willie slipped into our lives one night in Arkansas, and we never saw him again. We didn’t even have the film we made of him, but it must be out there somewhere. Maybe Willie wound up with it, and the IRS took it. Wherever it is, I wish I had it.