This is about Willie Nelson, Texas Girl Magazine, and my face-to-face meeting with the Devil in Jackson, Michigan. It will all be part of the book I am writing which will be titled The Outlaw Journalist.
I took my two sons, Grady and Steven, to Willie Nelson’s first July 4 Picnic at Dripping Springs. That was in 1973.
I was present during planning stages for the epic cow pasture blowout, so I had knowledge in advance of the surprise rock superstar who was to appear. The scheduled lineup included Willie, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Tex Ritter, Rita Coolidge, Charlie Rich, and Hank Snow. Nobody in the country would have suspected that Nelson would have Leon Russell as a surprise guest on that first July 4 picnic in 1973.
I knew that Nelson and Russell had been friends for years, and I knew in advance that Willie was planning to spring rock star Leon on the country music crowd at Dripping Springs.
In 1973, Leon Russell was a rock-and-roll god, a much bigger draw than Nelson at the time, and my 16-year-old son Grady’s absolute musical higher power. Grady played nothing but Russell on his record player, and his room in our San Antonio home was a Leon Russell shrine, with Russell photographs and posters on all four walls and even the ceiling.
Without breathing a word about Russell to my kids, I invited both of my sons to ride with me in our old Chevrolet truck to the concert. Steven, my younger boy, was all for any sort of adventure, but Grady was unimpressed. “Shit-kicker country,” I recall Grady’s response. “I don’t want to go.”
Grady was sewing brightly colored patches on his pants during those days. He wore his brown hair shoulder length. He wore elephant hide cowboy boots I bought him. His left ear was pierced, and he was wearing a small ear stud.
It didn’t take too much for me to convince my 16-year-old son that even a country music outdoor concert with thousands projected to attend would be worth checking out.
His 15-year-old brother was gung-ho from the outset. We pulled into the Dripping Springs Haribut Ranch on the evening of July 3, 1973, to find people gathered around two or three campfires. Darkness was falling fast, but we could easily make out features of those around the fires.
I could hear Nelson’s distinct voice as we crawled out of the truck. He was sitting on a log near one of the campfires, and the man sitting across from him had his back to us. Willie was playing his battered Martin guitar Trigger. The two of them were singing the old Willie tune “Family Bible.”
When I spotted the cascade of waist-length golden blond hair, I knew instantly who was singing with Nelson. Leon Russell had arrived. Good spirits were in the atmosphere on that warm July night. We could all feel it.
When they finished the song, I distinctly remember leading Grady up to the campfire. His brother Steven had wandered away. I knew Leon from a previous meeting, but Grady had never before laid eyes on his rock idol from Oklahoma.
Nelson seemed to grasp the moment. When I introduced my son, Willie shook Grady’s hand and then turned toward Russell. “I want you to meet my friend Leon Russell,” Willie told my kid. Then to Leon, he said, “This is Sam’s son Grady.”
Leon promptly reached out and grabbed Grady’s hand. “Mighty pleased to meet you, Grady,” Russell said in his inimitable Oklahoma drawl. “I hope you enjoy the music and have a good time tomorrow.” I don’t recall Grady’s mumbled response to his idol. I will never forget the look of incomprehensible shock and joy on my kid’s face. His speech was frozen. He looked at me and smiled for a split second. He knew his old man had pulled off this impossible scenario for him. Leon Russell seemed to sense it too, something spiritual and really special.
I have no words to explain the love I felt at that moment for my son. And for the long-haired Oklahoma rock star who reached out to my kid. I became a Leon Russell fan for life.
That first Willie concert was the beginning of an era, the birth of redneck rock, a cultural awakening that was felt all over the South and beyond. The hippies and the rednecks would lay down their arms and light up the joints of peace. I looked out over that great roiling sea of youthful humanity on the morning of July 4, 1973, and what did I see? I saw a cloud of marijuana smoke. I saw a huge sign that read “E Pluribus Willie,” and I saw more naked titties than one could imagine existing in one Texas cow pasture at one time.
Another significant chapter in my life was beginning to unfurl. That next chapter would prove to be rowdy and exciting, very dangerous, exhilarating at times, heart-breaking, educational, and scary as hell. That first Willie July 4 concert drew a crowd estimated at 40,000. I had my boys at the first four — Dripping Springs, College Station, Liberty Hill, and Gonzales. The crowds swelled exponentially. The Gonzales turnout was estimated at 80,000, and I lost count as Nelson moved the show to other states before returning to the Austin area.
I met Willie’s two older daughters, Lana and Susie, at Dripping Springs when they were teenagers. His son Billy I met later. These kids were all by Nelson’s first wife Martha, a lady I never met. The only Nelson wife I was to know was Connie, the blond beauty and mother of two of Willie’s girls, and who remains my friend today.
There was driving rain at the Gonzales picnic, and it was here that I met David Alan Coe, self-described “Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy and Death Row Killer.” I was intrigued by the big tattooed entertainer, and we were to become friends as we remain today.
David Alan Coe is one of the most talented people I have ever known. David Alan and I exchanged books — “The Best of Sam Kindrick” for Coe’s “Ex-Convict.”
The Coe book features a young Coe mug shot from an Ohio State penitentiary, and detailed survival instructions for anyone preparing to enter a penitentiary. It tells you when to talk, when not to talk, and how to survive with the worst of the worst.
“The key to prison survival,” Coe told me, “is learning how to mind your business.”
The Bandidos Motorcycle Club outlaws were starting to hang around Coe shows at that time, and the one on Coe’s tour bus when I climbed on that day in Gonzales was a surly San Antonio biker called Deadweight.
I had never been a Deadweight fan, and he wasn’t crazy about me either. Someone had shot him in the belly, and surgery had left him barely holding his guts in place on that muggy day in Gonzales. He smelled about as bad as he looked, and the two of us were exchanging minor unpleasantries when Coe pitched me a glass container of cocaine in a sack which also held a mirror and a soda straw. “I’m going to change for the show,” Coe said as he headed for the bus sleeping quarters. “I hope you boys can cool it. Deadweight is so fucked up with bullet holes he can barely walk.”
Deadweight saw Coe hand me the bag. He was duly impressed. “You and David Alan must be really tight,” the biker said. “I can hardly believe he would turn his back on you with you holding his personal stash.”
After that, Deadweight and I were civil to each other.
In those early years after my firing at the daily newspaper, and while I was still holding my air job at KEXL FM, I hatched the crazy idea of starting my own improbable publication, a small tabloid that I would name Action Magazine. I wanted to focus on the Texas outlaw music explosion out of Austin, from Austin’s Soap Creek Saloon to the Armadillo World Headquarters where Willie Nelson was sharing the stage with everyone from Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys to Commander Kody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Yet I didn’t want to be limited to only music. I wanted my publication to literally cover the action, whether it be talented musicians or colorful preachers like Bourbon Street Chaplain Bob Harrington, bare-knuckle street fighters like Bobby (Kid Death) Thomas, or shotgun-packing pimps and infamous killers like Arthur Harry (Bunny) Eckert.
Action Magazine ran no record reviews. I never wasted my time in the pretentious business of passing judgment on someone’s music. I wrote more about the musician than the music. I wanted an honest balls-to-the-wall publication that would kiss no corporate asses or take any prisoners. And that’s exactly what I told Lone Star Brewing Company president Harry Jersig when I made my pitch for a back-cover advertiser.
I noticed a thin smile on Jersig’s lips while I was talking. I didn’t have a dime to my name and Jersig knew it when I outlined what I had in mind. He was already in tune with Willie Nelson’s growing impact on the burgeoning Texas music scene. I knew that Jersig had little use for the Express and News, and I knew that his music advertising promotions man Jerry Retzloff liked me. Retzloff was also connecting with an exciting new breed of new age musicians like Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball, Ray Benson, Janis Joplin, and Asleep at the Wheel, Willis Allen Ramsey, Rusty Wier, Ray Wylie Hubbard, B. W. Stevenson, and numerous others. “I will write about these people and more,” I told Harry Jersig. “I want to sell you the back cover of what is now a non-existent magazine.”Jersig wrote me a check for a thousand dollars on the spot, and the rest is history.
That first little 12-page issue of Action Magazine was printed March 25, 1975. It featured Willie Nelson on the front cover and Lone Star Beer on the back cover. And Lone Star was to stick with me for years to come.
Talk about pathetic defiance. I actually pitched a bundle of 50 copies of that first issue of Action Magazine through the front lobby door of the 8-story Express and News building on Avenue E. I think I also yelled “Fuck you Charlie” at the top of my lungs.
I felt like Daniel standing naked in front of the lion’s den and shooting the finger with both hands. I know I was as crazed and out of control as a Hunter S. Thompson dope dream.
No, by God, I would take no newspaper job in Houston. I would stay in San Antonio and haunt Charlie Kilpatrick until the day one of us died. He died June 27, 2013. And Daniel finally relaxed the double “birds.”
Charlie’s daughter Kye is a classy lady who was nice to me one time. In the recovery program which eventually saved my life, I learned that resentments are my number-one offender. I have still got my share of resentments, but I finally let Charlie go before that resentment killed me, and I wish his daughter and the Kilpatrick family nothing but the best.
When I told Willie Nelson of my plans for Action Magazine, he encouraged me. “Give the musicians who have never been written about a shot,” he said. “There are some good ones out there who have never had any recognition in print. Give them all some ink when you can.”
Those early issues of Action Magazine featured only one colored ink, red on the magazine logo. The four-color process necessary for full color required publishing film separations which were more than I could afford in those early years.
“Print them all in black-and-white,” Willie said. “The black-and-white papers will appeal to the poor people.”
The first run of 8,000 copies of the Action Magazine tabloid was printed on a web press at San Antonio Press, which was then located on Fredericksburg Road and owned by the Medellin family. Jose Medellin headed the business with assistance from his two younger brothers. Luis and Raul.
Most web presses around Texas in those days required service by Chicago and other east coast technicians, but not San Antonio Press. Joe Medellin worked on his own equipment, and I can recall him in those early years, crawling wrench-in-hand from under one of the big iron monsters. I can remember Joe smeared with printers’ ink from head to foot. He even had it in his eyebrows. He had it in his blood as well.
I know the excitement. The big newspaper web presses used today rumble and roar like a freight train. When they hit full speed and printing velocity, literally shaking the building, I never fail to feel a goose bump playing along my spine.
Action Magazine would never have been if not for Jose Medellin. Joe has a heart and a soul and I will love him forever. He carried me with no charge for printing over a few tight spot early months and the better part of one year, and I know he never did get paid in full for all he did.
In later years, Joe’s brother Luis became the company head. He, too, was kind to Action Magazine. Other printers made lower bids for my business over the years, but I remained with the Medellins until they sold San Antonio Press.
With help from my son Grady, I delivered those first free-distribution magazines to nightclubs, restaurants, ice houses, and other people spots.
Grady never finished high school, insisting upon working for me and passing his GED test in the meanwhile. We were not well-received by all. Cappy Lawton ordered Grady out of one of his restaurants when the boy tried to deliver the magazines, and I took rejections involving my son personally.
I recall refusing later to do radio commercials for the Lawton eateries when I was on the air at KEXL. I will never forget the response I got from musicians who were to grace the pages of my little rag over the next 44 years. I became very close friends with Johnny Bush and Augie Meyers. They have remained close through the years. Others I formed friendships with include Gary Stewart, Doug Sahm, Darrell McCall, David Alan Coe, and many hundreds more.
I feel like I helped raise Dub Robinson, Randy Toman, and Robert (Cotton) Payne of the old Drug Store Cowboys group. We shared an office at one point. And I was there when Claude Morgan formed his Buckboard Boogie Boys group with fiddler Ron Knuth, drummer Larry Robison, and bassist Larry Patton.
These three had been part of Hank Williams Jr.’s band, all finding themselves out of work when Williams was seriously injured in a Montana hunting accident. I met and interviewed the legendary Ernest Tubb at the Kicker Palace in Poteet. In discussing various country musicians during the course of the interview, the Texas Troubadour had little good to say about David Alan Coe, who had mimicked Tubb in a song Coe called If That Ain’t Country.
“I think he’s a disgrace to country music,” Tubb said of Coe. “He can sing a little, but all that long hair and tattoos and cheap-looking Indian jewelry has no place.”
Then Ernest Tubb stared straight into my eyes and I will never forget his words: “And you could do with a haircut yourself, son.”
During the mid-70s and 1980s, I had frequent interaction with Willie Nelson and that unlikely gaggle of followers and hangers-on who were to establish themselves as The Willie Nelson Family. Willie paid some of them, some he just fed. Others just followed along. But a T-shirt emblazoned with the Willie Nelson Family stamp would gain you access to the hallowed halls of a Nelson tour bus, various backstage sanctuaries, and hotel suites where marijuana smoke hung like a Gulf Coast cloud bank.
When Willie moved into his Pedernales Country Club holdings near Austin and purchased a pool hall on South Lamar Street he called Willie’s Pool Hall, we had a new center for the universe. This was in the 1970s when South Austin was the place, Willlie’s was booming, and Manny Gammage was attracting national attention with his Texas Hatters on South Lamar. Willie Nelson, David Alan Coe, Rusty Wier, and other figures of prominence were wearing the hand-blocked Manny Gammage hats with the distinctive curl brim. I always wanted one but could never find the bucks when I was in Austin.
Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson were both raised by their grandparents in Abbott, Texas. Willie’s mom left shortly after he was born. His father Ira was an automobile mechanic who came back into Willie’s life to help out around the Austin pool hall.
I did an early Action Magazine article on Pop Nelson. Everyone called him Pop. Willie’s stepmother was known as Mom Nelson. Willie called me when the story on his father was printed. He never mentioned anything about the father waiting until his son was established as a music star before coming back into Willie’s life.
“I want to thank you for writing about my dad,” Willie said. “It means a lot to me.”
Asked once about Willie’s long-haired outlaw look, the father said, “With the money he is making today, I think it would be fine if he grew his hair down to his shoe tops.”
To know Willie, to know the real Willie Nelson, I think it is important to study what he never says. His lyrics have established him as a world-class poet with the guts and gall and compassion and love to show most of his soul to the world. He raises millions for farmers. He rescues and shelters old and abandoned horses. His respect and genuine love for fellow musicians is a given. His insight is stunning. But an aura of mystery has always been part of Willie’s psyche. I think it must have something to do with humility. He doesn’t talk much about death. When someone noted Willie’s absence at our friend Hondo Crouch’s funeral , someone close to the Nelson camp said Willie was “close by,” quietly paying his respects in a parked automobile. I never knew this for fact but I never doubted it.
I was especially fond of Paul English, the Nelson drummer who dressed in black, often with a satanic cape and cowboy boots with silver pointed toe guards. Paul was a former Fort Worth pimp and gangster who talked nasally through a nose that had been broken more than once.
A fierce and dangerous bodyguard who would have defended Willie with his life, Paul English was inspiration for the Willie Nelson song Me and Paul. We were at John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes when Willie sang this one before a live audience for the first time. It details his trials and tribulations on the road with his former gangster drummer, with one verse encapsulating it all.
I had already heard the story. There had been a bomb threat at the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Airport, and Paul’s sinister appearance had resulted in the entire band being temporarily detained.
“I wrote a song about Paul,” Willie told me that evening at Floore’s. The verse about the airport incident goes like this:
At the airport in Milwaukee They refused to let us board the plane at all; They said we looked suspicious, But I think they wanted to pick on me and Paul.
I wrote a cover story for Action Magazine on Paul English. The cover photograph was of Paul in his black attire and holding a stuffed devil in his lap.
“Willie saved my life,” English told me. “I was living on borrowed time in Fort Worth. There had already been two contracts on me. I was a shuffle drummer and Willie took me in. We have been brothers since that day. I would lay down my life for him.”
The Willie Nelson tour I went on was a tour of state and county fairs in the early 1980s, starting in Mississippi and concluding somewhere around the Great Lakes. Willie flew me back and forth from various tour engagements to San Antonio so that I could work on Action Magazine.
Poodie Locke was the stage manager back then, while David Anderson was the road manager on that tour. I was in for an education which was to include the most harrowing drug scare of my life.
Nelson was getting hot during those days. His Redheaded Stranger album was on its way to turning platinum, and strange pale-skinned Northerners in states like Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were out on summer afternoons in straw cowboy hats and Wiillie Nelson T-shirts.
I don’t know how it is today, but Chicago was an exciting otherworldly metropolis with an Al Capone aura that made me feel like I needed a tommy gun for safety.
I recall we were milling around in an outdoor city park shortly before Willie’s show on Navy Pier. Uniformed Chicago cops were standing hock to hip with husky dudes in black T-shirts who were snorting rock cocaine off knife blades in plain view. Nobody was attempting to hide anything from anybody. They were spooning the dope out of plastic bags with little thought to hundred-dollar cocaine rocks that fell and bounced unnoticed on the ground.
They were freely sharing the coke with any of us who were interested. Cops were interspersed among the official-looking cats in the black shirts. It was obvious that they were Willie fans and eager to make the Texas visitors feel at home. Jayne Byrne was mayor of Chicago at that time, and one of the cops had a message for me.
“Hey,” he said in that strange Chicago accent. “I hear you are a writer in Texas. You ought to write something about this fucking bitch mayor we got up here name of Jane Byrne. This fucking bitch wants to take our guns away when we are off-duty. Hey, this is fucking Chicago, man. A Chicago cop without a firearm is dead meat. You really should write something about this dirty fucking bitch.”
The Navy Pier chicken wire phenomenon was mentioned earlier — women crawling like monkeys up a chicken wire shield in front of the Nelson stage on Navy Pier. But I was soon to learn that the Willie appeal ran far deeper than a surface of starstruck women.
Songwriters the country over were taking notice. The Nelson lyrics were galvanizing the same type songsmiths and storytellers who once sat at the feet of Hank Williams. I was soon to see it firsthand. As the tour moved through one Wisconsin city, the bus air-conditioner went on the blink. Those were the days when a tour bus had windows that opened manually.
The road crew had the bus windows open when I saw something sail through. Then I saw another object sail into the bus. I heard clicking and clinking sounds, almost like hail or sleet was hitting the bus. Objects were hitting and bouncing. Then something landed in my lap. What the hell? It was a cassette tape in a plastic container. Willie’s stage manager Poodie Locke explained. “These are cassette tapes of original songs,” Poodie said. “Those are songwriters out there trying to get their original songs into the bus in the hope that Willie might hear one and want to record it. It happens a lot. Sometimes they try to throw the tapes on stage during a performance.”
I asked Locke if Nelson ever listened to one of the songs. Did he ever record one? “It ain’t done that way,” Locke said.
This was around the time that Nelson decided to quit doing hard drugs and stick with marijuana. He demanded the same of his musicians and road crew. He was more than adamant, posting signs on the tour buses which read IF YOU’RE WIRED YOU’RE FIRED.
Some members of the “Willie Nelson Family” dutifully stopped the dope. Others hid the cocaine, pills, and methamphetamine from Willie. I was snorting both coke and meth at the time, and I refrained from comment when Willie suggested that it might be better if I followed suit.
“I talked it over with the boys,” Willie said. “They have agreed to pull up.” Such was the tour bus climate that summer when we pulled into Jackson, Michigan. Willie was scheduled for two performances at the Jackson County Fair, one in early afternoon and the other a night show.
The afternoon show was well under way, and some of us were still on the bus, smoking weed and just kicking back.
Poodie Locke was still on the bus as was Don Bowman, a country comedian who was opening for Willie, and roadie Billy Cooper, a longtime friend of mine. The only other person on the bus that afternoon was a woman who, we later learned, owned a massage parlor in Jackson. She was a big woman with curly red hair and wearing a lot of costume jewelry. She had no official authorization for being backstage and on the tour bus, but there she was. And such is a common occurrence amid the hustle and bustle of setting up and tearing down for a road show. Someone just winds up backstage and nobody really knows how they got there.
The big redhead was laughing and joking like she belonged, and I gave little thought when she produced a little silver pipe and passed it to Don Bowman. Like the rest of us, Bowman assumed the pipe contained marijuana as he took a hit and passed it on to Cooper. I had barely inhaled one lung full of smoke when I knew something was direly wrong.
I was starting to rise up toward the roof of the bus when I saw Billy Cooper’s anguished face. His eyes were as big as banjos. I looked down at Bowman and saw that he was rigid as a fireplace poker, grinning like a vapid Mardi Gras mask with drool dripping out of his mouth.
“It’s the pipe,” Billy Cooper cried. “The pipe, the fuckin’ pipe.”
Poodie Locke was a big guy in cowboy boots. He didn’t smoke the little silver pipe, sensing almost instantly what was happening. As my body rose up through the roof of the bus, I remember Poodie grabbing the female massage parlor owner by her tangle of red curls and literally dragging her off the bus and across the gravel parking lot.
I remember the woman howling at Locke. “Those guys knew what they were smoking.” Willie might have been a recipient of the evil pipe and Locke knew it. Poodie was still dragging her by the hair of her head as I floated on up out of the bus for at least a mile where I was to meet the Devil.
The Devil and I were high up above the county fair and the stage where Willie was playing. I never saw anything or anybody as horrible scary looking as this sonofabitch. He had long sideburns, pimples on his face with purple pus running out of them, and long rotten fangs that made him look sort of like a walrus with cavities wearing a straw cowboy hat. And I will swear to this day that the Devil had a hand-tooled leather hatband that read E Pluribus Willie.
Suddenly, and without warning, the Devil was gone and I was back on the tour bus, shaking like a dog passing razor blades, and clinging to Cooper and Bowman like they were my mothers.
We were all scared shitless and it seemed only reasonable that we lock the bus doors. The terrifying thing about being this scared is that you don’t know what you are scared of. Fear becomes terror.
Don Bowman seemed to have some measure of wits intact when he suggested we eat something. “We get something to eat and we might come down off this shit,” he said. Cooper agreed. I looked out the bus window and could see lighted carnival rides down a small hill. I didn’t see the Devil anywhere, but I knew he was out there somewhere. I was still terrified, but I volunteered to go for hotdogs.
With Bowman and Cooper locked in the bus behind me, I ran down the hill and found a hotdog stand. With a dozen hotdogs in a sack, I ran back to the bus like the hounds of hell were barking down my shirt collar. We gobbled down those hotdogs like contestants in a hotdog eating contest.
We were still scared out of our skins when Nelson and the band returned to the bus. The band members were pounding on the side of the bus and yelling like hell when one of us finally unlocked the door. I don’t recall what he said, but Willie wasn’t happy about being locked off his own bus.
We never learned exactly what was in the little pipe, but most of us figured it was a pure form of angel dust, the street name for phencyclidine (PCP). I later looked it up. It is known for producing severe hallucinations, and one semi-official source designates it as “the scariest motherfucking drug on the planet.”
I have never fully accepted the possibility that the Jackson Devil was a hallucination. I looked into his yellow eyes and smelled his fetid breath. I saw his hatband and I could read every word on it. Cooper, Bowman, and I suffered pounding headaches for two weeks after the Jackson show. This was the last Nelson road tour for me. The next close contact with Willie came in December, 1979, when I did a cover story on Nelson for Texas Girl Magazine.
To read the article, Google Willie Nelson interview; Texas Girl. The article is a general feature on Willie, combined with the new magazine’s statewide search for the most beautiful girl in Teas. With headquarters in Houston, the slick new enamel-cover magazine had everything necessary for success but enough seed money to get it over the initial hump.
Printer friend Joe Cardenas was an early consultant with the Houston publisher of Texas Girl, as was ace photographer Bill Spence, the man behind the camera for our big Texas Girl photo shoot. It all took place at Willie’s country club.
Western artist Clinton Baermann was present, and he appeared in photographs with me, Cardenas, and numerous scantily clad beauty candidates who frolicked around that afternoon on the Pedernales Country Club hill. A few of them were stark naked, and photographer Spence didn’t miss a one.
This shoot was to include the finals candidates for Texas Girl Magazine’s search for the most beautiful woman in Texas. The magazine was billed as the Texas answer to Playboy which it hardly was.
While Action Magazine lasted 44 years on inexpensive Canadian newsprint paper, beautiful full enamel color Texas Girl Magazine went belly-up after two more issues.
I don’t think a Texas beauty queen was ever named.
Willie said, “Too damn bad. It was one hell of an idea.”