So, be you a Willie fan or not, when his 90th birthday tributes show up on television and radio this weekend, remember that he has in so many ways lived all of our lives and sung all of our songs in all our towns from Pittsburgh to Denver.
By Ed Breen
A far off journey today up Interstate 35, through Austin and past Waco to just north of West, Texas. We exit on a county road marked 3102 and there’s not much to see, only a sign that points us north and east to Abbott. A mile or so up that road is the first hint of why we are here: The road sign changes from “3102” to “Willie Nelson Road.”
We are here on this dusty, arid, windswept piece of central Texas because, you see, Willie Hugh Nelson, America’s troubadour, maybe the closest thing we have to a national voice, was born here 90 years ago this Saturday. This landscape, this wind, this openness and emptiness is in his blood and more importantly, in his words and in his voice.
This place, such as it is, has been here since 1871, when it was built as a stop on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad and named for Joe Abbot, who represented this and the rest of Hill County in the Texas legislature at that time. The peak of its prosperity was 1914, when population hit 713, and it has been in decline ever since. It has a post office and it’s ZIP Code 76621, and it is in Area Code 254. The population is listed as 352, but that’s a stretch. Those folks are included in what the census bureau says are 89 families living in the community that is less than a mile square.
The Abbott Independent School District, which serves kids for miles around, has 300 students. They are the Abbott Panthers; it says so in a chalk message on the glass window of the defunct Panther Pantry, across from the post office on Walnut Street. “We are Abbott” and “State Bound in 2021,” but fails to tell us what team excelled that year.
A few yards west of the town hall on Walnut Street is what used to be the City Market. It is now only four walls with no windows or doors. References to a lunch room and the quality of the cured meat are still legible on the scarred brick walls.
The second evidence of Willie Nelson is a starkly painted black-and-white portrait done on the overhead door of an abandoned garage at Walnut and Front streets. It’s big and bold; maybe 10 feet square.
It’s one of those images reminiscent of Willie 40 years ago, like back in the ’80s on an all-night drive from Chadron, Neb., through Omaha to Indianapolis – the featureless four-lane path across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.
The required accompaniment in those days was a Thermos of black coffee, two packs of Marlboros and a half-dozen Willie Nelson tapes, with “Red Headed Stranger” to be repeated a couple of times, alongside his “Stardust” album, which they told him not to make and it turned out to be his bestseller of all time. Not a Texas twang to be heard, but you ought to hear him do Hoagy Carmichael, just like we’re all sitting on the garden wall across the street from Nick’s in Bloomington, Ind. And the only person who did “George on my Mind” any better was, maybe, Ray Charles.
But back here in Texas, a couple of blocks south is the old water tower, still standing, maybe still functioning. It reinforces where we are in large block letters: ABBOTT.
At the intersection of Bordon and Walnut streets are two churches, Methodist on the north, Baptist on the south. Both are nicely maintained and it is here we find the third piece of Willie Nelson’s presence. The Methodist was the church of his childhood and it was in that building that Willie and his older sister Bobbie first performed for pay. Five dollars and about 85 years ago.
The congregation dwindled, the building fell into disrepair and, when Willie was so informed in 2006, he bought the building, restored it, and it stands proudly today.
At the rescue celebration, Nelson told the assembled congregants that “My sister Bobbie and I have been going to this church since we were born,” and in honor of their musical childhood years, the siblings played a set of gospel songs, concluding with “Amazing Grace.”
Go on down Bordon Street to the dead end and take a left and your see three or four houses along there.
”Look for the one with the screened-in porch. That’s it,” said the man back at the post office.
This is 307 Mesquite Street and the frame, two-story house with the screened porch and the peeling white paint is the childhood home of Willie Nelson and sister Bobbie, who were raised here, primarily by their grandparents.
Turn around and look at this landscape: The water tower, the church steeple, the flattened skyline of this cluster of a few homes and a few people.
Consider that this scene, this aged house, these dusty streets, are all there in the that aged body and baritone voice when Willie Nelson sings of “Family Bible,” and “Crazy,” and “Night Life,” and “Pretty Paper,” and “Always on My Mind,” and “Whiskey River,” and “Good Hearted Woman,” and “On the Road Again,” and a few hundred more that he has written and recorded on more than 150 albums. Over a hundred studio albums, 14 concert albums, 26 albums with other musicians and half-a-dozen movies and half-a -dozen books.
So, be you a Willie fan or not, when his 90th birthday tributes show up on television and radio this weekend, remember that he has in so many ways lived all of our lives and sung all of our songs in all our towns from Pittsburgh to Denver. He has given voice to our hopes and fears and dreams and loves and losses.
He is, indeed, the voice of America, this Willie Nelson from Abbott, Texas.
Ed Breen has been an Indiana journalist for 50 years. He was a reporter, photographer and editor at the Marion Chronicle Tribune from 1966-1995, when he became Assistant Managing Editor of the Journal Gazette newspaper in Fort Wayne.