On his 89th birthday (April 29th), Willie Nelson released his latest album, A Beautiful Time, filled with original songs and classics by Leonard Cohen and The Beatles. Then he left the studio and hit the road again.
“I’m at an age where I’ve long since stopped worrying and started focusing on the things that really matter,” writes Nelson in his new book, Me and Paul.
As the singer, songwriter, author, actor and activist tours Southern California, he joins the LA Times Book Club tonight at 5:30 p.m. to discuss his book, the story of drummer Paul English’s 70-year friendship who inspired and saved his life. This free virtual event will be streamed live on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
In the last three years alone, the 10-time Grammy winner has released four albums and published three books, in addition to lending his name to popular cannabis product brands Willie’s Reserve and Willie’s Remedy.
But amid his continued achievements, Nelson has also come to terms with the loss of loved ones. In March, his sister Bobbie Nelson, who played the piano with him for much of her life, died at the age of 91. And in 2020, he mourned the loss of English, his closest friend and confidant. They met in Fort Worth’s gritty 1950s nightclub scene and stayed together through years of struggle and colorful misadventures and Nelson’s rise to stardom.
Here are five things you should know about Me and Paul.
It takes the right drummer to get the best out of a singer. English started out as a trumpeter. But one night Nelson didn’t have a drummer for a gig at a Fort Worth club, and he persuaded English to sit on a wooden box and accompany him on an impromptu drum kit. Surprisingly, English turned out to be the perfect support. “Paul was able to follow my spontaneous musical wanderings,” writes Nelson. “It’s no easy feat, but Paul was up to it.” Nelson made him an integral part of the band and credits his understated style as the perfect complement to Nelson’s unorthodox vocal style. “A virtuoso drum would have done a lot more, added all sorts of accents and a whole lot of flair,” says Nelson. “But reflections and accents weren’t what I needed. I needed someone who was willing to go on this journey with me, not too fast, not too slow, pausing when I felt like it and then getting back on track when it was time to move on.”
English helped Nelson get back on his feet after attempting suicide. In one of the book’s headline-grabbing revelations, Nelson recalls contemplating suicide during a downturn in his career in the early 1960s, when he lay down on a Nashville street in hopes of being run over by a car. Luckily there was no traffic that night and Nelson stumbled back into a bar for another drink. When he woke up in his trailer the next day, English was there with him to lift his spirits with a pep talk and a meal at a local rib restaurant. “I’m keeping an eye on you, son,” English told him. “You must know that.” A decade later, Nelson was the one who comforted his friend after English’s wife, Carlene, took her own life. Nelson wrote “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” to help English through his grief.
English was also Nelson’s bodyguard and debt collector. “The man has saved my life more times than I can remember,” Nelson recalls. As well as being a skilled musician, English was an intimidating character who carried a pistol and was quick with his fists. After a troublemaker threw a bottle at Nelson during a show in Houston, English waited until the set was over, then jumped up and hit the man so hard he broke his hand and required surgery to fix it. (“It doesn’t matter,” English told him. “He got it worse than me.”) On another occasion, when a promoter refused to pay Nelson the promised fee for a show, English—who previously worked as a repo— man had worked – hauled away the promoter’s prized Thunderbird and held it for ransom until he got the money.
Nelson and English crossed paths with Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer. In the early 1960s, English introduced Nelson to the infamous Dallas nightclub owner in hopes that Ruby would book Nelson for a gig. Ruby wasn’t initially impressed with Nelson’s success in Fort Worth, which he felt lacked the Vegas-style glamor of Dallas nightlife. A few years later, however, Ruby changed his mind and floated the idea of opening a massive country music venue with Nelson as the main attraction. Nelson, who had since moved to Nashville, was about to board a plane to Dallas and meet Ruby on November 22, 1963, when he learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. When Nelson landed in Dallas, English met him and warned him about the deal. “I have a feeling, Willie, we’d better stay away from Ruby,” English said. “I’m not sure if he’s someone I want to confuse you with.” Two days later, the nation watched on television as Ruby emerged from a crowd of reporters in Dallas and shot Oswald.
The couple had a long-standing acquaintance with Ray Charles. Nelson and English first met the R&B icon when they visited Charles at his South Dallas home in the early 1960s. They learned that Charles was a country music lover and had once been the only black member of a country group called the Florida Playboys. (Charles also urged Nelson to play chess with him—in the dark so Nelson couldn’t see the pieces, either.) Charles released an album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, in 1962, which Nelson recalls as an important influence .
In the book, written with David Ritz, Nelson says he still misses his friend. “I can’t tell you how many times after the news I’ve thought, ‘I need to talk to Paul,'” he writes. “I need him next to me. i need his advice I need to feel like I have presence. I need his love.”
Book Club: When you go
What: song writer Willy Nelson joins the LA Times Book Club to discuss “Me and Paul” with the Times editor Jaclyn Cosgrove.
When: 5:30 p.m. Pacific 13 Oct.
Where: Register for this free virtual event on Eventbrite.
Book Club Newsletter: Sign up for the latest news and events: latimes.com/bookclub
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-13/willie-nelson-me-and-paul-book-club 5 things to know about Willie Nelson and “Me and Paul.”