Albums of Our Lives: Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie

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I refused to listen to the B-side. This was, I guess, an extension or reflection of the poverty of those years after leaving my marriage and buying the 10 Willie Nelson records at a small town Goodwill store for 10 cents each– a kind of hoarding of every meager resource, like the unopened cans of beans, moved from kitchen to kitchen, state to state. It was the A-side, for years, on repeat, or exactly the years from which my daughter was 5 years old to 11, and I was just trying to keep us together however I could while also trying to keep writing. I often bragged about refusing the B-side, which was also part of me thinking that I would maybe brag about how tough I was, how much of any temptation I could resist for any greater good.

I imagined the neighbors in their apartments above and below and beside me, maybe praying for me to flip the album over, but I wouldn’t and wouldn’t and would just put the A-side on repeat there in the $425 apartment where my daughter and I had only one bed, two chairs, some books and a record player which often played only the A-side of Shotgun Willie, but mostly just when I was alone.

Mostly, just when I was alone, Willie posed my essential questions, but they weren’t exactly questions. Just problems, like how you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say. But Willie writes in his 1988 autobiography Willie:

“the landlord didn’t give a shit if the well was dry.”

Music would have to be made. Just what would that record sound like that was made out of nothing? And what happens if you have fallen apart, and are sitting in your underwear, and biting a bullet from pain, and if you are, even then, still tied to the earth by bonds of love and relation and landlords, etc., and also by some strange necessity called art when it is clear whatever you had has abandoned you? If you got nothing, from what, then, is the music to be born?

What a relief that John T. Ford, that industrious family-values racist, enters the picture. What a relief that there is at least some kind of slightly larger picture of the murky America of profit and racial pathology in all of Willie’s underwear-clad failure. Things were at risk of becoming self-indulgent. And also how smoky, how funky, how I would, during the days and nights of listening to Shotgun Willie, crack the window of the old brick apartment building and smoke a cigarette on the sly, holding it in the crack, watching my neighbors, mostly refugees from another hemisphere, navigate through the cruel and unfamiliar drifts of snow.

A perceptive friend regularly advises: “Your country is also your funk.” In order to somehow survive and thrive as something other than a John T. Ford America of pure-racist-profit we must access that country core of oneself, like some sort of stockpile of salvation or authenticity.

The country funk of Shotgun Willie is also just like every other funk. It is totally ordinary and visceral, like death or sex or birthing. That is, it is generative, but it is also a kind of “no.” Without those first few bars of funk there would be no Willie Nelson. Only after he becomes nothing he thinks he ought to be, that is he only becomes who he is after he is refused and also refusing: Willie is never that 6-foot-5 klansman, powerful, “one hell of man” who “makes a lot of money selling sheets on the family plan.” That’s because he can’t be.

This transgression into a kind of funk was also Willie’s passage into a different transgression, that of the “outlaw country.” This is when the clean-cut college football player/industry songwriter you don’t know grows out his hair, refuses to quit singing and leaves his record company for another one that doesn’t even do country. You can hear the difference in his voice if you listen to his demos. He writes the song “Shotgun Willie” in the bathroom of the studio on the wrapper of a menstrual pad. He said it was like “clearing his throat.”

Art is all those things, maybe, that Shotgun Willie is, too: the minor and massive “no,” the biological impulse, the mysterious revision. He was 40 then, in 1973, when Willie Nelson, as we know him, was born. He said he laid his drunk body down in a snowdrift on one of those days waiting for a car to run him over:

“. . . eventually I began to feel stupid and got up and went and bought another round of drinks.”

I didn’t much like whiskey, but wanted, like Willie Nelson, for a thing to take my mind, to take my memory, not from the torture of unattainable, unrequited love, but my failures, how I’d basically just let myself be nothing at all, and for years then, and treated poorly, and barely rebelling against my own poor treatment.

I could, at a certain age, recall almost anything, but in those years of the A-side of Shotgun Willie, my memory felt exactly like a card catalog of a half-burned library, events existing mostly in the abstract, in the category, in the flimsy artifacts which reminded me of what was lost.

I would have chosen to have lost, among my memories, those of the self and the self’s failures, and to have retained the memories of our lavish world: but the self, as it was, remained, and the holes in my mind were exactly the places in which the lavish world disappeared.

This is the mad problem with memory: that we are cursed to keep account not of the endless beauty of the world, but of our own failure; that we can be visited, nightly, by the local memory; that we are never neglected by the unfailing, nightly company of our errors.

It is the world’s disinterestedness in the artist that allows the artist to shift her gaze from herself and back into the never-returning-the-gaze of the world. Or I was very convinced of this, and lived, at this time, as a “poet,” which is exactly the mode of a winning failure like a sad song or waltz. I wrote poetry, conversed only with poets and in this felt like I was a ghost having a conversation with ghosts. I was always gazing at the unreturned gaze of the world then. I had so many important things to say and wanted and didn’t want you to hear them, though it would have been killer if you had.

There’s this passage in the book Willie where Willie knows he is too weird to be a hit. He uses too many chords, is “dangerously close” to breaking meter and flirting at the edge of dissolution — but also, he says, in these bad songs, “the inferior materials dissolve and leave the gold.” He is refusal, or refused — his alchemy oddity, his desire subtracted, his aspiration nil:

“I once was a fool for the women/now I’m just a fool, nothing more”

He begs the world, too, to become counter-aspirational, to embody the slow freedom of negation. I became that world, too: felt begged, felt accompanied, felt that paradox of art as a ghost thing, at once everything and nothing, heard and unheard, wanted and unwanted, both.

Things are going to turn into a party. We will dance soon. We will throw our coats in the corner. We will reclaim our place in the human world, make right with society, stay all night, dance a little longer, finally, and maybe even, in the drunken night, forget. But we will only do it because we can’t go home, or at least this is what Nelson, by way of an old Bob Wills cover tells us — the bridge is washed out, we might as well have a good time.

It’s such a satisfying way to end that I always stopped there, on that last track of the A-side, in spite of Willie Nelson. I swear I knew what was coming up even if I didn’t know it, precisely. I could feel Shotgun Willie, stripped and failed and heartbroken, singing into the great nothing, stuck in a home with the door barricaded by regrets, and also what would happen to him later as the positive crept in, as the space of the world was once again filled. I didn’t want to hear about the perils of success. I wanted only — after the kind of suffering which felt like exactly the wrong form of erasure, and after the kind of suffering which felt like a stubborn presence, never to be erased — to accept a rough fate as a thing like the weather, to dance through the nothing, then, and stay a little longer, trapped in that sweet and impossible night.


Anne Boyer is the author of The Romance of Happy Workers and the forthcoming novel, Joan. She lives in Kansas and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. More from this author →