"Is the better part over?/ has a ragin' river turned into a stream?/ is the better part over?
Are we down to not quite sayin' what we mean?" - Is The Better Part Over - Willie Nelson.

Photo by Carol Taylor

Shotgun Willie Nelson has long proved his aim is true - especially when he goes in to bat for victims of disaster.

They include Farm Aid recipients - small farmers destroyed by corporations - musicians battling health crises, same sex marriage advocates, marijuana reformers and decimated denizens of West, neighbouring town of Abbott where he was raised 80 years ago.

Willie and extended family turned the Redhead Stranger's 80th birthday gig in Austin into a fund raiser for fire fighters and emergency service workers killed in the West fertiliser plant explosion.

So it's no surprise Willie, who turns 80 on April 30, hired survivors of his Family Band to revisit the past on his 61st studio album, released here on the eve of his birthday.

That was shortly after he opened his church of his choice in his movie town Luck for an Easter Sunday gospel service, replete with the liquor of parishioners' choice.

There were a few recently deceased family members absent - bassists Bee Spears and Chris Ethridge, long time tour manager Poodie Locke and second former singing spouse Shirley Collie.

Willie was back in the road again and studio with pianist sister Bobbie, 82, who still plays in the Family band, and youngest son Micah, 22, on Churango and percussion.

Also on board were long time drummer Paul English, his brother Billy on electric guitar and snare drum, veteran harmonica player Mickey Raphael, upright bassist Kevin Smith and organist Jim Moose Brown.

Nashville guitar great Grady Martin and guitarist Jody Payne, who both toured here with Willie are long gone.

Grady died at 72 in 2001 and Payne - former husband of the late Sammy Smith and father of singing actor Waylon Payne - has retired.

Unlike previous disc Heroes the services of Mr Snoop Dog, Jamey Johnson and old mates Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson were not called upon.

But seasoned studio tsar Buddy Cannon returned to the production saddle for this highly accessible dance hall standards disc.

And, with further altruism, Willie pockets publishing royalties from only one original - his cryptic crooner Is The Better Part Over?

His 15 covers of historic classics ensures they are shared by the estates of long dead writers.


"And after thinkin' it over/ wouldn't you rather have the endin' nice and clean/ where love remains in all the closing scenes/ is the better part over?" - Is The Better Part Over - Willie Nelson.

Willie kicks off with the flamenco fired Irving Berlin title track and ends with evocative Berlin tune Marie (The Dawn Is Breaking) and western swing finale Shame On You from western swing band leader and TV host Spade Cooley.

Shame On You - a #1 hit in 1944 - is also the title of a chapter about Oklahoma born Spade in the John Gilmore book LA Despair.

Crime writing buffs will recall Cooley - who died at 58 of a heart attack after performing a deputy sheriff's concert in 1969 on a three day furlough from prison after killing second singing spouse Ella - is a regular fixture in James Ellroy novels.

Cooley allegedly killed Ella - his wife of 15 year - for having an affair with singing cowboy actor Roy Rogers.

Perhaps Willie could film the video for the song at Luck where Rogers, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, John Wayne, Tom Nix and other historic cowboy movie stars adorn the walls.

His guitar Trigger, again used on this album, and Roy's stuffed horse of the same name, who went to God at 33 on July 3, 1965 - would be ideal twin props.

Maybe also a cameo by Trigger guitar tech Tom Hawkins to assure Geelong fans that their Finley bred full forward of the same name is not going on tour with Willie during the footy season until they win their two yearly AFL Premiership.

But I digress - what is the music like?

Well, it's a kaleidoscopic collage of melancholic mood swings from the poignant You'll Never Know to the positive paean Walking My Baby Back Home.

The oft covered thirties standard segues into Raphael's harmonic fuelled revamp of Carl Perkins Matchbox.

Willie once had a hit duet with Leon Russell on Heartbreak Hotel - penned by Mae Boren Axton (mother of late singing actor Hoyt) for Perkins pal Elvis Presley.

"Elvis and Carl - all them guys out of Memphis that came through Sun Records and kicked up a lot of dust for a while?" Willie recalled.

"Yeah, I was paying attention. Carl Perkins - I liked Matchbox! He and I recorded down in my studio one time. He was a good artist."

There's also a nostalgic nirvana in the Buck Ram-Al and Morty Nevins Platters classic Twilight Time.

Feel free to waltz to the latter before Willie pledges all in I Can't Give You Anything But Love and twenties era I'll Keep On Loving You and pathos primed I Wish I Didn't Love You - once a hit for Willie vocal mentor Frank Sinatra.

Equally accessible is Willie's version of South Of The Border and jazz tinged tribute to embryonic guitar hero Django Reinhardt on the legend's Nuages and another instrumental Vous Et Moi.

Nuages is a melancholic meander, popular in France during the Nazi occupation.


"Well, there's many a strange impulse out on the plains of West Texas/ there's many a young boy who feels things he can't comprehend/ and a small town don't like it when somebody falls between sexes/ no, a small town don't like it when a cowboy has feelings for men." - Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other - Ned Sublette.

So what does Willie think of boomeranging to Sony?

He was a huge seller on Sony's predecessor Columbia from 1975 when he released Red Headed Stranger long before his first Australian tour in 1981?

Willie has had many diverse labels and cross genre and duet albums since then - also a few versions of the Honeysuckle Rose bus depicted in the movie of the same name with Slim Pickens and singing Texan crime novelist Kinky Friedman's 1997 book Roadkill.

Folks from newer record labels have been on board the bus but what about the old label execs?

"I think they finally bought a ticket," Willie joked about his once ardent label handlers.
"You'd think they'd catch a show every now and then!"

So how does Willie feel about the 80th birthday milestone?

"No more than 50, or 70, or 21," he reflects.

"I thought when I made 21 it was a big deal! I thought I was lucky, after 21. Anything over that, as they say, was gravy. Eighty? It's just another number, I guess."

At that age Willie can afford to stick to his beliefs on subjects taboo to younger Music Row image trapped peers.

He's one of the estimated 53 % of Americans who think gay marriage should be legal.

"Gay people should be just as miserable as the rest of us," four times wed Willie jokes as he shares a line with confirmed bachelor pal Kinky.

"I've been there and back a few times," confesses Willie, father of seven.

"It's not perfect, so why should we expect it to be perfect for everybody? I never thought of marriage as something only for men and women. But I'd never marry a guy I didn't like."

In 2006 Willie recorded a cover of Ned Sublette satire Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other but it didn't blow the doors of the closet for Brokeback Mountain.


"Cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other/ say, what do you think all them saddles and boots was about?/ And there's many a cowboy who don't understand the way that he feels for his brother/ and inside every cowboy there's a lady that'd love to slip out." - Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other - Ned Sublette

Willie is also loyal to his staff including young valet Ben Dorcy, 87, whom he inherited from the late John Wayne.

Dorcy - also featured in the Roadkill novel, was first inductee in the Roadie Hall of Fame in 2009 during Roadie Palooza in Nashville.

Ode to Ben Dorcy - a never-released song written and recorded by the late Waylon Jennings - was played at the induction.

"I first met him when I went to work with Ray Price in 1961 and he was Price's roadie.

He's still a roadie," Nelson revealed a few years back.

Dorcy, who had been with Nelson for more than 30 years, was working with him that day, although Nelson said he is more of a valet nowadays.

"He's a hard worker," Nelson said.

"The first thing he did this morning was bring me a cup of coffee from Starbucks."

Ben served in the Navy from 1943-46.

He eventually moved to Nashville and hooked up with Texan western swing legend Hank Thompson in 1950.

"You need to get him to tell you about the time Hank Thompson's boys threw him in a snow bank and went off and left him," Nelson said.

"It's a funny story."

John Wayne took a liking to him and hired him as his gardener and his chauffeur.

He played a Tennessee volunteer in Wayne's 1960 epic, The Alamo and also worked for Waylon, Elvis, Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.


"I'd love to have a joint with Willie/ I'd love to have a joint with Will/ we smoke at the Evening Star and we always toke our fill/ we smoke so much good dope we don't ever, ever get straight/ well, I'd love to have a joint with Willie because Willie's my mate." - I'd Love To Have A Joint With Willie - David Dawson-Marty Atchison.

At 80, with a string of marijuana busts in his slipstream, Willie is well qualified to comment on legalization.

He keeps fit on and offstage with jogging, golf and now cycling although he doesn't pedal through the Texan Hill Country with fellow Austin resident Lance Armstrong.

To add humour during Willie's 1981 Australasian tour we created his pre-concert tour P.A. theme song - I'd Love To Have A Joint With Willie, recorded by veteran Melbourne outlaw band The Dead Livers.

I was covering the New Zealand leg of the tour for the now defunct Sydney Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Adelaide News and The Australian.

But after a riot between the Hells Angels - backstage guests at his Auckland concert - and Samoan bikie gang The Headhunters I was asked to stay on for further developments.

But there was another problem after the Wellington concert - no licensed driver for the mini-tour bus to take the band and crew onto the Picton ferry and down to Christchurch.

As luck would have it, my experience driving trucks on the family farm on the Shipwreck Coast and beyond Warrnambool earned me the task repeated on the 2002 Australian tour by Kinky Friedman and fellow Texan Billy Joe Shaver.

Unlike the character driving Honeysuckle Rose in Roadkill, I did not hit an errant Indian on the mean streets.

Instead we survived the trip and I was with Willie in the hotel lobby when he was set to head off for a jog with the then mayor of Christchurch.

But the guitarist in the Aussie support band had belatedly sourced some homegrown herb for the singing actor.

After a short puff-stop The Redheaded Stranger and jogging companion - the not so-old grey mayor - hit the running track.

"It's ridiculous to have all those people down there on the border killing each other, trading drugs and guns," Willie revealed.

"There's a huge industry down there, and the prisons are full, and the people who own the prisons are very happy about it. I have been busted then I do my two-hour show without missing a line or a note. And I've already proved, at least in my instance, that I can either smoke or not smoke; it's no big deal. I know a lot of people who can't. They have no tolerance for it. They take a couple drags, and they're in a coma for the rest of the day.

There are some of us that have a higher tolerance. It's definitely a stress reliever, and stress is the biggest killer on the planet. My old buddy Pat Robertson - remember him? The preacher? He said some interesting things about it. He came down to the studio to do a promo thing. I like him a lot. I think he's about as extreme one way as I am the other, but he was saying it's crazy to send a teenager to prison for smoking a joint, when he goes in an innocent kid and comes out a hardened criminal. And he's right, it just doesn't make a lot of sense."

CLICK HERE for a Willie feature in the Diary on May 24, 2012.
CLICK HERE for an On The Road feature at Willie's July 3 and 4 Picnics in the Diary on August 9, 2006.

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