Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Joe Nick Patoski: Willie Nelson: An Epic Life

A comprehensive Willie Nelson bio has been long overdue, and Joe Nick Patoski's survey fits the bill. It's just under 500 pages without notes; that titular "epic" refers to the book as much as the man. But things get repetitive, as roughly half the book consists of enumerated lists of who played with seemingly every incarnation of the Willie Nelson Family, dubious genuflections before Nelson as "a deep thinker who put his philosophy on the table in three-minute melodic chunks for all to ponder," and every-other-page reminders of how much fun Texans have with drugs and sun. Still, Patoski's clunky but functional prose eventually delivers on its title, delivering a slickly reductive compression of the colorful highlights of Nelson's life.


Patoski diligently begins with Nelson's grandparents, but his real interest leapfrogs the book forward to the '50s within 50 pages, as Nelson hits the road for Texas' rougher roadhouses. Colorful tales of Fort Worth's premier venues—many of which put chicken wire in front of the stage, to protect musicians from the inevitable flying beer bottles—give a good sense of the town's forgotten past "as a little Chicago." From then on, it's one long forward rush to Nelson's position as superstar/icon. Patoski's awe of his subject means the book always feels breathless, never giving a sense of Nelson's ups and downs; it's all buildup to the inevitable.

Patoski doesn't skimp on brief, informative sketches of Nelson's pot misadventures, how his key albums were recorded, or the dirty details about his contentious relationship with the coke-addled Waylon Jennings. Hero worship leads Patoski to downplay Nelson's negligent parenting and husbandry as the hapless excesses of a spirit too big for this world, rather than a man who took every excess he could get away with: Nelson may be the face of outlaw country music, but he always has to be the good guy to Patoski, who morally flattens him into a can-do-no-wrong legend. Reducing Austin to a series of drug stories interspersed with cameo appearances from legendary UT coach Darrell Royal, Patoski falls into a Texas-centric version of baby boomer self-mythologizing, with country music, beer, and sun taking the place of protest marches and Woodstock. His counter-mythology is just as smug and self-regarding as the conventional narrative, with Nelson as its fulcrum. Still, dedicated fans will find as complete an arc of Nelson's life here as they're likely to ever get.

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