The Burnt-Orange Stranger

The Burnt-Orange Stranger

It took me a long time to get to know Willie Nelson. My first introduction to him was not as the suit-wearing Nashville upstart, nor as Shotgun Willie, the outlaw, nor as the post-legendary collaborator and wise old sage. It wasn’t even as a country musician. My introduction to the red-headed stranger was as Willie Nelson, crooner.

Growing up, my parents had a certain affinity for Stardust, the 1978 album in which Willie covered the jazz-pop standards of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. It’s a blissful record, and it remains on my desert-island list to this day. It also planted the seed of an idea that would come into full bloom as I absorbed Willie’s full catalog: Like Stardust’s star-spangled record sleeve painted by Susanna Clark, Willie contains multitudes.

It’s worth reflecting on the many faces of Willie, as today marks his 82nd birthday. We know many of them. The soft-fingered Spanish guitar picker, the thundering bandito, the friend of the family farm, the marijuana aficionado. And many know him as Willie Nelson, friend of UT.

Yes, he never went to UT. He served a brief stint at that private detention facility on the Brazos known as Baylor University. But a school which famously banned dancing until 1996 was never a good fit for an outlaw like Willie. Austin, where the Armadillo Club brought together the rednecks and the hippies, and dancing was like walking, was much more his speed.

In Austin he struck up a surprising and deep friendship with Darrell K Royal. They golfed regularly and Willie dragged the coach to concerts. Together, like Sonny and Cher and Crockett and Tubbs, they were the perfect embodiment of a special place and time. The hard-nosed football coach, full of folksy adages, and the country rebel, full of rolicking songs and, well, pot smoke. Royal appreciated talent and craft, and encouraged, in his own coach-ish way, others to do the same.

After Willie’s first show at the Armadillo Club in 1972, the duo attended a party at the Crest Hotel hosted by Edwin “Bud” Shrake and Gary Cartwright. Willie began picking his guitar, and Royal, it’s reported, nearly kicked Cartwright out of the room for talking during the performance. “Leave or listen,” Royal commanded. Cartwright chose to listen. As should we all.

When Royal died in 2012, the Alcalde asked fans and alumni to share their memories of Coach. Unsurprisingly, memories of Willie were intertwined. Geralyn Blanda Vine, BJ ’73, remembered seeing Willie perform for the first time at a honky tonk in Round Rock. Royal sat in a metal folding chair, front row center.

“He was there for the whole show and sang and laughed and drank beer with everyone else while Willie entertained,” she recalled. “It was quite a night for me.”

Last year, Willie’s friend-of-UT status was cemented when he donated a huge collection of memorabilia and papers—documents, not those papers—to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. And UT gave the love right back, putting some of the items on semi-permanent display in the north end zone area of the stadium named after his friend.

So the next time you reflect on Willie the beer-drinking balladeer, or Willie the outlaw, or even Willie the crooner—and I hope you do—think also of Willie the Longhorn.

Happy birthday, Willie. And hook ’em.

Photo courtesy Columbia Records.


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