“That one Willie Nelson song. That one night. Life-changing.”
Throughout my friendship with the indomitable Connie Nelson, there’s a mantra I find myself repeating. “Connie will always rise to the occasion.”
Since we met 25 years ago through Arlo Guthrie and his wife, Jackie, at our art gallery in the Gaslamp, we’ve been best friends. Of course, Connie is the kind of charismatic whom thousands would call “best friend”- just sayin’!
Married to Willie Nelson in ‘63, on the road by ‘64, in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Jane Fonda by her early thirties, Connie was the perfect muse for “Willie and Family.” Since becoming an ex, she’s been a sunbeam of an activist – serving on the board of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, volunteering with the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association, and supporting the music careers of Willie and her two daughters, Amy and Paula. Generous to a fault!
A people magnet, Jimmy and I joke that if you were to play “Six Degrees of Separation with Kevin Bacon” with Connie Nelson, you’d need only one degree! She knows and loves to know everyone. Jimmy says that “she may describe herself as the girl who likes to sit at home on New Year’s Eve — but I know she’s dragged herself to a Mary Wells Concert, fresh out of surgery with an IV still in her arm!”
For a warm March week, Connie came to stay at our Bankers Hill home. In head-to-toe denim, a streak of blue winking in her hairdo, the statuesque Texas Blonde radiated charm. One sunny morning, Jean Froning, CC Perry, Jimmy and I gathered in the kitchen for an interview (with bagels and lox!) and, as always, it became about the music.
A Conversation with Connie Nelson
Ingrid:Connie, Were you always adventurous as a child – in Ellensburg, Washington and Texas?
Connie:Oh, yes! Yes, yes, always. And you want me to expound?
Ingrid, laughing: It’s an interview!
Connie:My grandfather was from Hungary —
Jimmy Rock:I remember your Hungarian goulash!
Connie:That was my mother’s recipe! My family were deer hunters, bear hunters. Loved anything outdoors. Because of their “Hungarian spirit,” I was always adventurous, looking over the hill and onto the next.
Ingrid:What adventure led you to Willie Nelson?
Connie:I loved music – any kind of music. I didn’t like country music because I thought it was too twangy. Too “country.” One night, living in Texas, I heard this song on the radio. “I Never Cared For You.” I didn’t know a thing, but – listen –
“The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all
And the sky was never blue
The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall
And I never cared for you.”
The DJ said it was a crossover hit by a man named Willie Nelson. I fell in love with the songwriting.
Ingrid:Where was your life headed at that time, when you heard Willie’s song?
My Dad worked at a steel mill and every year, right around Christmas time, he’d get laid off. So, I was working in a glass factory. Quality control. Trying to help keep the family going.
Driving to work one night, the radio DJ said Willie was going to be at a club in Conroe, Texas. I was supposed to be on rotating shift work from 3-11. And I took off work! I had no idea! I just wanted to see “I Never Cared For You” sung live. I guess it was fate.
The name of the place was the 21 Club. Really small for a nightclub.
Jimmy Rock:Like that place in Denver we used to go. Ebbets Field!
Connie:Yes, but not as big. My girlfriend and I sat behind a pillar. Right before the show started, this guy playing bass in Willie’s band came up and asked, “Why are you sitting behind a pole?” He brought us to the front, to the band table.
We sat right here. And Willie was right there. He sang “Funny, How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life.” I had no idea he wrote those songs! They were all popular by someone else. And then he sang that song.
After the show, the bass player invited my girlfriend and I to “come by Room 23” of the Conroe Hotel. We went there – and oh! Ended up sitting, passing the guitar around, until dawn. It was so much fun. It really was. And then Willie got my number. When he sang that one song. That one night. Life-changing.
I used to think that because of Willie I learned to love music. But it was really the opposite. I really loved the music and because of that, I found Willie. I realized that truth a few hundred years ago.
Ingrid:What was is it like meeting and falling in love with a celebrity?
Connie:Back then, he wasn’t a celebrity. He was just a guy in a band. I dated him for a year before we were married. I knew that I had feelings when we were sitting at a table in Houston, right after soundcheck, outside in the middle of the day. This drunk guy walks right out of the middle of the street, shouting. “Hey Willie! Hey Willie! I love your music!” I’m gritting my teeth, but Willie’s talking to him, treating him so well. For long enough that it made me feel guilty! That was when I knew that I liked him as a person.
Ingrid:He became famous during your relationship – what caused him to take off?
Connie:When we got together he played Texas and *maybe* Louisiana. What really did it was after we were married. I can’t remember the year –
Ingrid:You’re doing good!
Connie:Well! One year, we were driving back from Colorado and Willie said, “As soon as we get back, I have to go into the studio and make an album. I don’t even know one song I want to do. Nothing.” He said, “Help me think of something I can record.”
I said, “Why don’t you do Red Headed Stranger?” He used to sing that to his kids every night. “Put songs around it, Willie, make it a whole –” And he jumped up and said, “Get out pen and paper!” By the time we got to Dallas, he had completed the whole album. It was on the Billboard charts for two years.
Ingrid:Did you help shape Willie’s career? I’m thinking about Julio Iglesias…
Connie:Willie went through a phase of recording duets with other musicians. Once, we went to London, and we were sitting in the kitchen with the radio playing right behind us.
There was a man — I can hear him singing! — and I thought his voice was perfect. When he was finished, the DJ said, “That’s a song by Julio Iglesias.” I wrote it down. The next day, I walked to the record store and there were so many albums by Julio Iglesias – just rows! In every language.
I got the one in English and took it back to Willie. One song was better than the next. I said, “Oh God! He’s on Columbia Records, like you are.” Willie got Mark, his manager, on the phone. And it turned out that Julio had done all these albums but was never able to break into the US.
Jimmy Rock and Ingrid sing at the same time: “All the girls we’ve LOVED before.”
Connie:Exactly! To sing that song with Willie shot Julio up the charts in the US. I remember we were all at the studio when Julio came with his little entourage. He had on all white – white shirt, white pants, white shoes. It was like, “oh my god, I can’t even LOOK at him he’s so cute. Good heavens!”
Ingrid:You were his muse. How did you raise [your daughters] Paula and Amy? Were you a road widow?
Connie:We’d go on the road when they were little – we’d get on the bus and go. It was one big family out there, all of us. We were “Willie and Family.” Two of my brothers were the road crew. And it was just one joke after the other.
The road felt like home to me. It really did. Although, it wasn’t difficult to come off of it. It’s like going on vacation. You can’t wait to go! But then (Connie sighs) it’s so good to be home.
Ingrid:Today, your daughters are both musicians – Paula, a Sirius XM DJ hosting two shows a day (on both Willie’s Roadhouse and the Outlaw Channel). Amy, half of the hilarious duo Folk Yuke. Were they always musical?
Connie:When the girls were seven or eight they’d go up with Willie on stage and sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” All the gospel parts. Paula was a couple years older and they went through a stage where she’d make Amy be Donny and she’d be Marie. They had dark black wigs up on stage, singing “I’m a little bit country” and “I’m a little bit rock and roll.”
“It was just one, big, moving-down-the-highway-family. Always.”
Ingrid:What would you have done if you hadn’t met Willie when you did?
Connie:At one point – way before I met Willie – I wanted to be a policeman.
Jimmy Rock:No one can handle a nightstick like you!
Connie:And don’t you forget it! That desire, that was from a TV show. Do you remember Policewoman? Angie Dickinson? Good, good friend of mine. Because of that show, I really wanted to be a policewoman. I filled out all the paperwork to do it and I was accepted. All I had to do was go in and sign. But I had a policeman friend who told me about all the things I had to see. I thought that I would just help people!
Ingrid:He was giving you a reality check.
Connie:I honestly hadn’t thought about that. I thought I could just pick and choose. That made me realize: you know, I’ve overstepped. So I didn’t. But that’s the first thing I really wanted to do.
Jimmy Rock:And the next day you went to a country Western bar.
Connie:That’s exactly right!
Ingrid:You’re one of the most supportive people I’ve met. You currently sit on the Board of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. And you’ve hosted many AIDS benefits – including the one we co-hosted in San Diego in 1992, through the CroceRockNelson Foundation.
Connie:In 1988, my brother, Michael, was in a bad car wreck in Houston. He contracted AIDS from his blood transfusion. After he passed away in 1990, I was inspired to raise awareness. I asked Willie and Johnny Cash and Waylon [Jennings] to host an AIDS fundraiser in Houston. Afterwards, we talked about it, and Ingrid, you said, “Let’s do it here! We have to do it in San Diego!” So we had Willie and Arlo [Guthrie] and AJ [Croce] perform.
Jimmy Rock:That’s the first and maybe the only time they sang “City of New Orleans” together.
Connie:What a great night! The night before, we held a party at Croce’s.
Ingrid, with a sharp intake of breath: Commander Cody! I forgot about that!
Jimmy Rock and Ingrid sing at the same time: “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.”
Connie:Exactly! Commander Cody performed. It was huge. Everybody was there, it was slammed back. And I was so relieved. And I’m not a big drinker at all, I’m just not. But Commander Cody was so excited to be there and happy and he said “c’mon, I’ll buy you a drink.” I remember he got kamikazes, which I’ve never had before. And I had a shot of tequila! And I had wine! I got up the next day – well, I got raised up. I told Paula, “I can’t go to the benefit, I can’t leave my bed.” And she said, “Mom, it’s your event, you’ve got to do this.” I mean, I remember her helping me put my panty hose on.
Somehow, I got to Symphony Hall. And Willie’s bus was there. It was four, five years after our separation. We were divorced, and I’m on the bus while everyone’s talking, the sickest I’ve ever been Willie says, “Smoke this. Just take one hit.” I said, “Willie, I’m serious, don’t even, I can’t even talk about it.” And he said, “Just do this one thing and I’ll shut up.”
Connie snaps her fingers: One hit! Gone. All of it. I didn’t smoke. Nobody could have told me that in my whole life. But man, that saved me. And oh, it killed me to tell Willie that it worked.
Ingrid:In your life, you’ve met such a roster of luminaries – from female prizefighters to Presidents. Who has inspired you the most and why?
Connie:My biggest inspiration is Muhammad Ali. I wear a bracelet with his saying, “Find Greatness Within.”
Ingrid:You were with him during his last days.
Connie:Even in his last days, when he was afflicted, he maintained his sense of humor. His spirit.. Here’s a man who was named after a slave and accomplished great things.
Ingrid:That spirit. Oh, I love our conversations, Connie! They’re so dear to me. I ask everyone this question, because I’m curious. What great conversation has shaped your life?
Connie:What I’ve gravitated to is songwriting. It started with Willie and his one song. Now, I work with the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association in Austin. I’m passionate about songwriters and the conversations they start.
Like Kris Kristofferson. One of his big lines was “I’d rather be sorry for something I did rather than something I didn’t do.” That’s a conversation! That’s a good one.
Ingrid:You’ve loved music all your life!
Connie:John Prine —
Ingrid:“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Connie:So many songs talk to me, every day. When someone really puts their heart and soul into a song – it’s everything.
“Music is religion. We look to it for truth.”
I end the interview with Connie abruptly, with an eye to playing a song for her. We troop together into my office and cluster around speakers. There is a shared “aha,” a gasp that’s passed, after the first line crooned. It is the “aha” of knowing – of access to an emotion bigger than we can name.
Anytime I’m with Connie Nelson, I’m reminded that music is a form of conversation all its own. It is the purest dialogue, nakedly sincere – Universal Truths.
That she and Willie could find each other through one song and make a life – isn’t that beautiful? That music has the power to connect us all to our destiny.
Even a teenage girl in Texas, listening to a tinny car radio during her commute to the glass factory. Music is a religion. We look to it for truth.
Thank you, always, to my dear friend Connie.