RAMBLIN' ROUND: When the Red Headed Stranger rode into town

KEVIN HARVISON | File photoWillie Nelson waves to fans while onstage at the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds 20 years ago. The News-Capital brought Willie to McAlester as part of the city's 1999 Centennial Celebration. 

Twenty years ago this month the Red Headed Stranger rode into town — on his customized bus! — for an outdoor concert at the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds.

As part of the city’s 1999 Centennial Celebration, the News-Capital brought Willie Nelson to town to celebrate its 100th year since North McAlester and South McAlester were incorporated together into a single entity.

Willie Nelson and Family were only one of a group of musicians who performed that day.

Others included McAlester’s own Carter Baumert and the Panhandlers; John McKuen, the multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Gary P. Nunn, most well-known for writing and singing “London Homesick Blues,” known for its refrain “I want to go home to the armadillo” — which became the longtime theme song for the “Austin City Limits” music show on PBS.

It can be a little risky weather-wise to plan an outdoor concert in the autumn time of year, but the day of the concert brought blue skies and sunny weather for the event.

It was a lot of fun backstage that day. Willie’s old friend Ken Lance, who operated the Ken Lance Sports Arena in Stonewall, near Ada, showed up and was hanging around with Paul English, Willie’s longtime drummer. Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player in Willie’s band, liked the backstage buffet catered by The Meeting Place.

Willie walked onstage to a rousing ovation. Judging by the applause, whoops, hollers and occasional yells of “We love you, Willie,” that were intermingled with his songs, the crowd in attendance that day adored Willie and his music.

Willie and his band came to play, with Nelson tearing into the next song while the audience members were still cheering for the one he’d just finished.

Willie and Family, as he calls his band, played two hours straight, playing many of his hits, from “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” to “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” along with deep album cuts, tunes by songwriters he admires, such as Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams, as well as some of his favorite gospel songs.

He smiled and waved at those in the audience, many of whom brought lawn chairs and blankets — but ended up spending much of the concert standing. He even played a game of musical hats, wearing a cap or hat for awhile before tossing it into the crowd, with someone else throwing another piece of headwear onstage to begin the entire process again.

Willie obviously enjoyed the audience interaction.

“It was a good crowd,” he said aboard his bus following the concert. “There were a lot of young people there.” Willie said he liked to see young people at his concerts. “They’re the lifeblood,” he said.

Although Willie had already performed in front of presidents and kings, had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and been the recipient of Kennedy Center honors in Washington, he still preferred to criss-cross the nation and play music for the people in cities such as McAlester.

He said events such as the Kennedy Center honors were something to dress-up for and attend — but he indicated they’re not for kicking out the jams.

“I enjoy this,” Willie said, referring to the concert he’d just completed to a crowd of appreciative fans.

Willie had been on a creative roll at the time, having released the critically-acclaimed albums “Spirit” and “Teatro,” along with an album of instrumentals called “Night and Day.” Did he attribute the recent burst of creativity to anything in particular?

“Who knows why you start writing again?” Willie said.

I’d previously interviewed Willie at a concert at the Ken Lance Sports Arena, when I asked him about his preferred method of songwriting. Willie replied that he likes to write songs while driving. Driving? It turned out Willie had a reason for doing so.

“That’s the only time I’m ever alone,” he said. “When I really want to write something, I jump in my car and head for the highway.”

He said he doesn’t pull over to the side of the road and get a guitar out of the back seat when a creative thought strikes. He also doesn’t try to balance a note pad on the steering wheel to write down a line and he said he didn’t use a tape recorder, either. He preferred to rely on his memory.

“If I can’t remember it, it wasn’t worth remembering anyway,” Willie said.

Speaking of songwriting, I asked Willie if he realized he’d written a classic for the ages when he wrote the song “Crazy” in the early 1960s — a song that became credited as the greatest jukebox hit of all time after Patsy Cline recorded it. Did he know he’d written a timeless classic or did he think of it as just another song?

Willie chuckled when I asked him the question.

“I was just conceited enough to think they’re all classics,” he said with a grin. “I thought it was great.”

He also dispelled the then-prevalent myth that Patsy Cline had not liked the song when she first heard it. Willie said he’d played it for her husband, Charlie Dick, at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge, the famous bar across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

He said he and fellow songwriter Hank Cochran “went to Charlie and Patsy’s house to play her a dub of the song.” Willie said he stayed outside in the car while Patsy listened to the demo tape of “Crazy” so she would feel free to say so if she didn’t like it.

“She loved it,” Willie said. However, she did have some problems recording the song at first.

“She tried to phrase it like I phrase,” said Willie, who often likes to sing just ahead or slightly behind the beat, in the style of Frank Sinatra and other jazz singers. He said the first recording session didn’t present anything workable.

That’s when her producer, Owen Bradley, told her to “sing it like Patsy,” Willie said. She nailed the recording on the second day, producing the timeless classic recording that’s still popular today.

The best indication that Patsy loved the song is that she — not Willie — took his demo to Bradley and told him she wanted to record “Crazy.”

I asked Willie about his impression of his McAlester concert.

“We had a good day,” said Willie. “We had a good sound system and we had a good crowd.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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