THE BUZZ: One Degree of Separation with Willie Nelson’s Wife Connie
CONVERSATIONS WITH INGRID CROCE
A monthly series penned by artist and restauranteur Ingrid Croce. Featuring interviews with a roster of notable artists & musicians whose lives and work have inspired her path. Eavesdrop on Ingrid & Company as they share stories about craft challenges, being “on the road,” artistic snafus, and the great conversations that have shaped their lives.
“What Kind of Bird Don’t Fly? A Jailbird”: One Degree of Separation with Connie Nelson
In my 25 years of best friendship with the indomitable Connie Nelson, there’s a mantra I find myself repeating, a comfort. “Connie will rise to the occasion.” Since we met decades ago – at an art show for Arlo Guthrie’s guru! – her hardscrabble Texas spirit and sweet charm have seen me through many a life transition. Her life is chock-full of delightful twists: married to Willie Nelson in ‘63, on the road by ‘64, in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Jane Fonda shortly afterward.
The beaming muse for “Willie and Family,” Connie supported so many others throughout her life – serving on the board for the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, volunteering with the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association, and championing the music careers of her and Willie’s two daughters, Paula and Amy.
A people magnet, my husband Jimmy and I often joke that if you were to play “Six Degrees of Separation with Kevin Bacon” with Connie, you’d need only one degree! She may describe herself as “the girl who likes to sit at home on New Year’s Eve” but I’ve seen her drag her sickly, post-surgery self to a Supremes concert. Hooked up to an IV and all!
This past week, Jimmy and I welcomed Connie to our Bankers Hill home for bagels & brunch. Having just touched down from her Austin flight, Connie was a statuesque Texas tableau: head-to-toe denim, bright silver bangle, a big gesture of a Navajo necklace and a streak of blue winking in her hairdo. As always, our conversation centered on the greatest love of our lives: the music.
Ingrid: Were you 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, adding lox to his bagel: 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 that particular song, just the wording – listen – The DJ said it was a crossover hit by a man named Willie Nelson. I fell in love with the songwriting.
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.
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 to hear concerts. 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 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 me to “come to 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. Lifechanging.
I graduated high school in ‘62. By ‘63, Willie and I were together.
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 for him 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. (Connie lurches about, pantomiming) “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: And 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: You were his muse. How did you raise [your and Willie’s daughters] Paula and Amy? Did you do it on the road? 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.
It was just one big, moving-down-the-highway-group. Always.
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 FolkYuk. 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.”
Ingrid: What was your role as a performative personality who chose not to perform musically? Did you 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 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: 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. That desire, that was from a TV show. Do you remember Policewoman? Angie Dickinson? A 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 terrible things I would 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 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 generous, supportive people I’ve met. You currently sit on the Board of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. And you’ve hosted a bevy of AIDS benefits – including the one we co-hosted in San Diego in 1992.
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. Afterward, 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.
Jimmy Rock: Or since.
Connie: 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 pantyhose 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.
Connie: 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: There were so many inspirational folks there that night. And in your life, you’ve met such a roster of luminaries – from Leonard Peltier to female prizefighters to Jane Fonda. 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.
“When you feel passionate enough to put something across in a song, those words – that’s where power is.”
Ingrid: That spirit. Oh, I love our conversations, Connie! They’re so dear to me. I ask everyone this question because I’m curious. Tell me about a great conversation that 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.
I end the interview with Connie abruptly, with an eye to playing a song for her. We troop together into my living room 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 arrayed along a Pentatonic Scale.
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.
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