Paul English – Q & A

I first met Paul English in 1976 at the 4th of July picnic near Gonzales, Texas. It was Willie’s fourth attempt at throwing a July 4th picnic and it didn’t go well. One person drowned, four were stabbed and there were 140 arrests. I had just graduated from High School in nearby Yoakum. I first noticed English talking to some fans under a tree and before I got up the courage to say hello, he walked backstage. Later that day he was back near the same spot and I made my move. Though brief, our conversation was a definite highlight for me. Fast forward to 1998, I was living in New Braunfels and Willie Nelson was doing a flood benefit concert at Gruene Hall. Once again, I spotted Paul talking to some of the crew under a shady Texas oak tree. Dressed completely in black with sideburns that would make Elvis jealous, he was just as humble as our meeting several decades ago. He invited me on his bus and we talked for over three hours. We’ve been friends ever since, emailing or talking as often as our schedules permit. He’s Willie’s best friend and has been his drummer since 1966.

Dale Martin: Let’s start at the beginning, when did you meet Willie Nelson?

Paul English: I met Willie in 1956. I was working at a used car lot in Ft. Worth and sold Willie a 1946 Buick convertible with red leather upholstery. My older brother Oliver happened to be playing in a band with Willie at the time. One day their regular drummer couldn’t make a gig and so they called me up. The problem was, I played trumpet and had never touched a drum set in my life. Willie didn’t seem to think it was a problem so I just played snare drum and kept time with the beat. At the time, I was involved in a lot of things, some legal, some not. I wasn’t available to take a full time job, so he hired Johnny Bush. I stayed friends with him all this time, and in 1966 I was living in Houston. He came by my house and spent the night. Bush had left the band a few months before to start a solo career. Willie asked if I knew how to get in touch with Tommy Roznaski. He was a friend of ours that played the drums. When I asked why, he said ‘I’m looking for a drummer’ and I said, ‘Well, I play the drums.’ Willie said, ‘Would you work for $30.00 a night?’ I said sure and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I’ve been with Willie for 46 years now.

DM: How has touring changed over the years?

PE: In the early days, we traveled in Willie’s old Buick with all their gear crammed in a small trailer. Finally he purchased Faron Young’s old 1947 GM tour bus for $4000. Young had sold it to Houston oilfield fire fighter Red Adair. Red sold it to a motion picture company in Hollywood before Willie bought it. That old bus only lasted a few years and then we went back to cars and trailers again. For awhile we had an old camper but it died on the side of the road on the way to a show. Now we have three buses. Willie’s bus is called Honeysuckle Rose, but he only named it that after the movie came out. Before that we just called it Willie’s bus.

DM: Willie moved the band to Nashville after he signed with RCA. Then he came back to Texas, then back to Nashville. Why go back?

PE: When Willie’s house in Nashville burned down in 1970, we all moved back to Texas and stayed in an abandoned dude ranch near Bandera. Willie knew John Floores, he called him JT, and he owned a beer joint in Helotes. We needed money for groceries so JT let us play every Saturday night for the door. At first, a few hundred people showed up, and then they were packed in like sardines. The insurance company rebuilt his house in Nashville and we all moved back but we knew there was something special about Texas. It didn’t take long before we came back to Texas.

DM: Who got Willie hooked on playing golf?

PE: That was me. There was a golf course near the dude ranch in Bandera and I loved to play. Willie always laughed at us and swore he’d never play golf. One day I convinced him to give it a try. By the time we got to the third hole, it had started raining. I asked him if he was ready to quit and go inside. He said ‘No,’ and we played 36 holes in the pouring rain. He’s been hooked on golf ever since. We play a lot when we are on tour.

DM: Traveling in tour busses and playing golf. Things are different than in the old days, right?

PE: Sure, back then I carried a pistol in one boot and hid our cash in the other. The most I ever had in my boot was $15,000. I always dressed in black and had long sideburns, so they nicknamed me ‘The Devil.’ In fact, Willie wrote ‘The Devil in a Sleeping Bag’ after a long road trip home from California. When promoters wouldn’t pay us after a gig, they sent me in to talk to them. I always collected our money.

DM: The last time you played Floores Country Store you wore the cape. What’s the story?

PE: One time Willie decided to buy gifts for us and found a cape in a costume shop that he felt would be perfect for me. I was already dressing in black so the cape just completed the look. Years ago the girls seemed to like it too.

DM: Tell me about Trigger, Willie’s famous guitar.

PE: Willie was looking for a better guitar so he called (Harold) Shot Jackson. He had a music store in Nashville. Shot told him about this old Martin guitar he had hanging on the wall. Willie asked him if it was any good. Shot told him that Martin never made a bad guitar. Willie said he’d take it but needed them to put a pickup in it so he could plug it into his amp. They mounted an old Baldwin pickup inside. I stopped by the store and paid the bill for the guitar, it was $750 and this was in 1969. He still plays it today.

DM: You collect the money after the shows, any funny road stories?

PE: We always demanded to be paid in cash, that’s why I always carried a gun. One time we were booked to play a private show for a party that HBO was throwing in New York City. We got there, got all set up and were hanging out backstage. This guy walks up to Willie and says, ‘OK, we’re ready for you to start.’ Willie looked over at me and said ‘Paul, do we have our money yet?’ I said, ‘No, not yet.’ So the guy reaches in his pocket and hands me a check for $75,000. ‘Here you go,’ he said. I looked back at him and said ‘We don’t accept checks, we play for cash.’ ‘We don’t have that kind of cash on hand’ he said. ‘Then we don’t play’ I answered. He looked over at Willie, hoping for some help. Willie just smiled. By this time the guy was sweating like crazy and left. About 30 minutes later he comes running back in with this brown paper bag full of money, $10’s, $20’s, $5’s and $1’s. ‘Here’s $50,000 in cash, will you take a check for the rest?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’ll work. So we did the show and had a great time. Later we learned that he went out in the crowd and collected every bit of cash everyone had. But we had to be that way, we’d gotten ripped off so many times in the past, we just couldn’t take a chance. Chances are that check from HBO was probably good. But that was a long time ago and we really didn’t know who HBO was.

DM: When did he start opening his shows with ‘Whiskey River?’

PE: It was in ’73, we were over at Bobbie’s house (Willie’s sister) in Austin. He was getting songs together for the upcoming sessions in New York for the ‘Shotgun Willie’ album. We were going to play golf and we had decided to record ‘Whiskey River,’ the Johnny Bush song, but all we knew was the bridge and chorus. While we waited for our tee time, I came up with the funky beat for the song. When we got to the studio, it was Willie’s idea to start with the chorus. He said, ‘Let’s hit’em with that first so they’ll know what we’re doing.’ It worked great for the opening but when we went to the verses, I had to switch over to a 2/4 beat instead of the 4/4 beat. When the album came out, he started opening the shows with that guitar riff that starts the song and the crowds liked it, so he just kept doing it. I think it just happened, I don’t think it was something he put a lot of thought into. Willie didn’t plan a lot of things in those days, he just did them. If he did plan something, he didn’t always tell us about it.

DM: That may be my favorite album by Willie. Any more cool stories about that album?

PE: I remember Jerry Wexler, the producer for both of those Atlantic albums, scheduled us for a two week session in New York City. We drove Willie’s car all the way from Austin. I did most of the driving and Willie sat in the back with his guitar and worked on the songs he wanted to record. The sessions went really fast. I think we were finished in about 3 days. Wexler wanted us to keep recording but Willie was ready to go back home. In his opinion, we were done. We went back to the hotel and Willie wrote ‘Shotgun Willie’ sitting on the commode at the Holiday Inn. What he was saying is that we were through, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.’ He felt like he’d said everything he wanted to say. The song told our story during those times. We were living in Texas, playing at Floores Country Store on Saturday nights. John T. Floores had just told us the story about the Ku Klux Klan, that’s why Willie put that in the song. After he wrote ‘Shotgun Willie,’ we recorded it and he decided it would be the title track of the album. Once we finished that song, we headed back to Texas. Willie is a great writer; he can take things out of our everyday lives and make a hit song out of it. He wrote ‘Devil in a Sleeping Bag’ on our way back from the west coast and when we got to El Paso, it was really cold. We stopped there and I was waiting for Whites Auto Store to open so I could buy a couple of sleeping bags. We were in this old broke down camper and the heater was broke and we were freezing to death. A lot of those early songs were written about things that were happening to us in real life. The song ‘Me and Paul’ was written about things Willie and I experienced on the road. Everything in that song really happened to us.

DM: When you first started out, did you ever think you would be so successful?

PE: People often ask me if I ever thought we’d make it this big and obviously my answer is no. We were just doing our best to make a living and play our music. In 1969 we headlined a big concert at the Palladium in London, England. After the show, Ringo Starr came backstage and told us he was a big fan of our music. It was then that I realized we might be on to something and could make a career out of making music. Another neat thing about being in Willie’s band is all the cool things we get to do. We’ve played private parties all over the world, often traveling there in someone’s private jet. We’ve played beach parties in Cabo San Lucas, we played a private party once in the Hollywood mansion where they filmed the TV series ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ we’ve played in the Astrodome, in Gruene Hall, at Floores Country Store, at Willie’s tiny restaurant in Maui, at a church in Willie’s hometown of Abbott, Texas. I mean you name it and we’ve played there, and let me tell you this is the best job in the world.’

DM: Everyone has their favorite Willie album, what’s yours?

PE: His 1962 album called ‘….And Then I Wrote’. I loved that album even before I went to work for him. He wrote every song on it and they are all fantastic. Naturally I love ‘Red Headed Stranger,’ because it was just us in the studio, a real stripped down organic album. I remember CBS didn’t want to release it but Willie stood his ground. It sold several million copies and they didn’t question him much after that. ‘Stardust’ was another fun album to record. We were all in the studio together, most songs were cut live with very little overdubbing. An Indian chief in New Mexico blessed the hat that Willie wore on the cover of the album. After it was released, he came to one of our shows and blessed the album. It must have helped because it sold over 5 million copies and was on the Billboard charts for 10 years.”

DM: After one of your shows in New Braunfels, you suffered a stroke. How are you feeling?

PE: After that show in New Braunfels, we played College Station the following night and then at Riverbend Church in Austin that Sunday. I wasn’t feeling well in Austin and saw a doctor, but they said I was OK and released me. We headed to Morgantown, West Virginia and I slept most of the way. When we got there, I still didn’t feel good. My brother Billy convinced me to see a doctor, which fortunately is home to one of the top stroke centers in the country. They quickly diagnosed the problem and put me in the hospital. Billy sat in for me on drums that night. When I got out of the hospital a close friend of Willie’s offered his private jet to fly me back to Dallas. The doctors here checked me out, changed some of my medication and told me I’d be OK. Three weeks later we headed to England for a three month tour.

DM: Willie has a new album coming in April called ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance.’ Did he use all of you guys on the album?

PE: Yes, we are on there. We recorded it in Austin at his studio there. It’s got some new songs on it, it sounds pretty good. He’s got lots of stuff recorded that will hopefully be released someday. Sometimes we just record songs because Willie wants to; we have no idea if he ever plans on releasing them. We are still keeping busy, still on the road. People keep wanting to know when we are retiring. We were playing golf awhile back and I told him ‘We’ve had a good run at this.’ He said ‘We have, and we ain’t done yet.’

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