ND: Were you playing the same stylistically as you are now?
MR: Yeah, except I didn’t know how to listen and I was playing all the time. Now it’s OK not to play all the time. My playing wasn’t as refined. I didn’t know much about country music. The only country I’d heard growing up was ‘Blood On The Saddle’ by Tex Ritter. I was listening to Charlie McCoy a lot.
B.W. got a record deal with RCA and we went on the road. I went to New York for the first time. We played Gerde’s Folk City, opened up for NRBQ. We went all across the country in a van. I recorded with him too, did three albums.
ND: When did Willie Nelson come into your life?
MR: I was touring with B.W. but we didn’t work all the time. When we were in Dallas, I hung around with Ronnie Dawson. He had been a rockabilly as a teenager known as the Blonde Bomber and was in a band called Steelrail with Bobby Rambo [an all-star player who'd recorded with the rock band the Five Americans and Ray Sharpe of "Linda Lu" fame]. They played the Silver Helmet [where Dallas Cowboys football players hung out]. Sitting in with them, I really honed my skills.
I played with him [Willie] when they taped a special for the local Public Broadcasting television station at McFarland Auditorium and Willie was on the show. He was two hours late and rolled up in an Open Road camper. It was just Willie and Paul [English, Willie's drummer and best friend]. Paul was wearing his cape. I didn’t know much about Willie. I had gotten one record, Willie Nelson And Family, raiding the RCA storehouse with B.W., so I wanted to check him out. They did their show, the two of them, and just took off. I was going, “What was that?” They made a strong impression.
I got a call a couple months later from Darrell Royal [then coach of the University of Texas Longhorns football team]. He said, “I’ve seen you play and I want to meet you. We’re having a little picking session in my hotel room after the ball game. Come on over and meet some of my friends.” Willie was there. Charley Pride was there, [storied Houston attorney] Joe Jamail, Finley Ewing who has the Mercedes dealership in Dallas.
They’re passing around the guitar and singing songs. I didn’t know any of the tunes. A lot of the songs Willie had written. I think I’d learned “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” off the Charlie McCoy album. I was this hippie kid with an Afro. I was into the Stones, the Band. But it was fun playing with them. Afterward, Willie said, “If you’re ever around, come play with us.”
A couple weeks later I saw they were playing a benefit for the volunteer fire department in the high school gymnasium in Lancaster, just south of Dallas. I sat in with them even though I was totally lost. I didn’t know these songs. But I fit in because there was a big hole. Jimmy Day [the pedal steel guitarist] had just left. There was room. There wasn’t a fiddle. Willie was the only guitar player.
Willie would give me a solo now and then. I was just hanging on for dear life because I didn’t know the songs and even if I did know, it wouldn’t have made any difference because Willie was playing the songs like Willie, not like anybody else. All the rules were broken. Anything I had built up in my arsenal about how to follow a song, those skills were out the window because Willie made up his own rules. B.W. and Murphey were in time. Willie was jazz, like playing with Miles Davis.
Willie wasn’t that successful yet. He was still playing beer joints. B.W. and Murphey were bigger draws. Jerry Jeff was probably the biggest draw. Willie was a little left-of-center. He was an old guy, 39.
We went to a truck stop after the Lancaster gig [in the spring of 1973] for breakfast. I stayed for one more cup of coffee and that’s when Willie said, “Hey, we’re going to New York next month. Why don’t you come with us?” [for the release of Willie's new album Shotgun Willie]. I was still playing with B.W. but he was drinking pretty heavily at that time. I wasn’t digging that. So I’d see where Willie was playing and I’d go sit in with him.
I realized when he played the Western Place in Dallas he had this incredible fan base I knew nothing about. We played Big G’s in Round Rock, a cowboy joint north of Austin, and they didn’t like long hair. So I kept close to the bandstand and close to Paul because these were the kind of places where I’m thinking, “Gee, I hope I don’t get my ass whupped when I get out of here,” because I was a hippie.
I’d been playing three months with him when Willie asked Paul, “What are we paying him?” Paul said, “Nothing.” Willie said, “Fine. Then double his salary.” I came aboard and was paid $50 a gig. We drove to gigs in our own cars. I carried Willie’s guitar. Paul carried Willie’s amp. I remember asking Paul how old he was. He said, “Forty.” I was 21. He said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to 40.” Bee [Spears, the bassist] had left to go play with Waylon. I wanted to go play with Waylon. Donnie Brooks was playing harmonica with Waylon. I think because Waylon had a harmonica player, that opened up the door [with Willie].
ND: Your first Willie album was a live recording at the Texas Opry House in 1974 for Atlantic Records, but Atlantic’s Nashville division folded before the album could be released. Released in Atlantic’s Willie box set, it reveals a hard-charging, rocking band. But wasn’t it the second album you did with Willie that changed everything?