Book review: ‘It’s a Long Story’

Singer Willie Nelson performs at an “In Performance at the White House” event in 2014.
Singer Willie Nelson performs at an “In Performance at the White House” event in 2014. AP archives

With dozens of books already authored about the life and music of one Willie Hugh Nelson, is another tome truly necessary?

Nelson himself has already had a hand in one autobiography — 1988’s Willie, co-written with the late, great Bud Shrake — alongside a handful of philosophical writings (2006’s The Tao of Willie or 2012’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die), all of which have furthered refined the immense mythology that has grown up around Abbott’s favorite son.

Now comes the briskly paced It’s a Long Story: My Life, co-written with A-list music biographer David Ritz, and which retraces the familiar contours of Nelson’s colorful existence.

This particular autobiography carries with it the weight of years (almost 30 years have elapsed since 1988’s Willie; Nelson turned 82 on April 29), suggesting Nelson is taking one more stab at his story.

If Long Story aspired to give some insight to the keen songwriting mind behind such classic country staples as Crazy or Hello Walls (the banal genesis of which is detailed in the book), it would be a rewarding, illuminating read.

Instead, too much of this 360-page endeavor skims the surface, shying away from any genuine revelations, despite assertions to the contrary: “This book is the history of my heart,” Nelson writes early on, “and especially the ways in which my heart has been shaped by music.”

Such sentiment is touching but doesn’t give the reader a sense of what animates Nelson as an artist, which is Long Story’s largest weakness.

Nelson may live for years to come, but time grows short for him to speak definitively about his life’s work.

His laundry list of influences — everyone from Lefty Frizzell to Django Reinhardt is lovingly singled out — is very familiar to any fan of his, just as his tales of transience (selling encyclopedias door to door; working as a disc jockey in various Texas cities) are likewise well-known, and without any especially revelatory details added here.

That said, if you’re hungering to know Nelson’s stance on, say, gay rights or the changes technology has wrought in the music business, you’re in luck.

So if Long Story purports to be the “history of his heart,” what did Nelson most cherish?

Writing songs, stirring up trouble, chasing women and living life as a touring musician — the seeming futility of trying to make it as a songwriter in 1960s Nashville is contrasted with the merry, hell-raising hedonism he enjoyed in Texas and elsewhere (the 1969 out-of-wedlock birth of his daughter, Paula, is greeted with a shrug: “I could understand why [Shirley Collie, his second wife] was disgusted with me,” Nelson writes).

The prose is simple and direct, as is to be expected from a songwriter of Nelson’s caliber.

And much like the lyrics he sings, the lines don’t appear to say much but provide a surprising cumulative impact. His closing vignette inside the church on his Luck property is particularly moving.

Still, you may be left feeling that listening to Willie Nelson’s songs will give you a better sense of the man who made them than any autobiography ever could.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

It’s a Long Story: My Life

by Willie Nelson with David Ritz

Little, Brown and Co., $30

Audiobook: Little, Brown and Co., $35; read by actor Christopher Ryan Grant