In what has become an annual tradition on Chimesfreedom, we wish a happy birthday this week to Willie Nelson, who was born during the final minutes of April 29, 1933 (so that his birthday is sometimes reported as April 30) in Abbott, Texas. One of his recordings I have been listening to lately is his wonderful interpretation of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For a Train.”
The song “Desperados Waiting For a Train” combines themes of memory, aging, history, and mortality. The singer recounts being friend with an old man when he was a boy. The old man recounts his youthful days as a drifter working on oil wells, and the young man watches the old man get older. Anyone who as a child has been close to an elderly person or a grandparent may recognize the relationship and admiration (“Well to me he was a hero of this country”). One of the reasons the lyrics ring so true is that Clark based the story on someone he knew. As he explained in a 2011 interview, “It’s a true song about someone in my life – I mean, you couldn’t have made that up. . . . It was about a guy who was like my grandfather.” He also recounted how he knew he would write about the man almost as soon as he started writing songs.
There are several excellent recordings of “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” including versions by the song’s writer Guy Clark. Jerry Jeff Walker released the first recording of the song on his 1973 album Viva Terlingua. Actor Slim Pickens released his own version, where he reads the lyrics like poem over the music. Willie Nelson took part in an earlier version recorded with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen. Their version that appeared on the super group’s album Highwayman was a top 20 hit when released as a single in 1985.
The more recent version by Nelson alone appeared on a Guy Clark tribute album, This One’s For Him (2010) when Nelson, like the old man in the song, was “pushin’ eighty.” This version of the singer as an older man looking back on his youthful encounter with old age and death adds a deeper layer to the classic song. Check it out.
For some additional Willie, the Larry King Now website features a recent episode where Larry King interviewed Nelson about music, marijuana, politics, and aging.
Happy birthday Willie, and thanks for the presents to us.
What Willie Nelson song are you playing for his birthday? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)