Willie, Weed and the Texas Country Scene

from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Willie Nelson's November 26 marijuana possession arrest in Hudspeth County, Texas generated ample headlines. That's ramped up again as his case glides toward a resolution that's spawned media frenzy regarding whether he'd avoid jail by pleading guilty, paying a fine and singing in the courtroom. Willie, of course, is no stranger to pot. He's worked for its legalization and previously beat a 1994 Texas marijuana bust. That's all common knowledge. What's not so well known is the fact that he's far from the only Texas country musician with a taste for the stuff.

Beyond the borders of the Lone Star State, popular perceptions tie Texas country performers mainly to beer (especially the local Shiner and Lone Star brands) and hard liquor. After all, honky tonk, the fiddle/steel guitar-driven style defined by Ernest Tubb, Al Dexter, Floyd Tillman, Lefty Frizzell, continued by George Strait and Dwight Yoakam, among many, began in 1930's Texas barrooms.

Pot, however, was always abundant and available in the state and musicians, despite legal penalties far more severe than today, routinely indulged. Some were country players, others exponents of the jazzy Texas dance music known as western swing or "Texas swing" created by Bob Wills and Milton Brown in the 1930's. While most swing musicians stuck to booze, a strong pot contingent existed, especially around the Texas Gulf Coast. A few added pills, often Benzedrine, to the mix. One obscure 1948 Texas country recording, "Benzedrine Blues," even sang its praises.

Singer-pianist Smokey Wood, who worked with the Modern Mountaineers and later led his own band the Wood Chips, was an eccentric wildman influenced musically by Fats Waller and a conspicuous consumer of pot, pills and booze.  Here's some enlightening info on the man.

Wood's sometime associate, fiddler J.R. "Chat the Cat" Chatwell (later a close friend of both Doug Sahm and Willie), was known for both blazing jazz improvisations and a love of the leaf. Here's Chatwell in 1948 with his own band, standing second from the right. We'll never know why he had that huge smile.

There were many others there in the 30's and 40's. A few potheads worked as Texas Playboys under Bob Wills though Wills, notorious for his sporadic drinking binges, smoked nothing stronger than his famous cigar.

As for Willie, Joe Nick Patoski's definitive biography: Willie Nelson: an Epic Life (Little,Brown, 2008) includes Willie's remembrances of his first serious pot smoking in Fort Worth around 1955. The book also chronicles the night in December, 1970 when, still in is pre-Outlaw phase, Nelson found out his house outside Nashville was burning. He sped back, ran in and retrieved Trigger, his now-famous Martin N-20 guitar (seen in the above photo), and a bag containing his stash of Colombian Gold.

He wasn't the sole Texas-born star whose herbal preference collided with the constabulary.  Country great Ray Price, (for whom Willie once played bass) who transitioned from honky tonk stardom to slick country pop hits like "For the Good Times," was busted in 1999 at his ranch for weed and paid a fine. Not only did it not damage his career, he enjoyed more publicity than he'd had in years.  Today, at 85, Price is still in good enough voice that he continues to perform.

So whatever you hear about Willie and

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