My Time At Old Willie's Studio

It was surreal, to say the least, when I was handed the key to his studio in Pedernales. It was as if lead in my pocket and upon first opening the door, a picture of him bore right into me as if to say, "you got in, boy, now make me proud." The view of the Pedernales River coupled with the olympic sized pool beneath the back deck, made the experience even more fantastical. Not to mention the "tape room" where thick, silver disks of the musical greats sat piled upon each other in an almost nonchalant, ironic fashion.

In the control room is where I began to realize the capacity of where I was at that point in my life. To my left, a vintage Neve pre-amp and right before me, a massive SSL board that sprawled like an ocean of knobs and gauges. To think the greats like old Willie himself, Robert Earl Keen and even "Old Blue Eyes" once sat right where I did, was overwhelming. I could see my dim reflection on the thick glass that looked out into the main recording room and I thought to myself, "do you realize how lucky you are?"

That evening I didn't schedule to record a band. I wanted to simply sit and take in the place...let its history and greatness soak in. I cracked open a beer and sat on the small couch at the back of the control room, took a long swig and closed my eyes. The amps droned softly and I could barely hear the wind outside strumming through the branches as if attempting to play a song from the studio's past.

I stood and ran my fingers along the smooth curves of the Neve's edges and knobs, imagining those hands many years ago that engineered the great, ageless songs of their generation and beyond. In my minds eye I could just see old Willie plucking Trigger and singing in that gravelly, lullaby tone of his, "blue eyes crying in the rain." I'm not too proud to say that in that moment, even though my eyes are hazel and the sky was as blue as the eyes he sang about, I shed a tear or two.

Continuing my tour, I opened the door at the back of the studio and was greeted by a massive mahogany desk with row upon row of gold records hanging on the wall behind it. "Presented to Willie Nelson," they all read and glinted in the beams of descending light from the window beyond. I very cautiously sat in his plush, leather chair and picked up the phone that sat right in front of me, HIS phone, and pretended to hash out his next big collaboration. "You want Willie to record with whom? Nah, I think we'll pass."

I descended the stairs to my left and entered a billiards/shower room. I ran my hand along the smooth, green felt of the table then picked up a pool cue. I grabbed the eight ball and struck it with the cue ball, draining it into the side pocket. "Looks like you lost again, Frankie. Now pay up," I said, chuckling to myself before pretending to hit Old Blue Eyes on the shoulder. The showers were dry and musty from non-use it would seem but I knew, way back, they echoed with joviality. "Damn, you smell like an old horse, boy. No need to shower though. I'm gonna pick your pockets clean in pool," I could hear Willy say to his road manager, winking and patting him on the back.

In the months that followed, I recorded several bands at Willie's studio but never actually crossed paths with the legend himself. I'd often hear echoes of doors slamming and wondered if it was him coming in from a long tour but, alas, The Red Headed Stranger never materialized. However, in a certain way, I'm relieved. I wanted him to live on as the legendary shadow that haunted the studio and as the larger-than-life image of my imagination.

Soon after, I decided to leave the music business behind and packed up my belongings for Santa Fe, but not before one last recording session that I had committed myself to. It was a marathon session and as I drove away in the early morning hours, fatigued, I saw the lights and ghostly outline of a tour bus pulling into the studio's parking lot. I could barely make out the shape of an Indian atop a horse painted on the side and...I knew it was him. I paused for a second, watching shadows exit the bus from my rear-view mirror then took a deep breath and smiled. I honked twice and waved knowing that not one in that bus, even the man himself, would know I was even there nor that I had left, for that matter.

It's been eight years and I've returned to the hill country since, yet I've never been back to old Willie's studio (although I do keep the old key tucked away). However, on my frequent trips to Spicewood for barbecue, I find myself passing the turn-off to his place. I close my eyes and for a brief moment imagine that I'm behind that Neve board saying, "Alright Willie, sounds great. That's a wrap. Let's go grab some whiskey with the boys."


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