Music

Pre-Teen Willie Nelson Made His Professional Debut in a Polka Band

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Early chapters of Willie and Bobbie Nelson's shared memoir Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band chronicle how the siblings' childhood spent with their grandparents in Abbott, Texas sparked their lifelong love of music.

One of the better anecdotes from Willie Nelson's early years reminds us that his first paying gig as a guitarist came playing in a polka band, not with country music ensemble.

A short chapter spanning pages 48-50 (and narrated by Willie in the following audiobook excerpt) tells of pre-teen Willie's live debut with John Rejcek's own family band.

"Couldn't have been older than 11," Willie recalls. "Strumming my Stella guitar, I was surrounded by fiddles, tubas, trumpets and drummers. I had a blast. Not sure how much I contributed to the overall sound, but Mr. Rejcek liked me and let me play along. The gigs were mainly at dance halls in West and Waco where the Czech community turned out in force. I wasn't even a teenager, but because I was standing way in the back of the band, club owners didn't seem to care."

Willie's grandmother loathed smoking, drinking and dancing, so she initially frowned on Willie's first venture into live performing. That is, until the struggling widow found out that he'd been paid $8 cash.

"I didn't have to remind her that eight dollars was my pay for working the fields for a week," he wrote. "I could see that Mama Nelson as shocked. She shook her head from side to side, sighed a deep sigh and then accepted the money. I never did get her approval, but I also didn't get any flak."

Nelson's polka experience introduced him to the rush that comes with live performance, inspiring him to go on and change music forever during his time in Nashville and Austin.

"I loved looking out at the crowd and seeing everyone dancing up a storm," he wrote. "At this tender age, I already knew this was what I wanted to do. Everything about music felt right. Even music from a foreign land sung in a foreign language didn't feel foreign to me. I got into it. Made me feel good, not only to play it, but to watch folks dancing their polkas and waltzing their worries away."

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The career highlights that followed Willie's polka period, from Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and outlaw country to Stardust and Farm Aid, need no introduction for even the most casual followers of popular music.

Willie Nelson revisited his earliest live music memories with "Beer Barrel Polka," which appears on his 1983 album Tougher Than Leather and as the B-side of the album's Top 10 single "Little Old Fashioned Karma." Bobbie composed the traditional polka tune's new arrangement.

Tougher Than Leather was Nelson's first collection of all-new material since his Columbia Records debut, 1975's The Red Headed Stranger.

Willie and Bobbie co-wrote their 2020 memoir with David Ritz, a collaborator on Willie's prior autobiography A Long Story: My Life.

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Pre-Teen Willie Nelson Made His Professional Debut in a Polka Band