There are any number of adages about walking in another man’s shoes one could apply as a means of introducing the story of Willie Nelson’s New Balance shoes. I assure you Mr. Nelson himself has a handful of lyrics that would lend themselves nicely to such an introduction. Instead, I’d like to begin by explaining how I came upon this post.
My twin uncles Mark and Matt were two of the first guys I idolized as a little kid. My dad’s younger brothers were cool. Artists with a passion for hunting elk, there’s this story they tell of Hank Williams, Jr. offering to buy one of their bronze statues of an elk or of a cowboy on a bucking bronco or something like that. My first memories of Willie Nelson are wrapped around hearing his voice pour forth from factory-issued speakers while my legs dangled from the front bench of one of my uncles’ pick-up trucks.
Since then, Mr. Nelson’s music has been a part of mine and my family’s life — a part I largely disregarded until I re-discovered his brilliant songs in early adulthood.
Then there’s the running. Growing up, I recall sneaking around in my dad’s closet and finding this old pair of blue New Balance 320s which he told me he wore when he ran 5ks and 10ks in the 1970s. Around the time of my dad’s running exploits, Willie Nelson left Nashville in a cloud of dust (among other things) and returned to his home state of Texas, and threw his sizable, embellished ten-gallon-hat into the ring of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement beginning to crest there. And underway was this massive running boom. The hippies were hitting the trails with nothing but a bandana around their heads, some fitted shorts and simple, synthetic and leather shoes on their feet. And with a relentless tour schedule (Mr. Nelson has a song about it. Maybe you’ve heard it.) taking its toll, Willie Nelson found running — or perhaps better stated, running found Willie Nelson.
“For a health kick, I ain’t on one. But… I find that running makes me feel better. It had gotten to the point where I was killing myself at night, so I had to do something in the daytime to make up for it. Now that I run, I don’t stay out as late as I did. I don’t drink much anymore, and I don’t even smoke cigarettes…. It’s not that I’m all that strong willed. It’s just that when you’re done running five miles you don’t want a drink or cigarette. All you want to do is flatten out,” courtesy of Texas Girl, December, 1979.
“More than once, I’ve gone jogging in a town I don’t know and had to knock on a stranger’s door and ask directions to get back to where I started.” from the Tao of Willie.
Running became such an integral part of Mr. Nelson’s life that he began to run races. For a time, at his Pedernales Country Club outside Austin, he hosted the ”Willie Nelson Distance Classic.” I was lucky enough to find a vintage t-shirt online from the race that was held in June of 1980. According to one source at the time, “More than 1,000 runners entered the race which Nelson hopes to make an annual event. Nelson (47) finished the hilly 6.2 mile course in one hour, seven minutes and 45 seconds.”
And I’m surprised his running/golf hybrid game has not as yet taken off.
“Willie is very big on fitness and the fact that he is still putting in the miles on the road and working around the clock lends some fact to this. He used to enter road races and I’m not sure if he invented a golf game for fitness folks, but it is different than the one we watch on television. The winner is the person that can run 18 holes the fastest and by adding the number of strokes and the running time determines the winner. Fastest runner with the fewest strokes is the winner and gets to buy the beer.” from Moe Johnson of the San Marcos Record.
And though, early on in his running life, Willie Nelson wore the same 320s my dad wore, as can be seen in this photo from inside the fold of the 1978 album Willie Nelson and the Family Live and on the cover of 1981′s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, at some point he discovered the unparalleled comfort and durability of the 496, a walking shoe. On a recent trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, I took an abundance of detailed photos of a pair of Mr. Nelson’s custom 496s currently on display in the lobby.
And earlier in the year, I reached out with some questions to the folks at New Balance, who were kind enough to humor me with the following statement.
We make them at our Lawrence, Massachusetts manufacturing facility. We knew Willie was a New Balance fan so when we were presented with the chance to work with him on a running event in Austin, Texas with one of our retailers to benefit Farm Aid – it was a great opportunity. I believe it might have also been timed to our newfound ability to do personalized embroidery at our factory in Lawrence when we added new machinery – which was around that same time. Our manufacturing team members have enjoyed making Willie his 496 New Balance shoes and over the years have added different special embroidery elements on them such as a guitar or his name or Farm Aid. - Amy Dow, New Balance
Thanks to Ms. Dow at New Balance, to Linda Lee Banks, the author of the authoritative Willie Nelson fan site, Still is Still Moving, to my good friend Adam Geremia, author of the inspiring Tumblr which explores that early running boom, They Call Us The Seekers, and to those of you who found your way to the end of this lengthy headlong dive into the world of Willie Nelson’s footwear choice. I saw this as something of a tribute to this year’s running of the Boston Marathon and to Mr. Nelson as he approaches his 81st birthday at the end of this month. If you’re still hungry for more, there are plenty of photos in this Flickr album that didn’t make the cut. Let’s end it with some inspiring thoughts from the man himself.
“I just try to exercise. I try to do enough in the morning to make up for what I did, detrimentally, the night before. I try to make it even out, but you know, we don’t live the greatest lifestyles out here traveling on the road and eating whatever we can get a hold of. So, any kind of exercise we can do daily is good, and I try to get in a run or a bike ride or something every day.”
“I enjoy running around Austin. I enjoy going downtown and running on the rivers and lakes down there, and you see just loads and loads of people doing it every single day. There’s not a more beautiful place to run and Austin has so many great roads and trails.” – Willie Nelson, courtesy of Still is Still Moving.
My newest holiday tradition: watching The Johnny Cash Christmas Show, circa 1977.
I am an athlete. I’m fairly tall, but you wouldn’t want me on your basketball team. I suck at offense and though I’m a fierce defender, I’d probably foul out in the first half. I’ve got a sweet swing, but I’ll hit one in one hundred pitches, which — for those of you keeping score at home, is the worst batting average humanly possible. I can show you how to throw a decent spiral, but throw a bigger dude on top of me, and I’m a complete wuss. And, yeah, I can kick and kind of dribble, and I can block a pass, and I’ve owned several pairs of shinguards, and I can skate and handle a puck just fine, but not well enough to matter much to you or your stinking team. It still burns when I think about getting picked last in the soccer games played at gym and recess, or in the cul de sac roller hockey game. My own best friend once betrayed me, choosing our sworn enemy before me in order to improve his chances. Turns out, my team won, and that friend and I were never as close again. I digress.
I play individual sports. I was recruited to swim in college. My friends will tell you, throw a pair of skis on me, and I’ll dance down the mountain. And I never feel as free as I do when I’m on my bicycle. Which leads me to James Wilson’s most recent post on Secret Forts.
“Writing a piece on my relationship to cycling. Feels like it’s something you’d write. Like I’m channeling you somehow.”
I got this text last night from James.
“Send it to me,” I wrote back.
He sent it.
“May I edit it?”
I didn’t do too much to it: fixed some late night spelling errors, removed several erroneous parenthetical remarks (dude loves him some parentheses). It’s precisely the kind of thing I would write. Obsessive. Meandering. It’s a road trip by bicycle. It’s something I think we can all relate to, and I’m happy to see that James is writing again. Hope you find it as inspiring as I did.
Photos of my current bicycle come courtesy of Sheldon Brown’s Retro Raleighs page.
I only have a cursory familiarity with Mr. Caldwell. I don’t think we ever met, and if we did, it was brief. For a time several years ago, his wife and I were coworkers. While we were, I had the unique privilege to test ride one of his early bicycles. I have yet to find a bike that rides as smoothly or as comfortably as the one I tried that day. One day, I would like to document the building of one of Ezra’s Fast Boy Cycles and perhaps own one of his fine creations. Till then, take a few minutes to watch this video and join me in becoming a fan of Mr. Ezra Caldwell.
Saddened to learn of the death of one of rock’s great songwriters, JJ Cale. In addition to writing tunes for the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Waylon Jennings and Tom Petty, he’s perhaps best known for having penned Eric Clapton’s hits “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.”
I had the unique opportunity to see him perform in New York City several years ago, and in the middle of his performance of several of his hits for others, I was thrilled that he made time in his set to play my favorite of his tunes, “Crazy Mama.”
He performs it here with friend and fellow Tulsa, Oklahoma native Leon Russell.
His obituary in the New York Times.
His official website.
Guy Clark sings “My Favorite Picture of You.”
When I’d come home from college with a new mix tape for the three-hour drive in my Jeep, at some point on the visit, I would pick up my high school girlfriend for a catch-up over lunch or dinner or coffee or drinks. She’d dig her fingers into my dad’s hand-me-down sheepskin seat covers. Over the car speakers, Guy Clark would croon “Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry, babe. Love’s a gift that surely handmade,” and she’d smile and scoff, “I thought you didn’t like country music,” a reference to my poohpoohing The Dixie Chicks* while we were still together.
“This? This is different. This is real.”
Towards the end of my sophomore year of college, one of my mentors handed me a photocopy of a bunch of short stories from the singer-songwriter Steve Earle, saying something to the effect of, “Here. This is what you’re trying to do,” referring to my piss-poor attempts to write stories of the American West. Also, it didn’t hurt that the girl I had a crush on at the time was really into Steve Earle.
By the time I was a junior, in effort to channel Mr. Earle, I might have been found walking around campus with a giant afro and sideburns, wearing bell bottoms and a pearl snap, a shiny, vintage pair of pointy-toed cordovan cowboy boots, and amber colored aviators. I most likely had a guitar case at my side.
Guy and Susanna Clark
107 years ago today, Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born. A baseball legend unlike any other, tales of his fastball, called “The Midnight Rider,” loom as large as the largest in the game’s history. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, he began his career playing for the Mobile Tigers ”at a dollar a game if attendance was up and a keg of lemonade if it wasn’t.”
Now in its fortieth year, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics are the barbecue to end all barbecues. Though each year is legendary in its own right, today, I’d like to focus on the 1974 celebration which looms large in its legend. Nelson was inspired to start a yearly festival by the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion, where he was a part of the lineup. In 1973, also in the same town, Dripping Springs, Texas, he held “Willie Nelson’s First Annual 4th of July Picnic,” inviting famed rock ‘n roll photographer, Jim Marshall along to photograph the whole thing. The lineup included Earl Scruggs, Hank Snow, Sonny James, Tom T. Hall, Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. In its aftermath, the people of Dripping Springs called the festival “moral pollution.”
The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has just released Mo’ Meta Blues, his memoir which serves several functions. Part historical retelling of his life, growing up the son of Lee Andrews of the doo-wop group, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, part autobiographical discography — in addition to his encyclopedic recounting of the music in his life, the guy is a massive Prince fan — and part self-effacing recounting of several, what he calls, “Forrest Gump moments” in his life. Through various opportunities, first as the drummer for “the last great hip hop band” and now as the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night program, Quest has found himself at several of history’s focal points. As he points out on Fresh Air, when President Obama slow-jammed the news, a segment in which Fallon hypes the news being read — typically by NBC’s Brian Williams — that though the event was a big deal, he’s learned to curb his enthusiasm. “I don’t mourn the bad. I don’t celebrate the good. Just walk forward.”