Paula Nelson Reveals the Man Behind the Legend:
As soon as he wraps his weathered hands around Trigger and strums the first chord of almost any song, it becomes clear that you’re listening to The Redheaded Stranger.
Willie Nelson is a living American legend, known for his renegade ways and his uncanny ability to blur the dividing
lines between music genre boundaries. While the world sees an outlaw, Paula Nelson sees a different side to the man she
lovingly refers to as Papa Bear.
Life in a proverbial “glass house” is never easy. Privacy is next to impossible and growing up as the daughter of a legend brings with it all the positives — along with a complicated blend of negatives and fallacies. For Paula Nelson, however, the journey seems to have produced a survivor with a wicked sense of humor; she gives the unmistakable impression that wherever she is, a party can’t be far behind. Quick with a joke, this pint-size dynamo is a singer/songwriter, a professional stunt actor, a black-belt Tae Kwon Do master and a movie actress who just happens, also, to be the daughter of an icon.
ABOVE: Although fame wasn’t easy for the Nelson family, there were many good times. ABOVE RIGHT: Paula with Waylon: Paula grew up surrounded by fame. “Outlaws” like Waylon Jennings were considered as family. RIGHT: Paula and Connie: Paula says her mother is her best friend.
THE SOFTER SIDE OF A ROWDY IMAGE
Paula and her sister, Amy, grew up in a star-studded environment, under a cloud of bad press, rumors and scandal. But Paula remembers a different view of their private life, far removed from what the public thought they knew. Aside from the many days and nights of Willie being “on the road again,” he and third wife Connie Nelson gave their daughters many good memories. Paula says, “Dad has been my hero from day one. He used to sing to my younger sister and me at night. We had a hound dog named Blue and one of my favorite songs was called ‘Ole Blue.’ “
In spite of the lullabies, life has been a struggle at times. Paula explains, “People think that this fame thing has been easy, but being Willie’s daughter has been hard. It’s not because [Willie] wasn’t a good dad — because he is a wonderful dad — but because he belongs to the whole world. For my whole life, it seems, he’s been gone, on the road.”
It was her mother, Connie, who had to be the disciplinarian in their transparent world. “She is totally my best friend. She is the coolest lady and everybody who meets her adores her.”
When it came to advice, however, Willie shared with Paula the wisdom of his years. “He said, ‘Watch everything I do and do the exact opposite.’ Of course, he was being funny, but I think there was some truth to that statement.”
Paula grew up in a world that seems surreal to the rest of us. Legends like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and their wives and children formed familial bonds with Paula that have lasted a lifetime.
“I feel very blessed because they were all amazing people.” Paula admits that she lived a different kind of “normal” and many times she felt like an outsider during her school days. “I didn’t get it when people would come up to me as a child and ask me questions about whether I was rich, or ask if they could they come stay at my house when we had movie stars over, or ask what it was like to me the child of a celebrity. I didn’t understand. It was difficult.”
She grins and adds, “You know, I once read a great book by Carrie Fischer called “Wishful Drinking,” and I bought it because I knew I would identify with her life. I did!”
Through it all, Paula says the Nelson family members are just down-to-earth, hardworking people. “Me and my family are genuine. All of us would do anything to help anybody at any time, and we mean it. Whatever we write or sing comes straight from the heart.”
The humorous side of the story
It seems there was never a dull moment in the Nelson family. Paula recalls how a Polaroid snapshot of “Santa” once ruined the Christmas spirit for the younger Amy:
Amy still believed in Santa; I was hip to it. My dad was home and we all decided we’d trick her a little bit. Dad had this full Santa suit, even had the beard; we had sleigh bells. Amy and I were upstairs and the plan was to go downstairs and get a picture of Santa when we heard the sleigh bells. We were going to take a Polaroid pic and then run upstairs to look at it. But dad was wearing these golf or running socks — he had hundreds of pairs — with a red and green stripes.
I told her, “Come on! Let’s go downstairs and get a picture of Santa!” She said “NO! All of our presents will disappear!” But I made her come downstairs. My dad heard me and turned around. So I took the picture and we ran upstairs to look at it. As it was developing, my sister says, “HEY! He’s wearing Dad’s running socks!” She wouldn’t talk to us for three days!
But the fun wasn’t limited to the Nelson household. Once during Willie’s performance at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, longtime bass player “Bee” Spears had planned a practical joke with the help of Connie. Because Willie’s late night show followed a Cirque du Soleil performance, Spears talked the stage hands into attaching the flying wire to himself and his bass guitar. During a particularly sad song, “Angel Flying Too Close the Ground,” the brazen Spears soared through the air behind Willie, while Willie had no clue why the audience was laughing uncontrollably at his heart-rending song.
Paula recalls, “He turned around and there was “Bee,” just swinging away, up in the air! It was definitely a memorable moment
It’s a family thing
Paula, Amy and Lukas Nelson followed in their father’s footsteps, finding success in the music business, as did Micha for a time.
Although Paula has written and performed every kind of music from disco to pop, she has come back “home” to the music that influenced her most. She credits everyone from Rita Coolidge and Bonnie Raitt to Hank Williams and The Beatles for having played a major part in creating the artist she is.
Paula laughs when she talks about the lyrics to some of her most revealing songs, “One of the perks of being a songwriter is that I always have the last word!”
Whether she’s railing against the unfairness of a lost love in “Baby, You’re Mean,” rockin’ to the raw honky-tonk rhythm of “Drink” or breathing new life into her reflective cover of Willie’s “I Never Cared for You” from her latest album, “Under the Influence,” she —like her Dad — is able to reach deep into her soul and pull out a song.
She and Willie share their love of music and quick wit. Paula says, “Dad and I did a recording of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ for my 2010 CD, ‘Little City.’ I had decided I wanted to do it more like ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.’ So I recorded it and I played it for my Dad and he kept saying, ‘This is good! This is good!’ And I thought, ‘I think he thinks I wrote this!’ So I said, ‘Yes, this is good. I sure wish I had written it.’ And he said, ‘You didn’t?’”
When asked to describe the feeling of singing with her famous father, she replied, “You know the feeling when you were a kid and you’d look into the stands at one of your school games and your proud mom and dad were there to see you kicking butt? That’s pretty close to the feeling I get singing one of my songs, and having my pops singing with me. I know he’s proud of me and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Amy Nelson shares the stage (and the blame or credit, depending on your personal point of view) with Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, Cathy, in their humorous, musical duo Folk Uke. Paula laughs when she tells TFH, “They’ve been friends for 20 years and they have beautiful, angelic voices and perfect harmony, but their lyrics are not necessarily kid-friendly.”
Lukas and his band, Promise of the Real, are having much success with their brand of “cowboy hippie surf rock” and their calendar stays booked, including a tour with Neil Young. Paula considers her half-brother “a total rock star.” She says, “It’s weird to think of him playing the guitar with his teeth, shirt unbuttoned. I can’t help but wonder, ‘Wait! What happened to that little kid?’ He’s just ‘killin’ it’ and I’m so proud of him.”
There are seven living Nelson children in all: Paula and Amy, Lukas, Micah, Susie, Lana, Renee. Billy Nelson died in 1992.
Paula jokes, “That’s all we know of —for now, but you never know…”
Paula might be little, but she pushes the boundaries of what you might expect from her tiny frame. She rose to the challenge of being Jessica Simpson’s stunt driver in the “Bad Boy Lawnmower Race” video for his song, “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” and has done much stunt work on the Austin-based TV series “Friday Night Lights.”
Paula explains, “I was dating a stunt man at the time, actually, and he did a lot of things on ‘Friday Night Lights” so they asked me if I’d like to try it! And when the Jessica Simpson video opportunity came up, I thought, ‘Why not!’ I beat all the boys, Owen and Luke Wilson and Woody Harrelson. It was great!”
Stunt driving is not the only unusual avenue that the vivacious blonde has mastered.
Being a black belt in Tai Kwon Do is another one of her curious accomplishments, and one that she shares with her father. “My Dad is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, too. He wanted me to quit smoking cigarettes, so I got into this Tae Kwon Do thing and I got my black belt a year after he did. Dad can kick anybody’s butt if he needs too! We always say to ourselves, ‘Black Belts Walking’ — it’s our little club.”
Like Willie, Paula can also be seen on the silver screen. She played the part of Britney, Michael Madsen’s mistress, in the 2010 political thriller, “Corruption.GOV.”
Even during her traveling days, she felt the pull of the Hill Country. “I do love Texans. I love everything about Texas — the people, the music. There’s just something here that I have never been able to move away from.”
Today, Paula calls the Austin area home. After the road started wearing on her — an example of just one of the many times Papa Bear was right — she traded the busy life of constant traveling with her band, the Guilty Pleasures, for the quiet country life. “My dad once told me, ‘It’s hard for everybody out on the road, but especially for women.’”
The country life suits her well. She enjoys the peace it brings, where running a bit late for our interview can be the biggest complication of her day. The reason for the delay was understandable: She saw some cattle on the road on her way back from getting feed and says she had to take time to alert “the cow police.” Paula is now “mom” to four cats, three dogs, two donkeys and is grieving the recent loss of her beloved goats. All of her “fur babies” are rescue animals and she says all are loved very much.
But that doesn’t mean she’s left music behind. In addition to performing, she can now be heard over the airwaves on SIRIUS XM radio where she hosts Willie’s Roadhouse (Channel 59) and Outlaw Country (Channel 60) — live, from 310 Willie Nelson Blvd in Austin.
A word about hands
Although Paula may have grown up with a non-traditional father, Willie Nelson was still a hands-on Dad whenever his busy schedule permitted. There were the nights he sang lullabies, the endless laughs — happy memories, fondly recalled.
Paula meets life with determination and an incredible drive to try anything at least once. She even managed to attend massage therapy school, and puts her knowledge to good use.
“Every chance I get when my dad comes home, I give him a massage,” she says. “It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world to take care of someone who, for my whole life has taken care of me. To give any comfort and caring to those hands that have worked so hard for so many years, are memories I’ll have forever.”
Although the name Willie Nelson will always be synonymous with “outlaw,” for Paula he’s just Papa Bear, whose greatest accomplishment, according to her, is that “the entire planet adores him.”
With Father’s Day just around the corner, Paula has no idea whether or not schedules will permit a special day, but she states, “Every time I see him it’s pretty much Father’s Day. He has worked hard his whole life. He deserves Father’s Day every day.”