Willie Nelson is famous for his big heart thanks to his annual Farm Aid concerts since 1985. Other benefit concerts have helped Texans impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Austin food banks during the COVID pandemic. Perhaps no performance was more heartfelt, however, than his rendition of “Always on My Mind” to honor his long-time drummer and friend Paul English on March 4, 2020, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
Willie Nelson & ‘The Devil’
English, known to his friends as “The Devil,” died from pneumonia in February 2020 just weeks before Nelson’s performance. English first met Nelson in 1955 and joined his Family Band in 1966. He readily admitted the impact Nelson had on his life to Rolling Stone: “If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead.”
Even after joining Nelson’s band, English was no shrinking violet. Joe Nick Patoski wrote in the Oxford American that he was also a de facto bodyguard for Nelson and his family and wasn’t afraid of an occasional shootout if necessary. Nelson added in his 2015 autobiography “It’s a Long Story: My Life” that English “always had my back and got me out of more scraps than I care to recall.”
Like Johnny Cash, English was known for wearing all-black outfits. (Unlike Cash, however, he also wore a cape!) Country music fans can see his wardrobe as part of the Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A Bittersweet Concert
Nelson’s March 2020 concert at NRG Stadium was notable for another reason: the then-burgeoning COVID pandemic. His performance was part of the annual, 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Only a week later, officials canceled the remaining 10 days of the event, including scheduled concerts by Cody Johnson, Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, and many others.
Still, that was then, and thankfully, this is now. As spring 2021 turns into summer, tour buses full of musicians will soon be crisscrossing the country to play for fans. As Nelson sings in one of his many classic songs: “The life I love is making music with my friends. And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”