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Willie Nelson and the Jews

Country Willie turns 80 and we celebrate his collaborations

Adam Chandler
April 30, 2013
Kinky Friedman and Willie Nelson.(MySpace)
Kinky Friedman and Willie Nelson.(MySpace)

Not only is it Gal Gadot’s birthday…you know…for those who are paying attention, but it is also Willie Nelson’s birthday. It’s strange to think that two of the biggest birthday celebrations of the year so far seem to be the 80th birthdays of Philip Roth and Willie Nelson.

Now, Country Willie is not Jewish, but that has not stopped him from having some pretty stellar Semitic partnerships over the years. As musician, Tablet contributor, and former (and possible future) Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman wrote in Rolling Stone some 40 years ago, one of Nelson’s long-time band members is Mickey Raphael.

On the road to New York and Vermont, in Colombo-like fashion, I ask penetrating questions and occasionally get fairly wiggy answers that I write down in my special investigator’s notebook. At the Holiday Inn pool in Syracuse, New York, I ask Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica player, how it feels to be the only person of the Jewish persuasion in Willie’s outfit.

“Fine,” says Raphael, “but playing harp with willie, manipulating the media and controlling world banking is really wearing me out.”

And then later, Friedman recounts this tale:

Willie is taking a break before going out to sign autographs when he suddenly realizes that he is sitting at the table with his longtime manager Mark Rothbaum and Mickey Raphael. Seeing the creative opportunities of the moment, Willie works on a spontaneous improvisation on his song “Why Do I Have to Choose?” He opens his palms in a somewhat Christ-like manner toward Rothbaum and Raphael. Willie sings: “Why Do I Have Two Jews?”

The stories of Willie on the road only get better. A story that was recounted in Scott Benarde’s Stars of David discusses how Raphael had trouble completely explaining why–following a concert that ended with a tepid audience reaction to the closing song “Amazing Grace”–the band was unable to procure glasses of milk to go along with their steak dinners back at their Catskills hotel. According to the book, Willie was the most understanding, having been the first white country star to take a black musician (Charley Pride) on tour with him in the 1960s. The other band members, however, needed to be reminded regularly that the Jews had not killed Jesus and that the use of the word Jew as a verb was not considered affectionate.

Anyway, not to get hung up on the small details, Willie Nelson is a fan of Jewish power. Had Kinky Friedman defeated Rick Perry in the Texas governor’s race, Willie would have been his secretary of energy and led the charge for energy independence (and the legalization of marijuana in Texas). It’s other worth noting that Willie’s lawyer Jay Goldberg helped negotiate Willie out of trouble when it turns out that he owed the IRS millions of dollars that his accountancy supposedly hadn’t been paying.

His musical collaborations haven’t been too bad either. Here’s one country favorite “Poncho and Lefty” with Bob Dylan:

And here’s Willie Nelson playing “Moonlight in Vermont” with Phish and Paul Schaffer at Farm Aid in 1998:

Happy birthday, Willie!

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.