My Hero Has Always Been Willie

Willie Nelson canceled an upcoming concert in April. No explanation was given for the cancellation. Some have speculated that he might not be in stellar health. I can only hope and pray the 88-year-old is okay.

I’m not sure how Willie Nelson got mixed up in my memories, but he is. My brain’s most replayed memories seem to include the music of Willie Hugh Nelson as a soundtrack.

Truthfully, I’m not sure why I liked Willie so much. Maybe it was because I’m a redhead like him. Or maybe it was because he never struck me as a guy who was trying hard to impress you. He was just himself.

I appreciated the meek way he approached music. I loved the gentle touch he had on his Martin N-20. I liked that he used a guitar pick on nylon strings, causing uptight guitar purists to suffer cardiac infarctions. I liked that over the years his pick wore a hole into the spruce top of his instrument.

Moreover, Willie wasn’t a pop star. He is us. Kenny Rogers and Conway Twitty were great. But they represented were the shiny, star-studded Nashville elite. Willie was like the guy your daddy worked with.

He didn’t have a powerful baritone voice like Jim Reeves. He didn’t wear a bow tie like Ray Price. He sounded like your uncle singing with the VFW band on bingo night.

And Willie’s tunes weren’t anything like the idiocy that passes for modern country music today.

A few days ago, I was in traffic, flipping past songs on the radio when I landed on a new country song by Trace Atkins, featuring Luke Bryant, and rapper Pitbulll. The tune was entitled, “Where the Country Girls At?” I almost wrecked my truck on purpose.

Willie didn’t write stupid songs. He wrote poetry set to music. He wrote sonnets about cowboys, unrequited love, and angels who flew too close to the ground.

The man made it acceptable to be a country musician with an actual vocabulary.

Last month, my wife and I moved. And while we were packing our billions of corrugated cardboard boxes, I came across a container of LP records I’d forgotten about.

Some of the albums dated back to the days when I was busy filling cloth diapers and running around with a Kool Aid mustache. The records were almost all Willie.

So one night before supper, I dug up an old turntable that has been in my family since the William Howard Taft administration. My wife and I listened to music that was, essentially, the film score to my childhood.

I closed my eyes and retraced my life’s steps based on the songs of Willie Hugh Nelson.

Whenever I hear “Crazy,” I am a 6-year-old kid, holding a chipped Stella guitar, trying to play in time with my uncle as he does his best Patsy Cline imitation.

I can still see my uncle playing the bass walkdown from the one-chord to the six-chord in the first measure.

And when I hear “Stardust,” I’m reminded of the time my grandfather sat on the porch of his singlewide, perched on Lake Taneycomo, singing the lyrics to the intro of Hoagy Carmichael’s anthem to love.

When I hear Willie sing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” I remember being a little boy, lying in bed, with a 102-degree fever that threatened to melt my brain.

I remember my father, dressed in the all-denim uniform of a Local Number 10 ironworker, with soot on his hands. He stroked my sweat-laden red hair all night long, and sang Willie songs softly between his tearful prayers for my well-being.

When I hear “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” I am 16 again, and experiencing my first broken heart. My father has been dead for years, and I’m a high-school dropout. Some beautiful girl’s parents have just told me, more or less, they don’t think the son of a dead ironworker is good enough for their daughter.

When I hear “Always On My Mind,” I think of the beer joint band I played in. The wannabe cowboys. We were a decent band. And by “decent” I mean that occasionally we all played in the same key at the same time.

And whenever the tune “On the Road Again” comes onto the radio, I turn it up. And I think of the woman I met nearly a quarter century ago. The brunette who thought I was interesting, and smart, and worth her time.

I think of how this young woman, an aspiring math teacher, inspired a dropout to enroll in community college and to study English.

I think of that old pickup truck I drove to the OWCC campus on weekends and for night classes. I think of the “achievement award” the school sent me years later when I had my first book published.

I think of how after I graduated, my wife and I spent several years “on the road” visiting 49 states in the name of my halfcocked writing career. Me. A writer. The son of an ironworker, with the pedigree of dirt, but the heart of a musical cowboy.

I hope you’re okay, Willie.


  1. Hazel - March 21, 2022 6:59 am

    I saw last week that Willie’s sister passed. She played keyboards for him. That is probably the reason he canceled.

  2. Donna Semar - March 21, 2022 7:11 am

    Excellent. Please visit as many high schools as possible. You need to touch the hearts of those students that want to give up. Maybe they won’t write; but maybe they won’t give up. PS – Willie might be rearranging his schedule due to the recent death of his sister.

  3. Donna Semar - March 21, 2022 7:20 am

    Oh. By the way, since Covid lockdown started for me here in California on March 23, 2020, I have not cut my hair. I started by looking like a toddler with little pigtails. Then, I morphed into Jeffrey Lebowski (the Dude). As the lockdown continued, I took on the current look of Willie Nelson. Sometimes I would think I was being creative by trying a YouTube hairstyle out only having it look like Golda Meier. Oh well. Still loving working from home and enjoying learning new things like Ukulele, Spanish, dehydrating, and Sean Dietrich.

  4. Carol Ham - March 21, 2022 8:19 am

    I love you, Sean!!! And I love Willie. I print out your columns and send them to my sister in Semmes, Alabama. She is a fan also. Keep up the great writing and hug your sweet wife for me. I live in Washington State now with Alabama in my heart.

  5. robert ross - March 21, 2022 9:09 am

    Sean, I hope you view this as a compliment, because I mean it that way. You are one of the few folks I read who can turn chicken shit into chicken salad. Bob Ross

  6. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 21, 2022 10:02 am

    Is that the “Pretty tree” Bob Ross? No way!
    I’m sure Willie’s doing fine. Still entertaining with his poetry.
    I drummed behind bar bands on Fri. & Sat. nights for 30 years & finally got too deaf to play. Those in ear monitors were an acid trip I could not get used to. I played old & new country, classic rock, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s & pretty much anything you could dance to. Making them dance got you hired back next month. My 20 or so bands usually got into a monthly rotation. One weekend in each of four clubs. Most bands lasted 2-3 yrs until someone gets married, pregnant, wrecks a motorcycle or put in jail.
    Some bands played a fair amount of Willie. Not too exciting for a drummer. “Hey, play some Cougar.”
    A guy I grew up with could karaoke every song Willie ever recorded with 95% accuracy. He’d come out & sit in a lot & we’d play songs we didn’t know. (Long as they danced & bought another round.) And the owner smiled & got his little calendar book out at the end of the night.
    {These comments seem so long until you go back to proof read}
    Love you Sean & Jamie & hope you learn to love B’ham.. Try the cafeteria line at Niki’s West. Best rutabaga on the planet.

  7. Te - March 21, 2022 10:38 am

    Love Willie. Songs of my childhood, too, only I didn’t appreciate him then. Now, I can’t stand the idea that he would pass from this world. It’s true, our lives are marked by music –And for me, by what I read.

  8. Sheilla - March 21, 2022 10:49 am

    Exactly!! I am a huge Willie fan too. If you ever get a chance read his book: Willie Nelson’s Letters to America. It is a great book.

  9. Paul - March 21, 2022 11:45 am

    Willie had a little two verse song “She Is Gone” that helped a great deal when my wife of 41 years lost her battle with brain cancer. I’m grateful!

  10. Cindy - March 21, 2022 12:09 pm

    Sean, some days, like today, your writing really just melts my heart. 😊🙏🏼

  11. Charlotte Virginia McCraw - March 21, 2022 12:11 pm

    This morning, I got coffee, nuts, cranberries, dark chocolate [don’t judge my breakfast choices], Sean of the South AND Willie memories. It doesn’t get any better than that to begin a day. I do hope Willie is OK. He is 88, after all. It’ll be a sad day when we lose him and his independent spirit. Thank God, death would not rob us of his music. Even if there would be no new Willie music, his existing music would sustain and comfort us.

  12. Karen - March 21, 2022 12:25 pm

    My favorite Willie songs come from his Red Headed Stranger album. I am going to pull that out and listen to it today. I was a 22 year old new graduate RN when Mamas Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys came out.

  13. Linda Lewis - March 21, 2022 12:26 pm

    Oh, I love this column. I love Willie Nelson. I love reading your words every day. What a beautiful world this is. Thank you for writing this.

  14. leoladyjane - March 21, 2022 12:27 pm

    I believe Willie Nelson’s sister passed away.

  15. Anne Lowery - March 21, 2022 12:39 pm

    Who did the drawing of Willie at the top of your post?

  16. Willie Latane Barton - March 21, 2022 12:47 pm

    Hello… My name is Willie (the first given name, that is) and I am 88 years old. But, I’m not Willie Nelson! I am a female that is old enough to remember those good ole days and Willie Nelson. Love your writing. Look forward to it every day. Keep on truckin’.

  17. Linda Chapman - March 21, 2022 1:06 pm

    Beautiful!! I do so love you, Sean!

  18. Bobby - March 21, 2022 1:13 pm

    Willie’s voice always sounds the same, whether it’s in conversation or singing. Nothing pretentious, all natural.

  19. Jeanette - March 21, 2022 1:17 pm

    And now I’ve caught allergies!

  20. Kathy - March 21, 2022 1:33 pm

    One of my favorites is “I Thought About You, Lord.” Willie’s theology runs close to mine. That’s also why I like “There’s Nothing I Can Do about It Now.”

  21. Rhonda - March 21, 2022 1:38 pm

    Listen to Alabamas’ song. “COME FIND ME”
    an incredibly heartbreaking ballad

  22. Roseann Romans - March 21, 2022 1:44 pm

    Willie will always be OK. Even when he’s not with us anymore. I have loved Willie and his style since I was a teen ager and I’m an old woman now. I still play him on CD’s in my car and on the little boom-box on my porch. Willie is all that’s left of real, country, music. Play on Willie. You are always on my mind

    • Gigi - March 21, 2022 9:24 pm


  23. NancyB - March 21, 2022 1:49 pm

    Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s sister and his band’s keyboard player for over 50 years, died March 11. Willie as canceled several concerts in order to grieve this great loss. He will also need to fill the keyboard spot in his band. However, no one will ever be able to take Bobbie’s place. Her obituary can be found on

  24. DiAn - March 21, 2022 1:52 pm

    Sean – This is wonderful and so uplifting! Thank you for writing this and for sharing these memories. I also hope and pray that Willie (a national treasure, I believe) is well.
    Please keep on writing, Sean. We need to hear your sane point of view from your new home in Birmingham. – Especially in the midst of chaos as a frenetic population wastes precious resources on warfare. Heaven help us all! – D. in CHLT.

  25. Judy Wilson - March 21, 2022 1:55 pm

    I remember waking up early one morning hearing music coming from the living room. I got up to check on my husband. He doesn’t usually get up so early. He was sitting on the sofa and he told me to sit by him for I just had to hear this album. It was Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. That was the beginning of a life time love affair for Willie’s music.

  26. chipnoon - March 21, 2022 2:12 pm

    Great, Sean. Willie and Dollie are in the same class, in my mind. I love them. And I grew up listening to the Met every Saturday and singing in my first opera chorus when I was 15…Aida. But Willie and Dollie took their places in my mind, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. And to you…thank you.

  27. Shelton A. - March 21, 2022 2:13 pm

    I am and rock and blues fan, primarily. I love the Beatles and B.B. King but I make a huge exception for Willie Nelson. I great songwriter who wasn’t the best singer. But neither are Neil Young or Bob Dylan and I love their music anyway. Willie’s music speaks to me in language I understand and revere. Thank God for Willie Nelson and I pray he’s okay, too. God bless Willie (and you, Sean, Jamie, Otis, and Thelma Lou).

  28. NancyB - March 21, 2022 2:41 pm

    🙂 Sean, If you and Jamie are up for a road trip, it was just announced about 30 minutes ago that Willie will be in St. Louis on June 25. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. this Friday, March 25. St. Louis is chock full of other sites, sounds, places of interest, as well as being home to the St. Louis Cardinals. Don’t have a schedule yet, but could be they would be playing the Braves that weekend also. 🙂

  29. Lisa - March 21, 2022 2:42 pm

    Willie! I never heard of him until I went to college at U of AZ way back when. Apparently country music wasn’t on my radar growing up in the Philippines. But the first time I ever heard his music, I was a fan. (P.s. I love your self-deprecating way of writing. Thanks for being real, Sean!)

  30. Susan Marler - March 21, 2022 2:55 pm

    Saw Willie for the first time up close at Flores Country Store in San Antonio. Small crowd, beer drinking and singing quietly with him in the early ’80’s. Rode up 281 in the Hill Country along side him on his motorcycle. He is one of us. Be well Willie

  31. Ag - March 21, 2022 3:00 pm

    You nailed it to my heart! Love one of Willie’s latest. Don’t Want To Be The Last Man Standing, Well Then Maybe I Do” I hope he is.

  32. Tom Wallin - March 21, 2022 3:02 pm

    Amen. I love Willie too and his songs that are always listenable and understandable. I too, hope he is OK.

  33. Susie Flick - March 21, 2022 3:19 pm

    Willie Nelson is as true as his songs. I was blessed to see him twice in concert and the one that was best was with Leon Russell at the Cattlemen’s Congress in Waterloo,, IA. That night was amazing!

  34. Mary Hoffert - March 21, 2022 3:51 pm


  35. muthahun - March 21, 2022 3:57 pm

    Saw Willie in Portland, ME back in the late ’70’s. Jerry Jeff Walker and Crystal Gayle got first and second billing, but it was Willie who stole the show, invited the others back onto the stage, and united the audience. Too bad Willie hadn’t gone into politics, but obviously he was too smart for that. I expect that as sad as Willie must be losing his sister, he’s getting one heck of a boost from all the good wishes he’s getting from this crew.

  36. H. J. Patterson - March 21, 2022 4:33 pm

    Most of the modern country is total crap but some, like Chris Stapleton and few others still get it but the rest just basically appeals to women with a Xanax dependency. And Sean, you’re close on Luke, it’s Bryan not Bryant but who’s counting. Luke’s not the best thing to come out of Leesburg GA, Buster Posey is. Long live Willie.

    • TerrieM - March 22, 2022 11:16 pm

      “…women with a Xanax dependency” Wow. I don’t know who your crowd is, H.J., but this one (and Willie) leans towards kindness. Maybe there’s another way to describe music that’s not quite to your taste?

  37. Johnna Clarke - March 21, 2022 4:45 pm

    When I read the title of this column, I immediately got teary-eyed as I thought Willie had passed and I missed the news. I was relieved to discover your writing and humor paid homage to one of the most talented individuals in the music industry. My husband and I LOL at your description of current country music as idiocy. We agree! My husband, a truck driver, requested “On the Road Again” as the recessional at our wedding. Did you know “Crazy” was originally entitled “Stupid”? There’s only one Willie, but he won’t die. His songs will remind you, me, and countless others of the best things in life – our memories. Willie will always be a part of my heart. Sean of the South is always the first part of my day. Thank you, Sean, for always being there.

  38. Mary L Burns - March 21, 2022 4:46 pm

    I don’t know how many fans Willie has. But I know it’s a lot. But you have made the big time to all of us who read you every day. Keep on, keeping on, Sean.

  39. Chasity Davis Ritter - March 21, 2022 5:29 pm

    I have a lot of Willie soundtrack moments in my life too. His songs invoke memories of my grandpa Fred and my Dad Freddie and my best friend of 48 years Dad that my daughter and I called Papa Jim. Sometimes I smile though Tears when Willie is on the radio and all I can say is I’m “Willie Lucky” to have had each of them in my life. Hope you feel better soon too Willie.

  40. Linda Moon - March 21, 2022 5:43 pm

    I just read in Rolling Stone that Bobbie Nelson (Willie’s sister) died recently at the age of 91. My Guy and I have seen them perform together and loved every minute of it. We’ve always loved musical cowboys and cowgirls, and we love you and your girl, too. I’m not trying to be corny here, but people like that are Always On My Mind and in my heart, too, with all that music and love.

  41. Dottie Coltrane - March 21, 2022 6:53 pm

    One of my favorite memories of Willie Nelson is when he played at the White House (actually many times) during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. They have been friends for a years. In the movie “Rock and Roll President” there is a scene when President Carter tells the story of an evening when Willie was reported to have smoked pot at the White House with someone on staff. With his famous smile, President Carter told the interviewer, “Actually, it was one of my sons.”
    My favorite Willie Nelson song is “You Were Always On My Mind.”

  42. Sue - March 21, 2022 7:58 pm

    I totally agree with you on today’s country music. Give me the good boys any day.

  43. Sonny - March 21, 2022 8:59 pm

    Your words bring back tons of memories for a 70 year old male from heart of Alabama

  44. Pieter Voorhees, Sr - March 21, 2022 9:10 pm

    I’m a pretty recent subscriber, thanks to my wife (uh huh), and almost always either moved or amused by your daily gift, but today you really got me. Willie’s been much on my mind since the news of his cancelled concert, but thank you for putting my emotions into words I’ll always remember (maybe,,, I’m 79).
    If by chance I were to remember them, I’d eventually think of them as my own but my wife would quickly straighten me out again.

  45. Cynthia Russell - March 21, 2022 9:23 pm

    EVERYTHING IS SO TRUE!! I am blessed to see him in concert when I could.. AMAZING TALENT.. HE NOT ONLY HAS A VOICE but every cord, every line, every song is a memory for all of us.. & everyone is different for all.. & SEAN your are sooooo right about country music today… I can’t get that off crap fast enough… WILLIE COULD WRITE THEM & HE COULD SURE SING THEM !! I hope he lives forever!!! WE NEED HIM HERE!!
    Thank You Sean!

  46. John - March 21, 2022 10:11 pm

    I have read Willie Nelson’s autobiography twice and “The Tao of Willie” at least 6 times. He is a real person, not something made up on the back of an album cover. Nashville did not like Willie. He did not fit, so he went back home. When he did the ‘Stardust’ album, they called him crazy. It stayed on the album charts for 10 years.

  47. Patricia Gibson - March 21, 2022 11:17 pm

    Me too🙏

  48. Diana Mason - March 22, 2022 12:37 am

    So glad your wife talked you into entering Com. College. I’m sure you had the makings of all the stories in you, but studying English just helped you prime those stories a bit. Love your writing!

  49. elizabethroosje - March 22, 2022 2:27 am

    I love Wiilie Nelson too. Your blog posts always cheer me up!

  50. Bobby Crew - March 22, 2022 3:02 am

    In October of 1975, just by shear luck, I got to see Willie and his family at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. He had two shows that night and we got tickets to the second one. Show started at 9:00 pm. He had just released “Red Headed Stranger “. They played and sang the entire album. Then for the next 2-3 hours he took requests. He would have played all night but the owners had to shut it down. Great night !

  51. Jodie Lugo - March 22, 2022 12:48 pm

    As usual Sean, you struck a “chord”.

  52. Sharen Ewing - March 22, 2022 1:05 pm

    Good writinh, It resonated . Willie us a huge part if America’s Soundtrack. He taught us its ok to be yourself. Thanks for the smikes.

  53. Bobby Martin - March 23, 2022 2:21 am

    Actually Willie’s been dead since 11-25-2020 !! Well, not really but the precious little fella that was named after him my sweet little Yorkie WILLIE NELSON MARTIN 🐕

  54. Mary Ann b - March 23, 2022 2:05 pm

    I “met” willie in a club in Odessa Texas about the time “Crazy” was released. His hair was short, he wore a fancy suit, and he was exactly as he has been described. My then husband was a local deejay, so I got to sit a the table with him during breaks. He talked to me as though I really mattered! Every year, every song has only served to make me believe that that young man was mabrock1@exactly the same man he is now. Treasured memory,

  55. Mary Ann b - March 23, 2022 2:08 pm

    Bad typing, sincere thoughts above.

  56. Patti - March 24, 2022 4:22 am

    I saw Willie Nelson in concert at the former Omni in Atlanta many years ago. He has the most beautiful voice, clear as a bell. That crispy clearness does not come through on his recordings.

  57. Patricia Parker - March 25, 2022 1:59 am

    His sister,Bobbie,passed away March 10. She was a member of his band. 😞💔

  58. Vern - March 25, 2022 2:18 pm

    Sean, I really enjoyed this article. Country music today is no longer country.

  59. rosemw2000yahoocom - March 25, 2022 8:49 pm

    Bless you, Bless Me and Bless Willie. Keep his records spinning.

  60. Michelle Mendheim - March 26, 2022 12:57 pm

    I love Willie too, more every day I think. You two are alike in many ways- you’re honest about who you are, you write from the heart, and you make the world more beautiful with your talent. Thank you!

  61. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 28, 2022 1:07 am

  62. Janice - Silverhill - March 30, 2022 1:33 am

    I’ve been blessed to see Willie three times in my 71 years. My son loved Willwee❤️ First time I saw him was at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. I did my research & learned The Tabernacle was an old Church they used for concerts. I’m thinking pews to sit on. Boy was I wrong! My husband & I was # 4 & 5 in line so we were shocked not to find any seats. We did hustle to stand at the railing right in front of Willie. We were probably the oldest folks there, standing among the college students. Several thought they could push this old lady out of her spot but with the help of my Dear Husband, I held my ground. The young ones were jumping up & down, drowning me in their beer. A bouncer saw what was happening & grabbed the young man drowning me & escorted him to the door. That was the BEST Willie concert ever. Later we saw him at Chastain Park & last time was Fun on the River in Montgomery. After this concert his bus was pulled over in MS for mushrooms. I wonder why ❤️ Love to you & Jamie from Silverhill

  63. Ann Hunter - April 6, 2022 6:58 pm

    My husband, who passed away 10 years ago, loved Willie too. Very near his death we were invited to a surprise concert that some friends were having in Maine. When the curtain opened there stood Willie and you would have thought he was there just for us. My husbands strength returned, and he stood with the biggest smile on his face and clapped for a long time. We even got to go to his trailer after and talk to him. Jim, was also a writer who dropped out of school but later in life, had several books published. When he lay in the hospital bed the last days of his life, my daughter sat there and kept Willie playing so he could hear it. I know he died peacefully!
    We also lived in Alabama for several years !


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