By Logan Hawkes
Just about every Texan has a story to tell about Willie Nelson. Most of us grew up with him. He may not have known that, but we do. That’s the way it is with great people. It’s sort of like connecting Kevin Bacon to somebody you know who knows somebody that is related to him one way or another.
Except a connection to Willie, when you have it, means something. Actually, it means a lot.
For me, growing up with Willie was a little more than just being a fan of the man and his music - and less than something as big as being a childhood friend. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Let me explain.
In 1961 I was just a gawky fifth grader at a small rural school in Helotes, Texas, a small hole-in-the-wall township northwest of San Antonio about halfway down the road to Bandera. Today, Helotes, and nearby Grey Forest, are bedroom communities on the outskirts of the San Antonio Metroplex. But in 1961, it was a small country town that sported a three classroom elementary school. We fifth graders shared the classroom and teacher with all the fourth and sixth graders.
The house where my family lived was up the Old Boerne Stage Road. By this time it was commonly called “Scenic Loop” because it worked it’s way through the hills and canyons of northern Bexar County. Our house, an old natural rock split level, was situated on a nice 5-acre plot and backed up to a creek. Across the creek was ranch country. You could walk across the ranch, over a couple of low hills, and find your way back to the Helotes post office in about two miles or less. If you took the road, Scenic Loop, you had to drive around most of the hills, and the trip was about 5 miles long.
The distance is important to note, because in Helotes in 1961 there wasn’t much other than the post office. There was the school, a Catholic Church, one gas station, a couple of small buildings that housed various shops down through the years, like a barber shop and a small bakery, and that was about it. Except for John Floore's Country Store, the focal point of Helotes known far and wide as the place where Willie played.
You might be lucky and catch Willie in Austin at Liberty Lunch or most likely the Armadillo. Heck, Willie played all across Texas and beyond, but John Floore's Country Store was special, it was Willie's home base. Not far away was Willie's home in San Geronimo, just a few miles up the road from Helotes and Scenic Loop. And oh what a famous honky tonk it was - and still is!
In Texas we now call it the legendary John Floore's Country Store, a dyed-in-the-wool Texas honky tonk by night that doubled as an early version of a convenience store by day, lunch house, beer hall by day. You could buy ice, soft drinks, beer and cigarettes, and my favorite candy bars if you got there before everyone else, did. At night, of course, there was music and dancing.
But back to my house and its reasonable proximity to this legendary honky tonk. Anyone that has ever lived in rural areas knows well that sound carries across the ‘woods’, especially when it has a number of hills and canyons to resonate through.
Our modest rock home was a two bedroom house, meaning that my parents occupied one of the bedrooms, my older sister the other. That left the screened in back porch for me. I spent about 9 months a year sleeping in my bed on that back porch. The colder months I slept on a mattress we drug in each night and near the fireplace. But each spring, summer and early fall, nearly two thirds of my life was spent lying in my bed on that back porch falling asleep each night to the gentle sound of the river behind the house gently spilling across a small dam.
In retrospect, it was a wonderful existence. The air smelled clean, and the cool of the night drifted in and made sleeping in the screened area almost like sleeping out under the stars. Every Monday through Thursday night the only sounds to be heard were from the crickets and bullfrogs down by the creek, the distant bellow of an occasional coyote, and that wonderful sound of the water.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, however, were an entirely different story. Willie, as mentioned, lived right up the road in San Geronimo, the next little hole-in-the-wall on Highway 16 to Bandera. By this time he had already proven himself as a songwriter, having written such greats as “Crazy”, which put Patsy Cline on the charts. Other early hits included “Hello Walls”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, and “Record Man”. By the early 60s, Willie was singing his own songs on albums though, and gaining a lot more attention than the record label execs expected.
But at heart Willie was always a bit of a renegade; always marched to the beat of his own drummer. His revolutionary “Texas Brand” of country crossed over more than a couple of lines, and there wasn’t a Texan in any corner of the state that didn’t know who he was and what songs had made him famous.
In spite of country music roots hpowever, before long he wasn't catering much to the Nashville crowd, who in the early days were far too critical of his unique style, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Willie enjoyed, more than anything else, playing near to home and family, and as such he quickly became the closest thing to a house band you could get for - none other - John Floore and his Country Store honky tonk in Helotes.
Sure, it wasn’t long before the demand for Willie’s live performances took him on the road far and wide. But in 1961-66, Willie spent many of his nights strumming his guitar and belting his songs from the small stage at Floore's Country Store. And like the piper’s tune of mythical times, the melodies would ride the cool air currents up the creek and across the woods and canyons and float faintly into my screened in back porch a couple of miles away.
I can say with all honesty that I spent many a night falling asleep to Willie performing live in the background, a surreal experience now that I think back on it. At the time, it was just another singer my Dad liked, playing his songs at our little country store down the road. I had no idea at age ten that this guy was going to live on to be the most legendary Texas singer-songwriters and performers of all time.
By the time we moved back to the outskirts of San Antonio and nearer to my father’s work, I was in junior high and never thought about how much I missed hearing those haunting melodies of my happy childhood. But by the time I entered high school, Willie was making quite a fuss in the music industry and had already rooted himself deep into the cultural music of the Lone Star State. In my senior year of high school, I remember taking girlfriends to Helotes on dates to see Willie perform. I was a little shy to be much of a dancer and too young to drink at the time. But I always enjoyed the music Willie played.
A few years later, as a young married man, I remember taking my young wife to Floore's Country Store to see Willie perform. It was a little different by then. Now they charged an admission fee. I think it was $3 a person, a pretty stiff charge I thought at the time to hear someone I had been listening to for over a decade. I can remember thinking to myself, “Hey, I used to listen to the guy every weekend for free from my own back porch.”
At the time, of course, that didn’t seem like such a special thing to me. Everybody grew up with somebody’s music, right? For me it just happened to be Willie Nelson.
Now that Willie and I are both older (Willie's got me beat on that score for certain), I realize what an extreme honor it was to grow up the way I did and to have Willie nearby to help me form my own musical tastes. As the years went by, I turned more to modern music, enjoying the heavy riffs of electric guitars and the screaming vocals of a dozen rock performers. But thanks to Willie, I never lost my grip on those early musical roots. They never left me; never will.
Hey Willie, it’s Logan. Welcome to South Padre Island. As much as I want to see and hear you in person, I am tempted to sit on my back porch in Port Isabel and listen for those magical songs drift across the bay. You and I, we may be older now, but apparently neither one of us have changed that much. It’s good to hear you in my neighborhood again.