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Always on our minds: Austin celebrates 90 years of Willie Nelson

An up-close photo of Willie Nelson smiling as he performs at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin on Feb. 13, 2011.
Willie Nelson performs at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in February 2011.

How do you describe Willie Nelson? Even harder, how do you put into words that one moment or connection you shared with the Red-Headed Stranger that you'll never forget?

Many of you tried! We asked for your submissions for stories, moments and chance encounters featuring the country music legend, and you didn't hold back.

As one person wrote, "Even in a time of overuse of this word, he is truly an icon."

Submissions have been slightly edited for clarity and length.

'Honeysuckle Rose'

"I am a native Austinite and was part of a Willie concert scene in 'Honeysuckle Rose,' filmed at Palmer Auditorium. The crowd spent eight hours listening to 'On the Road Again,' and as a testament to Willie, I still like the song!" — Shelley Bueche

'No, this is for you'

Thais Datashvili's Willie Nelson story

Thais Datashvili's son Z wearing Willie Nelson's hat and holding signed merch
Thais Datashvili
Thais Datashvili's son Z wears Willie Nelson's hat after his concert at Q2 Stadium last year.

Better than a signed beer can

"I saw Willie for the first time back in the '90s in Austin at The Backyard. It was an amazing show and I thought I would commemorate the moment by having him autograph the only thing I had with me: a Shiner Bock beer can. Willie is truly devoted to his fans and obliged me this small favor.

"Later, when I tried to leave the venue, the doorman would not let me take it. 'TABC rules,' he said. When I told him that I had to keep this can — this empty can — because Willie had signed it, the more adamant he became in his denial of my leaving with it. I had to toss this signed by Willie Nelson Shiner Bock beer can into the trash.

"So I walked out, mad but still determined. I turned the corner and found a busboy. I paid him $20 to grab the trashcan where my beloved beer can lay, and had him bring it to the trash collection area below the venue. I spent the next 15 minutes armpit deep in stinky beer cans looking for my signed memento. I did not find it and it is probably not a mystery who left that night with my beer can.

"Sad and a bit dejected, I walked out to the parking lot to head home. I was very pleasantly surprised to look up and see three massive tour buses, one of which had its door wide open. I walked up, gave my head a little shake and walked right up into Willie’s smoky bus. I got about halfway down the aisle when someone asked me if I was here to see Willie. I told my story and got to meet the man himself. What a treat. What an honor. I soaked up the moment and left with a happy heart and a hungry appetite. I’ll take that over a Sharpied beer can any day." — Jack Waite

Good timing

"My husband and I divorced after about 30 years married. After two years apart, he called and asked me out on a date. When I got in the car, I burst into tears when Willie started singing, 'You were always on my mind.' Married 56 years now." — Sula Howell

'A true little fishing tale'

"Back when I was 6 years old in the late '80s, my mom and I used to walk our dog by Town Lake in the mornings. I always liked to run ahead 20 steps or so, scouting for adventure. One day, I came upon two guys who looked disheveled and were giggling, fishing in the water, looking like they were having too much fun. And obviously I wanted to join in.

"I asked them if I could fish with them. They kindly said sure, and gave me the pole. A few minutes later they got all excited, told me 'You got one! Reel it in!' So I pulled in the line and they jumped up and down telling me, 'You got one! You got one!' At this point, my mom walks up, seeing me hanging out with these questionable fellas, who are laughing hilariously, because they gave a 6-year-old the satisfaction of catching a fish.

"Turns out it was just a minnow they were using as bait. As I was leaving, they asked me what my name was, and I said 'Noah.' Then one of them shook my hand and introduced himself, saying, 'Good to meet you, my name is Willie.' And my mom, recognizing his braids, quickly put two and two together, and realized it was Willie Nelson, just a normal guy, higher than a kite, fishing with a buddy on Town Lake." — Noah Zandan

Begging for 'Shotgun Willie'

"When I was in college I went to see Willie Nelson for the first time. We had a chance to be front row so we got to the venue super early and met some of his diehard fans. One of them, an older man, kindly asked us what we hoped to hear that night. We both responded with 'Shotgun Willie' and the man kind of dropped his face and was like, 'I’ve been to 80 shows and he’s just not really playing that right now.'

"We were bummed to hear that but also determined. We had a Sharpie on us and decided to write 'Shotgun Willie' on our hands. Halfway into the set we held our hands up and Willie leaned in, gave us a laugh and then instantly started playing the song without even cuing his band! It was such a nice thing that made our night. He gave us his guitar picks, signed some things and even took photos afterward. He was so so generous with us that night and I’ll never forget it or tire of telling people how great Willie truly is. Happy Birthday Willie!" — Devon Bailey

People take photos in front of a red and white striped Willie Nelson for President mural in South Austin.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
People take photos in front of a "Willie for President" mural in South Austin in 2018.

Meeting in the middle with Willie

"I'm a New Englander and my husband is a Westerner and we definitely met in the middle with Willie. The band played his version of 'Blue Skies' for our first dance at our wedding. It had been threatening to storm all day for our outdoor ceremony, but the weather held until the moment we walked into the reception hall and started our first dance, at which point the skies opened. 'Blue days, all of them gone ... nothing but blue skies, from now on.' God bless Willie and God bless Texas!" — Caroline Legge

'You're a member of our family, whether you know us or not'

John Clark's Willie Nelson story

A BBQ dinner with Willie

"I ran the Willie 10K in September of 2001. It was after 9/11 and the country was traumatized. I remember Willie on a big platform and he led the runners in singing 'God Bless America' or some other patriotic song. Then after the race started, he and Darrell Royal were standing next to one another and gave every runner the hook ‘em horns as they ran by. They served a BBQ dinner and Willie played Auditorium Shores after the race. All for $30. It is not an Armadillo World HQ story, but for a 48-year-old from Southeast Texas it was a damn good Willie moment." — Matt Cecalek

'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson'

"Growing up in Austin we encountered Willie Nelson here and there around town. My dad, Jesse Soto Ybarbo, being a staunch country western music fan, was not much a fan of Willie as he did not conform to the suit-wearing, clean-cut, God-fearing image of a real country singer that my dad thought he respected.

"He would point out 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' on various occasions either on the radio — KVET, which would be immediately changed or turned off — or if by luck, out in the wilds of Austin. I always found this amusing as a child. He would say that 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' needs to cut his hair, shave, take a bath, put on a clean shirt and stop disrespecting country music.

"Fast forward to the late '90s or early 2000s and my dad, being an excellent self-taught golfer, was invited to play in one of the early Ben-Willie-Darrell charity events out at Barton Creek. My dad's invitation to play came from his longtime, childhood friend and very good friend of Coach Royal, Louis Murillo (Louie). Sadly, Louis passed away earlier this year and was a friend to many and will be missed.

"Somewhere out on that golf course 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' shows up in a golf cart with a few followers to thank them for participating and to pose for pictures and maybe pass around a few beers. My dad initially was not so excited to see him out there greeting guests until Willie approached him and addressed my dad by his nickname 'Mechudo.' It means long hair or messy hair in Spanish, and it was bestowed upon him at a very early age by the neighborhood kids.

"My dad was in disbelief that not only did 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' know his nickname, but also the fact that he taught himself to be a scratch golfer without any professional instruction other that the 10 minutes Harvey Penick spent with him as a very young man to teach him how to hold a golf club. Willie, Coach Royal and Louis Murillo had known each other for some time and Louis loved mentioning to his friends that he had a friend, Mechudo, who could beat anyone, anytime, in golf and that person was my dad.

"And this was the day that 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' finally met the guy that Louis had been talking about for years. He treated my dad like a long-lost friend and my dad was in disbelief, ashamed and generally shook. My dad gathered his feelings and realized that he just made a friend in that brief encounter and became a Willie Nelson fan because Willie was being Willie.

"That very day, the name 'Dirty Hippy Willie Nelson' died and Willie Nelson was never to be mentioned by that misnomer ever again by my dad. From that day forward it was going to be not only 'Willie Nelson' but 'My Friend Willie Nelson.'

"When my dad would retell this story, which he loved to do, he would always include being ashamed of himself for judging a person by their appearance and not giving them the benefit of a doubt. We could all use a little of that humble pie in our lives just as we could all use a little Willie Nelson in our lives.

"Thank you for allowing me to share this story as my Dad passed away in 2021 and we still love retelling it to this day, I like to believe that he and Louis are now both getting a laugh about it up in the great beyond." — Joseph Ybarbo

'I'll be darned, there's Willie Nelson!'

Missy Bledsoe's Willie Nelson story

Four-years-old and already a Willie fan

Heaton sitting on Willie Nelson's lap as they both smile for the camera.
Jan Heaton
Heaton sits on Willie Nelson's lap after a chance encounter in Los Angeles.

"I have a really sweet photo of my grandson, Heaton, sitting on Willie's lap. Ten years ago at the Admirals Club in LA ... I think. My daughter, Kristin Heaton Peabody, and her husband Wyatt Peabody, are traveling with their 4-year-old son. Both huge Willie fans. Heaton is only four but he knows Willie's music. Kristin spots Willie and asks Heaton to go say hello. Heaton resists and she offers him a trip to the gift store to do it (big bribe). Of course Heaton ends up meeting Willie and all is well. Happy 90th Birthday Willie!" — Jan Heaton

A Valentine's hug from Willie

"Valentine's Day, 1988, at the old Opera House: Willie played to a pretty small crowd for him but it was nice. He played a beautiful turquoise guitar. This is back when Willie stayed after the show closed to sign autographs. I watched him pretty close just watching where he exited the auditorium, and he went down the big hallway towards the loading docks.

"I knew the layout of the building from being there several times. I trotted down that hallway walking up to him as he has speaking with a woman. I waited patiently for them to finish their conversation. There were no other people there in the hallway. As she turned and was leaving I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned around and spoke to me, 'Happy Valentine's.' I melted!

"Willie said how bout a Valentine's hug — yes, I was getting a hug from Willie! I told him of my love for him and got a second hug as we parted ways. I walked out of that hallway 10 feet off the ground. Several years later I actually got my picture made with him. I have seen him many times. Love him as a person and his beautiful lyrics have spoken to me so many times. He is my go-to in times of pain and distress, and joy. I love you Willie." — Genest Harding

Willie does airport standup

"In 1986, my wife and I were heading to London for a business trip starting with a flight from Austin Mueller Airport to DFW. In those days, there weren't many gates and less gate seating so many of us had to stand in the halls leading to the gate.

"We had been standing around for a few minutes when Willie and [his sister] Bobbie showed up for the same flight. Unlike what you would expect to happen today, nobody batted an eye as they stood around with the rest of us making jokes about the whole hurry-up-and-wait process of flying. Even though I wasn't a Willie fan back then that 30 minutes flew by (no pun intended)." — David Fox

A lifetime of memories

"I met my future husband — with whom I will celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary this June — in Feb. 1973, when I was 17. I was from a small Texas town and I traveled on a bus to San Antonio that summer to meet his parents for the first time. We then went on a date, to Floore's Country Store in Helotes, and that is where we saw Willie for the first time.

"The next time we saw him was at the Austin Opry House in Travis Heights, probably in the late '70s. We saw him one more time, in 2004, at a downtown venue I can't recall for sure, but I think it was the Austin Music Hall. Happy 90th to Willie, who has created so many memories for so many people!" — Anita Conley Mote

What it means to be a Texan

"I can’t remember a time in my life without the music of Willie Nelson. My father, a lifelong fan, in the late '70s, played 'Whiskey River' with an 8-track tape in his truck as we bounced along beside him in the fields of the High Plains farm we lived on, checking the irrigation pipes. Willie Nelson and his music are literally part of the fabric of what it means to live in and be a Texan — a type of Texan that was accepting of differences, open to new experiences and acknowledged the highs and lows of life. Even in a time of overuse of this word, he is truly an icon." — Amy Foster

Did you miss the chance to share your Willie Nelson story? Send it to us below. (You may need to refresh the page.)

Andy Jechow is the audience engagement editor for KUT News. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @AndyJechow.
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