Celebrate Willie Nelson Month in Denton | Dallas Observer

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Willie Nelson’s Story Is Even Cooler Than We Know – Learn About it at UNT's Campus

Steve Brooks, a Willie Nelson expert, shows his own images, forever immortalized on T-shirts and other merch.
Steve Brooks, a Willie Nelson expert, shows his own images, forever immortalized on T-shirts and other merch. Elvis Anderson
It cost around $2,000 to get in the door for Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday party shows. The two events took place in late April at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Few singer-songwriters can pull off duos with George Strait and then Snoop Dogg, but Willie can. It genuinely felt like a farewell concert there in the Hollywood Hills, different from Elton John's, who's been farewell-touring since the '90s.

The legendary Willie Nelson Picnic music festival and fireworks show returns for a 50th edition on Independence Day in Austin — alas, it feels like this will be the last picnic, or perhaps his last show of any kind. The University of North Texas CoLab gallery (at 207 N. Elm St.), on the Square in Denton, has dedicated the month of May to the Abbott, Texas, native. The celebration and art exhibition is a mix of Willie-inspired performing, literary and visual arts. Local musicians covered Willie classics at the Bearded Monk for the kickoff party; last week local artist Steve Brooks shared Pancho and Lefty stories for a packed house; Willie Nelson historian and author Dave Dalton Thomas will speak at 11:30 a.m. this Saturday; and the Willie Nelson UNT Special Collection exhibition ends on Saturday, May 27.

Steve Brooks, a native and current resident of Oak Cliff, is the glue for the exhibition. He was personally commissioned by Nelson in the '70s and '80s for more than a decade, and he’s a proud Mean Green alumnus. More than 70 pieces of Brooks’ T-shirt and poster illustrations blanket the walls on the first and second floors of the gallery. Brooks’ weapon of choice is black pen. Most of his work for Nelson was simply for fun and not meant for resale — it was exclusively created for roadies, band members, family and Willie. Only around 15% of Brooks’ illustrations were ever used as promotional items; the majority were VIP T-shirts and ultimately used as backstage passes.

“[Willie] was a great client,” Brooks says. “He invited me to his place in Colorado to paint a teepee he had up there. He gave me a Jeep Grand Cherokee, keys to the guest house and told me to stay as long as I wanted. Three weeks later when I finished, Willie pulled out a stack of $100 dollar bills, started dealing them and told me to stop when the price was right,” Brooks says with a laugh. “That was a good gig.”

If the crowd is telling of the artist, then Steve Brooks is a hell of a guy. More than 20 ladies from the Sunset High School class of 1967, and even some from George Peabody Elementary School, packed the UNT gallery last week to celebrate their classmate. Brooks stood behind a podium and told stories about his body of work, which ranged from music posters to serving as art editor for the alternative weekly newspaper Iconoclast, for Buddy magazine and some advertising work for the original Gas Pipe location on Maple Avenue in Dallas. Brooks was an advertising design major at the then-named North Texas State University, now University of North Texas, and his work always bounced from music to commercial. Brooks created the Gas Pipe logo, its promotional calendars, matchbooks and advertisements for more than 20 years.

“I thought my old classmates were going to tease me about the way I made fun of them in grade school," Brooks says. "All those girls. I was just having fun, but I’d draw funny pictures of them in class. I was blown away at all the people that showed up.”

Another Willie historian, author Dave Dalton Thomas, is drinking a Lone Star beer in his garage when we connect on the phone. Willie was more of a smoker and not much of a beer drinker, but he had a good relationship with Lone Star for many years. If Willie claimed Lone Star as his beer of choice, they would keep the band stocked with longnecks.

Thomas is the author of a book about the Willie Nelson Picnic music festival. The book is done; he interviewed 170 people for it, and it’s at the printer. He expects to release it sometime in 2024. His Willie Nelson relationship and subsequent research started by chance. He was an editor with the San Angelo Standard-Times at the time he stopped at a bar in Luckenbach. Willie’s team was there hanging out. They had just inked the deal on a show and started a conversation with Thomas.
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A "Wanted" poster by Steve Brooks. If you want to know anything about Willie, you'll learn it this weekend in Denton.
Elvis Anderson

“My relationship with Willie Nelson and Family, which was Willie’s band, started there in Luckenbach," Thomas says. "I told them I worked with the San Angelo Standard-Times and Willie’s team asked if I could write an article about the upcoming show. Since then, I’ve interviewed Willie several times on his bus. Many times, Willie’s drummer, best friend and business manager, Paul English, would sit in the background and glare at me. He could be intimidating.”

Thomas’ book is one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic. He started it shortly after the shutdown and finished with more than 87,000 words two years later. The book goes into the history of the yearly event and digs into its essence, which is that the picnic is above all else a reunion of Willie’s friends and likeminded folks.

The early iterations of the festival were Texas to the core —  a three-day campout survival-of-the-fittest endurance battle against Texas heat in the Hill Country. Journalists didn’t write fondly about the early events, referring to them as the “Bataan death march” because it was considered unruly and dangerous. Country legends Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson were there for the first show, and it has since gone off in various locations around the country another 38 times.

The picnic in July will be Thomas’ 22nd, and he’s been to another dozen one-off gigs at venues all over Texas. He has fond memories of shows on Willie’s golf course in Briarcliff, Texas, others at Austin City Limits, the now closed Texas Hall of Fame in College Station and Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. He will share his fondest memories and offer insight into the contents of his book on May 21 at UNT. He credits Austin’s live music leader Tim O’Connor for helping fuel the book.

“I talked to a lot of people and the more you hear about Willie, the more you come to like him, but Steve [Brooks] and Tim [O’Connor] were huge helps, I couldn’t have written the book without them,” Thomas adds.

On Saturday morning, Brooks and Thomas will be at the University of North Texas CoLab, a half block from Denton’s Courthouse Square. It’s a rare opportunity for Willie Nelson fans to learn more about a Texas legend in the truest sense. If you go, take a moment to thank Brooks and Thomas for their efforts to collect and weave the tales of a country legend. All great stories are a team effort, and Willie couldn’t have done it without them.
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Elvis Anderson has written for the Observer since 2016. A music fan, he's an advocate for The Woody Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that improves the lives of the paralyzed.
Contact: Elvis Anderson

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