Willie Nelson Tarot
by Mistie Watkins
I used to pretend Willie Nelson was my grandfather. The daydream wasn’t to replace my grandfathers or because I wanted them to be different. See, when I was small, back when my family still called me their tiny tornado, I thought my grandfathers knew all the secrets of the world. My Poppee knew everything there was to know about practical matters–how to shape wood into something beautiful and lasting and how to coax sweet corn out of our thin Florida soil. My grandpa Judy knew everything there was about words and religion and how to navigate social situations and make everyone feel comfortable. And unlike my grandmothers, they seemed to enjoy my inability to sit still. They loved my endless questions. I hadn’t lost my place, and the world still made a certain kind of sense.
But I still liked to pretend Willie Nelson was somehow also my grandfather. His long red braids, which even when I was young had turned gray, were still a closer match for my own. His voice soothed me. I liked the way my daddy would sing along, almost like the words had been written down in his genetic code, as if he knew them without studying. As if the knowledge had been bred into his bones. I liked the way the stories in Willie’s songs made me feel–grounded and alone–like mud filling around my toes while standing in a warm rain.
Sometimes, after a good week, Daddy would swing Momma around the living room with enthusiastic rather than restless energy. He would sing “Always on My Mind” as they spun. And she would laugh—carefree and happy. The ruckus often preceded or followed silences. I measured my childhood by silences. Listened for them and tracked them like a barometer tracking storms. Willie Nelson and other outlaw country stars could signal a reprieve from or the beginning of silences and then angry outbursts, but I always welcomed the music.
In middle school, the questions my grandfathers had loved began to bring trouble. My teachers wanted me to be polite, follow directions, use my intelligence for good and God. My family said “tiny tornado” in a different tone than before. When my grandmother’s sister and husband, Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Jack, came to visit from Kentucky, he played bluegrass with my brother, both of them on guitars, and my grandfather played the harmonica—a rare occurrence. They played through the evening as fireflies and stars glowed across the pasture. Together they played “Wildwood Flower,” one of my favorites, and as soon as they finished, I asked for it again. My grandmother told me to shush, listen to my elders, to try for once, please, to be a nice girl.
Uncle Jack played “Red Headed Stranger” and “Highwaymen.” And Aunt Dorothy said, “I wouldn’t let Willie Nelson in the house, but you can’t say he didn’t make good.” I wanted to tell her that he wouldn’t want to go in her stupid old house anyway. Willie and I would be too busy brushing our horses and singing covers of all of our favorite songs and eating my Yankee mother’s biscuits, not Aunt Dorothy’s small, under-risen ones. Willie and I had a lot in common, like not being polite company.
It took me a while, but I learned slowly to be quieter. It helped that I learned how I didn’t quite belong. At school, I was poor and knew the definitions to more words than I could properly pronounce. At home, I read too much for the neighborhood kids, was too serious, and called soda pop sometimes. I longed to be comfortable in my own skin, and Willie Nelson seemed to be the epitome of giving zero fucks while still being sincerely excited about the things he loved–unapologetically authentic, I thought.
Too often apologies bubbled out of my mouth, even when I didn’t mean them. When my grandmother took my cat because she wanted the kittens, I dreamed I stole the cat and hid in the swamp until my grandparents left for Michigan. But in reality, I stood quietly and watched them drive away. I didn’t say anything. I had already been accused of being a baby and making things harder on Momma–a cardinal sin if there ever was one. So I bit the inside corner of my lip, the bottom one that was permanently fat from busting it open as an infant. My cat never came back home. A car hit her when she ran away from my grandmother. I didn’t cry in front of Momma after she told me the news, but later I had to apologize for walking away without saying anything. The wrong kind of silence could also be a sin.
I found myself cultivating my own silences and then interspersing them with more music, different genres for different moods. I went to a lot of concerts. I loved punk rock and hip-hop shows. The energy—frenetic and moving. The bass so loud it changed my heart beat. When the boy I had a crush on told me I would be the perfect girlfriend if I would just dumb it down, I listened to the 2 Skinnee J’s. I let their anger and rhythm transmute my embarrassment into disdain.
Willie’s shows were my favorite though—the crowd always a mixture of bikers, rednecks, cowboys, and blue-collar workers. Misfits one and all. And when my grandfather told me I was getting too big for my britches, that I needed to remember my place, that my endless nattering was too much, I listened to Willie Nelson. I sang “Pancho and Lefty” at the top of my lungs. I rode my horse for hours in the sugar sand, cantering around barrels and tunelessly humming “Still is Still Moving to Me.”
Old country, and more specifically Willie Nelson, wends through my life. A line I can follow, an emotional marker or guide, helping mark my progression from there to here. The music provides built-in narratives to help me begin processing. It accomplishes what my writing does, only easier because I’m following a path already blazed. It’s a personal and auditory tarot—different songs and moments create a Celtic-cross spread. I turn them over in my mind and tell myself the answers to my future.
These days, my daughter listens to Willie Nelson with me. She tells me, “I think you are the cowboy in the song. Always alone even with someone you love.” I hug her as tight as I can and try not to let any of my tears fall. She doesn’t say it with any recriminations, but the dancing around the living room stage of my marriage has ended and my silences stretch long, and I think back to bedtime when she would ask for “Seven Spanish Angels” and “Highwaymen.” Her father and I would sing them together and hold hands. But our love and the words to the songs couldn’t save us. I try to grasp the sweetness of these memories, hold them as tightly as I hold her, and when I feel maudlin and I’m alone, I sing “For the Good Times,” and my voice barely cracks. Being the cowboy has at least one upside.
I like to pretend Willie Nelson is my grandfather or maybe my godfather, teaching me classes in only giving the right amount of fucks and then only about the right things. I’ll watch him shrug in another interview, watch him say slowly, his Southern accent making his terse statement stretch long, “I don’t care.” I’ll practice the movements, pretend he’s standing behind me, hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eyes through the mirror. “Good girl,” I imagine him saying. “Just like that.” He directs me on what to keep and what to let go. He turns each card over and explains how it answers my query. He teaches me the trick of figuring out what matters and what doesn’t. I imagine him telling me, “This is the battle you need to stick around for, but this one.” He pauses and taps the card. “You can walk away from. Leave it to the bullies and the blowhards. And for the love of god, kiddo, stop apologizing. We don’t like their music anyways.”
About Mistie Watkins
Mistie Watkins is a writer and a painter from Central Florida. She has an insatiable curiosity about science and literature. She has been published in Fantastic Floridas and the Drunken Odyssey Podcast.