Ladies and gentlemen, it’s our great pleasure to welcome our special guest on this episode of The Paul Leslie Hour, Mr. Billy English. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you Paul. It’s an honor to speak with you today.
The pleasure is all mine. So I want to kind of go back a little bit. What was life like growing up in your house?
Lots of music. My brother, Paul, has been with Willie Nelson for 45 years. Early on he played trumpet. We had an older brother, the oldest, and uh, Oliver. He was a utility guy. He played many instruments but his primary instrument was guitar so he was a guitar teacher. There was a lot of music in our house all the time, lots of celebrations. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas we had so many cousins that play, we would, you know, it would always turned into a jam session (laughs). And also, my oldest brother would take me to jam sessions that he would have with his friends. He started me out on guitar and that was my primary instrument in the beginning because, since he was guitar teacher, he wanted to teach me theory. It was a great education for me. And he also helped Paul with trumpet and Paul took trumpet lessons. So, although Paul and I are both drummers, neither one of us started out as drums being our primary instrument (laughs). Suffice it to say, there was a lot of music around our house.
Now, your parents – were they encouraging of you all being into music?
Absolutely. They would have supported anything that, any career path we would have chosen, I’m sure. They were not professional musicians. Our dad did play, uh, guitar in church – just rhythm guitar at church. We were raised Pentecostal. We were very avid church-goers. They would have supported us no matter, uh, which career, like I said, we would had chosen.
The music playing around the house on the radio or what have you – what kind of music was that?
A lot of it was country and gospel.
So how did you get interested in percussion?
In school. Around middle school I had a great music teacher, Mr. Pearce, at William James Junior High School in Fort Worth, Texas where I grew up. I was already playing guitar. He had several bands, a select string group. I played guitar in that. I just took up the drums, I think just because they needed someone in the percussion section and I was interested. And so when I started out in junior high school, they would alternate you. One day you would play bass drum, one day you would play orchestral snare, another day you would play auxiliary percussion, you know, triangle, shaker, so forth. And then I got more interested in it so I joined the marching band. So that’s how I got interested in drums and I only took a few private lessons so, as far as drum-wise, I’m pretty much self-taught. But that’s, that’s about the time in my life that I really became serious about drums – around middle school.
How did you become acquainted, the first time you became exposed to this gentleman, Willie Nelson?
You know what? I don’t remember the first time because I was so young, because my brother has been with him – well, consistently for the last 45 years but he has known him and been in contact with him longer than that. But I would go to some of their shows when I was just very young. Whenever I was about 20 years old, that was the first time that I ever had the opportunity and honor of playing with Willie. But no one really knew who he was. He was writing hit songs, but for other artists. And Paul was doing everything on the road. He booked the gigs, collected the money, drove the station wagon – there were six of us. That’s when I was, I was really exposed to Willie, whenever I had the, uh, opportunity to travel with him. I did play drums on a good part of the show then because Paul was collecting the money and handling so much of the business end of it. He did everything, in fact. But I don’t recall our very first meeting but I was very, very young.
How did you come to become a touring member of Willie Nelson’s band? And what is it like being a member of the band?
The way it came about was I was playing drums for an evangelist out of Fort Worth, Texas named Kenneth Copeland. He had a large band, like a huge swing bang, but all the songs, of course, had gospel lyrics and gospel messages. And, uh, he was a singer. Plus, he would bring in guest singers as well. Well, I had been working with him and traveling with him for about four years. And Paul called me one day and said that his drum tech had left, had quit – that’s the gentleman that sets up the drums for Paul – and he asked me if I would be interested in doing that for him. And I said ‘I would love to do that.’ Because Paul is considerably older than me so, uh, by the time I got old enough to know him, you know, he had already left the nest, so to speak. So this was an opportunity for me to travel on the road with my brother, ride on the same bus, set up the drums for him. It was a wonderful experience and I think, because up to that point all I had ever done, all I had ever known up to that point, was music and playing. And so I think he knew that I wouldn’t stick around forever unless I got to play some (laughs). And he was so gracious, he said, well – ‘cause I was hired, like I said, just to, just to set up the drums. So I was setting up the drums, loading the truck, and I, you know, I got roadie’s pay – and still very, very good pay – but that’s how it started. And he, to keep me around I think, he was gracious enough to say ‘Why don’t you integrate some percussion into our show?’ And Willie said it was OK to do so. And so I started playing some bongos, some triangles, some shakers, wind chimes, things of that nature. And then as it progressed, Paul, being the gracious wonderful brother that he is, he allowed me to play a few songs on drums. So we started switching off and he would play percussion on a few songs and I would play drums on a few songs. And as far as what it’s like? It’s wonderful. It’s still a hard life because we live on the bus. You know, we go to the venue early in the day and we don’t play sometimes ‘til very late. But tonight, for example, is the sixth consecutive one-nighter that we’ve done and we’ve done some fairly high mileage. A couple of, over 500 miles per night and played the next day. So, it’s not easy but it’s all worth it for that hour-and-a-half on stage that you get to play with Willie Nelson and for his adoring fans. So it’s all worth it for that and it’s wonderful to be able to travel with my brother.
You mentioned a lot of percussion instruments there. You said bongos, triangles. With all the different kinds of percussion that you play, have there been drummers or percussionists that have influenced your style?
Well, I just listen to all types of music. A lot of my favorite drummers – some of my favorite drummers are also great percussionists. Alex Acuña, for example. He’s world renowned as a percussionist but he’s also a great drummer. There are a lot of professional, uh, percussionists like that, that people aren’t aware of, that are terrific drummers. And I listen to all sorts of music as far a drummers – Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Smith, Stanton Moore. Stanton Moore is a friend of mine, just a fantastic drummer from New Orleans. But every time I listen to any, any song I’m always analyzing the rhythm section – the percussion as well as the bass part and the drum groove.
You’ve played with other musicians and other bands. Is playing with Willie Nelson – is it a different experience in terms of what is expected when you’re playing percussion?
It is. Willie is a very trusting individual and he – although the stage is his domain. He does dictate what goes on the stage. You know, that’s the one place that’s his area. He is kind enough to leave it up to our musical discrepancy to be professional enough to listen to the song and play, emotionally, what’s musically appropriate for the song. And a lot of times, with some artist, you don’t have that freedom. And if Willie does want something changed, he’s not specific, musically specific, about it. He may say ‘That sounds really good but can you simplify it a bit?’ So he is different in that way but it’s in a very good way, you know? He trust you. If you’re on that stage with him then he trusts you.
Have you recorded with Willie Nelson in the studio?
I have but it’s been awhile. Yeah, he has, uh, a studio in Spotswood, I don’t know, 30 or 35 miles outside of Austin. That’s where his golf course is and recording studio. Well, actually I recorded with him before I started working with him. I don’t remember when I got the call but Paul called me and said ‘Do you want to play on this album with us?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ And it was Red Headed Stanger and it was way before Willie had his studio. It was at Autumn Sound in Garland, Texas, near Dallas. That was Willie’s – technically, his second million-seller in country music period. The first one was the Outlaw album. I believe that’s correct. But for Willie, that was his – just Willie, as an artist – that was his first platinum album. That was done, like I said, at Autumn Sound in Garland, Texas. But we have done a few recordings in his studio and at the Pedernales over the years. We just haven’t done any in the last few years.
When you’re performing, is there a Willie Nelson song that is most meaningful to you?
That is most meaningful for me? That’s a terrific question. He’s such a great writer. There are a lot of songs that he has written that the public is not aware of. Actually, my favorite Willie Nelson song we don’t do on stage but it’s a, to me, a timeless song and it’s called Will You Remember Mine?. Like I said, it’s timeless. It’s something about ‘when you hold’ – now, after they have broken up – ‘Now when you hold another’s hand will you think of mine? When you kiss another’s lips will you think of mine? Will you remember mine?’ Excuse me, which is the name of the song, Will You Remember Mine? That is actually my favorite Willie Nelson song. It really, really touches me and I feel that it’s just timeless.
One of the interesting things about this program for me is as I’ve been talking to, like, Mickey Raphael and your brother, Paul English, they’ve told me a lot of interesting stories about people that you’ve met on the road. You get the opportunity to meet people that most people maybe would never get to meet. Leon Russell. Ray Price. Those are some of the people I’ve heard about. Who have you met through performing with Willie Nelson that has been especially memorable for you?
Oh, another great question (laughs). If I have to narrow it down to one, actually Ray Price would definitely be near the top of my list. I’d say Merle Haggard also. Merle has always been one of my heroes. We did a tour not that long ago called Last of the Breed and it consisted of Ray Price and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I just thought it was just one of the greatest tours that I’ve ever had the honor to be part of. So I would probably say Merle – Merle Haggard.
This was a tough question for Mickey Raphael to answer but he had a really good story for us so I’m going to ask you the same question. What has been the most memorable story that you have from performing with Willie Nelson and the Family Band?
I think, to me, one of the most memorable stories would be when we were asked to play for Jimmy Carter whenever he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This is kind of on the serious side but it, it stands out in my memory. We flew to Oslo, Norway. There was Santana – there were about a half-dozen more acts – but he and Willie have had a good relationship over the years. It’s pretty common knowledge. That night that we played for Jimmy Carter receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Willie called Jimmy Cater out on the stage just before we played a note and he said ‘Here’s a song that I’d like to do for a very close friend of mine.’ And he just put his hand on Jimmy Carter’s shoulder – in fact, he hugged him – and then he turned to the mic and sang Georgia and there was not a dry eye in the house. It was a very – I mean, including myself. It was a very touching, moving moment. And we had a friend of ours that’s Norwegian and he translated the newspaper for us the next day, and it said that that was the highlight of the evening. That was quite an honor and it, it stands out in my memory still today. Thank you.
Would you believe I was going to ask you about that? Because I had seen a YouTube video of Jimmy Carter playing harmonica – I don’t know which gig this was but it was Jimmy Carter playing with Willie Nelson. This might have been in Atlanta.
Well, a few years back we played on the steps of his – I think it was his high school. Yeah, that, that may have been it. I don’t know. That was kind of fun, too (laughs).
What is the best thing about being Billy English?
The best thing about being Billy English – I get to, I get to travel with two of my heroes, Paul English and Willie Nelson. And I get to play music for fans almost all over the world. And I get to meet wonderful people, establish great friendships everywhere I go. It’s just an honor to play with Willie. I mean, he is a legend and I’m very fortunate to be here and I know it. It makes me smile. It makes me happy (laughs).
For my last question – our special guest has been Billy English – we have listeners all over the place, thanks to the power of the internet. What would you like to say to all the folks who are listening in?
I would just like to say thank you for supporting Willie and the Family over the years. It’s brought great pleasure and joy to all of us, the entire band, to make music that they enjoy and that we enjoy playing. So I would just like to say thank you.
Mr. English, I appreciate very much this in-depth look at what it is that you do, and your time. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Well, the honor was mine, Paul. Thank you very much.
Well, have a good show tonight.
Thank you. Looking forward to it.
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.