Paul English, who spent more than half a century as Willie Nelson’s drummer while gleefully serving as his gun-toting, de facto bodyguard, and who inspired the Nelson ballad “Me & Paul,” died Wednesday of pneumonia. He was 87.
Born in the West Texas town of Vernon during the squalor of the Great Depression, English became a full-time member of Nelson’s band in 1966, a role he played intermittently until his death. But the bond between the two began long before that.
English shared a stage with Nelson in Fort Worth honky-tonks as far back as 1955. As Rolling Stone noted Wednesday, English was “tough” and “flamboyant” and, like the “enforcer” on a hockey team, he reveled in the role of protecting Willie Nelson, no matter what the job required.
In a 2015 feature for Oxford American, biographer Joe Nick Patoski — whose Willie Nelson: An Epic Life was published in 2009 — described the times, and they were many, that English would engage in fistfights on the road, punctuating the fracas by pulling from his boot the .22-caliber pistol that had long been a staple of his footwear.
“If you’re writing songs about shooting people,” English’s son Paul Jr. told Patoski, “it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.”
In Oxford American, Patoski describes English as “the road boss of Willie’s traveling company, tour accountant, protector, collector and enforcer.”
“He’s saved my life,” Nelson said.
As the Austin Chronicle noted Wednesday: “Among the practitioners of the largely Texas-spawned ‘outlaw country’ movement, English stood as the realest of them all. Born near the Texas Panhandle in Vernon as Robert Paul English, he boasted a well-known criminal past as an oft-arrested street hustler and pimp on the underbelly of Fort Worth in the Fifties.”
It was a persona that went well with Nelson’s spearheading of the Cosmic Cowboy “outlaw” movement that electrified American music in the 1970s while enabling Austin to steal Nashville’s thunder as the epicenter of a new American sound.
English emerged as a supporting actor to Nelson’s superstar role in the ongoing drama. With scarred sticks pounding his scratched-up drums, English outfitted himself entirely in black and sported a menacing black goatee. He even wore a black cape that is enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s” exhibit. Nelson juiced up the image by writing yet another song about English, titled “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag.”
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” English, a former pimp and gang leader, told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I was running girls and playing music at the same time.”
The song “Me & Paul” documents the pair’s misadventures, from drug busts in Laredo to fights at the airport in Milwaukee. “They said we looked suspicious / But I believe they like to pick on me and Paul,” Nelson wrote.
In his 1988 autobiography, co-written with the late Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Nelson described English as a guardian and partner.
“Wild, street-smart Paul,” he wrote, “who always had my back and got me out of more scrapes than I care to recall.”
He was also a master of percussion, appearing as a fixture on such classic Nelson albums as Red Headed Stranger and Stardust and, of course, Me & Paul, a 1985 release whose back cover features a collage of portraits of the two old friends.
The website Pitchfork alluded Wednesday to a 2012 interview on The Paul Leslie Hour, in which English rhapsodized about the lessons he’d learned from his boss and lifelong friend. Nelson did nothing less than change his life, maybe even save it, English said, adding contritely, “I’ve learned benevolence and how to be peaceful."