But there were quite a few that I’d never heard before, notably from his very early years when he was still very much a struggling musician trying to figure out how, and where, he was going to “make it,” so to speak.
After being medically discharged from the Air Force in 1951, Willie started working as a radio DJ and enjoyed doing so, as he could play whatever music he wanted. He noted that he felt like he was on the cutting edge of a new movement, especially with the rising popularity of rock and roll, and he had a renewed sense of hope in the future of music.
In 1952, during his time as a DJ, Willie pulled up to a burger place, where a car hop in “a halter top and cut off jeans” took his order. As he recalls it:
“She was a dark-haired beauty, a full-blooded Cherokee. Her eyes set my soul on fire, and her name was Martha Jewel.”
They became fast friends, and after dating for a little while, they ran off and got married in October of 1952. Martha explained that her parents didn’t know anything about it (she was 16 and Willie was 19), because her mother didn’t want her to get married so young.
They kind of drifted around America as newlyweds, which was fun, but they were both drinking a lot and fought quite a bit too, Willie explained:
“We had a lot of fun together but we fought, and we both were drinking a lot in those days.”
And I’ve heard of couples throwing dishes and things of that nature at the wall, or even at their significant other, during a bad fight, but what happened between Willie and Martha tops any of that…
Willie says that one morning, they got into a pretty heated argument, and Martha picked up a fork, threw it across the table, and it wound up getting STUCK in his side.
He remarked that it sounded like a “tuning fork” when it stuck the landing:
“One morning we got in this argument, and she picked up this fork and threw it across the table and it stuck in my side.
It sounded like a tuning fork.”
I can’t even imagine how hard she had to throw that fork to make it stick into his side, but Martha’s also the wife who tied Willie up with jump ropes and “beat the hell out of him,” so it sounds like she wasn’t one to mess with.
After a devastating tornado ripped through Waco in 1953, wiping out much of the town, Willie decided it was time to leave town.
He’d been drinking beer at a place called Jim’s Tavern with a friend when it came through, and it was enough to have scared him half to death and gave him a real wake up call.
He packed up Martha and his daughter Lana, and they moved to Washington state, where they were also added to the family with their second child, Susie.
Willie convinced local station KVAN, which served the Portland and Vancouver areas, to play his song “No Place For Me” which was distributed by Starday Records. It made a little noise in Texas, but not enough for him to make any real money off of.
Eventually, the family went back to Texas, where Willie played clubs around Fort Worth and Martha worked as a waitress. The were struggling, so when the opportunity came up for Willie to sell Claude Gray his song “Family Bible,” he did so for $50.
After it became a Top 10 hit at country radio, Willie worked up the confidence to move to Nashville in 1960, and the rest, as they say, is history.
You can check out the docuseries trailer below, and I’d highly recommend watching it in-full. It’s an incredible look into some never-before-seen footage of him too, as Willie gave the directors unprecedented access to his personal archives.