Willie Nelson Wrote “Shotgun Willie” In A Bathroom On A Sanitary Napkin Made To Cover Toilets

Willie Nelson country music
Willie Nelson

I guess you never know when inspiration might strike…

And that’s certainly the case with Willie Nelson’s classic song “Shotgun Willie.”

Of course, it’s the iconic title track to his 16th studio album that was released in 1973, and was recorded soon after he left his former label, RCA Records, and hired a new manager in Neil Reshen. Ultimately, Willie decided to move to Austin, Texas and continue his music career there, where he also became the first country artist to sign with Atlantic Records.

Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler gave Willie an incredible amount of artistic freedom, and really encouraged him to do whatever he wanted. That’s about as equally rare now as it was back then, so to say it was a huge opportunity for the red headed stranger to really prove himself would be a massive understatement.

In his 2015 memoir It’s a Long Story: My Life, Willie recalled Wexler encouraging him to go as far out there as he wanted with the music, which he appreciated, but knew that meant he was going to have to produce and put his money where his mouth was, so to speak.

And yeah, he found inspiration in quite an unusual place… the bathroom of his hotel, where he wrote the song on a sanitary napkin made to cover toilets:

“I liked the words, but I also felt the pressure. I needed at least two or three new songs to justify Wexler’s faith in me. I needed to come up with something quick.

That night at the hotel I was in the bathroom, worrying about whether I could produce some great new song, when I noticed a dispenser for sanitary napkin bags next to the toilet. I took one out, got a pencil out of my pocket, and started scribbling whatever nonsense came to mind.

The words came tumbling out.”

I can only think of the most vulgar jokes to make about that whole situation, but I’ll spare you on this Monday afternoon…

Willie explained that he kind of thought it would be a flop when he first started writing it, fearing that that the words for “Shotgun Willie” would only make sense to him:

“Wasn’t much more than a variation on a twelve-bar blues. I figured the words wouldn’t make much sense to anyone except me. Started out with my remembering that crazy day at the farm when I grabbed my shotgun and took aim at my daughter Lana’s husband.

The second verse was just me stalling for time till I could figure out something for that third verse. And the third verse was me remembering John T. Floore, owner of a honky-tonk dance hall outside San Antone, who, in his misspent youth, had supplied the Klan with sheets.

When I sang the song for Wexler, I was certain he’d think I was nuts. ‘I think you’re brilliant!’ Jerry enthused. ‘Let’s cut it. Lay down another bunch of songs and we’ll call the record ‘Shotgun Willie.'”

After that, Willie was off to the races cranking out one hit after another for his new project. He was able to relax and hone in on his creativity because of the freedom Wexler gave him and the time he had to really figure it out:

“Wexler’s attitude really pumped me up. I cranked out songs, one after another. The atmosphere was right.

Whereas Nashville had always been uptight about musicians smoking dope in the studio, Atlantic didn’t give a shit. Wexler got high with us. Wexler never bugged me to put on sweeteners to stimulate sales. I felt free to tap into my imagination, no holds barred.”

While the album surprisingly only peaked at #41 on the U.S. Top Country Albums chart and in spite of poor sales upon release day, Shotgun Willie received much critical acclaim and garnered him major recognition with a younger audience.

It was also one of the first true outlaw country records and has remained a fan-favorite to this day. And of course, “Shotgun Willie” stuck as a nickname and was inspired by a true story, which you’ll want to read about here.

I think some of the best country songs have some of the wildest stories behind him, though most of them are no match for the one and only Willie Nelson.

Here’s Willie singin’ “Shotgun Willie” at Austin City Limits (the show he helped launch) back in 1981:

“Shotgun Willie”

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock