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Backstage at Willie's Place

Written by , published September 19, 2008

Experience now tells me that no building can contain the legendary persona of Willie Nelson. I say this in spite of the fact that, when photographer Griff Smith and I idled backstage of the new Night Life Theater in Carl's Corner on I35E just north of Hillsboro, the space seemed big enough to handle most any event.

As we talked through the options for lighting the scheduled photograph of Nelson and his partners in the rebuilt and tricked-out Carl's Corner truck stop and performance venue, Griff and I were more concerned with whether we could get the stage lights set to illuminate back stage. It's the unofficial opening night of Willie's Place at Carl's Corner. There are no signs outside that identify the building, but Nelson has blessed a fundraiser for the Freddie Powers' Parkinson's Organization.

Out front, the 550-seat theater is packed. From backstage, I can see Coach Darrell Royal sitting right down front, smiling large as he talks with well-wishers and watching the fundraising auction that precedes Nelson's performance. Suddenly, we're surrounded by a swarm of folks and the room is packed beyond capacity. A human whirlpool swirls around the beatific star. Nelson is shaking hands, saying hello, then stopping to sign a just-auctioned guitar and chat with the instrument's buyer. With the help of some gentle nudging from Anderson and Hart, we get the group of five partners aligned for the photograph. Even though the crowd is well-behaved, it has a mind of its own and is constantly in motion, defying any serious attempt at organization or order. The star. apparently, wouldn't have it any other way. And that's one reason why no room is big enough for Willie. But this is Nelson's house, so his word is law.

The building officially is called Willie's Place at Carl's Corner, and, even though XM Radio has soundproofed its studio and is broadcasting the Willie's Place Channel 13 around the clock with Eddie Kilroy on the air every weekday morning, workers are still busy fine-tuning the venue for September's public debut. At a press conference before the public concerts of July 3, one writer asked Willie and Carl if the performance venue would be a problem for truckers trying to keep on schedule. Willie's answer, "Well, it should be better than when Carl ran a strip joint here."

We'll see.

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