Paul English, Willie Nelson's longtime drummer, friend and a true country outlaw, dies at 87
English had been a full-time member of Nelson's band since 1966 and was also the inspiration for Willie Nelson's album 'Me & Paul'
The famed percussionist Paul English, one of Willie Nelson's longtime bandmates, collaborators and partners in crime, died at 87, according to a statement issued by the band's publicist on February 12. He was extremely close to Nelson, forging a relationship with the musician that lasted for over half a century.
English was known as the road boss of Willie’s traveling company, besides being his tour accountant, protector, collector and enforcer. Nelson has even acknowledged that English saved his skin many a time during their misadventures over the years. English himself was deeply indebted to Nelson for similar reasons. "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."
English had long been a mainstay of Nelson's recording and touring band, nicknamed the Family, since 1966, and had continued to collaborate on-and-off with him over the decades.
English also served as the inspiration for at least two songs written by Nelson, namely 'Me & Paul' and 'Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag'. Sample lyrics from the former include Nelson boasting about their escapades (of which they had plenty, from drug busts to airport fights), singing: "And at the airport in Milwaukee / They refused to let us board the plane at all / They said we looked suspicious / But I believe they like to pick on me and Paul."
English famously hailed from the old-timey school of hard knocks, and the "cowboy outlaw" had earned a reputation for his readiness to brandish a firearm and engage in skirmishes that made him the perfect wingman to the equally tough-as-nails Nelson. "Wild, street-smart Paul," Nelson observed, "who always had my back and got me out of more scrapes than I care to recall."
English was also a master of percussion, drumming on such classic albums such as 'Red Headed Stranger', 'Stardust' and, of course, 'Me & Paul', the 1985 album which featured numerous pictures of the two old musician friends on its back cover.
According to the Austin Chronicle, "Among the practitioners of the largely Texas-spawned 'outlaw country' movement, English stood as 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."
This fitted his no-nonsense boss man persona perfectly. With his beat-up drums, time-worn drum sticks, black goatee and an equally resplendent black cape, English struck quite a menacing figure, one you would think twice about double-crossing. That famous cape is now enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's 'Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring '70s' exhibit. Nelson further mythologized the legend and image of Paul by writing another song about him, titled 'Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag'.
As an important and integral contributor to Nelson's legendary musical output over the years and as one of the most talented, hard-nosed workers in the entertainment industry, English leaves behind major league cowboy boots that will be hard to fill. He was a true blue musical outlaw who will be sorely missed.