Paul English, who played drums with Willie Nelson for more than 50 years, died Tuesday night after a recent bout with pneumonia. He was 87.
English died at a hospital near his home in Dallas with family members at his bedside, according to Nelson’s daughter, Amy.
Born Nov. 6, 1932, in the North Texas town of Vernon and raised in Fort Worth, English first drummed for Nelson on a Fort Worth radio show in 1955 and became his regular drummer in 1966. He’s best known to Nelson fans as the subject of the song "Me and Paul," which chronicled their lifetime of adventures together: "We received our education in the cities of the nation, me and Paul."
"If I were to tell a story," Nelson wrote in his 2015 memoir, "It’s a Long Story: My Life," "there was none better than the adventures of ‘Me and Paul,’ a song that described the road that my drummer and best friend, Paul English, and I had been riding together."
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Nelson performed Tuesday night in Savannah, Ga., and planned to proceed with a Wednesday night show in Melbourne, Fla., according to his publicist, Elaine Schock. Nelson’s next scheduled Austin-area performance is the annual Luck Reunion on March 19 at his ranch in Spicewood.
English’s brother, Billy, joined Nelson’s Family band in 1983 and has shared drums and percussion duties since, becoming increasingly involved in recent years. Paul suffered a minor stroke in 2010 and broke his hip in a 2013 bus crash, but he continued to tour with Nelson throughout the decade. He was part of Nelson’s most recent taping of the "Austin City Limits" TV program at ACL Live in November 2018.
"He always had our backs," said Amy Nelson, who knew English all of her life. "He was like the co-patriarch of our family. Nobody can fill Paul’s shoes, ever."
She recalled Paul’s keen fashion sense, including how he would show up at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic in "head-to-toe black, when it was 108 degrees, like he was not human. Nothing got in the way of his style and his class."
A 2015 article in Oxford American magazine by Wimberley author Joe Nick Patoski profiled English’s life and adventures with Willie extensively. English recounted to Patoski his memories of that fateful 1955 radio gig with Nelson: "Someone gave me a bass Salvation Army drum, and I hooked a pedal up to it and sat on a Coke box and managed to hook some bongo drums to the bass drum. They told me to just keep patting my foot."
Noting English’s reputation for run-ins with the law in his younger days, Patoski observed that "in the musical subgenre known as outlaw music, where country and rock have mixed it up ever since Waylon and Willie and the boys stepped forward, Paul English is that rare bird who really is an outlaw, a hoodlum-made-good as sideman."
Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert for American farmers that Nelson co-founded, issued a statement about English: "Paul gave his talent and passion to Farm Aid in every way since 1985. Paul English joined Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young as the first members of Farm Aid’s Board of Directors, and he served as Farm Aid’s treasurer for many years. He was a wholehearted champion for family farmers and Farm Aid."
English is the third member of Nelson’s storied Family band to die in the last 10 years, following bassist Bee Spears in 2011 and guitarist Jody Payne in 2013.
Tentative plans are in the works for a memorial event at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth in early March.