The Fan: How Darrell Royal, and his friendship with Willie Nelson, shaped Austin music
This story originally appeared on June 25, 2011.
The party was far from over in a room across the courtyard of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center in March, but the namesake of this Darrell K Royal Songwriters Homecoming sat in an otherwise empty amphitheater with his wife, Edith. Everyone at the party wanted to say hi to the iconic Texas football coach, who will be 87 on July 6, so he escaped to save his strength for the music. He sat there, third row center, staring at the stage full of guitars, and smiled. Soon such top flight singer-songwriters as Don Schlitz ("The Gambler"), Mike Reid ("I Can't Make You Love Me") and Larry Gatlin ("All the Gold in California") would be performing the sort of touching songs that have long provided a sanctuary for the coach who is also the fan.
Royal's "pickin' parties," where such artists as Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Mickey Newbury, Red Lane, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge would pass around guitars and play to enrapt audiences until the sun came up, helped establish Austin as a town where music was respected as more than pleasing background noise.
"We used to call them 'red light parties,' " said Gatlin, who met Royal in 1973. "Darrell would have a red light in the room where we'd play and if you were in the audience talking or making any noise, the light would go on." The message was simple and unyielding: Listen or leave. Even whispering was not tolerated.
"What Coach loved to do more than anything else in the world was to sit around and listen to a bunch of songwriters sing sad songs," Nelson told Third Coast Magazine in 1986. The old Villa Capri was a favorite spot of these "guitar pulls," as was Royal's suite after bowl games and his charity golf tournaments.
"Darrell's a words man," said Gatlin, who's played golf with Royal twice when the coach shot his age — at 72 and 78. "He really listens to lyrics, which is why he became such a Willie Nelson fan."
There's a good chance that without the support of Royal, Nelson might not have moved in 1973 to Austin, where he spearheaded the outlaw country movement.
Willie and the coach go back to the late '50s, when Royal, hired to coach the Longhorns in 1957 at age 32, never missed a country music package show at the old City Coliseum. Headlined by the likes of Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and George Jones, the shows often found Nelson, a hit songwriter whose jazz phrasing kept him off country radio, way down on the bill.
"I just bought my ticket and sat out in the audience, and no one paid any attention if I was coming or going," Royal told Third Coast writer Brad Buchholz (who now writes for the Statesman). "But then we won some football games, and I guess I became more visible." Soon, the promoters were bringing the young coach and his wife back to meet the performers.
They hit it off instantly with Nelson and often caught his club gigs at Big G's in Round Rock and the Skyline Club and the Broken Spoke in Austin.
It wasn't until 1967, however, that Royal became a full-fledged Willie-phile. The Longhorns football team stayed at the old Holiday Inn in North Austin on the nights before home games, and it just so happened that one Friday, Nelson and his band were at the same hotel.
Nelson left a message at the front desk, letting Royal know what room he was in, and the coach popped in for a visit before a team meeting. As Royal was leaving, Willie gave him a copy of "The Party's Over," an album he'd just cut. "To Darrell Royal, one of country music's best friends," Willie signed it.
"So I took the album home and listened to it alone, where I could really listen to it," Royal told Buchholz. "I became a real Willie fan right then, as soon as I took the time to really listen." Royal played the album for everyone he could. This Willie Nelson guy, he'd say, is really something special.
Royal invited Nelson to play concerts for the team before three consecutive Cotton Bowl appearances, which included a defeat of Tennessee in the Jan. 1, 1969, Cotton Bowl, a win against Notre Dame the next New Year's Day, which cemented the 1969 national championship, and a 1971 loss to the Fighting Irish.
At a guitar pull following the Longhorns' 1973 Cotton Bowl victory over Alabama, Royal introduced Nelson to a young harmonica player he'd seen play with B.W. Stevenson. And Mickey Raphael has been with Nelson ever since.
Royal's love of country music goes back to his boyhood in Hollis, Okla., where he would escape the Great Depression by spending hours in the garage listening to Jimmie Rodgers, the Chuckwagon Gang and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys on his brother's radio. Well-worded country songs always take him back to that time and place, he has said.
"The big appeal of country music," Royal told the Alcalde student magazine in 1969, "is the simplicity and honesty of it. All the songs are about some ol' boy who's down on his luck or made a mistake he's gonna have to pay for. Things that have happened to all of us at one time or another."
In the late '40s, when he played quarterback and defensive back for the Oklahoma Sooners under Bud Wilkinson, football became his focus. But Royal would always kick back with some ol' Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb after the games.
Royal retired from coaching football in 1976, with three national championships, because it was doing the same thing year after year with different groups of young men. The wins became expected and the losses hurt too much. But his love of moving words and melodies and the people who create them has never wavered.
"Darrell will do anything for you," said Gatlin. "He drove me to rehab in December 1984 and saved my life." Nelson echoes the sentiment. "The coach has done an awful lot for me," Nelson said in 1986. "He's a part of the family as far as I'm concerned."
When Nelson's house near Nashville burned down and was being rebuilt in 1971, Royal decided to throw a private Nelson concert to raise money to pay Nelson's band, which was off the road and living in Bandera. Royal rented the Back Door, a joint behind Cisco's Bakery, and charged $25 a couple, a huge amount back then. Nelson was astonished that the show sold out.
What's more, the audience was pin-drop quiet when Nelson sang. Coach Royal, then the most prominent man in Austin next to Lyndon B. Johnson, made sure of that.
Texas "got" Nelson, especially Austin. It was where he needed to be.
There was pressure from UT officials for the clean-cut Royal, who forbid his players from even wearing sideburns, to distance himself from the dope-smoking longhair who got the hippies and rednecks together at the Armadillo World Headquarters. But the coach wouldn't hear of it. He saw the giving side of Nelson, who never smoked marijuana around Royal during his coaching days.
Royal had a satisfying smile a few years later when, after "Red Headed Stranger" and "Stardust" made Nelson an international superstar, the same UT officials asked Royal if he could get Nelson's autograph for them. "I don't know him that well," Royal told them, coldly, according to the book "Conversations With a Texas Football Legend."
Soon after Nelson and Family arrived in Austin for good in 1973, tragedy hit the Royals. Daughter Miriam, an aspiring artist, was killed in a bus accident.
Nelson showed up at their house to try to console his friends Darrell and Edith, but couldn't find the words until he played the song "Healing Hands of Time." Nelson would sing the song, Darrell's favorite, to help comfort the Royals nine years later when their son David, a musician, died in a motorcycle accident.
Royal is in failing health and was not up for an interview, but his favorite moment after he retired from coaching was no doubt from his magic listening parties. Imagine the thrill for a music fan to have Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Charlie Rich singing "Why Me" in his living room one Sunday at dawn after an all-nighter.
Football and music. Golf and music. Words and music. With songs finding a home in his heart, there's always been harmony in the remarkable life of the kid from Hollis who grew up to be a Texas football legend.