Even before his early-Seventies exile to Austin, Texas, Willie Hugh Nelson was an outlaw. As a member of Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys, Nelson tried to toe Nashville's staid and stuffy lines. But although his red hair was neatly shorn and he wore the de rigueur gaudy rhinestone suits, the power cats in Nashville didn't cotton to Willie's arrhythmic singing style. And they didn't much care for his helter-skelter personal life, either.

But Austin proved a fertile field for free-spirited Willie's wild and wicked ways. The writer of such country classics as "Crazy" and "Hello Walls" found kindred spirits aplenty in this progressive Texas town. He let his beard and hair grow. The glittery duds were traded in for jeans and ponchos. And he began cultivating the high-plains-drifter sound that so irritated his former Tennessee bosses. Austin was a rich mix of rednecks and hippies in 1971, and Willie found his growing audiences represented by almost equal numbers of each. It was the kind of mix Nelson liked.

He consummated his divorce from Music City in 1972 by shucking his affiliation with RCA and signing with Atlantic. His first two albums with this new label--Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages--featured the spare and romantic six-string ruminations that would become his trademark sound. A bit of money started coming in as his reputation and concert receipts grew. In 1973, he threw the first of his celebrated Fourth of July picnics. Austin was thriving as the mecca for wayward country souls, and no one had more soul than Willie Nelson.

In 1975, Nelson recorded Red-Headed Stranger for CBS Records. The celebrated number-one track from that breakthrough effort was "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," a 1945 ballad written by Fred Rose that launched Willie onto the pop charts and into the mainstream record-buying public. But Nelson wasn't content with mimicking past successes, and in 1978 he assembled Stardust, a rich array of Thirties and Forties pop standards. This gamble--opposed by the blue suits at his label--cemented Willie's reputation as an outlaw of the most creative and chance-taking kind.

Stardust earned Nelson millions of dollars, Grammy Awards, fancy cars and an open door to a big-screen career. Suddenly, Willie Nelson found himself at the side of the rich andMD120 famous. But he was still Willie. In the midst of his newfound wealth, he boasted about having smoked a "doobie" on the White House roof with an unnamed member of the Carter administration. Those were the kind of dichotomies he enjoyed.

His new fortune also allowed him the opportunity to spread the wealth around, something he'd always dreamed about. Those who'd stuck by Willie during those early lean-and-mean post-Nashville years were rewarded with houses, cars and cash. The press took notice of Willie's largess, yet for every garish Elvis-like gift it reported, there were a dozen acts of quiet generosity that never saw print. Benefit concerts for causes large and small were commonplace.

Never one to pore over ledgers or personally count concert receipts, Willie left the management of his financial affairs to outsiders--extending to them the same trust and loyalty he demanded of and gave to his own coterie. Now, this blind faith has placed Willie Nelson in a position he believed a part of the bad old days: singing for his survival.

By early 1990, Willie Nelson owed Uncle Sam some $32 million, later negotiated down to half that. So complicated are the circumstances involved that an easy summation is difficult. Simply "following the money," a la Woodward and Bernstein, leads to a rogue manager, accounting behemoth Price Waterhouse, the IRS and 1,000 bottomless pockets. Nelson himself has proved to be an unreachable source on the subject. Despite the appearance of a steady stream of supermarket-tabloid stories, Nelson refuses to be interviewed.

Perhaps the best chronicle of the disappearance of Willie Nelson's fortune is the exhaustive account by Robert Draper in the May 1991 issue of Texas Monthly magazine. Draper gained access to and the confidence of Willie and his extended "family." The portrait he paints is of a goodhearted, bona fide eccentric, damned as much by drunken-sailor-style spending, ruined marriages, assorted infidelities and an enormous entourage of money-sucking hangers-on as by the improprieties of those entrusted to handle his earnings. In bad times and good, Willie operated under the notion that you can't take it with you, habitually disbursing what he had as swiftly as

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Larry Crowley