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Sounds like a country song: Willie Nelson and the Virginia concert that never was

Sounds like a country song: Willie Nelson and the Virginia concert that never was

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Willie Nelson was a familiar face to live music fans in Southwest Virginia in the 1970s, a time when the singer-songwriter was reaching a commercial peak as part of country music’s “outlaw” movement.

Amid heavy album sales and numerous awards, Nelson had played the building now known as Berglund Center in Roanoke on several occasions late in the decade, an era that included his recognition as Entertainer of the Year from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.

By this time, the enterprising Donald “Whitey” Taylor had taken over the Franklin County Speedway. And he had more in mind for his business than simply hosting minor-league stock car drivers as they chased each other around his ⅜-mile oval in Franklin's Callaway community.

A native of the Dickenson County town of Haysi, Taylor gave as good as he got at Franklin Board of Supervisors meetings, where he often answered residents’ and even supervisors’ complaints that his track was a loud, crowded, aggravating nuisance. In a recent conversation, he reminisced about one such meeting from the late 1970s.

“I told them that we might even have people like Willie Nelson [performing there], and they laughed,” Taylor recalled. “I said good. I’m glad they laughed. I already had him signed when they laughed.”

The track owner had indeed booked Nelson, as well as Johnny Paycheck as the opening act, for a two-day show scheduled for August 1980. They would top a bill that featured multiple local acts at an event Taylor billed as the Great Southeastern Music Festival.

By the time Taylor’s experiment with music festival promotion ended, few were laughing.

Nelson (whose "On the Road Again" would soon rise up the charts) and Paycheck (of "Take This Job and Shove It" fame) each canceled his appearance there, the day before the festival was to begin. Nelson’s manager claimed that the Franklin sheriff vowed to arrest Nelson if he drank onstage. Paycheck claimed that his advance check had bounced.

Taylor, who envisioned something like Woodstock but featuring country performers, came closer to having a tragic Altamont episode on his hands.

A few hundred fans who showed up early to camp and make merry near the speedway were angered at the news and threatened to riot. A few of them burned down a barn next to the speedway. But local and state deputies – and Taylor’s lawyer, Jeffrey Krasnow – settled the crowd.

“It was a real adventure in a lot of ways, and crazy,” renowned sports biographer Roland Lazenby, then a young police reporter for The Roanoke Times, said in a recent interview.

***

Things got interesting in earnest after Taylor received a festival permit. By April 1980, a group of Callaway residents was agitating at Board of Supervisors meetings for the permit to be revoked.

One resident, the Rev. Dave Snead, recalled the Stompin' 76 bluegrass festival, held in Carroll County, for a comparison.

“We’re going to protect our homes from being vandalized, our churches from being pilfered ... our daughters from being raped,” Snead told the board, according to a Roanoke Times account. He said citizens would form a “shotgun brigade.”

Taylor told a reporter then that he appreciated the attention his festival was getting.

“I should call him Brother Snead, for all he’s done for me,” Taylor said. The preacher had “turned a little thing into something big.”

In mid-June, the supervisors declined the request to revoke the permit, with one of them, future Danville Judge David Melesco, saying of Taylor: “Let’s give the devil his due. ... Regretfully, he is doing everything we’ve asked him to do.”

That included 140 acres Taylor had rented for parking, with tractors pulling flatbeds for shuttle service. Taylor erected what he remembered as about a mile of 6-foot-tall fencing to prevent gate-crashers. Local deputies, state police and National Guard officers would be there to provide protection, with the Franklin Rescue Squad on site to tend to any illness or injury, Taylor told the supervisors.

Perhaps most important, he would install 200 outdoor toilets around the speedway.

All this for 15,000 fans. Or maybe it would be 80,000 – or even 115,000 – Taylor later decided, even if authorities put the speedway's capacity around 20,000. People from at least 18 states bought advance tickets at $20 to $40 as the concert, scheduled for Aug. 9-10, drew near. 

***

Now and for decades before, Willie Nelson's name was more synonymous with marijuana – he even has his own brand of legal weed. But in the 1970s, he was better known as a drinker (though he would quit booze by decade’s end).

Franklin Sheriff W.Q. “Quint” Overton, in a pre-festival interview with The Roanoke Times, said he would enforce laws against public drinking if Nelson drank onstage – and that he would enforce it among audience members, too. Taylor had no alcohol license for his venue.

According to newspaper reports, that notion put a chill on Nelson’s itinerary. On Friday, Aug. 8 – the night before the festival was to begin – Nelson held a concert in Milwaukee. His manager, Mark Rothbaum, notified reporters that Nelson’s appearance in Callaway was off.

“Willie believed going forward would jeopardize the safety and enjoyment of fans, the band and other musicians,” Rothbaum said at the time, in a call from his office in Danbury, Conn. Rothbaum specifically cited Overton’s comments, saying Nelson had never encountered such "official hostility."

That Friday, Roanoke Times reporters tried to reach Nelson in Milwaukee. Speaking from a backstage telephone, a member of his entourage told a reporter that the cancellation was due to "an unfriendly sheriff."

Troubles compounded as Paycheck canceled, with his Nashville, Tenn., booking agent saying the singer's $10,000 advance check had bounced.

All that was left on the festival bill were a handful of relatively unknown local and regional acts.

Taylor learned of Nelson’s cancellation from the newspaper reporters.

“It’s dirty and lowdown, about as low as you can get,” he told them. “If he was going to cancel, he should have did it two weeks ago, so I could tell everybody.”

At the time, Taylor was also angry with Overton.

“The sheriff’s screwed me out of this, saying he’s going to do this and that,” Taylor said.

Lazenby, the police reporter, remembered that he drew the weekend assignment specifically because of the threat of arrests. It was still daylight on Friday when he arrived at the speedway, and the tension was building.

Lazenby joined Taylor and his associates in the track's press box, and he listened as they tried to figure out how to save the Great Southeastern Music Festival. In his recent interview, he could still remember the lead of his story that appeared Saturday morning on what would have been the festival's opening day.

“So their first big idea was, we’ll put somebody on stage in a beard and have them mouth the lyrics,” recalled Lazenby, now known for biographies of such basketball greats as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. “There’s about 15 to 30 seconds where they’re all like, yeah. Then they’re all like, no, we can’t do that.

"It was a funny moment, but there was a lot of tension," Lazenby said. "It was not a crowd that wanted to be trifled with.”

***

That much was clear as the barn blazed nearby. A second newspaper account that day included a photo of the barn on fire.

Another photo was shot from above and behind Taylor’s lawyer, Krasnow. He was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, telling a group of people that their tickets would be refunded.

“The morning when that came out, I realized how bald I was,” Krasnow, then 33, said recently. “I knew I was losing hair, but I had never seen that view of me before, let’s put it that way.”

He knew for sure that his words would be important. 

“My client had assured me that everybody would get their money back, and I was trying to convey that assurance to some very disappointed fans,” Krasnow recalled. “Folks were obviously very, very disappointed, and obviously a lot of time had passed. But I don’t recall anyone being extremely irate or even being close to losing control. They seemed to take the assurances that I was giving them that everybody would get their money back, and as far as I know, they did.”

Wayne Deel, then a photographer with The Roanoke Times, remembered the overall scene. Taylor had leased some of the land around the track for camping, and newspaper accounts said there were about 300 people there. (These days, Taylor said he remembers more than 1,000 on the grounds.)

“We had a farm full of crazy-ass hippies, with drinking and partying and smoking pot and having a good time and making music themselves,” Deel said. “Tempers went up when they realized they weren’t going to see Willie. That was more important to them than Johnny Paycheck.

"But [authorities] did come in and do a nice job of calming it down. They said, we’ll go ahead and let you guys do what you wanna do while you’re here. Just have a good time, you know.”

There would be no arrests for drinking on that day, Deel said.

“This woman walked up and asked, 'Who are you shooting pictures for?’ " said Deel, now a hazmat specialist for an Orlando, Fla., hospital. “She said, ‘I’ll give you something to shoot a picture of.’ And she took her T-shirt, pulled it completely over her head and exposed her breasts to me.

"So that’s the kind of crowd you had going by the time the cops and [Krasnow] got everybody calmed down," Deel said. "I don’t remember any other violence than a barn-burning, and a good barn-burning every now and then is not too bad, you know.”

Authorities would charge three people with arson.

From there, Lazenby and Deel had a less stressful time of reporting.

“They’ve just gotten this news that Willie’s not coming,” Lazenby said of Taylor and his shocked crew. “I don’t know if Willie was ever coming. That’s the part of it that none of us will ever know. I do know that they had his personalized jug of moonshine. It wasn’t a real big one. But he didn’t come, so they gave it to me.”

***

Regardless of whether Nelson ever planned to come, there was a contract, and Taylor had apparently paid the country star $57,000 for his appearance.

Taylor filed a $12 million lawsuit against Nelson and Paycheck, kicking off a six-year legal odyssey that included a failed arbitration with Nelson’s union (the American Federation of Musicians) and federal court filings that were ultimately dismissed.

Taylor said he got back his performance fee, but he spent $500,000 on festival preparation and legal fees. (A judge dropped Paycheck from the suit after the performer filed for bankruptcy.)

Taylor never blamed Nelson personally, instead casting aspersions on the performer’s team, including a “New York lawyer” who Taylor said was pulling the strings. He now says Overton never really intended to arrest Nelson – and that the county had assured the star of that fact.

“I like Willie, but when you portray yourself as the outlaw and the law challenges you and you back down, you’re not an outlaw,” Taylor said.

Nelson faced the law multiple times in the ensuing years, with tax agents and narcotics police holding him to account. He emerged from those issues with a devoted following and a well-earned place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He still tours, and in 2017, he played at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center.

Overton, the sheriff in the 1970s, did not return a request for comment made through his son and current Franklin Sheriff Bill Overton. When the son heard that Nelson was going to play Rocky Mount several years ago, he had an interesting thought for his father.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could get you to come meet him, after all these years, and have you introduce him onstage?” Bill Overton said. “It didn’t work out that way, but it would have been really great.”

To read the old stories, Quint Overton comes across as Taylor’s nemesis. One story about the canceled festival included a passage where the two met up late that Friday at the sheriff’s office. As Taylor left, Overton patted him on the back and said, “You better start picking a guitar, buddy.”

That time, he had only insinuated that he would arrest one of country music’s biggest stars. But through the 1980s, Overton’s deputies repeatedly arrested people for public drinking at the track.

Taylor doesn’t hold a grudge against the retired sheriff.

“He always told me, 'I’m not out to hurt you,' ” Taylor said. “Even though he was raiding the track every week, it was only building the crowds. Today, we are the best of friends.”

Taylor has faced financial issues of his own in the years since, but he still owns the Franklin County Speedway. He was a rake back in the day, quick to raise his fists over disagreements on the track. To be sure, he still has the huckster in him. The born-again Christian travels in a bus that sold pro-Trump and gun-rights gear, advertising his location from the speedway’s Facebook page.

Looking back through the lens of 40 years, Taylor said it’s probably a good thing the festival didn’t happen. He didn’t realize that he was closer to Altamont – the 1969 music festival marked by chaos and several deaths – than Woodstock.

“It would’ve been probably a lot of people hurt,” Taylor said, “because we was nowhere near ready for what could have happened.”

Tad Dickens writes for The Roanoke Times.

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