Read part one & part two here.
As Gary P. Nunn says at the beginning of the London Homesick Blues, let me see if I can put myself back in that place again.
Last we left off, we were at the beginning of the story of how Willie Nelson came to play the KNBT Flood Relief concert at Gruene Hall on Dec. 3rd, 1998. I had wrapped up a phone interview, then asked him if he'd be willing to do something for New Braunfels. He agreed to do a benefit concert for us. Then we hung up the phone. I called Pat Molak at Gruene Hall to let him know I had just spoken to Willie and we wanted to do the concert at Gruene Hall on Dec. 3rd. Pat said 'Let's do it!' He and I hung up the phone and I just sat there thinking 'Oh boy. What did I just do? I hope this works.'
The first thing was to determine the ticket price. I suggested $50 per ticket and Gruene agreed that the price would be fine. In hindsight, I wish we would have said $100 per ticket, because this show sold out in 30 minutes. But, live and learn.
A few days after setting up this huge benefit concert, I was speaking to my father on the phone telling him all about this development. How Willie agreed to do this benefit concert for us, how it sold out in a matter of minutes, how excited we all were, how unbelievably great this whole thing was considering the town had just gone through a very demoralizing and expensive flood and how proud I was the radio station could help lots of people. My father, being very pragmatic and an excellent thinker when it comes to the 'big picture', said 'That's really great son. How much is Willie going to charge you for this concert?' I about dropped the phone. He continued 'Willie has a big organization and he's an international icon. He probably has expenses and may not be able to do everything for free. So, did you guys agree on a price?' My response went something like this 'Ummmm, well, uhhhh, we uhhh didn't exactly talk about that little detail'. My dad said 'Son, you may want to find out.'
So here I was having a slight panic attack. What if Willie shows up to play and his manager says 'You got that 100 grand for the show?' Oh Boy. I knew I needed to confirm what the agreement was and I knew I'd have to call Willie and ask him. I REALLY did not want to make that phone call. We had already sold out the show and here I was about to call Willie Nelson to see if I could even afford him.
I needed a couple of days to get the courage to make this call, but, I eventually did. Once again, I dial the number Willie gave me. And, once again, Willie picked up the phone on the second ring. I said, 'Hi Willie, it's Mattson from KNBT in New Braunfels. He said, 'Hey partner, what's going on?' I proceeded, 'Well the show is sold out and everyone is very excited and the town is so grateful to you. Everything on our end is going very well as we prepare for this big event. I did have a little minor question for you.' He responded, 'Whatcha got for me?' and here it goes... 'Well Willie, something occurred to me that we never discussed. How much is this concert going to cost us?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well, how much are you charging us to put on this benefit concert? I know you have expenses and I'd like to know what I owe you?'
Willie responded immediately and strongly, 'Not a thing. I'm coming to help you folks in New Braunfels. I don't need any money.'
I think the entire city heard my sigh of relief. I told him how grateful I was and, unless he needed anything from me, I'd see him on Dec. 3rd at Gruene Hall. We hung up the phone and I did my little 'I just talked to Willie Nelson' dance around the room then probably went and got a shot of whiskey to calm my nerves.
Fast forward five or six weeks. It's Dec. 2nd. The night before the show and I'm nervous as hell. Was this a dream? What if Willie forgot? This whole thing was based on a phone call we had six weeks prior. No Contracts. No official nothing. Just Willie telling me he'd show up on Dec 3rd, and that's what all of this was based on. A phone call.
I couldn't sleep at all. When the morning of Dec. 3rd came around, at about 10 am, I decided to call Glenda over at Gruene Hall and check in and say, 'Glenda, I'm so nervous. What if he doesn't show up? What if he forgot? Everyone in town will think I'm a fraud and will hate me.'
Glenda then said the magic words, 'Stop worrying Mattson. Willie's crew is already here trying to figure out how to get Bobbie's piano on the stage.' That was the moment I allowed myself to enjoy this. I had been so nervous for six weeks but on the morning of Dec. 3rd, 1998, I relaxed. Willie didn't forget, it's sold out and there's nothing left for me to do but soak it all in. Willie had been to Gruene Hall. He may have even hopped on stage with Jerry Jeff Walker or someone to do a song, but this was Willie's very first full-blown concert at Gruene Hall, and I was going to introduce him on stage. Amazing.
Willie showed up at Gruene Hall about an hour before showtime. When his tour bus rolled into Gruene, it was a magical moment. You could feel the energy rise all throughout the town. Willie was here. Willie. Was. Here. I knocked on the bus door hoping I could say hi to him and, sure enough, his tour manager Dave Anderson said, 'Come on up Mattson. Willie wants to see you.' I sat across from him in amazement. I couldn't believe I was sitting next to Willie Nelson, on his famed bus parked right outside Gruene Hall. I informed him the night was going to be great and we were all so grateful to him. That I would be introducing him on stage and that we had some awards for him.
We made him the Honorary mayor of New Braunfels. We made him a Prince in the City of a Prince and any other award we could come up with. My friend and county judge, Carter Casteel, was to make these presentations on stage before he played and then I'd say the words all radio personalities want to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Willie Nelson.'
There was one other person on the bus with us. I didn't recognize him but later found out it was Johnny Gimble. Willie, Johnny Gimble and I hanging out on the bus together. No big deal, right?
I left him after a little time. I did not want to overstay my welcome. I said, 'I'll see you by the side of the stage in an hour.' He said, 'I'll meet you there.'
So it's getting close to showtime and Willie's tour manager comes up to me and says, 'Hey Mattson, we have an issue. How's Willie going to get to the stage? The only way in the Hall is through the front door. If he has to walk through the crowd, he'll never get to the stage. Not that he's afraid but he'll stop and talk to everyone and never get there.' At the time the only way to get to the stage was through the front door and walk through the crowd. So, after a little thought, Dennis Peek, our soundman, and I had an idea. Let's just rip off the chicken wire near the men's bathroom, throw some music cases out there for him to step on, and have him crawl through this window we made. And that's what we did. One of those moments where we decided asking for forgiveness was better than asking for permission. So, after 25 years, to Pat and MJ at Gruene Hall, Dennis and I ask for forgiveness for ripping off that chicken wire. And THAT is how the Willie Window was made.
Willie and Family performed for two and a half hours that night. He played every hit he had. How I found out that was Johnny Gimble on the bus with us was about two songs into the show Willie said, 'I'm going to bring my old friend Johnny Gimble on stage to play with us.' And I thought, 'That's the guy who was on the bus with Willie and me.' Wish I would have realized it at the time.
After the show, I went back on the bus with Willie. I mean, by now we were friends, right? He signed autographs. He answered questions from the press. I think this show even made the news on CNN. San Antonio TV was there. He could not have been more gracious. When he and I were talking after the show, he asked me what else I had going on. I told him we were doing concerts at Saengerhalle to raise more money for flood relief and that I was recording these concerts to put them on the radio. He said, 'You're putting concerts on the radio?' I responded, 'Yes sir.' He then reached over to his table, grabbed two tapes, handed them to me, and said 'Well, here's the live recording of tonight's show. Would you play this on the radio?'
I put those tapes in my pocket and that is how you get to hear the Willie Flood concert from Gruene Hall on occasion on KNBT.
I shall air it again this Dec. 3rd, 2023. The 25th anniversary of the legendary Willie Nelson Flood Relief concert.
After a little while, Willie told me he had to get going. He was to be honored at the Kennedy Center the following night and they needed to hit the road. I shook his hand and told him how much this whole experience meant to me. I asked for a photo with him and an autograph. We took a picture together and then he signed a promo picture for me. I didn't even look at what he wrote. As I was saying goodbye he gave me a hug. I'll never forget that hug.
It was at that moment I felt like I had made it. I was no longer the new kid on the radio block but rather a veteran of the music scene. I grew up a lot that night. The greatest lesson I learned from him that night was to always be kind, no matter who you're dealing with because we all have something to offer. I stepped off the bus and watched him drive off. We raised $35,000 that night for flood relief. Willie took not a dime and, to the press, gave me all the credit for the success of the event.
He made my career and I will always and forever be indebted to the mystical, magical, beautiful soul that is Willie Nelson. As I was standing there, in an empty parking lot, I finally looked at the picture he signed for me. It said, 'To Matt, You did good, Willie.'