Country’s True Outlaw Paul English Passes

Willie Nelson’s drummer/enforcer dead at 87

Paul English, longtime drummer, intimidator, and right hand man for Willie Nelson, died yesterday at age 87.

Paul English at Willie Nelson’s annual SXSW-related Luck Banquet in 2019 (Photo by Gary Miller)

Among the practitioners of the largely Texas-spawned “outlaw country” movement, English stood as the realest of them all. Born near the Texas panhandle in Vernon as Robert Paul English, he boasted a well-known criminal past as an oft-arrested street hustler and pimp on the underbelly of Fort Worth in the Fifties. A primal percussionist who’d grown up playing trumpet, he admitted in a 1981 interview with Modern Drummer that he began playing drums by “accident.”

English had been running his own leather shop in 1954, when he got a call from one of his brothers to come in and play snare and brushes on a radio show with Nelson. At the time, he’d never played drums, but he did anyway and, over the next few weeks of unpaid gigging, accumulated a hi-hat, bass drum, snare, and one cymbal.

“I didn’t know what to do with a pair of sticks at that time,” English told the magazine. “But, after about six weeks, the band got a job and they all asked Willie, ‘Well, who do you want to get as a drummer?’ And good ol’ Willie said, ‘Well, I think we ought to use Paul. He’s been working six weeks for nothing!’”

In 1966, English joined the band full time and soon took on the roles of muscle, accountant, and bagman for the ever-touring group. He also became best friend to bandleader. In turn, Nelson honored him with the song “Me and Paul” from 1971’s Yesterday Wine:

“I guess Nashville was the roughest,
But I know I've said the same about them all.
We received our education
In the cities of the nation, me and Paul.”

Sporting villainous facial hair and always dressed entirely in black – sometimes even wearing a cape – English chose a look that portended his real-life toughness. In Joe Nick Patoski’s definitive Paul English feature from the 2015 Texas music issue of Oxford American, Paul English Jr. attested, “If you’re writing songs about shooting people, it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.”

In fact, the senior English became (in)famous for his willingness to whip out the .22 caliber pistol he carried. At Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 1975 at Liberty Hill, rainfall filled a tarp covering the stage. When the weight of the water looked like it would topple the platform, Paul pulled out his gun and shot a few drain holes in it.

There are also stories where he sent intentionally off-target bullets toward a bandmate and one of Willie’s son-in-laws to send messages.

English remained such a crucial part of Nelson’s touring institution that he maintained his own specially designed tour bus, which generated national news in 2014 when it popped up on Craigslist. Beginning in the Eighties, Paul shared percussion duties with his younger brother Billy English. While his instrumental skills remained merely workmanlike, Paul English’s true outlaw nature made him one of the genre’s best known drummers.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Paul English, Willie Nelson, Billy English, Paul English Jr., Joe Nick Patoski

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