Music | October 11, 2020 8:21 pm

What Would It Be Like to Have Willie Nelson As Your Landlord?

This is not a rhetorical question, by the way

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson in 1980.
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When you think about Willie Nelson, what comes to mind? The man’s a bona fide musical legend, to begin with, and has made classic songs and albums over the course of many decades. As a pioneer of outlaw country, he helped change an entire genre of music. And his public persona is also inexorably interwoven with weed, which he has smoked a lot of over the years.

But that isn’t all there is to Willie Nelson — and it turns out that, if you lived in Austin at a particular moment in time, you might well have had Nelson as your landlord. And while that’s a concept that might prompt a needle scratch in many an internal monologue, it’s one element of a fascinating piece of Austin history exhumed in a Texas Monthly article by John Spong.

In 1977, the article reveals, Nelson bought a plot of land on South Congress Avenue which included storefronts, a bar and a venue — the Austin Opry House. Also part of the deal, Spong writes, were “some 230 flophouse apartments known unofficially as the Willie Arms.” Rent was $65 per month, and the apartments’ residents included musicians, members of Nelson’s road crew and some drug dealers. As Spong phrases it, “Everyone there was a hippie, a misfit, or both, and none were afraid of a little dope.”

The residential part of Nelson’s real estate empire had been built in the 1950s; Nelson himself sold his stake in the project in 1988. But before then, there were numerous misadventures to be had — the article notes that one parking lot was adversely affected by a sinkhole, which developed after a rumor started that an associate of Nelson’s had buried $50,000 there.

All told, the article is a fascinating look into the history of Austin and Nelson’s long career in music — and suggests there may be compelling stories from this period that have yet to be told.

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