We here at Austin City Limits were shocked to learn of the death of Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer and best friend, after a bout with pneumonia. He was 87.
Born in Vernon, the North Texan grew up in Fort Worth, living the kind of outlaw life usually only glimpsed in the movies, a life that led him to be (proudly) listed in the Fort Worth Press’s “Ten Most Unwanted Criminals” for five years straight. (His son Paul, Jr. noted in the Oxford American: “If you’re writing songs about shooting people, it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.” Read the whole compelling piece here.) He first played with Willie in 1955, becoming his regular drummer in 1966. From then on, English was the rock in Willie’s band – not only the Family’s heartbeat, but its road manager, tour accountant, collector, and, if need be, muscle. The subject of Willie’s fan favorite tune “Me and Paul,” English was also Willie’s running buddy for five decades, the man who watched his boss’s back, literally and figuratively, gun in boot, ready to take on anyone who showed his pal – or anyone in the Willie organization – any disrespect. English slowed down in recent years, having already been joined on drums by his younger brother Billy for many moons, but his larger-than-life persona, closeness to his employer, and de facto leadership of the Family Band kept him the heart and soul of Willie Nelson’s music.
Due to his long tenure, English appeared in every episode featuring Willie as headliner, from the first in 1974 to the most recent in 2018. Here he is in the pilot, in his signature hat and cape, accompanying Willie & Family on “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” – a song about life on the road in which he figures as the titular Devil.