Gaye LeBaron: Remembering Williegate, a 'musical' scandal
Willie Nelson was in town last Tuesday. Luther Burbank Center was sold out, jammed packed. As one who has been a Willie fan since those dear, dead days when guitars didn’t have cords attached, I was there. It was a crowd ranging in age from youngsters in their 50s to gray beards older than Willie himself, who is 86.
He hasn’t lost his mojo. He provided a country-classic playlist, mostly the ones that brought whoops of delight at the first two chords — “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “Whiskey River,” “Crazy,” and about dozen more.
There were a lot of Willie T-shirts in the crowd, some from concerts in the ‘70s. I looked for but didn’t see the Sonoma County classic reading:
“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be FAIR DIRECTORS.”
At 38 years and counting, it may be that it is too long to hold a grudge.
The grudge wasn’t against Willie. In a strange and truly inexplicable way, he was the hero.
It was the Sonoma County Fair Board of Directors that was cast in the role of villains in the historic (using the adjective loosely) event known as “Williegate.”
Sonoma County fans have been treated to Willie’s unique talents several times since that unfortunate political adventure. Each one, as he grows older, recalls the time, 38 years ago, when Willie DIDN’T come.
The singer was bouncing off the top of the charts when he was scheduled to headline a concert at the fairgrounds in late July 1981.
There was no Green Music Center. There was no Luther Burbank Center (Henry Trione was just then gathering “investors” known as Henry’s Angels to buy the church buildings of the defunct Christian Life Center). The stars of the music world hit town just once a year in those days — to play at the Sonoma County Fair.
In the spring, when the contracts were negotiated, the main attractions were ostensibly a secret. But it was still a comparatively small town in those days and … well, you know how it is. People who had stood in line to hear Loretta Lynn the year before heard murmurs that Willie, fresh from his role in the Redford/Fonda film “The Electric Horseman,” would be on the docket for late July.
Leafing through the newspapers of the day, one can almost feel the instant outrage at what happened next, told on the front pages and creatively expressed in a month or more of vitriolic “letters to the editor.”
The “situation” unfolded like this:
MAY 15, a Friday, 7:30 a.m.: The note posted on the door at the fair office, where a considerable crowd had been gathering since 6 a.m., read: “All Willie Nelson reserved seats for the 9 p.m. show are sold out through fair directors presale. Pit and bleacher tickets for the 9 p.m. show are available.”
If you were one of those in line, you probably can still conjure the roars and shrieks of outrage echoing down through the years.
Nineteen of the 20 board members had purchased 1,500 tickets before they went on public sale.