Facebook Twitter

Oregon Willie wanders into Provo

SHARE Oregon Willie wanders into Provo

Oregon Willie. Will he ever settle down? There's always one more highway, one more woman, one more town.

So goes the "Ballad of Oregon Willie." So goes the life of Oregon Willie, a Willie Nelson look-alike who returned to the streets of Provo this summer after a prolonged hiatus. The grizzled minstrel makes his living playing guitar on the northwest corner of University Avenue and Center Street.Willie left Provo in a huff five years ago after some merchants apparently complained his strumming attracted too many street people downtown. Willie took offense. He vowed never to return to his home of the previous seven summers.

"But I had to eat my words. I wanted to make amends with everybody. I'm not the kind of guy that likes to hold a grudge forever," he said.

So far, there hasn't been any trouble on the street corner.

A trimmer Willie (he says he lost 60 pounds on a grapefruit diet) came back to what he calls the "all-American city" because of its low crime and friendly people. A new acquaintance recently gave him a CTR ring as an accessory to numerous bracelets, necklaces and trinkets he sports along with a star-spangled bandanna and faux braids. He didn't know the letters on the ring stood for the LDS Church slogan "Choose the Right." For Willie, it might as well mean "Choose the Road."

The 59-year-old traveler has spent the past 27 years riding the rails, hitchhiking, sleeping in bushes and rummaging in trash bins. He owned a Volkswagen bus and a Mazda pickup the past few years, but both broke down. He arrived in Provo from his winter abode in Austin, Texas, on a commercial bus line.

"I could have flown out, but I'm afraid of planes," he said. If Ritchie Valens had listened to his inner soul or sixth sense, Willie says, he wouldn't have hopped on the plane that killed him and Buddy Holly. "When I don't listen, that's when I get hurt."

Willie, who worked as an arc welder and a seaman on the Great Lakes earlier in life, earns money on the streets and picking up gigs in towns all over the West. Fiddlers conventions, cafes and parks are among his venues. He'll be playing at Pioneer Park Sunday and in Rock Canyon Park next month. Willie figures he has more than 300 songs in his repertoire, a dozen of which he wrote himself.

His uncanny resemblance to Willie Nelson inevitably brings him attention wherever he wanders. A friend once told him that if he grew a beard he'd look just like the twangy country singer. "I started doing it in '74 just as a joke. But it took off like a fire and I've been Willie's double ever since," he said.

A woman in Needles, Calif., once wouldn't believe Willie wasn't Nelson.

"Mr. Nelson, I've got all your tapes," she exclaimed.

"I'm not Mr. Nelson," Willie said.

"And I'm not the queen of England," she replied.

Willie, whose birth name was Arthur Phillips Jr., has met his alter ego on several occasions, even spent a few minutes on his bus. He said Nelson told him the two could be cousins.

With the help of some local friends, Willie recorded a cassette tape in 1993 called "Ballad of Oregon Willie & Friends" during his last stint in Provo. He cut a demo CD in Austin - "Oregon Willie Unplugged" - which he hopes to finish and release after he goes back at summer's end.

He's also trying to get himself on the television program "Austin City Limits" this fall.

"It kind of look likes I'm climbing that ladder to success," he said.

A native of Hibbing, Minn., Willie grew up in the same town as Robert Allen Zimmerman, a folk rock singer better known as Bob Dylan. The two attended high school at the same time and picked a little guitar together, Willie said.

"I like the life of working to be an entertainer or singer because I think the world needs a lot more of us to take our minds off all the drive-by shootings and violence," Willie says. "I try to play music to soothe people's soul."

A leather "genuine hippie" pouch complete with a peace sign Willie carries on his shoulder contains photos and autographs from the stars he's encountered during his travels. Another bulging bag is packed with tattered newspaper clippings and concert fliers featuring Willie. The worn papers map out where he's been, who he's talked to, what he's seen. But not where he's going.

So, will Oregon Willie ever settle down? "I feel like I will if the right lady comes along," he says. "I'd do anything she asks of me within reason."

Willie fancies Provo as permanent home, perhaps at Sundance if that ladder to success stretches high enough.

But there's always one more highway, one more woman, one more town . . .