The English family: Evan, Taylor, Janie, Paul Jr., Paul III and Mandy. Photography by Kathy Tran.
Paul English put the outlaw in country.
He dressed like the devil, with satin-lined capes and pointed sideburns. He carried a gun, hung out with Hells Angels and was not afraid to bust skulls to make sure beer joints and honky-tonks paid his boss at the end of the night.
English saw the world looking at the backside of Willie Nelson for 54 years, keeping rhythm for songs we all know by heart. Before he was Willie’s drummer, English led a life of crime. Yes, he was a pimp. Yes, he did a little time in the Ellis County jail as a teen. He was a Cowtown hoodlum who looked up to gangsters like Benny Binion and Herbert “The Cat” Noble. Later, he had interests such as used car lots in Houston and Fort Worth, and he funded some of Willie’s early career.
After Willie hired him in 1966, he led the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and never left it until days before his death.
What most of the world never knew before English died at age 87 in February 2020 is that he also attended Jesuit football games and basketball games at Parish Episcopal. He wanted his grandson to attend St. Rita Catholic School because he loved Father Joshua Whitfield’s op-eds.
This hellraiser who was Willie Nelson’s best friend and protector was married for 41 years to Janie English, a licensed counselor who has two master’s degrees. She is currently a school counselor at St. Rita, and she also works nights at a private counseling center.
Her husband always loved this about her. When they first started dating, he would introduce her by saying, “This is Janie. She has a job, and she goes to college.”
THEY MET AT THE BLACK EYED PEA FESTIVAL in Athens, Texas, the year Elvis Presley died.
She was at a gathering at someone’s home in Oak Lawn, and Mickey Raphael was there. Raphael, Willie’s longtime harmonica player, is from Dallas.
“He said, ‘I’ve been playing in this band, and I’m trying to get a ride to Athens,’” Janie says.
She had bragging rights from seeing the Rolling Stones the first time they played the Cotton Bowl, but she says, “I actually had no idea who Willie Nelson was.”
When they arrived, Raphael told her to hang out and let him know if she needed anything.
For some reason, the band’s old bus, which they called The Tube, was out of commission, and she saw this guy wearing red boots and a vest with patches all over it getting out of his car. She thought he looked so interesting.
“So I said, ‘Well as long as I’m going to be hanging around, I’d like to meet that guy,’” she says.
Back then, they kept in touch by writing letters and long-distance phone calls. But soon Paul rented a place in Oak Lawn with tour manager David Anderson, whose girlfriend also lived in Dallas. Paul, who was then in his 40s, threw Janie’s 22nd birthday party at a strip club on Lower Greenville that one of his “character friends” owned.
Janie, who graduated from Berkner High School in Richardson, also went on the road with the band when she wasn’t working at her job in a psychiatry practice at the old Garland community hospital. Once, after she flew out for a show in Tahoe, Paul wanted her to stay, but she had to get back to work.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you quit that job? We’re going out to Los Angeles,’” Janie says. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to quit my job, I think I need a ring.’”
Photography by Kathy Tran.
41-year quickie marriage
THEY HAD A DOUBLE WEDDING IN LAS VEGAS with bassist Bee Spears, who was married to Julia until his death in 2011.
“We just decided we would get married and see where it went,” she says. “He said later he thought it would be six months, and it was 41 years.”
They bought a house off Audelia Road in the Lake Highlands area. It became the party house where all of Paul’s “character friends” hung out alongside bikers, roadies and musicians.
That house burned down on Palm Sunday in 1987 while Janie was at mass, and they lost nearly everything they owned, including priceless memorabilia like song lyrics Willie had written on scraps of paper. Also, their dog, Coco, had died before the fire. And their car was stolen.
This was also around the time that Willie got in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, and the band was off the road for a couple of years.
THE ENGLISHES TOOK ALL OF THAT AS A TAP ON THE SHOULDER that maybe it was time to settle down. Paul was 55 when they bought a house on a golf course in Garland.
“I tell you, they were all so obsessed with golf that I thought quitting would be the downfall of the band,” Janie says.
Buddy Prewitt, Willie’s lighting director of 44 years who is known as “Budrock,” says they “had a brotherhood of golf,” that kept them together all the time. When they weren’t playing music together, they were swinging clubs.
Prewitt, who is from Dallas, fathered two of the Willie Nelson family band’s “IRS babies,” born as a result of their time off the road. His two daughters were born around the same time as Willie’s sons Micah and Lucas, and the English boys Paul junior and Evan.
“We just had too much time on our hands, I guess,” Prewitt says.
The Englishes moved to Dallas about 15 years ago to be closer to their sons’ schools.
“We didn’t start out to have these private-school educated children, because we were just a couple of poor kids, you know?” Janie says. “But it was the only way we could take our kids out of school whenever we wanted so they could travel. You couldn’t do that in public school.”
PAUL ENGLISH WAS A DUSTBOWL BABY born in Vernon, Texas. He grew up in a “holy roller” household in Fort Worth, and his mother would speak in tongues. Because of that, he never wanted to have anything to do with church, even though he loved Christmas.
Janie is Catholic and a child of the ’60s. They intersected at social justice.
He served on the board of Farm Aid until his death. She believes her faith calls her to right injustices.
Paul was not highly educated, but he was well-read and genius-level intelligent. He read The Dallas Morning News, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on Sundays. He was constantly playing chess online with Willie, often while simultaneously working a sudoku puzzle.
Janie still keeps her TV locked on CNN because that’s how Paul always had it. By the way, he couldn’t stand Trump, although he had conservative values.
“Sometimes I still expect to hear him saying, ‘Janie come here and look at this!’ and he’d be all worked up about something Trump did,” she says.
PAUL ENGLISH JR. and wife, Mandy, lived with the Englishes for about a year after their son, Paul English III aka Trey, was born.
Mandy took up crossword puzzles because of her father-in-law.
“We would be sitting in the kitchen at breakfast, and Mr. English would be there doing his puzzles,” she says.
She always says he was an angel in disguise.
Leather tooling and sketch art were among his talents, and all of his siblings are artistic. His younger brother Billy is now the drummer in Willie’s band. His older brother Oliver was a multi instrumentalist who also played in The Family band for a time.
Paul’s “baby boy,” Evan English, married his wife, Taylor, in December 2019. They were high-school sweethearts — he graduated from Jesuit and she from Ursuline in 2013, and they both went to The University of Oklahoma.
Janie says her husband loved taking road trips to visit him in Norman.
“It was just like being on the road,” she says.
He went all out on Christmas lights, putting up an annual display that Clark Griswold could respect.
Paul looked great in a tux, and although he typically hated formal events, he was so happy at Evan’s wedding and led his sister, Nadine, around the room on his arm the whole day, family members say. He was also a great dancer, and so is Evan, who looks so much like his dad.
Paul’s son Darrell, from a previous marriage, lives in Glen Rose and is very much part of the family, Janie says.
Photography by Kathy Tran.
Larger than life
AFTER HE DIED, English’s family found out just how many fans he had, and it wasn’t necessarily a pleasant discovery. But old guys have come up to the son Paul to say they remember a joke their dad told on some random tour stop decades ago, he says.
“That shows you the pull he had on people,” the younger Paul says. “He just had a presence.”
He could suck all the air out of a room just by stepping into it. He could intimidate the toughest dudes with a word or a look.
He once broke his hand on a guy’s face after the guy threw a bottle at the band in a roadhouse in Houston, and he still played the next night, shoving a drumstick into his plaster cast.
Someone once gave him a little antique gun, and it went off while he had it in his pocket and shot him in the back of the leg. They bandaged it up at the hospital, and he still went into the studio that night to work on the Stardust album.
“We were so shocked when he died, and I think what shocked us the most was that something could actually kill him,” Janie says. “Because you think he just couldn’t end. And of course, he hasn’t, because we have Paul and Evan and Trey.”
Made famous or infamous in Willie’s 1971 song “Me and Paul,” he was always a gentleman, friends say. He took Bobbie Nelson by the hand and walked her from the bus to her piano and back every night.
He kept the books and did payroll for the band until the end.
He was tough, but he was never mean, friends say.
“He was honest and fair and one of the best people I ever knew,” Budrock says. “If you ever needed anything or had any kind of problem, you could always go to Paul.”
ONCE HIS SONS were born, they were the focus of his life, Janie says.
“They can remember dad getting home off the bus, and no matter how long he’d been out or how tired he was, going out and throwing the football,” she says.
The younger Paul, who graduated from Parish in 2007 and later received a degree from UT Austin, says it never felt like his dad was absent, even though he was on the road six or seven months of the year. He commanded respect, but he wasn’t scary, his sons say.
“I think it was remarkable the job that he did,” Paul says. “It always felt like there was a fatherly presence in the home.”
Life after Paul
PAUL THE DAD HAD JUST RECOVERED remarkably well from a stroke in 2011 when, two years later, his tour bus crashed into a bridge at 75 miles per hour on icy roads. Paul sustained a broken hip and a concussion. He didn’t talk as much after that and was never quite the same, although his mind remained sharp for the rest of his life.
His memorial service at Billy Bob’s took place a week before the coronavirus shut everything down. Janie moved out of their 5,000-square-foot house earlier this year. “It was excruciating,” she says. And she recently moved into a 2,500-square-foot house near St. Rita, where Trey is a student.
Evan works in commercial real estate, and Paul English Jr. is a TV writer who has worked on Cruel Summer and is now at work on an HBO series that hasn’t been titled yet. By the way, he got his start on the MTV series Jackass, and the elder Paul loved Johnny Knoxville and the other knuckleheads on that show.
Evan and Paul are both musicians as well, and Trey is learning drums and piano. Mandy is in venue management and event planning, and Taylor works in marketing. They both refer to their father-in-law as “Mr. English,” to this day, even though they’re on a first-name basis with Janie.
English kept his home life separate from his life in that band of gypsies going down the highway. This was the first interview Janie’s ever done, except for talks with Paul’s biographer.
Now she’s trying to figure out what life is without Paul and how to keep his legacy alive. She just wants her husband to be proud of her.
“When you’ve been a background player in someone else’s story for almost your whole life, how do you write your own?” she says.