Yesterday I took my first official Texas road trip, not counting the one that got me here in the first place. I drove a hundred miles from our new home just north of Dallas to visit a friend in Waco and I left early enough to stop and see a place I’ve wanted to see for years: Abbott, Texas. It’s a town of 356 people and just one sad little remnant of an old general store as its only operating business establishment. In that, Abbott is like a million other far-flung places in this huge and proud state with one distinction:
Abbott is the birthplace and childhood home of Willie Nelson.
The most striking thing about Willie’s hometown is that unlike similarly distinguished small towns in America it doesn’t display one single word about its famous son. There are no statues or museums or souvenir stores and not a single sign proudly proclaiming, “Birthplace of Willie Nelson!” Not a word. You either know it or you don’t. I suppose the quiet, hard-working Texans who live here prefer not to have their few streets choked with tourists taking pictures of local kids playing in the streets and fields without asking permission. In that respect Abbott maintains its charm and dignity. It certainly looks the same now as it did eighty some years ago when Willie and his piano playing sister Bobbie were born there.
The Depression-era Abbott Methodist Church*, where Willie and Bobbie sang hymns when they were both just knee-high to a June bug, sits directly across the street from the Abbott Baptist Church. These are by far the best-kept buildings in town. They are postcard-perfect visions of Americana brought to life, old yet gleaming white buildings with gloriously pious steeples and neatly trimmed lawns.
I took my pictures surreptitiously, not wanting to draw attention. My self-consciousness was unnecessary. I never saw a person on the street nor outside of the scattered handful of homes in the neighborhood.
It was Saturday and 109 degrees. Cicadas sang love songs.
I went into the Abbott Cash Grocery Market to buy a cold soda pop and just to be able to say I had been there. The store was sad. Most of the shelves were empty. What few items it did carry were all packaged goods crammed together: toilet paper and dishwashing detergent right next to the canned okra and lima beans. No meat or produce. They did carry soft drinks and snacks and a few staples such as sugar and flour that a local woman fixing Sunday dinner might need in a rush. No doubt folks there drive to Waco supermarkets and Walmart for real groceries.
Inside the store I was again struck by the lack of highly conspicuous Willie business. Yes, the word, “Willie’s” hangs discreetly above the awning outside but if you didn’t know differently you’d assume it was the owner’s name, not THE Willie. Fact is, I have no idea what it means*. His voice wasn’t floating out of any overhead speakers. Nothing was. There were no lifesize cardboard cutouts where I might have the lone clerk snap a cute picture of me smiling alongside the Redheaded Stranger. They did have a very short shelf stacked with Willie Nelson t-shirts and video tapes but again, no signs to draw your attention and no explanation as to why the stuff was there if you didn’t already know.
I’m ashamed to admit that I wanted a shirt or a ballcap from this secretly famous old store but was too embarrassed to reveal myself as the tourist I was to give that nice lady some money, which she surely needed. Today I’m sorry about that.
But as Willie sings it in one of his best, lesser-known songs:
“Regret is just a memory written on my brow, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
UPDATE: (*In 1976 Willie and sister Bobbie bought the Abbott Methodist Church – shown here – to preserve and maintain it, which he has surely done. At the same time they purchased the General Store and turned it over to the church. That explains the relatively inconspicuous name, “Willie’s” above the awning.)