Tom Blake

By Tom Blake

In the 1970s, as the marketing director for the Victoria Station restaurant chain, I worked with Johnny Cash for two years. Through Johnny, I met Carl Perkins, Larry Gatlin, John Denver, Roger Miller and Glen Campbell.

But I never met Willie Nelson, one of Johnny’s best buddies.

I vowed that if I ever met Willie, I would share with him how highly Johnny spoke of him. I’ve tried a few times at Willie’s concerts to meet him but haven’t been successful. Willie’s 87 now, so my chances of meeting him face-to-face are slim to none, especially during the pandemic.

Two months ago, while stand-up paddleboarding with my buddy, Russell Kerr, I explained to him my unachieved goal of meeting Willie Nelson.

Russell said, “I can partially solve your dilemma in September.”

“How?” I asked.

Russell said, “My friend Roger Hegyi has a band called ‘True Willie.’ They are considered the most authentic Willie Nelson tribute band in America. Roger’s role is Willie. He lives in Laguna Niguel.”

Russell added, “True Willie is playing at a unique outdoor concert on Sept. 25 at the Great Park in Irvine.” He explained, “It’s a drive-in-movie type of concert. You sit in your car or in socially distanced lawn chairs next to your car. My wife, Pam, and I are going.

“Why don’t you and Greta come and park next to us? I can introduce you to Roger after the show. He’s not Willie Nelson, but he’s the closest thing to Willie you’ll ever meet.”

Greta and I bought a car ticket in advance; the cost was only $30. We followed the Kerr’s car. To ensure we could park near the stage, we got to the Great Park an hour before the show.

The show was spectacular. The band played three of my Willie Nelson favorites: “Poncho and Lefty,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Seven Spanish Angels.”

After the show, we got to say hello to Roger, but it was getting dark, and lots of people had come to the front of the stage to greet him.

The Willie Nelson cover band True Willie rocks the stage during a drive-in, outdoor concert on Sept. 25 at the Great Park in Irvine. Photo: Tom Blake

I handed Roger an autographed copy of my book, Prime Rib & Boxcars. Whatever Happened to Victoria Station? The front cover features a picture of Johnny Cash and me together in 1976 in front of the Victoria Station restaurant in Newport Beach.

Russell said, “We’ll get together with Roger next week when we have time to talk.”

Last Wednesday, Sept. 30, Roger, Russell, and I met at the Coffee Importers in Dana Point Harbor.

I asked Roger: “How long have you been a musician, and when and why did you become a Willie Nelson tribute band?”

Roger said, “I’ve been 50 years in the music business. Nine years ago, my family and I were attending a concert at the Greek Theatre. There was a huge photo of Willie on the side of the building promoting an upcoming Willie Nelson concert.

“My daughter looked at me, and then at Willie, and said, ‘Dad, you are Willie.’ And I now am.”

Roger added, “I don’t do it for the money; I do it to make a difference and share the music of an icon.”

Over a cup of coffee, I was finally able to tell Willie Nelson (well, sort of) how much Johnny Cash thought of him. It took me 45 years to pull that off.

Tom Blake is a retired Dana Point business owner and resident who has authored books on middle-aged dating. See his website at findingloveafter50.com. To comment: tompblake@gmail.com.

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