September 27

Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson and the Paper Man who Inspired It

Though I am not big on country outlaw, the subgenre in which Willie Nelson is a patriarch, I am an easy prey to those artists who can write as well as sing their songs. That prompted me to write this post.

These past years, I got used to Roy Orbison’s singing and other artists’ cover of Pretty Paper every Christmas. I was oblivious that its author, Willie Nelson, performed it first.

Watch it first below. (Just a side comment, Willie Nelson was barely recognizable here.)


Before he became a performer in the early 60’s, Nelson first had a start-up career as a songwriter for Nashville. In line with that profession, his inspirations abound everywhere. That includes a street vendor in Forth Worth, Texas named by the Forth Worth Telegram as Frankie Brierton.

Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson and the Paper Man who Inspired It 1

Our Paper Man

He was legless and Nelson noticed him in front of the Leonard’ department store selling holiday paper, ribbons, and pencils. He would call buyers attention by shouting,” Pretty paper! Pretty paper!”

According to his daughter Lillian Compte (who was also unaware that Pretty Paper was about her late father), a spinal disorder weakened Brierton’s legs. He learned to walk on all fours growing up and refused to use a wheelchair. Rather than depend on government aid, he persevered to make a living for himself and his family. He died in 1973-unaware of the song written about him.

Whether Nelson may or may not have approached him, Brierton was such an interesting spectacle to him that he found it worth writing years after moving to Nashville. The song was then pitched to Roy Orbison who already has made a name in the music industry at that time. His recording became a hit in 1963. The next year, Willie Nelson made his own recording for the song and two others in 1979 and in 1997.

Despite the melancholic tone of Pretty Paper, daughter Lilian said that her father was never a poor, miserable soul. Believe it or not, he was married seven times.


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