The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Willie Nelson’s ‘Pretty Paper’

By  | 
Tony Maples Photography


Readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that resided in Palo Pinto County, together with a family out of Conroe helped to put together the pieces of a Christmas puzzle of sorts. The song “Pretty Paper,” by Willie Nelson is a beautiful lilting tune which apparently was inspired by a real-life disabled street vendor who truly did sell “pretty paper, pretty ribbons” for pennies as he crawled along a downtown Fort Worth sidewalk. Roy Orbison recorded the song in 1963, making it a Top 15 hit on the Billboard pop chart. And, the following year, Nelson recorded his own version. Forty years later, the identity of the song’s protagonist had remained a mystery. But, in 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnists began to search for his identity might be. Their research and series of phone interviews comprised the following:

Star-Telegram readers who at one time shopped at Leonard’s Department Store in downtown Fort Worth had actually remembered the vendor who was the song’s inspiration. Nelson had been a Fort Worth country radio personality prior to moving to Nashville and had watched the gentleman selling his downtown wares. For a long time, many only remembered that the man would travel from Santo, in Palo Pinto County, and then there came a response from a nearby rancher. Bob Neely, of Santo, had phoned into the paper about his former neighbor, who went by the name of Frankie Brierton.

“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street,” Neely noted. Crawling up and down Houston or Throckmorton streets on all fours, Brierton could be seen outside of Leonard’s selling his goods. He wore large gloves, kneepads which were made from old tire treads, and a leather vest which was custom-made to include a coin box on the back and a built-in pencil rack. From there, the columnists began to reach out to Brierton’s family members for further detail, eventually contacting Lillian Compte of Conroe (in 2004) who was found to be his daughter. She was unaware as to why anyone would be asking about her father, who had passed away in 1973.

The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Willie Nelson’s ‘Pretty Paper’

Photo: Facebook/Owen Bradley’s “Quonset Hut”

“It’s a pretty song. I just never thought of it being about my father,” she stated. She explained to the columnists that her father had refused a wheelchair, instead opting to crawl. He suffered from a spinal disorder as a child and learned to crawl after his legs were weakened. Working as a street vendor in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston, he also sold pencils at the State Fair of Texas and the Stock Show in Fort Worth. She explained that he wanted to earn a living without the need for government assistance. “He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”

When the landlords in Fort Worth’s downtown core began to protest missionaries and street vendors, Charlie Ringler (who gave a phone interview to the Star-Telegram in 2004), who was a former store manager at Leonard’s, explained that the Leonard family allowed all of them to stay in front of their store, including Mr. Brierton, as well as others who sang hymns and sold pencils. He further explained, “Some people wanted them moved out, but we never moved them. We couldn’t turn them away. As long as they were selling pencils or something, that was fine.”


Fort Worth Star-Telegram