The Hells Angel and Ex-Wife Who May Have Inspired the Song Willie Nelson Wrote for His First Leading Role, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”

When late director Sydney Pollack asked Willie Nelson to contribute a song about life on the road for the 1980 musical drama Honeysuckle Rose, he quickly scribbled some lyrics on an airplane sickness bag to “On the Road Again.” The song became one of Nelson’s most famous songs, hitting No. 1 on the Country chart, and the top 20 of the Billboard 200. “On the Road Again” also won Nelson a Grammy Award for Best Country Song and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

For the film—named after Nelson’s concert tour bus and loosely based on the 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo—Nelson starred in his first leading role as aging country musician Buck Bonham, who is still trying to find fame.

In addition to acting, Nelson also contributed an entire soundtrack to the film, Honeysuckle Rose, featuring a collection of covers and more of his songs, including the previously recorded “It’s Not Supposed to be That Way” and “Uncloudy Day,” along with “Heaven or Hell” and “Pick Up the Tempo” from his 1974 collaborative album with Waylon Jennings, This Time.

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Along with “On the Road Again,” Nelson also wrote more original tracks for Honeysuckle Rose, including “I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes,” and the sorrowful “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

‘Fly On’

Nelson’s aching ballad revolves around helping save someone—And I patched up your broken wing—and eventually letting them go—I knew someday that you would fly away.

If you had not a-fallen, then I would not have found you
Angel flying too close to the ground
And I patched up your broken wing
And hung around a while
Trying to keep your spirits up
And your fever down

I knew someday that you would fly away
For love’s the greatest healer to be found

So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground

Fly on, fly on past the speed of sound
I’d rather see you up than see you down

The “Angel”

“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” remained on Nelson’s setlists throughout the decades. During live performances, he has also dedicated it to his son, Billy, who died by suicide in 1991.

Though Nelson may have written the song about ex-wife Connie Koepke since the two were having marital issues around the time he wrote the song, it was also presumed that the “angel” he speaks of was his friend Charlie, Magoo, a Hells Angels biker who died in 1971.

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“It’s a pretty general theme that can be taken and applied to a lot of different situations,” said Nelson on the ambiguity around the meaning of the song. “A lot of people have taken it and applied it to their own situation. You could relate it to someone who has died, love affairs, or whatever. It has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people who have no idea why I wrote that song.”

Though the film wasn’t a huge success, Honeysuckle Rose went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and gave Nelson another chart-topper with “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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