Leon Russell at the Dakota in 2012/ Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

Leon Russell at the Dakota in 2012/ Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

When you enter Willie Nelson’s world, sometimes strange and wonderful things can happen.

I spent a couple of days on the road with him in 1979 in Washington, D.C. That’s when Jimmy Carter was President. Remember him?

Before Willie and I went for a late-morning jog, he smoked a joint while watching pro-wrestling on TV.

Late in the afternoon, when we headed to the concert on Willie’s bus, we were joined by two key members of the President’s staff. Press secretary Jody Powell and chief of staff Hamilton Jordan were good ole boys who liked Willie.

Jordan apparently liked his liquor, too, so much so that the inebriated big wig was dropped off en route to the concert.

Anyway, I somehow hit it off enough with Willie and his people to receive an invitation to his annual Fourth of July picnic near Austin, Texas, that summer.

It was hotter than July at the Pedernales Country Club, a new venue for the picnic that Willie had recently purchased (he loves his golf). More than 25,000 people gathered to hear Ernest Tubb, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Leon Russell, Willie and others.

Frankly, I don’t remember much about the music. I do recall baking in the Texas sun, alternating water with little cans of TexSun grapefruit juice.

After a long day in the oven of Austin, I was thrilled to be offered an air-conditioned limo ride to the airport from Willie’s staff.

It turns out that I was sharing the limo with two of Willie’s other guests at the picnic – Leon Russell and his wife, Mary McCreary. Russell had been a regular at Willie’s Fourth of July hoedown for a few years.

I introduced myself. Mary was friendly, Leon was unresponsive. So I talked to Mary, mentioning a mutual acquaintance, drummer Scott Sansby, who had toured with Mary and Leon a few years earlier and gone to high school with me in St. Paul.

During the entire ride to the airport, Leon sat there in his white ice-cream suit (like writer Tom Wolfe famously wore) and aviator shades, apparently staring ahead.

To paraphrase Pete Townshend, Leon seemed like the deaf, dumb and blind dude who sure played a mean piano. Or maybe Joe Cocker put it best when he used to introduce Russell -- who died over the weekend at age 74 -- as the Master of Time and Space.

The eccentric, enigmatic Master of Time and Space indeed.