FOR COUNTRY MUSIC'S WILLIE NELSON, the remote, windswept winter prairie may have seemed a sadly appropriate setting for the task at hand. "I've never experienced anything so devastating in my life," said Nelson to a friend, as the singer prepared to bury his eldest son and namesake in a small cemetery in Vaughn, Tex.

William Hugh Nelson, Jr., 33, known as Billy, had been found on Christmas morning at his log-cabin home in Davidson County, Tenn., an apparent suicide by hanging. Buddy Frank, a friend who had visited Billy early Tuesday, Dec. 24, said he seemed perfectly happy then. "On Monday he got himself a haircut and some new pants and boots," says Frank, a Nashville nightclub manager. "We was kickin' up like best friends do."

Billy, ruled to have been legally drunk when he died, had apparently hanged himself after Frank drove home around 2 A.M., the day before Christmas. The sometime musician, who lived mostly on an allowance from his father, had been planning to release an album of gospel tunes he'd written—including "I Can Live Forever" and "My Body's Just a Suitcase for my Soul." He had had a history of despondency. His mother, Martha, the first of Willie's four wives, had died around Christmas 1989. At about the same time, Billy separated from his own wife, Janet Caldwell, who had custody of their young daughter, Rae Lynn. In recent wars Billy had been arrested four times for drunk driving, and he was treated at an alcohol rehab facility in 1990. "The only problem he had was with what killed him [alcohol]," says Billy's longtime friend Lou Mullins of Ridgetop, Tenn. "Willie did everything for Billy he could."

Willie, though, once admitted that work often kept him away from his son when Billy was a boy. "I was too busy trying to pay the rent," he told an interviewer several years ago. Three days after Christmas, he was left to perform his final fatherly duty, seeing his son buried in the Nelson family plot. Said one family acquaintance: "Maybe there's some peace for the kid now."