Willie Nelson

by James HargroveJuly 2, 2024
Willie Nelson

Who Is Willie Nelson? 

Willie Nelson gained fame towards the end of the 1960s and contributed to the “outlaw country” subgenre, which questioned the conservatism of the Nashville music business at the time. Throughout his extensive, award-winning career, he has penned some of the most successful and enduring country songs of all time, many of which have been performed by a vast array of musicians over the past fifty years. Nelson continues to record, perform, and dedicate time to charity and political causes in his eighties.

Early Years

Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas on April 29, 1933. Willie and Bobbie Nelson, children of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, were reared by their paternal grandparents during the Great Depression.

Willie and Bobbie visited the little Methodist church in their hometown with their grandparents, where they were first exposed to music. Nelson has described their musically-inclined grandparents as “committed musical instructors.” In order to encourage Willie and his sister to play and learn, they ordered musical books from Chicago.

Nelson received his first guitar at the age of six, only months before the death of his cherished grandfather, and shortly thereafter he began penning his own poems and early musical creations. The inspiration for his well-known gospel song “Family Bible” was his early exposure to religious music. In 1959, he sold the tune for $50 to his buddy Paul Buskirk, a guitar instructor.

Though family and faith were and remain Nelson’s primary interests, the self-described guitarist recounts in his 2015 biography It’s a Long Story: My Life that church “could not quiet my restless and rowdy soul… Mama Nelson had to attach little Willie to a yard post to prevent him from wandering off. “I don’t know where I would have gone if I could have, but I had the desire to see beyond the end of the road from an early age.”

A few years later, he began his professional career by performing with a local polka band. A position is incompatible with his Christian background. Nelson recalls, “I was 10 years old, a member in good standing of the Methodist Church, and a loving grandchild.” “At the same time, when I was requested to play music in a bar, I disregarded the concerns expressed by fundamentalist Christians.”

In 1947, Nelson joined the gospel ensemble Bud Fletcher and the Texans, which already included piano player Bobbie. He remained in school and earned letterman status in a variety of sports. Over the next few years, the band performed in local clubs, and Bobbie and Bud Fletcher were married. During this period, Nelson made his first radio appearance.

Air Force

After graduating from Abbott High School in 1950, Nelson enrolled in the United States Air Force and was initially assigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The Korean War was raging, but nine months later, he was medically discharged from the service due to recurrent back issues caused by earlier injuries.

Nelson temporarily enrolled in an agricultural program at Baylor University, uncertain of his next steps. During his education, he worked odd jobs, like selling encyclopedias door-to-door, to make ends meet. Nelson, however, had not lost his love for music, which he pursued by working as a disc jockey for numerous radio stations.

Early Songs: “Night Life,” “Crazy,” “Hello Walls”

During the ensuing years, Nelson frequently performed in local bars and honed his songwriting skills. During this time, Nelson composed some of his early masterpieces, including “Night Life,” “Crazy,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

In 1960, Nelson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital, where he found work as a composer for Pamper Music, earning around $50 per week. The next year, two of Nelson’s compositions became hits for other musicians, with Faron Young’s rendition of “Hello Walls” reaching No. 1 and selling two million copies. Patsy Cline’s iconic performance of “Crazy” was a country and pop Top 10 success. Two years later, Ray Price’s rendition of “Night Life” likewise reached the country’s Top 40.

Despite these accomplishments, however, Nelson’s own recordings were ignored throughout this time period. He did not fit the standard Nashville country music mold, and when producers attempted to make him fit, they only succeeded in stripping him of his distinctive features, such as his peculiar phrasing.

In It’s a Long Story, Nelson states, “Nobody should attempt to imitate my wording.” “My wording is distinctive. I’ll either lie back on the beat or advance. Time is a malleable concept to me, therefore I’m always playing with it in some amusing way. I believe in being patient. Regarding singing a song, I have all the time in the world.”

His opposition to such initiatives, together with his burgeoning image as a hard-living, hard-drinking guy, only helped to emphasize his status as an outsider. Nelson says, “With all the amazing artists and iconic producers coming out of Nashville, you’d think I’d be a perfect match.” “I never was. I do not blame Nashville for this. I blame my unusual personality.”

Though the 1962 song “Touch Me” reached No. 10 on the country charts, none of Nelson’s albums charted: And Then I Wrote nor Here’s Willie Nelson. It appeared that his efforts as a performing artist would not yield the same success as others who had recorded his tunes.

Return to Texas

Nelson had settled in Ridgetop, Tennessee by 1970 when his home was destroyed by fire. Nelson recounts going inside during the fire and grabbing two guitar cases. In It’s a Long Story, he adds, “One held [his guitar] Trigger and the other two pounds of first-rate Columbian marijuana.”

Nelson interpreted the fire as a warning that changes were necessary. Returning to his home state of Texas with his family in tow, he landed in Austin and quickly established himself as an integral member of the city’s country music industry, singing regularly at its numerous venues.

1973 saw the beginning of his now-famous Fourth of July barbecues. Inspiring other country music outlaws, including Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, to perform at the meetings, Woodstock provided the impetus for the popularity of these musical events. In 1975, in recognition of his accomplishments, the Texas State Senate proclaimed July 4 Willie Nelson Day. The yearly event continues to be a great draw.

‘Shotgun Willie’ and ‘Phases and Stages’

Nelson restarted his recording endeavors, but in his own way and on his own terms after returning to his own land. The long-haired, bandana-wearing singer quickly gained a strong fan base due to his distinctive performance style. Shotgun Willie, released in 1973, is considered by many to be one of his greatest albums, demonstrating his talents as a singer, storyteller, and performer despite not performing well on the charts. The same holds true for Phases and Stages from 1974.

Rise of the ‘Red-Headed Stranger

However, with the release of Red-Headed Stranger in 1975, Nelson saw his first taste of popularity. The album not only reached No. 1 on the country charts but also the Top 40 on the mainstream charts. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose, is one of the album’s highlights. It was Nelson’s first No. 1 country hit and earned him his first Grammy Award for best country vocal performance.

During this period, Nelson’s joint ventures also gained success. Together with Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, he contributed to the 1976 anthology Wanted! The Outlaws, which was likewise critically and commercially successful.

Grammys for ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up’ and ‘Georgia on My Mind’

Nelson and Jennings teamed up again shortly thereafter to record the hit tune “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which received the 1978 Grammy Award for best country vocal performance by a duet or ensemble.

Nelson recorded his own renditions of American standards on his 1978 album Stardust, and his cover of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind” won him his second Grammy Award for best country vocal performance. The album was also commercially successful since it remained on the country charts for a whole decade following its critical triumph.

Films and “On the Road Again”

Nelson brought his distinct personality to the big screen, riding high on his recent musical accomplishments. He initially featured in The Electric Horseman (1979) starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and the following year he starred in Honeysuckle Rose (1980) as a veteran country musician performer divided between his wife (Dyan Cannon) and the new singer who joins him on the road (Amy Irving). Nelson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for his song “On the Road Again,” which was incorporated in the picture despite its moderate success. It also won that year’s Grammy Award for Best Country Song and is now regarded as one of Nelson’s signature songs.

“Always on My Mind” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”

The decade of the 1980s saw sustained musical success. In 1982, “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson was awarded the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, and the album of the same name topped the country and mainstream charts. Despite not being crossover hits, Tougher Than Leather (1983), Without a Song (1984), and City of New Orleans (1984) all reached the top of the country charts. Nelson and Julio Iglesias collaborated on the 1982 song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” a major international hit.

The Highwaymen

The next year, Nelson united with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson to form the country supergroup the Highwaymen, adding to his list of successful collaborations. “You wouldn’t expect our four discordant voices to mix. However, they did. “They fit together like a jigsaw piece,” writes Nelson in It’s a Long Story of the gang.

Their 1985 first album, Highwayman, went platinum, and the title hit topped the country charts. The trio would return to the studio twice more, for the 1990 album Highwayman 2 and the 1995 album The Road Goes On Forever. In the 1986 television film Stagecoach, Nelson would again feature alongside Kristofferson and Cash.

Farm Aid and Animal Activism

As a kid, Nelson’s enthusiasm for farming was solidified as he raised calves and pigs and helped his adored grandparents tend to the crops. “Even though I didn’t use fancy terms like ‘horticulturist’ or ‘breeder,’ I was honing my agricultural abilities at the time,” he adds. Not just because of my grandparents’ advice, but also because I was a member in good standing of the Future Farmers of America, a proud organization with a large presence in rural cities during the Great Depression.

Nelson never lost touch with his agricultural background, and in 1985 he helped organize the inaugural Farm Aid event alongside Neil Young and John Mellencamp. With performances by many of music’s top performers, Farm Aid raised approximately $10 million to assist family farmers in retaining their land and has since raised many millions more for its cause. Nelson continues to perform at the yearly occasion.

Over the years, Nelson has been active with several animal-welfare organizations, including the Society for Protective Animal Legislation, the Best Friends Animal Society, and the Animal Welfare Institute. Nelson has been actively involved with the latter in a fight to safeguard horses from slaughter. Willie and the Nelson Family, which includes his sister Billie, recorded “Wild Horses” for the benefit of the organization.

IRS and Legal Troubles

Beginning with the Internal Revenue Service hitting him with a $16 million bill for unpaid taxes, Nelson’s decade of the 1990s would be a mixture of highs and lows. Instead of declaring bankruptcy and abandoning his creditors, Nelson chose to battle the IRS.

To assist pay off the debt, he published the album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? while maintaining his sense of humor. Nelson claims that the IRS withdrew its case against him in exchange for a reduced payment of $6 million after protracted talks.

Nelson was given a tragic blow in 1991 when his 33-year-old son Billy died on Christmas Day in an “awful accident,” as he tells in It’s a Long Story. Nelson, who seldom discusses his children’s life in public, says that “the offspring of entertainers, particularly the children of roaming troubadours, pay a heavy price. Sharing your father with the world is not enjoyable. And when that father has through three turbulent marriages and is currently in his fourth, well, that’s no picnic. I regret the suffering brought by my lifestyle to my children.”

Despite these obstacles, Nelson persevered, and many of his albums, including Across the Borderline (1993) and Healing Hands of Time (1994), charted in the top twenty of the country music charts. In 1994, he was arrested in Texas for possession of marijuana, but the case was ultimately dismissed.

Later Albums: ‘Teatro’ to ‘Moment of Forever

In 1998, Nelson and producer Daniel Lanois collaborated on the album Teatro. The CD is distinguished by its minimal yet powerful rhythmic percussion. Emmylou Harris provides backing vocals on the CD, which comprises new renditions of numerous songs he previously recorded in the 1960s.

Nelson continued to tour extensively, frequently performing between 150 and 200 events each year, while still maintaining a prodigious compositional output. Reggae-influenced albums such as The Great Divide (2002) and Countryman (2005) are among the highlights of this period.

Moment of Forever was published by Nelson in 2008 and gained widespread critical acclaim. In the same year, he won a Grammy for the duet “Lost Highway” with Ray Price, whose album of “Night Life” over fifty years earlier had been one of Nelson’s initial triumphs.

Collaborations: Snoop Dogg, Merle Haggard, Sheryl Crow, and More

Nelson continues to work with a variety of music artists. In 2008, he performed live with rap legend Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam, and the two went on to collaborate on the video for “My Medicine.” In 2009, Nelson collaborated with the band Asleep at the Wheel to make the country swing album Willie and the Wheel, and in the same year, he released the album Naked Willie, which featured fresh mixes of his early recordings. 2010 saw the release of Country Music, a collaborative effort between Nelson and producer T Bone Burnett.

In 2012, after signing a new record contract with Legacy Recordings, Nelson released the album Heroes, which included, among others, Merle Haggard, Snoop, Kris Kristofferson, and Sheryl Crow. It reached No. 4 on the country charts and No. 18 on the mainstream charts, becoming his highest-charting single since “Always on My Mind.” In the same year, the Country Music Association honored Nelson at the CMAs in Nashville with an all-star tribute.

In 2014, shortly before his 81st birthday, Nelson demonstrated that he remained in peak physical condition by achieving his fifth-degree black belt in the martial art GongKwon Yusul. Nelson’s third album, Band of Brothers, was released in June of that year and yielded another No. 1 country single.

After earning the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress in 2015, Nelson released Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (2016), a homage to the legendary songs of George and Ira Gershwin including duets with Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow.

Still going strong, the country icon released God’s Problem Child in April 2017 and Last Man Standing, his 67th studio album, a year later. The remarkably ageless musician released Ride Me Back Home in 2019, and the album’s title single won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance.

Green Energy and Cannabis Firms

In 2004, Nelson began marketing his own brand of eco-friendly fuel, BioWillie, a blend of diesel and soybean-based biodiesel. Nelson stated in a 2005 interview, “If we can start generating our own fuel instead of waging conflicts over it, it appears to be beneficial for the entire planet.”

Nelson says in It’s a Long Story that he felt the same way about cannabis as he did about robust coffee beans and the energizing buzz they created. It propelled me on the appropriate path. It propelled me in the right way. It kept my mind focused on music. It flooded my thoughts with poetry.”

In 2015, it also prompted him to develop Willie’s Reserve, a range of marijuana products cultivated and sold in areas where marijuana was already legal. According to the company’s website: “For decades, while Willie Nelson and his band toured from city to city, cannabis aficionados flocked to his concerts. They generously shared the harvest from their home gardens with the surrounding villages. Willie graciously repaid the favour.”

Personal Life

Nelson wed Martha Matthews for the first time in 1952; they had three children, Lana, Susie, and Billy, before separating a decade later. In 1963, he wed singer Shirley Collie, and in 1971, he wed Connie Koepke, with whom he had daughters Paula and Amy.

Nelson and Ann Marie D’Angelo (Annie) got romantically connected after meeting during the production of the television film Stagecoach. “By that time, I had parted ways with Connie, who, like Martha and Shirley before her, had done her best to tolerate me. In It’s a Long Story, Nelson explains that marriage is not an easy process. “My relationship with Connie was not marked by faithfulness. I do not say this out of arrogance. I say that to be truthful.”

Nelson and Connie divorced in 1988, and in 1991, he wed D’Angelo. They have two boys, Lucas and Jacob Micah, and reside in a solar-powered sustainable village on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Nelson stated in 2015 of his fourth marriage, “Love is what brought Annie and I together, and it is love that, over 30 years later, has kept us together.” “That’s a record for me when it comes to romantic partnerships. It nearly took me a lifetime to get it perfect.”

A&E Concert Special

Willie Nelson: American Outlaw premiered on A&E on April 12 and gave viewers a front-row seat to Nashville’s one-night-only Willie Nelson tribute concert featuring George Strait, Jimmy Buffett, Chris Stapleton, Dave Matthews, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Norah Jones, and The Little Willies, among others. The two-hour show recognized Nelson as the creative mind behind some of country music’s greatest significant records by presenting more than 200 of his albums and emphasizing his seven-decade-long career. Over 20 never-before-seen performances, unique interviews, compelling behind-the-scenes videos of Nelson and some of music’s biggest celebrities, and an all-star sing-along of Nelson’s legendary smash “On The Road Again” were featured in the program.

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