Who Is Willie Nelson?
Country singer and songwriter Willie Nelson rose to prominence at the end of the 1960s and contributed to the "outlaw country" subgenre, which challenged the music industry conservatism of Nashville at the time. During his lengthy, award-winning career, he has written some of the most popular and memorable country songs of all time, many of which have been covered by a wide range of artists over the last half-century. Now in his 80s, Nelson continues to record, tour and devote time to charitable and political causes.
Nelson was born on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. The son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, were raised by their paternal grandparents during the Great Depression.
With their grandparents, Willie and Bobbie attended their town’s small Methodist church, where they received their earliest exposure to music. Their loving grandparents had a musical background and Nelson has described them as “dedicated musical teachers.” They encouraged Willie and his sister to play and learn, going so far as to order musical books from Chicago.
Nelson got his first guitar at the age of six — mere months prior to the death of his beloved grandfather — and he began writing his own poetry and early musical compositions shortly thereafter. His famous gospel song “Family Bible” draws from his early exposure to religious music. He sold the song to his friend Paul Buskirk, a guitar teacher, for $50 in 1959.
Though family and faith were and remain top priorities for Nelson, in his 2015 memoir It’s a Long Story: My Life, the self-described guitar “picker” recalls that church “did not calm my restless and rambunctious soul. … Mama Nelson had to tether toddler Willie to a pole in the yard to keep him from wandering off. Don’t know where I’d have gone if I could have, but I had the itch early on–the itch to look beyond the end of the road.”
A few years later, he started playing his first professional gigs with a local polka band. A job at odds with his Christian upbringing. “I was ten, a member in good standing of the Methodist Church and a devoted grandson,” Nelson writes. “At the same time, when I was invited to play music in a beer joint, I said to hell with all the objections raised by the bible-thumpers.”
In 1947 Nelson joined the gospel group Bud Fletcher and the Texans, which already featured Bobbie on piano. He continued to attend school and lettered in numerous sports. The band played the local club circuit for the next few years and Bobbie and Bud Fletcher married. It was during this time Nelson first appeared on local radio.
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1950, Nelson enlisted in the United States Air Force and first stationed at Lackland in San Antonio. The Korean War was raging but his military career was short-lived when persistent back problems from previous injuries led to a medical discharge nine months later.
Unsure of where to turn next, Nelson briefly enrolled in a farming program at Baylor University. While pursuing his studies, he took odd jobs to make ends meet, including selling encyclopedias door to door. But Nelson had not lost his passion for music, which he pursued by working as a disc jockey for various radio stations.
Early Songs: "Night Life," "Crazy," "Hello Walls"
Nelson moved around over the next few years, regularly playing gigs at local clubs and honing his songwriting craft. It was during this period that Nelson penned some of his finest early work, including "Night Life," "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away."
In 1960, Nelson settled in the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee, where he found a job as a songwriter for Pamper Music, earning a salary of around $50 a week. The following year, two of Nelson's creations became hits for other artists — Faron Young's version of "Hello Walls" reached No. 1 on the country charts and sold two million copies. Patsy Cline's legendary rendition of "Crazy" became a Top 10 hit on both country and pop. Two years later, Ray Price’s recording of his “Night Life” was also a Top 40 country hit.
However, despite these successes, Nelson’s own recordings fell on deaf ears during this period. He did not fit the traditional Nashville country music mold, and whenever producers tried to make him fit they only succeeded in stripping away the qualities that helped make him unique, such as his unusual manner of phrasing.
“No one should try to follow my phrasing,” Nelson writes in It’s a Long Story. “My phrasing is peculiar to me. I’ll lay back on the beat or jump ahead. I’m always doing something funny with time because, to me, time is a flexible thing. I believe in taking my time. When it comes to singing a song, I’ve got all the time in the world.”
His resistance to such efforts — as well as his growing reputation as a hard-living, hard-drinking man — only served to highlight his outsider status. “With all the music coming out of Nashville–all the great musicians and legendary producers–you’d think I’d be a natural fit,” Nelson writes. “I never was. For that I don’t blame Nashville. I blame my own peculiar nature.”
Though the 1962 single “Touch Me” did reach the country Top 10, Nelson’s debut album, And Then I Wrote, failed to chart, as did his follow-up album, Here’s Willie Nelson. It seemed his efforts as a performing artist would fail to bring the success that others enjoyed from recording his songs.
Return to Texas
By 1970 Nelson had set up home in Ridgetop, Tennessee, and that year his house burned down. During the blaze Nelson describes running inside and grabbing two guitar cases. “One contained [his guitar] Trigger and the other two pounds of primo Columbian pot,” he writes in It’s a Long Story.
Nelson took the fire as a sign that things needed to change. Returning to his native Texas with family in tow, he settled in Austin and soon became an important part of the city’s country music scene, performing regularly at its many venues.
He also began hosting his now-legendary Fourth of July picnics in 1973. Inspired by Woodstock, the gatherings became popular musical celebrations and included performances from other country music outlaws, such as Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. In honor of his contributions, in 1975 the Texas State Senate declared July 4 to be Willie Nelson Day. The annual event remains a popular attraction.
'Shotgun Willie' and 'Phases and Stages'
Back on his home turf, Nelson also resumed his recording efforts, but in his own style and on his own terms. Soon, that unique approach won the long-haired, bandanna-wearing performer a devoted following. Released in 1973, Shotgun Willie is considered by many to be one of his best albums, showcasing his abilities as a singer, storyteller and performer, despite the fact that it did not chart well. The same would be true of 1974’s Phases and Stages.
Rise of the 'Red-Headed Stranger'
However, with 1975’s Red-Headed Stranger, Nelson had his real first taste of success. Not only did the album reach No. 1 on the country charts, but it also crossed over to the pop Top 40. Among the highlights from the recording is the Fred Rose–penned number “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which gave Nelson his first No. 1 country hit and earned him his first Grammy Award for best country vocal performance.
Around this time, Nelson’s collaborative endeavors found fertile ground as well. Along with Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, he contributed to the compilation Wanted! The Outlaws (1976), which also achieved both critical and commercial success.
Grammys for 'Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up' and 'Georgia on My Mind'
Nelson would team up with Jennings again soon after to record the popular single "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," which won the 1978 Grammy Award for best country vocal performance by a duo or group.
Always interested in different music styles, Nelson recorded his own takes on American standards on Stardust (1978), and his cover of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia on My Mind" earned him his second Grammy Award for best country vocal performance. Beyond its critical success, the album proved to have commercial staying power as well, lingering on the country charts for an entire decade.
Films and "On the Road Again"
Riding high on his newfound musical successes, Nelson also brought his distinctive presence to the big screen. He first appeared in The Electric Horseman (1979) alongside Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and the following year he starred in Honeysuckle Rose (1980), in which he played a veteran country musician performer torn between his wife (played by Dyan Cannon) and the young singer (Amy Irving) who joins him on the road. Although the film was only mildly successful, it featured the song "On the Road Again," which earned Nelson an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Now considered a trademark Nelson tune, it also won that year’s Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
Nelson starred as the titular role of the Red Headed Stranger, the 1986 western drama film based on his 1975 album of the same name. He would later go on to appear in films such as The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), Blonde Ambition (2007), Beer for My Horses (2008) and Zoolander 2 (2016).
"Always on My Mind" and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before"
The 1980s brought continued musical success. Nelson’s ballad "Always on My Mind" won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1982, and the album of the same name topped both the country and pop charts. Though Tougher Than Leather (1983), Without a Song (1984) and City of New Orleans (1984), did not prove to be crossover hits, all three still reached the top of the country charts. Nelson teamed up with Julio Iglesias for the ballad "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (1982), a massive international success.
Adding to his resume of successful collaborations, the following year Nelson joined with Johnny Cash, Jennings and Kristofferson to form the country supergroup the Highwaymen. “You wouldn’t think that our four uneven voices would blend. But they did. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” Nelson writes of the group in It’s a Long Story.
Their first release, Highwayman (1985), went platinum, and the title track reached No. 1 on the country charts. The group would return to the studio two more times, for 1990’s Highwayman 2 and 1995’s The Road Goes on Forever. Nelson would also star alongside Kristofferson and Cash in the 1986 television movie Stagecoach.
Farm Aid and Animal Activism
As a child, Nelson’s love of the farming life was cemented as he raised calves and hogs, and helped tend the vegetables alongside his beloved grandparents. “Even though I didn’t use fancy words like ‘horticulturalist’ or ‘breeder,’ I was developing skills at farming,” he writes of the time. “Not only because of my grandparents’ instructions but because I was a member in good standing of the Future Farmers of America, a proud organization that was strong in the rural cities of Depression-time America.”
Nelson never lost touch with his farming roots, and in 1985 — along with fellow rockers Neil Young and John Mellencamp — he helped organize the first Farm Aid concert. With performances by scores of music’s biggest names, it earned nearly $10 million to help family farmers keep their land, and to date, the Farm Aid organization has earned many millions more for its cause. Nelson continues to perform at the annual event.
Nelson has a strong compassion for animals, and over the years he has been involved with various animal-welfare groups, including the Society for Protective Animal Legislation, Best Friends Animal Society and the Animal Welfare Institute. With the latter, Nelson has become deeply involved in a campaign to save horses from slaughter. His group Willie and the Nelson Family, which features his sister, Billie, recorded the song “Wild Horses” to benefit the cause.
IRS and Legal Troubles
For Nelson, the 1990s would prove to be a mix of ups and downs, beginning with the Internal Revenue Service slapping him with a $16 million bill for unpaid taxes. Rather than declare bankruptcy and leave creditors hanging, Nelson decided to fight the IRS.
Maintaining his sense of humor in the face of adversity, he released the album The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? to help pay the debt. After lengthy negotiations, Nelson says the IRS dropped proceedings against him for a reduced payment of $6 million.
In 1991, Nelson was dealt a devastating blow when his 33-year-old son Billy died on Christmas Day in what Nelson describes as “a terrible accident” in It’s a Long Story. Rarely discussing his children’s lives publicly, Nelson writes he believes “the children of entertainers – especially the children of wandering troubadours – pay a big price. Sharing your dad with the world isn’t fun. And when that dad has moved through three tumultuous marriages and is on his fourth – well, that’s no picnic. I regret the pain that my lifestyle has caused my kids.”
Despite such difficulties, Nelson persevered, and several of his albums, including Across the Borderline (1993) and Healing Hands of Time (1994), reached the country Top 20. The law caught up with him again in 1994 when he was arrested for marijuana possession in Texas, with the case eventually being thrown out.
Later Albums: 'Teatro' to 'Moment of Forever'
In 1998, Nelson worked with producer Daniel Lanois on the album Teatro. The album is noted for its sparse yet strong rhythmic percussion. The album delivers a fresh take on several songs he’d first recorded in the 1960s, and features background vocals by Emmylou Harris.
Nelson continued to tour heavily, often playing as many as 150 to 200 dates a year, while maintaining his prolific songwriting output. Among the highlights from this period are The Great Divide (2002) and Countryman (2005), which incorporated elements of reggae.
In 2008, Nelson released Moment of Forever, which garnered much critical praise. He also scored a Grammy that same year for the single "Lost Highway," a duet performed with Ray Price, whose recording of “Night Life” nearly a half-century before had been one of Nelson’s earliest successes.
Collaborations: Snoop Dogg, Merle Haggard, Sheryl Crow and More
Nelson also continued to collaborate with a range of recording artists. In 2008, he performed live in Amsterdam with rap icon Snoop Dogg, and the duo went on to work together on the video for "My Medicine." In 2009, Nelson teamed up with music group Asleep at the Wheel to release the country swing album Willie and the Wheel, and that same year he released Naked Willie, which included new mixes of his early recordings. In 2010, Nelson released the critically acclaimed Country Music, a collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett.
After signing a new record deal with Legacy Recordings, in 2012 Nelson released the album Heroes, which featured appearances by Merle Haggard, Snoop, Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow, among others. It reached No. 4 country and No. 18 pop, his highest-charting effort since “Always on My Mind.” That same year, the Country Music Association honored Nelson with an all-star tribute at the CMAs in Nashville.
Shortly before his 81st birthday in 2014, Nelson also showed that he was still in top physical form, earning his fifth-degree black belt in the martial art GongKwon Yusul. His next album, Band of Brothers, was released that June and delivered Nelson yet another No. 1 country hit.
After receiving the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by the Library of Congress in 2015, Nelson released Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (2016), a tribute to the iconic songs of George and Ira Gershwin and featuring duets with artists such as Crow and Cyndi Lauper.
Still going strong, the country legend released God's Problem Child in April 2017, and one year later followed with Last Man Standing, his 67th studio album. In 2019, the seemingly ageless artist released Ride Me Back Home, its title track going on to win a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance.
Green Fuel and Cannabis Companies
In 2004, Nelson started marketing his own brand of green fuel, BioWillie, a combination of diesel and biodiesel made from soybeans. "It seems like that's good for the whole world if we can start growing our own fuel instead of starting wars over it," said Nelson in a 2005 interview.
Of his longtime love affair with marijuana, Nelson writes in It’s a Long Story that “just as I’ve always loved robust coffee beans and the strong buzz produced by the brew, I felt the same way about cannabis. It pushed me in the right direction. It pushed me in a positive direction. It kept my head in my music. It kept my head filled with poetry.”
In 2015 it also led him to launch a new business venture — Willie’s Reserve, a line of marijuana products grown and sold in the states where pot was already legal. As the company’s website states: “For decades, as Willie Nelson and his band traveled from town to town, pot enthusiasts flocked to his shows. They happily shared the bounty from their home gardens and local communities. Willie happily returned the favor.”
In 1952, Nelson married for the first time, to Martha Matthews, with whom he had three children — Lana, Susie and Billy — before they split up a decade later. He followed by marrying singer Shirley Collie in 1963 and then Connie Koepke in 1971, with whom he had daughters Paula and Amy.
Nelson became involved with Ann Marie D'Angelo (Annie) after they met on the set of the TV movie Stagecoach. “By then I was separated from Connie, who, like Martha and Shirley before her, had tried their level best to put up with me. No easy task,” Nelson writes of marital life in It’s a Long Story. “My years with Connie were not noted for fidelity on my part. I don’t say that to be prideful. I say it to be truthful.”
Nelson and Connie divorced in 1988 and he married D'Angelo in 1991. They have two sons, Lucas and Jacob Micah, and live in a sustainable solar-powered community in Hawaii, on the island of Maui. “It’s love that brought Annie and me together, and it’s love that, nearly 30 years later, has kept us together,” Nelson wrote in 2015 of his fourth marriage. “When it comes to romantic relationships, that’s a record for me. Took me damn near a lifetime to get it right.”
A&E Concert Special
Willie Nelson: American Outlaw, premiered Sunday, April 12, on A&E, and gave viewers a front-row seat at Nashville’s one night only Willie Nelson tribute concert featuring an incredible line up of performers including George Strait, Jimmy Buffett, Chris Stapleton, Dave Matthews, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Norah Jones and The Little Willies and many more. Celebrating Nelson's seven-decade long career and highlighting over 200 of his albums, the two-hour special honored the iconic Texan as the creative genius behind some of country music’s most historic recordings. The special featured over 20 never before televised performances, exclusive interviews, captivating behind the scenes footage of Nelson and some of music’s biggest superstars, and an all-star sing-along of Nelson's classic hit “On The Road Again.”
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