Published Jan 01, 2006Emmylou Harris once said, "If I could only imagine America having one voice, it would be Willie Nelson's." High praise indeed, but not inaccurate. In his warbly Texas twang, Nelson always manages to convey the pure joy of rowdy celebration, and the crushing heartache of love gone wrong, sometimes within the same song. Harris's assessment also stems from the fact that Nelson has never shied away from taking any style of music and making it his own. Even at his most extreme and overblown, Nelson's undeniable soul always shines through. He is an artist who struggled for the first two decades of his career creating hits for others, but the world finally caught up with his unwavering belief in his own ability. He is determination and individuality personified, and what would America be without these two things?
1933 to 1958
Willie Hugh Nelson is born April 30, 1933 in Abbott, Texas, a small farming community stricken hard by the Depression. Shortly after his birth, Nelson's parents, Ira and Myrle, separate, leaving him and his older sister Bobbie to be raised by Ira's parents. The elder Nelsons encourage both children to learn music; Bobbie takes up piano and Willie gets a guitar at age six. He also writes poetry, and begins singing his own songs during family gatherings and church functions. When Bobbie marries bandleader Bud Fletcher, both she and Willie join the band and get their apprenticeship playing Texas swing. Following high school, Nelson enlists in the Air Force but is given an early discharge when he suffers back problems. Now with a wife, Martha, and three children, he works as a door-to-door salesman, but returns to music in 1954 when he lands a job as a DJ at a country station in Fort Worth, TX. This leads to a string of other DJ jobs, until in 1957 Nelson finds himself at a station in Vancouver, Washington and an opportunity to make his first recordings. A single of Leon Payne's "Lumberjack" backed by his own "No Place For Me" is sold for $1 over the air, complete with an autographed picture of Nelson. With $3,000 from that venture, Nelson and his family move back to Texas, settling in Houston.
1959 to 1960
Nelson attempts to balance his family and career by working part-time as a DJ while playing the rough Texas honky-tonk circuit. Although the bars are often so dangerous that Nelson is required to carry a gun for protection, he begins making important friends with fellow up-and-coming singers like George Jones. One night at a joint near Houston called the Esquire Club, Nelson offers to sell singer Larry Butler some songs, saying he's broke. Butler declines, explaining that the songs will be more valuable if he hangs on to them. Still, Butler loans Nelson enough money to rent a house nearby for his wife and kids and gives him a job in his band. During this stint with Butler, Nelson pens "Night Life," and signs with D Records, a new label founded by George Jones's producer, Harold "Pappy" Daily. Daily decides to release two singles other than "Night Life," claiming the song is too bluesy, but these flop, prompting Nelson to record the song under a pseudonym for another label. Sadly, that flops as well and Nelson once again hears the wolf at the door. He sells the rights to "Night Life" and "Family Bible" for $200 to friend Paul Buskirk, a guitar teacher in Houston. In early 1960, Claude Gray records "Family Bible" for D Records and has an unexpected Top 10 hit, despite a name other than Nelson's listed as the writer. This is all the confirmation Nelson needs that he can write a hit. He determines it's now time to move to Nashville, the centre of the country music industry, and leaves behind his wife and children at his mother-in-law's house in Waco, Texas.
Relying on the few contacts he has in Nashville, Nelson tries to land a record deal. However, he quickly discovers that his trademark nasally tone and jazzy phrasing do not fit the industry mould. His family arrives and they all move into a trailer park, with Martha taking a waitressing job to support them. To make new contacts, Nelson hangs around Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the bar across the street from the Grand Ole Opry's Ryman Auditorium, widely known as the favourite haunt of musicians. There, he bluffs his way into a gig playing bass for Ray Price, even though he's never touched the instrument before. Also at Tootsie's, Nelson befriends another struggling young songwriter, Hank Cochran, who takes him to Pamper Music, the publishing company he recently signed with. Pamper sees potential in Nelson's work, but claims it can't afford to pay him the similar $50 per week salary it's paying Cochran. In a great gesture, Cochran declines a promised $50 raise, saying the money should go to hire Nelson. Now a professional songwriter, Nelson dives headlong into his work, churning out material in Pamper's offices. The first song to attract attention is "Hello Walls," which catches the ear of singer Faron Young. Nelson offers to sell the rights to Young for $500, but Young refuses, instead giving Nelson a $500 loan. When Young's recording eventually hits #1 and stays on top for nine weeks in the spring of 1961, Nelson's first royalty cheque is $20,000. Upon receiving it, Nelson tracks down Young at Tootsie's and kisses him on the mouth. With this success, Nelson joins the ranks of Nashville's other hot young writers, including Cochran, Harlan Howard, Roger Miller and Mel Tillis. His second massive hit comes soon after when Patsy Cline records "Crazy," which crosses over to the Pop charts as well. It will go on to be the most played song in jukebox history. The third comes when old Texas friend Billy Walker hits the Top 30 with "Funny How Time Slips Away." By the end of the year, Nelson is offered his own recording deal with Liberty Records.
1962 to 1964
The pressures of his career finally put an end to Nelson's marriage to Martha. He instead focuses on making records for Liberty, and his two albums for the label, And Then I Wrote and Here's Willie Nelson are typical Nashville productions, drenched in syrupy strings. They get a mediocre response, although he scores a minor hit with "Willingly," a duet with Shirley Collie, whom he marries in 1963. However, Nelson's reputation as a writer continues to grow. Joe Carson reaches the charts with "I Gotta Get Drunk," and Ray Price finally turns "Night Life" into a standard it will eventually be covered at least 70 more times. In 1964, Liberty drops its entire country roster and Nelson moves to Monument Records. He records several sessions, but none are deemed release-worthy. Nelson gives Roy Orbison (the label's top artist) "Pretty Paper" and it becomes another international smash. He makes his debut on the Grand Ole Opry, but Nelson continues to have trouble finding his niche as a performing artist.
1965 to 1967
Nelson seeks a distraction from the Nashville stress by buying a pig farm in nearby Ridgetop, Tennessee. Not long after, while Ray Price is over to show off his prized fighting rooster, Nelson accidentally shoots the bird, causing Price to vow never to record another of Nelson's songs. Fortunately, the rift is only temporary. Nelson signs a new recording deal with RCA and begins working with staff producer Chet Atkins. Although Atkins, creator of the "countrypolitan" sound, pulls out all the stops to make Nelson radio-friendly, his own versions of his songs on their first collaboration, Country Willie, pale beside the better-known cover versions. Its follow-up, Country Favourites, Willie Nelson Style, teams him with Ernest Tubb's band for a clumsy album of standards. A string of quickly forgotten albums continues in the next several years, each marked by the obvious struggle Nelson has convincing the company to allow him to follow his musical instincts. These are largely suppressed, with the notable exception of 1966's Country Music Concert, recorded live in Fort Worth, TX, which includes a moving version of the Beatles' "Yesterday."
1968 to 1971
Nelson begins to get the upper hand on RCA by finally demanding to record with his own road-hardened touring band. Texas In My Soul is an obvious homage to his roots, and a dismissal of his adopted city, yet still slips between the cracks of the country and folk crowds. He makes advances to the latter camp by recording more contemporary material like Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" on subsequent releases. Although it doesn't expand his audience, Nelson realises that a new approach to country music is on the horizon, one that will bridge the gaps with other genres. Nelson suffers personal tragedy when just before Christmas, 1970, his Ridgetop home burns down, destroying most of his personal belongings, except for his guitar and marijuana stash, which he runs into the burning building to retrieve. The album following the fire, Yesterday's Wine, is by far Nelson's best RCA release, comprising a suite of songs penned as a conversation with God, and soon-to-be concert staples like "Me And Paul," a tribute to his long-serving drummer Paul English. Nelson also interprets the fire as a sign to leave Nashville. He returns to Texas, setting up shop at the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera. The change in locale also brings about Nelson's first indication that he is fully embracing the counter-culture, as he grows his hair and beard.
1972 to 1974
After releasing three more albums in the space of a year to fulfil his RCA contract, Nelson is persuaded to sign with R&B/rock label Atlantic. Label A&R head Jerry Wexler sees crossover potential with country-tinged artists and his first signing in this vein is Nelson's friend, Tex-Mex rocker Doug Sahm. Nelson immediately agrees with Wexler's open-minded approach and brings his band (and third wife Connie) to New York for sessions with producer Arif Mardin. They come prepared to make two records, one a lively collection with Nelson singing under the good ol' boy persona Shotgun Willie, and the other a full-fledged gospel album comprised of songs he and sister Bobbie often played as children. Although the latter, entitled The Troublemaker, is intended to come out first, Atlantic ultimately balks at its religious content, putting out Shotgun Willie instead. The album receives glowing reviews from the rock press, helping to connect with younger fans. Nelson had seen his own crossover potential the previous year when he played Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters. A large rock venue run by the local hippie commune, it also hosts the new breed of country-rockers, such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Commander Cody. For Nelson's first appearance, hippies and his normal straight-laced audience peacefully co-mingle, thereby marking the formal truce between the two groups and a milestone in the alternative country movement. Nelson is so taken by the experience that he invites compadre Waylon Jennings to play the venue a few weeks later, to a similar rousing reception. Nelson does his next sessions for Atlantic at the famous Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama, emerging with Phases & Stages, a concept album dwelling on the breakdown of a marriage from both male and female perspectives. Although a far cry from the raggedness of Shotgun Willie, it will be regarded as a masterpiece of subtlety and insight.
1975 to 1976
Despite Nelson's rising popularity, Atlantic decides to shelve its country music experiment and Nelson signs with Columbia. The label's country division head, Billy Sherrill, objects, but is overruled by president Bruce Lundvall. However, Lundvall has second thoughts as well when Nelson submits his first album, another story-cycle called Red Headed Stranger. Recorded in three days at a small studio in Dallas, Lundvall initially thinks the ultra-sparse collection is a demo. When Nelson insists that it is the final product, everyone expects his tenure with Columbia to end before it begins. When it is released, the album is immediately Nelson's biggest seller, and single "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" dominates the charts for the remainder of the year. In years to come, Red Headed Stranger will be hailed by many critics as the greatest country album ever made. Nelson is suddenly a celebrity, and the entire music world latches on to not only his rough-edged image, but also those of his buddies Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, and anyone else outside the Nashville scene. The movement is dubbed "Outlaw Country," with Nelson as the reluctant figurehead, given that his annual Fourth of July festival in Texas now draws hundreds of thousands of fans. In 1976, Columbia finally releases The Troublemaker, which tops the charts for a surprising number of weeks as well. Sensing an opportunity to cash in, RCA (Jennings' label), ropes in Nelson for the album Wanted: The Outlaws, also featuring Jennings, Glaser, and Jessi Colter. Although a haphazard collection, it becomes the first country album to go platinum, firmly solidifying the "Outlaw" ethos. For his part, Nelson is content to hit the road with his band, which now includes his sister Bobbie, and the distinctive harmonica of Mickey Raphael.
1977 to 1980
Nelson and Jennings team up again, this time for the much stronger Waylon & Willie, containing the instant anthem "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." He also hits the charts to a lesser extent with a Lefty Frizzell tribute album, and the rousing double set, Willie & Family Live. But, as if to distance himself from the outlaw image, Nelson attempts another ambitious project, working with soul legend Booker T. Jones on an album of classic American popular songs from the first half of the century. Once again, Columbia senses a bomb on its hands and tries to steer Nelson in another direction. But Nelson cannot be stopped. Stardust is a critical hit and quickly sells three million copies. This success, coupled with Nelson's irresistible charisma, attracts the attention of Hollywood, and he takes his first supporting role in Robert Redford's The Electric Horseman, to which he also contributes the soundtrack. With hits on so many fronts, Nelson can now afford to ease off, and spends the remainder of the decade making more duet and tribute albums. The 70s are capped off with another film, this time with Nelson as the star of the pseudo-tour documentary Honeysuckle Rose, which introduces two more staples to his repertoire, "On The Road Again," and "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground." He also indulges his new-found passion for golf by purchasing a run-down country club near Austin and turning it into his new base of operations, adding a recording studio and offices for his new imprint label, Lone Star.
1981 to 1985
Nelson continues to coast musically, making Stardust's weaker sequel, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and further collaborations with Jennings, WWII and Take It To The Limit. He also repays past favours by doing likeable-but-lazy albums with Ray Price, Faron Young and Roger Miller. Signs of life are apparent in his 1982 collaboration with hard country legend Webb Pierce, In The Jailhouse Now, but Nelson firmly hits pay dirt with his next outing, Always On My Mind, an album of contemporary covers, led by the soaring title track. This coincides with a successful starring role in Barbarossa, a remake of the classic Western, Stagecoach. The following year sees a sequel to Red Headed Stranger called Tougher Than Leather, which falls short, but Nelson once again bounces back through duets, this time with Merle Haggard on "Pancho & Lefty," and Julio Iglesias on the notorious "To All The Girls I've Loved Before." Nelson continues to be a ubiquitous presence throughout the 1980s, appearing on albums by everyone from Ray Charles to Neil Young. His friendship with Young leads to the creation of Farm Aid in the aftermath of the 1985 Live Aid concert. The aim is to help American family farms survive government cutbacks. A concert is held every year henceforth, which raises millions for the cause. At the same time, Nelson joins friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in super-group the Highwaymen. Although their album doesn't live up to the hype, it is still a massive hit, helping to keep all four legends in the public eye as the "New Country" revolution gets underway.
1986 to 1991
When Robert Redford turns down the lead in a film version of Red Headed Stranger, Nelson steps in, although similarities to Barbarossa handicap the results. Likewise, another attempt at a big production album, The Promiseland, falls flat, and he returns to the safety of still more duets. A compilation of the best of these, Half Nelson, is his strongest seller in years. Although it is widely accepted that Nelson is a marijuana smoker, fans are still shocked when he is arrested for pot possession while on vacation in the Caribbean. To avoid prosecution, Nelson's lawyers cut a deal saying he will never return to the islands. Nelson is so overjoyed by the decision that he jumps from the courthouse steps and breaks his ankle. He returns to the U.S. with his leg in a cast. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of his legal woes it is discovered that his accountant has failed to file his income taxes for years. In 1990, the IRS finally comes with a bill totalling $9 million. To avoid jail time, Nelson has no choice but to declare bankruptcy and sell everything he can to pay his debt. In an overwhelming show of support, his many friends and fans buy the majority of the auctioned items, and give them back to Nelson. He also records the solo double album Who'll Buy My Memories, with all proceeds going directly to the IRS. Amid the troubles, it is small consolation when Nelson is elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1991, especially when he is reduced to doing product endorsements to earn money.
1992 to 1996
Eager to bounce back from such humiliation, Nelson calls on producer Don Was, then red hot after working with Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. Was envisions an album heavily rooted in Nelson's traditional strengths, but expanded to include more current sounds. The results are Across The Borderline, featuring Nelson's first collaboration with Dylan ("Heartland") and Paul Simon (a thoroughly revamped take of "Graceland."). Other guests include Sinead O'Connor, who overdubs her vocal on "Don't Give Up" the same night she is booed offstage at Madison Square Garden during a Dylan tribute concert. Although Borderline begins to turn around Nelson's life and career, he is arrested for pot possession again when a Texas state trooper finds a joint in his car's ashtray. The case will be thrown out six months later when a judge deems that the car was searched illegally. From that point on, Nelson becomes an outspoken advocate for marijuana law reform. However, this controversy pales beside another personal tragedy when son Willie Nelson Jr., troubled that his own music career can't get off the ground, commits suicide over Christmas, 1994. Nelson makes two more perfunctory releases to close out his long stint with Columbia. He signs with Island in 1996 and releases the fine, acoustic-based Spirit, while continuing to tour steadily with his band and make occasional film and TV appearances.
1997 to 2001
Seeking a new challenge, Nelson teams with producer Daniel Lanois and records Teatro at Lanois' converted movie theatre studio in the California desert. Although some fans are put off by Lanois' signature production style, the album brilliantly resurrects many of Nelson's best long-forgotten 60s compositions like "I Never Cared For You," and "Three Days." The ensuing years find him dabbling once again in different genres, most notably his first "blues" album, Milk Cow Blues, in 2000. That year, Nelson also throws his support behind independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. In the meantime he completes his first children's album, Rainbow Connection.
2002 to 2004
Nelson signs with upstart alt-country label Lost Highway and records The Great Divide, a big-budget production, populated by guests of dubious distinction (e.g., Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20). Die-hard fans dismiss it as bowing to mainstream tastes, but the album and single "Mendocino County Line" (a duet with Lee-Ann Womack) get Nelson back on the charts. This is followed by similarly-styled live albums Stars & Guitars and Live And Kickin', the latter from a concert marking Nelson's 70th birthday. Although he finds himself in odd company once again (Bon Jovi? Aerosmith?), the albums are saved by wonderful duets with Norah Jones, who emerges as the true heir to Nelson's country/pop/jazz legacy. Unfortunately, he also joins redneck meathead Toby Keith for a hit called "Beer For My Horses," another of Keith's abhorrent pro-American rants. However, this is all but ignored when Sugar Hill releases Crazy: The Demo Sessions, an amazingly unvarnished collection of Nelson's first Nashville recordings intended as demos for other artists. Nelson seems to take this album as a hint to return to simplicity; he releases the excellent It Always Will Be, following a summer tour with Bob Dylan. The album is proof that no matter how far Nelson may stray musically, or cater to outside expectations, he remains a master songwriter, and a true American original.
The Essential Willie Nelson
Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill, 2003)
The legend starts here. Fifteen classic songs in haunting, embryonic form, including the same version of "Crazy" that convinced Patsy Cline to record it. Everything Nelson will come to be loved for is here, making it hardly surprising that none of these recordings sound like they've aged a day.
Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975)
An unexpected breakthrough that kick-started the "Outlaw" revolution, this album remains a deceptively complex journey from start to finish. The general public latched onto the ballads, but on the whole the album is more like a country Dark Side Of The Moon.
Across The Borderline (Columbia, 1993)
The album that restored his reputation and career, it is one of the few cases when someone's outside vision (producer Don Was) actually complemented Nelson's own. Also, one of the few cases when an abundance of guests doesn't hamper things either, something Nelson will fall prey to in years to come.