A list of the most influential artists in history chosen by country stars themselves, another honoree is named each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown .
Beginning his career in the late ’50s, Nelson attempted to fit the mold of the clean-cut Nashville country singer at first but eventually changed course and moved to Austin, Texas, in the early ’70s.
From there, he would become one of the leading figures of the Outlaw country movement — in which artists sought greater creative control over their music — and released classic albums like Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, Red Headed Stranger and Stardust.
A celebrated songwriter with a singular vocal and guitar-playing style, Nelson’s hits include “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Crazy,” which became an iconic single for Patsy Cline. Nelson is also famed as a prolific duet partner, scoring collaborative hits like “Pancho & Lefty” with Merle Haggard and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with Jennings.
He continues to record and tour tirelessly, his most recent album being 2014’s Band of Brothers. He is president of the board of directors for Farm Aid and a co-chair on the advisory board of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
In 1993, Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Merle Haggard, Randy Houser, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Ashley Monroe, Rhonda Vincent, Pam Tillis and Ronnie Dunn are just a few of the artists who named Nelson as a central influence on today’s country music landscape.
“His voice is unique and needs no correction,” Haggard said. “He has the perseverance matched by nobody that I know of, and he sincerely loves what he does. There’s nobody better at it.”
“Willie Nelson’s got one of the richest, most interesting voices there ever was,” Houser noted. “When you hear him tell a story or hear a song that he wrote and hear him do it, I mean, there’s so much conviction. You know that he’s felt those things, and that transcends anything. I don’t even know why people want to say anything about him having a nontypical voice in a negative way. I don’t care how your voice sounds, if it’s interesting, it’s interesting. That’s what the best voices are, to me.”
On top of his one-of-a-kind style, Nelson is also known for having a kind heart.
“I’ve known Willie for 40 years or longer, and he’s been the best friend a man could ever have,” Benson said. “I mean, musically he is Willie. There’s nobody like him. Playing onstage with Willie is as unique an experience as you can get because he does everything Willie’s way. Luckily, I’ve been with him so long that I know that way, and I love it and it’s just fun.”
“He has this peace about him, this overwhelming peace when you watch him sing or just being in his presence,” Monroe added. “He’s calm. He knows what he’s doing, and you can tell the songs he has written were supposed to be written. They’ve changed music history.”
“I think Willie Nelson has this very calming and very kind spirit that surrounds him,” Vincent agreed. “As you talk to him, he’s rather soft spoken and he kind of draws you in. I think you can’t help but just love him and love that he has that calming spirit about him, whatever it might be.”
But what really sets Nelson apart is the way he was able to change country music, just by being himself.
“Willie tried to make it as an entertainer in Nashville, but he was just a little too different,” Tillis said. “I remember when Willie had short hair and wore a turtle neck. (laughs) I guess he was coming out of that folk era. But then Willie just said, ’You know what? To hell with all you guys, the powers that be.’
“And when he owned up to who he was and grew his hair long and stopped caring what anybody thought, then it turned into magic. I just remember all of a sudden … hippie country took the country by storm. All of a sudden, you had hillbillies that could play arenas, and they changed the game.”
“Willie was an innovator,” Dunn concluded. “He brought a big social and cultural change to country music. He’s actually the first country artist I got excited about because I listened to as much rock as I did country. … And then Willie came along and fused that culture with sound, and it all came together.”