Willie Nelson: 10 Essential No. 1s

Country Icon Celebrates 86 Years Around the Sun

Willie Nelson will go down in history as one of country music’s most prolific hit-makers. In a radio interview from 1996, he revealed he wrote and co-wrote “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life” within one week. To date, Nelson has written more than 2,500 songs, recorded more than 250 albums and appeared in more than 25 films. But ironically enough, some of his greatest hits were covers.

He is a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement award winner, a Kennedy Center Honoree and a member of both the Country Music and Songwriters Halls of Fame. He won the CMA for entertainer of the year in 1979 and in 2012, and he was the first recipient of the organization’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Essentially, he is a national treasure.

While he prepares to release his new studio album God’s Problem Child on April 28, here are 10 essential Nelson No. 1s:

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”

This 1945 Fred Rose original is one of country music’s most enduring hits and has been recorded by many famous entertainers, including Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley. But Nelson’s take from 1975’s Red Headed Stranger is arguably country music’s most popular rendition. It was also Nelson’s first two-week No. 1 as an artist, and it won him his first Grammy for best male country vocal performance.

“Good Hearted Woman” with Waylon Jennings

This Jennings and Nelson original was their first No. 1 together, and it is one of the biggest hits from the first platinum-selling country album, Wanted! The Outlaws. The song was a three-week No. 1 in Feb. 1976, and it was awarded the CMA’s single of the year in Oct. later that year.

“If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)”

Nelson recorded this Lefty Frizzell original for his 1976 album, The Sound in Your Mind, and then again for his 1977 Frizzell tribute, To Lefty From Willie. In Sept. 1976, the song became his second No. 1 as a solo artist. A mix of standards and three originals, The Sound in Your Mind album was as a precursor of his 1978 standards compilation, Stardust.

“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with Waylon Jennings

Originally written by Ed Bruce and Patsy Bruce, this Jennings-Nelson classic kicks off their 1978 album, Waylon & Willie. “Mammas” was a four-week No. 1 and won the Grammy for best country performance by a duo or group in 1979. The Waylon & Willie collection spent 11 weeks at the top of the country charts and was awarded double-platinum status by the RIAA in 1985.

“Georgia On My Mind”

This is one of two Hoagy Carmichael classics featured on the Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust. Nelson’s version of this 1930 standard went No. 1 in June, 1978 and won Nelson the 1979 Grammy for best male country vocal performance. It also features a solo by his longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. The Ray Charles version is the official state song of Georgia.

“Blue Skies”

Another Stardust number, Nelson’s version of this Irving Berlin original went No. 1 in Sept. 1978 and features a solo on his famous acoustic guitar, Trigger. Kicking off with groovy soul guitar, the track builds with piano, strings and more harp playing by Raphael.

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

Co-written by Bill Rice and Sharon Vaughn, Nelson originally sang this song as “Wendell” in Sydney Pollack’s 1979 film The Electric Horseman — a western starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. The ballad’s lyrics have the main character burning up childhood days while pursuing the life of high-ridin’ heroes. With a line that mentions picking up hookers instead of pen, it might be Nelson’s raciest No. 1.

“On the Road Again”

Nelson lives to make music with friends in this classic from the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose. He plays the lead in the movie, which tells the story of the fictional country singer Buck Bonham. The plot follows Bonham as he gets caught in a love triangle between his wife and the daughter of his longtime musical sidekick. But it primarily highlights Nelson’s singing and the Texas honky-tonk scene. The soundtrack is considered an anomaly in the genre because it’s a live album by Nelson and his family featuring several a-list guests including Hank Cochran, Jeannie Seely and Emmylou Harris. “On the Road Again” won Nelson the 1980 Grammy for best country song.

“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”

This is another No. 1 from the Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack. The ballad is heavy on Trigger finger-picking and has Nelson singing passionately about the passing of a loved one who left this world too soon.

“Pancho and Lefty” with Merle Haggard

This Townes Van Zandt song is the title track of Haggard and Nelson’s first album together and opens the 1983 collection. The song poem was originally recorded for Van Zandt’s 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt and tells the story of two outlaw bandits. Pancho is a seemingly invincible character with a horse as fast as polished steel. But when he is killed in the Mexican desert, nobody heard his dying words, and it’s never explained how he meets his end. The loss leaves his friend Lefty in despair and on the day of Pancho’s funeral, he flees in grief to Ohio where he lives the rest of his days alone.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.