Willie Nelson grew to greatness while country music was also maturing as a distinct art form. He was born in 1933, a month before Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music died, and the same year Bob Wills formed the Texas Playboys. Nelson’s arrival into the world came a decade before the Carter Family disbanded and Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry.
Born in Abbott, Texas and raised by his paternal grandparents, Nelson was learning the guitar and writing songs before he reached his teens. He would go on to become one of the most recorded and recognizable figures in the history of American music, regardless of genre. Along the way he would record 70 studio albums, 33 live albums, 25 albums with other artists, and soundtracks for movies he appeared or starred in. The number of singles he’s done for and with other artists are beyond counting.
Between 1962, when he charted his first single, and 2000, by which time his chart appearances as a singles artist had become rare, Nelson charted 117 songs.
Here’s a quick look at the Old Master’s contributions, honors and impacts during eight decades.
Nelson plays in local bands, books artists, promotes shows, and works as a DJ at stations in Texas and Vancouver, Washington. In 1957, he releases “No Place for Me,” his first self-written, self-recorded and self-promoted single. It’s issued under the Willie Nelson Records label.
In 1960, Nelson moves to Nashville and signs his first publishing deal. He begins getting major cuts from prominent country artists. Faron Young has a No. 1 in 1961 with “Hello Walls.” Billy Walker takes “Funny How Time Slips Away” to No. 23 the same year. Patsy Cline rings up a No. 2 with “Crazy,” also in 1961.
Nelson signs with Liberty Records in 1962 and proceeds to have a Top 10 that year with “Willingly,” a song recorded with his future wife, Shirley Collie. He does even better with his next single, “Touch Me,” his own composition, which rises to No. 7. That will be his biggest chart success as a recording act for the rest of the decade. But he has accumulated enough stature to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1964.
This is the decade that Nelson develops into full bloom. Chastened by his lack of success as a recording artist in Nashville, Nelson moves back to Texas, where he gradually evolves from the clean-cut, turtle-neck wearing dandy into the hippie persona he will inhabit for the rest of his life.
He stages the first of his cross-cultural music festivals July 4, 1973, in Dripping Springs, Texas. In 1975, he releases his bare bones concept album, Red Headed Stranger (which producer Billy Sherrill described as sounding like “a bad demo”). It becomes a big hit and yields Nelson — by now 44 years old — his first No. 1 single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The landmark song also nets him his first Grammy.
The next year, RCA, Nelson’s former label, assembles an album of formerly unreleased tracks by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser of the Glaser Brothers. It’s titled Wanted! The Outlaws and launches the “outlaw” movement.
With future classics like “Good Hearted Woman,” it not only romanticizes Waylon & Willie, but inspires other artists to exert more control over the music they record, including writing or choosing the songs and, often, recording with their own bands rather than with studio musicians. The project becomes country’s first platinum album.
Nelson turns out six more No. 1s during the 1970s, two of them with Jennings. In 1978, with his recording success to give him leverage, Nelson records an entire album of pop songs he’d loved in his youth — Stardust. It, too, becomes a bestseller and stays on the country chart for 10 years!
Nelson becomes something of a movie star in 1979 via his supporting role in the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda film, The Electric Horseman. By the end of the decade, he has a total of three Grammys on his shelf, all for his vocal performances.
This might be described as the “Willie & Me” decade because it’s bursting with duet efforts. During it, he records albums with Ray Price, Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings (2), Merle Haggard (2), Kris Kristofferson, Faron Young and Hank Snow.
Then there are his collaborative No. 1 hits: “Just to Satisfy You” (with Jennings), “Pancho and Lefty” (Haggard), “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (Julio Iglesias), “Seven Spanish Angels” (Ray Charles), “Highwayman” (Jennings, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash) and “Mind Your Own Business” (Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, Tom Petty, Reverend Ike).
May of his own solo hits during this era are now considered classics: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “Always on My Mind,” to name a few.
Concerned about the number of American family farms going into bankruptcy, Nelson co-founds Farm Aid in 1985. Except for two years, it has been held annually ever since, always with Nelson co-headlining it. Nelson also acts in several movies during the 1980s, notably Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Barbarossa (1982), The Songwriter (1984) and Red Headed Stranger (1987). He adds three more Grammys to his collection, including the President’s Merit Award in 1986.
Talk about emotional extremes! Discovering that his accountants have failed to pay his taxes, Nelson begins the ’90s deep in debt and stripped of most of his assets. With typical resourcefulness, he sits down with just his guitar and records the ironically titled 1991 album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? It doesn’t settle his debt, but it helps, and it nets him tons of useful publicity.
Then, only two years later, he’s inducted the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among the 14 studio albums he turns out during this decade are two with his piano-playing sister, Bobbie Nelson: the gospel collection How Great Thou Art and Hill Country Christmas.
His choice of material ranges from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on 1992’s Across the Borderline to his own self-written, self-produced tracks on 1996’s Spirit. In 1999, he turns to producer Daniel Lanois to create the more musically adventurous collection, Teatro, with Emmylou Harris guesting. It features several of Nelson’s earlier but less known compositions.
Nelson begins the new century receiving a lifetime achievement Grammy, then collects another Grammy for “Mendocino County Line,” a duet with Lee Ann Womack. In 2003, he and Ray Price release the album Run That By Me One More Time. The same year, he joins admirer Toby Keith for the single “Beer For My Horses,” which promptly gallops into No. 1.
SiriusXM rebrands its classic country station in 2006 from Hank’s Place to Willie’s Place (and, in 2011, Willie’s Roadhouse). Nelson, Price and Merle Haggard return to the studio to record the poignant 2007 collection Last of the Breed, with its pensive track “Lost Highway” winning a Grammy.
In 2009, Nelson tips his hat to fellow Texan and Hall of Fame songwriter with the tribute album You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. In a more lively turn, he teams up in 2009 with the western swing band Asleep at the Wheel to pump out Willie and the Wheel. As he periodically does, he returns to the Great American Songbook for his final album of the decade, American Classics. It features guest appearances by Norah Jones and Diana Krall.
Nelson continues to try his hand with new producers and new backup musicians in 2010 when he pairs with T. Bone Burnett for the album Country Music. (Burnett had worked his career-revivalist wonders earlier in the decade with Ralph Stanley.) The album digs deep in the traditional country repertoire to spotlight such great perennials as “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Freight Train Boogie,” “House of Gold” and “I Am a Pilgrim.”
Nelson reunites with Merle Haggard in 2015 for Django & Jimmie, a loving tribute to Nelson’s idol, the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and Haggard’s chief inspiration, Jimmie Rodgers. Haggard dies the following year. Two albums earn Nelson best traditional pop vocal Grammys: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (2016) and My Way (2018), his hat-doffing to the songs of Frank Sinatra.
Earlier this year, Nelson won his 10th career Grammy Award for the title track of his 2019 album, Ride Me Back Home, in the category of best country solo performance. He promises his 70th studio album for July 2020, First Rose of Spring. It rings out with such eternals as “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight,” “Just Bummin’ Around,” “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.”
Willie Nelson IS American music — and he’s got the records to prove it.