You just can’t say Willie Nelson’s name without smiling. The Texas icon is known for taking country music to the world and in turn he brought the world to country music. On the occasion of the release of First Rose of Spring, (his 143rd album by the count of Texas Monthly), and of course because of his long-running Fourth of July Picnics, CMT recognizes Nelson as a legend we love.
During his long career, Nelson may be best known for his good works, for his extraordinary songwriting, his mastery of many music genres, and for the durability and strength of his live performances. As a singer, songwriter, all-around entertainer, bandleader, consummate duet partner, actor and social activist, he has no rival in the world of popular music.
Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. His parents divorced and he and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents. Willie learned guitar and his sister played piano. While Willie was in high school, he and Bobbie played in the Bohemian Fiddlers. After high school, he joined the Air Force but was forced to leave due to a back condition. He also briefly attended Baylor University in Waco. In 1952, he married Martha Matthews, the first of four wives.
Throughout the 1950s, Nelson continued to hone his musical skills by playing in honky-tonks and working as a DJ in Fort Worth and Houston, as well as Vancouver, Washington, where he made his first self-released records.
In Houston, such songs as “Family Bible” began to attract attention. He moved to Nashville, where songwriter Hank Cochran signed him to Pamper Music. His songs soon became legend: “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker, and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young were a few.
But he could not succeed as a recording artist. Nashville producers complained that he sang behind the beat, that his guitar playing was crazy, and that he just plain did not fit in with Music City’s then country pop sound. Only two of his early singles reached the Top 10: “Willingly” (with future wife Shirley Collie) and “Touch Me,” both in 1962.
One night, he lay down in the middle of Lower Broadway in front of Tootsies Orchid Lounge and waited to be run over. Nothing happened, but he decided he really did not fit in. His house burned outside Nashville and Nelson later confirmed the old story that he rushed into the conflagration to rescue his battered guitar case — which contained his stash of marijuana. But the house fire solidified his idea to move back to Texas and become a farmer.
In Austin, he happened to discover the Armadillo World Headquarters, an old National Guard Armory that had been converted into a sort of hippie concert hall with a beer garden outside. The audience, Nelson soon saw, was a strange combination of hippies and cowboys who both liked what was then considered “progressive country music.” Which was exactly what Nelson was writing and playing.
He was quickly accepted and gone were any ideas of giving up music. Within six months, his appearance changed completely. Gone was the Willie Nelson who looked like a short-haired insurance salesman wearing a conservative suit. In his place was Willie, resplendent with long hair, beard, and denim.
In 1973, Nelson held his first Fourth of July Picnic, as a sort of progressive music celebration. It was staged outdoors in Dripping Springs near Austin, the site of the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion, which Nelson had played. The Fourth of July Picnics continued for decades to come — but not always annually or in the same city, and sometimes not even in Texas.
In time he invited Waylon Jennings to come and play the Armadillo. Jennings and Nelson were labelmates at RCA Nashville and were both chafing at the bit and seeking musical independence. Nelson would achieve his by leaving RCA and Nashville; Jennings started his own bid for freedom in Nashville. Their alliance led to the Wanted: the Outlaws which would shortly become a landmark work.
Meanwhile, Nelson was recording a sparse, mostly self-written concept album at a little studio in Dallas. Red-Headed Stranger collected Nelson’s originals, old gospel tunes, and the early 1940s song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose.
Stranger was released in June 1975; Outlaws followed in February of 1976. Both forever changed the course of country music. A compilation with Nelson and Jennings as well as Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, Outlaws quickly became the first million-selling country album and that forever altered the balance of power in Nashville. The producer had previously ruled that world. With Outlaws, the artist began to seize power.
Stranger hit a million in sales after Outlaws, but more importantly, the first single from the album became Nelson’s first No. 1 song. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” established Nelson as a major solo artist in 1975. He was 42 years old at the time and hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in 13 years.
In 1978, he again confounded the music world when he switched gears completely and released Stardust, a collection of pop music standards produced by Booker T. Jones. Two singles from the album — “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies” — topped the country chart.
He continued on his eclectic way, cutting duet albums with Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Leon Russell. His duet with Julio Iglesias on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” again hit No. 1. His tours and albums with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen were successes. His later duet partners ranged from Sheryl Crow to Norah Jones. He recorded gospel, reggae, jazz and never stopped experimenting.
His magic touch as a songwriter and musician and his generosity in recording duets with artists of lesser wattage than he led to a flurry of novelty country singles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, including David Allan Coe’s “Willie, Waylon and Me,” comic George Burns’ “Willie, Won’t You Sing a Song With Me” and Ray Price’s “Willie, Write Me a Song.”
However these decades proved among his most fruitful, with No. 1 hits like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “Always on My Mind,” along with chart-topping collaborations such as “Heartbreak Hotel” (with Russell), “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Just to Satisfy You” (with Jennings), “Pancho and Lefty” (with Haggard), and “Seven Spanish Angels” (with Ray Charles). In 2003, he rallied back to No. 1 at country radio for six weeks as a duet partner with Toby Keith on “Beer for My Horses.”
Along the way, his acting credits included the movies The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, The Songwriter, Red Headed Stranger, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Zoolander 2, Wag the Dog, and The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as several TV series in which he often appeared as himself.
In 1990, the IRS declared that he owed almost $17 million in back taxes. To pay them, he was forced to sell off many assets, some of which were bought by friends, who gave them back once the debt was erased. His Who’ll Buy My memories (The IRS Tapes) album helped knock the debt down. He finally settled with the IRS for $12.6 million.
With Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson co-founded Farm Aid in 1985, an annual all-star concert benefit to support family farmers, and he stayed active in the organization for decades to come. In the ’90s his radio career dimmed, yet his album output remained remarkable, with titles such as Across the Borderline, Spirit, and Teatro, to name a few. The first decade of the 2000s brought forth Countryman, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, and Last of the Breed, with Haggard and Price.
Among his late-career albums were 2014’s Band of Brothers, 2015’s Django & Jimmie with Merle Haggard, and 2017’s God’s Problem Child, which all debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country album chart. In addition he won Grammys in the category of Best Traditional Pop Album for 2016’s Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin and 2018’s My Way.
Nelson’s recording of “Ride Me Back Home” earned him his 10th Grammy for performance. Three more Grammy awards were honorary rather than competitive: Lifetime Achievement (2000), Grammy Legend (1990) and the President’s Merit Award (1986).
In 2013, Berklee College of Music presented him an honorary doctorate. Two years later the Library of Congress awarded him its Gershwin prize. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001.
Either as a solo artist or in league with others, Nelson scored 21 No. 1 singles, including “Highwayman.” Even in his early 80s, Nelson toured and recording incessantly. On tour, the ritual remained the same: stepping out in front of a huge Texas flag backdrop, Nelson & Family (with Bobbie on piano) would kick into the first strains of “Whiskey River,” written by his old pal Johnny Bush. Then it was off to the races. As he would often quip: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”
Nelson will forever stand as country music’s ambassador to the world — as a social activist for aid to farmers, for the anti-war movement and for the use of biodiesel. And, finally, he will always be considered a major innovator in both country and pop music.