William Hugh “Willie” Nelson (born April 30, 1933) is an American entertainer and songwriter, and originally from Abbott, Texas. He reached his greatest fame during the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s, though he had already become famous as a 1960s songwriter.
Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Nelson, were raised by their grandparents after their father died and their mother ran away. Willie played the guitar, while Bobbie played the piano. She met Bud Fletcher, a fiddler, and both siblings joined his band while Willie was in high school.
After graduation, Nelson joined the Air Force, but left due to back problems. He also attended Baylor University for one year. Eventually, he became a DJ at a country radio station in Fort Worth, Texas, while singing locally in honky tonk bars. In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career by recording “Lumberjack” by Leon Payne. The single sold respectably but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to DJ and sing in clubs, and sold a song called “Family Bible” for fifty dollars; the song was a hit for Claude Gray in 1960, has been covered widely, and is often considered a gospel music classic.
Nelson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, but was unable to land a record label contract. He did, however, receive a publishing contract at Pamper Music. After Ray Price recorded Nelson’s “Night Life” (reputedly the most covered country song of all time), Nelson joined Price’s touring band as a bassist. While playing with Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, many of Nelson’s songs became hits. “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Billy Walker), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young), “Pretty Paper” (Roy Orbison) and, most famously, “Crazy“ (Patsy Cline) became popular songs in the 1960s. Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released several singles, including the hits “Willingly” (with his wife, Shirley Collie) and “Touch Me”. He was unable to keep his momentum going, though, and Nelson’s career ground to a halt. Demo recordings from his years as a songwriter for Pamper Music were later discovered and released as Crazy: The Demo Sessions (2003).
In 1965, Nelson moved to RCA Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry, followed by a series of minor hits. Frustrated with the music business which tried to force him into a mold, Nelson retired and moved to Austin, Texas. While in Austin, Nelson decided to return to music. His popularity in Austin soared, as he played his own brand of country music marked by rock and roll, jazz, western swing and folk influences.
Signing with Atlantic Records, Nelson released Shotgun Willie (1973), which won excellent reviews but did not sell well. Phases and Stages (1974), a concept album inspired by his divorce, included two hit singles, “Bloody Mary Morning” and “After the Fire is Gone”. Nelson then moved to Columbia Records, where he was given complete creative control over his work. The result was the critically acclaimed, massively popular concept album, Red Headed Stranger (1975). Though Columbia was reluctant to release an album with mostly just a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson (with the assistance of Waylon Jennings) insisted and the album was a huge hit, partially because it included a popular cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”.
Along with Nelson, Waylon Jennings was also achieving massive success in country music in the early 1970s, and the pair were soon combined into a genre called Outlaw Country (“outlaw” because it did not conform to Nashville standards). The term was coined by a country music journalist, and cemented with the release of Wanted: The Outlaws! (1976 with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser), country music’s first platinum album. Nelson continued to top the charts with hit songs during the late 1970s, including “Good Hearted Woman” (a duet with Jennings), “Remember Me”, “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”, “Uncloudy Day”, “I Love You a Thousand Ways” and “Something to Brag About” (a duet with Mary Kay Place). In 1978, Nelson released two more platinum albums, Waylon and Willie (a collaboration with Jennings that included one of Nelson’s signature songs, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”) and Stardust, an unusual, string-based album of pop songs produced by Booker T. Jones. Though most observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it ended up being one of his most successful LPs.
Nelson began acting, appearing in The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Barbarosa (1982), Red-Headed Stranger (1986), with Morgan Fairchild), Wag the Dog (1997), and the 1986 TV movie, Stagecoach (with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom would form a band with Nelson called The Highwaymen). He has continued acting since his early successes, but usually in smaller roles and cameos, a good example being Half-Baked. He has made guest appearances on The Simpsons, Monk, and King of the Hill. He played Uncle Jesse in the 2005 cinematic remake of The Dukes of Hazzard.
The eighties saw a series of hit singles: “Always on my Mind” (originally made popular by Elvis Presley), “On the Road Again“ from the movie Honeysuckle Rose, and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (a duet with Julio Iglesias). There were also more popular albums, including Pancho and Lefty (1982, with Merle Haggard), WWII (1982, with Waylon Jennings) and Take it to the Limit (1983, with Waylon Jennings).
In the mid 1980s, Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash formed a group called The Highwaymen. In spite of their unexpectedly massive successes, including platinum record sales and worldwide touring, Nelson’s popularity declined dramatically. He became more and more involved in charity work, such as establishing the Farm Aid concerts in 1985.
In 1990, the IRS gave Nelson a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes and took away most of his assets to help pay the charges. He released The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS. Many of his assets were auctioned and purchased by friends, who gave his possessions back to him or rented them at a nominal fee. His debts were paid by 1993.
In 1996, Willie Nelson was featured on the Beach Boys' now out-of-print album Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1, singing a cover of their 1964 song “The Warmth of the Sun” with the Beach Boys themselves providing the harmonies and backing vocals.
He released Across the Borderline in 1993, with guests Bob Dylan, Sinead O'Connor, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Simon.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Nelson toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews, with the exception of 1998's critically acclaimed Teatro (which was produced by Daniel Lanois - more commonly known for his work with U2 - and featured supporting vocals by Emmylou Harris). Later that year, he joined legendary rock band Phish onstage for several songs as part of the annual Farm Aid festival.
Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. A star-studded television special celebrating his 70th birthday aired in 2003. In 2004, he released Outlaws & Angels, featuring guests Toby Keith, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Al Green, Shelby Lynne, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Ben Harper, Lee Ann Womack, The Holmes Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards and Rickie Lee Jones.
In 2005, Nelson, and two other business partners formed Willie Nelson’s Biodiesel (also known as BioWillie), a company that is marketing Biodiesel biofuel to truck stops. The fuel is made from vegetable oils - mainly soybeans - and can be burned without modification in diesel engines.
On January 9, 2005, Nelson headlined an all-star concert at Austin Music Hall, to benefit the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia raised an estimated $120,000 for UNICEF and two other organizations.
Willie Nelson performed a duet on “Beer for my Horses” with Toby Keith on Keith's Unleased album released in 2002. This song was released as a single in 2003 and Nelson shot a video with Keith in 2003. It won an award for “Best Video” at the Academy of Country Music Awards held in May 2004.
In 2002, Nelson signed a deal to become the official spokesperson to the Texas Roadhouse, a fast-growing chain of steakhosues in the U.S. Since then, Nelson has heavily promoted the chain (including on a special on Food Network). Meanwhile the Texas Roadhouse itself installed “Willie’s Corner” at several locations, which are a section dedicated to Nelson and decked out with memorabilia of Nelson.
Countless Westerns have centered around the theme of a young turk coming into town to try to take down a legendary gunslinger. Well, for the past couple of decades, Willie Nelson has turned that imagery on its head, attracting countless younger artists eager to soak up some of his musical mojo and infuse the master’s work with some of their own spirit.
Nelson’s 2008 release, Moment of Forever, matches Willie with Kenny Chesney. The very idea of these seemingly disparate characters coming together is intriguing enough on paper. What really counts, however, is how it works on disc - and work it does, with Chesney’s production bringing out Nelson’s natural warmth and grace.
While he’s written some of the most enduring tunes of the past few decades Nelson has long been considered one of the premiere song interpreters of his time, infusing a surprising array of tunes with his singular personality. This record includes a hushed, poignant version of the Kris Kristofferson-penned title track and a super-heated, album-closing version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The songs that Nelson wrote for Moment of Forever take on many of the same topics addressed in that pair of tracks - taking stock of a life well lived and considering the possibilities of what might lay down the road. On songs like the sweetly twanging “Always Now”, Willie comes across like a man who’s come to terms with most of those issues, coming to the conclusion that “there never was a used to be . . . it’s always now.”
Other highlights include Willie’s take on Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” and tracks like “Worry B Gone” - where Willie trades verses with Chesney The easy vibe carries over to the gently celebratory “I’m Alive” - on which Nelson marvels at life’s simple pleasures.
Once in a while the stars align and something magical happens...as on the night Jazz at Lincoln Center presented a salute to the late, great bluesman, Ray Charles. Two musical iconoclasts, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, along with the stunning songstress Norah Jones, collectively brought their unique musical perspective to the legendary artist’s hits such as “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Unchain My Heart.” Country music legend Willie Nelson and Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz artist and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis share more in common than their multiple Grammy awards. They also share great respect and admiration for the late musical pioneer Ray Charles. Nelson and Marsalis joined musical forces for a two-night Jazz at Lincoln Center concert event at New York City’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their set list explored the legacy of Charles, cleverly sequencing the songs to tell the story of a love affair from beginning to end and beyond. This fine idea was made finer by the inclusion of fellow multiple Grammy winner Norah Jones, whose style suggests a middle ground between Nelson and Marsalis. The sold out performance was captured and the resulting footage expertly mixed and mastered for the brand new album.
Willie Nelson goes back to his roots with a songbook of classic Americana. Country Music was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and produced by T Bone Burnett. Nelson wrote one track on the album, “Man With The Blues” and, with T Bone Burnett, co-arranged three traditional songs, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” “I Am A Pilgrim,” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The album also features many popular old-time/bluegrass/folk songs including Ernest Tubb’s “Seaman’s Blues, Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon,” and Doc Watson’s “Freight Train Boogie”. Willie Nelson collaborated with many musicians on Country Music including old-time banjo master Riley Baugus, double bassist Dennis Crouch, and T Bone himself, all musicians featured on Raising Sand, the 2009 Grammy award-winning Album of the Year by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Willie Nelson delivers his first new album, Heroes (2012), as part of his homecoming to Legacy Recordings. No themes or gimmicks to this album, just thirteen brand new recordings produced by Buddy Cannon (Academy of Country Music’ producer of the year 2006).
The songs take on a reflective, emotional tone and move from heartfelt (a stunning rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”) to humor (on “Roll Me Up” with guest vocalist Snoop Dogg). Other guest vocalists on the album include Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnston, Billy Joe Shaver and Sheryl Crow. Sons Lukas and Micah Nelson also feature prominently, making this a real family affair.
This beautiful album, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, should have broad appeal among Nelson’s core fans and followers and beyond.