On The Road Again: Willie Nelson

Once referred to as hillbilly music, country music has spread from the United States to the corners of the globe with increasing popularity. Birthed in the Appalachian Mountains, country music has its roots in old time folk songs and ballads that came to the mountain regions with European immigrants. It was common for the early immigrants to mix their musical styling with those of Native Americans and Mexican settlers. The result was a unique styling and sound that slowly gained interest throughout the 1920s, but did not really take off until the ‘30s and ‘40s, when radio set its foothold in Southern culture, paving the way for country music. Established in 1925, the Grand Ole Opry ensured that "hillbilly music" was here to stay. Over the years hillbilly music combined with other forms, including gospel, bluegrass, and folk, and resulted in a unique conglomeration that became country music.

Some of the earliest pioneers of country music include Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and the Carter family. Though not recording in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, or ‘50s, one artist in particular was heavily involved in the country music scene: Willie Nelson. One of Willie Nelson’s songs has become a staple of country music and many country music stars have recorded it: Crazy. As a successful songwriter, many of country music’s most notable stars have performed songs written by Willie Nelson.

Born in the farmlands of Abbott, Texas on April 30, 1933, Willie Nelson, and his sister Bobbie were exposed to music at an early age. Their father, Myrle Nelson, died while the children were young and their mother, Ira Nelson, abandoned the children. Their paternal grandparents raised them. The children attended services at a local Methodist church and fell in love with music. By the time Willie Nelson was seven years old, he had written his first song. Willie played guitar while Bobbie played piano. The brother and sister team played with local bands throughout their high school years and continue to play together to this day. Willie Nelson graduated high school in 1950 then served in the U.S. Air Force. A brief stint at Baylor University left Willie Nelson realizing that the one thing he wanted to do was become a musician. In 1960, he signed with Pamper Records but not as a musician; as a songwriter. It was at this point that Nelson began touring with Ray Price as a bassist. Price had also recorded one of Willie’s songs and was enjoying commercial success from it: Night Life.

Willie Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released his first album in 1962. The album was titled And Then I Wrote. A second CD would follow: Here’s Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson recorded a third album in 1965: Country Willie- His Own Songs. This time, he signed with RCA Records. Country Willie- His Own Songs saw greater commercial success than his previous recordings as he entered the country music charts and peaked at 14.

Though Willie Nelson saw slow commercial success, he was acquiring a cult following. Throughout the mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s, Willie Nelson also fluctuated between Nashville, Tennessee and his hometown of Texas. By 1973 he had moved to Austin, Texas; where the hippie scene had become prolific; and the experience clearly influenced his music. Steering his way through new musical territory; Willie Nelson negotiated his way out of his contract with RCA and later signed with Atlantic Records. He would be the label’s first country music artist. It was for Atlantic Records that in 1973, Willie Nelson recorded the album: Shotgun Willie.

Willie Nelson’s reputation as a groundbreaker began to precede him. More than a singer and songwriter, Willie Nelson was proving he was also a visionary. The year 1975 was a turning point for Willie. He signed with Columbia Records and was given creative freedom with his next album. He had already made a name for himself as an artist who was trailblazing country music into unknown frontiers and his first album with Columbia went gold in Canada and hit platinum twice in the United States: Red Headed Stranger. It was his first great commercial success as a singer and would mark the first of many. Willie Nelson’s rendition of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain that appeared on the album would top the country music charts and bring Willie Nelson his first Grammy Award. He won “Best Country Vocal Performance” at the 1975 Grammys. It would be the first of many Grammys for the “Outlaw Cowboy.” By 2011, Willie Nelson had amassed ten Grammy Awards, eight CMA awards, five Academy of Music Awards and seven American Music Awards.

As Willie Nelson’s commercial success grew, so too did his influence on music as a whole. Willie Nelson was more than a country singer as he truly became a crossover artist where listeners from many walks of life tuned in to listen to Nelson. His cult following extended beyond his music and soon Hollywood took notice. In 1979, Willie Nelson landed the role of Wendell Hickson in the film The Electric Horseman and it would mark what would be the first of many roles. Willie Nelson has appeared in more than thirty films.

While the ‘70s was a time when Willie Nelson found his footing in country music, the ‘80s was his time of publicly giving back. Organizing the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 with fellow musicians John Mellencamp and Neil Young, Willie Nelson became known for his incredible generosity, compassion, and charitable heart. Farm Aid is still going strong and the organization has raised more than $30 million to assist farmers in danger of losing their property.

Throughout the years, the public has come to learn plenty about Willie Nelson. Maybe more than what they know about any other country music artist. Willie Nelson has been an open book about his beliefs, his opinions and even his personal difficulties and financial troubles. As Willie Nelson was paving the way for farmers to keep their land, the IRS was busy auditing his tax returns and determined he owed Uncle Sam $16 million in unpaid taxes. Though this would be troubling news for anyone, it paled in comparison to the crisis Willie Nelson would face on December 25, 1991. One of Willie Nelson’s seven children, Billy Nelson, committed suicide. Still, Willie Nelson continued moving forward. He continued recording, eventually settled his IRS debt, and continued to make top country albums. He also continued with his charity work and connecting with his fans. Fans that have met Willie Nelson all share the same story. He is a great person with a heart of gold that genuinely cares about people. 

Willie Nelson also enjoys smoking marijuana. Willie Nelson has been arrested several times for possession of cannabis. He isn’t shy about his affinity for the herb and he has organized a group called the “Teapot Party” with aims of legalizing marijuana. Willie Nelson’s first arrest for marijuana was in 1994; the charges were eventually dropped. He would face another arrest for possession of marijuana in 2006. He has several homes; one is in Hawaii where reportedly, his neighbors include other activists who share Willie Nelson’s values such as Woody Harrelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Owen Wilson.

Willie Nelson is a true icon in American pop culture. More than a country singer with a guitar, he has shared his heart with his fans, has become an activist leader, is a poet, author of books, and has graced the silver screen. His charitable work is vast and his contributions and gifts to established charities are large and impressive. His music has touched many worldwide and he has influenced up and coming artists and not just those pursuing careers in country music. 

You may find out more regarding Willie Nelson, his charitable work, biography, and awards in the links below.

Willie Nelson Official Site

Farm Aid

Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute

Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance

Willie Nelson Biography: The Kennedy Center

Willie Nelson by Clint Richmond

Willie Nelson: an epic life by Joe Nick Patoski

Willie Nelson Receives 2011 Vermont Free Spirit Award

Willie Nelson: Bio True Story

Willie Nelson Biography: CMT

Willie Nelson Inducted in the Agricultural Hall of Fame (PDF)

Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack Honor Blood Donors

EPA Honors Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson writes “Crazy” for Patsy Cline in 1961 (Timeline)

Country Music Hall of Fame Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson: All Music

Willie Nelson Filmography