Popularly known as the “Red Headed Stranger,” Willie Nelson is a famous and influential personality when it comes to country music, especially in the outlaw. His name, for sure, does ring a bell whenever we talk about authentic and pure country sound. In fact, he is one of the four “Highwaymen” who helped carve and redefine what true country music is. While the great Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings may have already passed, Nelson and fellow outlaw artist, Kris Kristofferson, continue the legacy that they have started.
Serving a career that spanned over 60 years, Nelson is an artist worthy to be reckoned with. As such, being successful both as a singer and songwriter, his legacy is his talent. And, there is no doubt that this man has an immense one! His voice has not only reached the country music genre but also penetrated other musical sounds. Moreover, his sound did not just stay in the United States, but it also went worldwide.
Nelson has been known for his involvement in the activism for the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana. In fact, he is very vocal about his use of the “weed” for recreation. Nonetheless, he still manages to be strong and performs flawlessly in his shows.
On the other hand, Nelson has received a number of awards from different award-giving bodies. These include a number of CMA, ACM, CMT, AMA, and Grammy Awards. In addition, he became a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Grand Ole Opry member, and a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. As a matter of fact, there is even an award named after him. It is the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Instituted in 2012, the Country Music Association (CMA) grants this award “to honor an iconic artist who has attained the highest degree of recognition in Country Music. The awardee has achieved both national and international prominence and stature through concert performances, humanitarian efforts, philanthropy, record sales, and public representation at the highest level.” Also, there is a condition that the recipient “must have positively impacted and contributed to the growth of the genre over time.”
With all these said, there is no doubt that Willie Nelson truly deserves to be known for everything he has achieved and contributed to country music. His talent is as powerful as his songs!
The Birth of a Superstar
Born on April 29, 1933, Willie Nelson grew up in the small city of Abbott in Texas. Born during the Great Depression and raised by his grandparents, he penned his first song at the age of seven. At ten, he joined his first band. From then on, his interest in music grew fondly as he joined different musical groups where he discovered his ability in singing and songwriting.
When he was in high school, he toured locally with the Bohemian Polka. Nelson was the band’s lead singer and guitar player. In 1950, he graduated high school, but instead of continuing with his passion, he joined the Air Force. However, he went out of the military earlier due to back problems.
After rendering service to the Air Force, Nelson attended Baylor University for two years. Unfortunately, he dropped out because he saw light in taking a career in music. Thus, he worked as a disc jockey in Texas radio stations and a singer in different honky-tonks.
The Start of Another Career
In1956, Nelson then moved to Vancouver, Washington, where he conceived “Family Bible” and recorded “Lumberjack.” Again, he worked as a disc jockey in Vancouver and in the nearby city of Portland in Oregon. Two years later, he transferred to Houston, Texas, after signing a contract with D Records. There, he performed at the Esquire Ballroom every week. During those times, he came up with the classic songs that would later become country standards. These include “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” “Pretty Paper,” and the ever famous Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
In 1960, he decided to move to Nashville, Tennessee, for a more vibrant and greener pasture. Later, he signed a publishing contract with Pamper Music which allowed him to join Ray Price’s band as a bassist.
His Musical Career
In 1962, Nelson recorded his very first album, …And Then I Wrote. This album gained a massive reception and it became a hit during that time. Due to its success, Nelson then signed with RCA Victor in 1964. The following year, he became a part of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry.
For the next years, he continued to chart hit after hit. He enjoyed much success following the release of his chart-topping singles and albums in the 1960s and early ‘70s. However, Nelson decided to retire from the business in 1972. He then moved to Austin, Texas, where it delighted him with the music scene happening there. With this, he returned from retirement and performed frequently at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
In 1973, Nelson signed with Atlantic Records where he turned to outlaw country. As an outlaw artist, he released a number of albums including his famed Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. Two years later, he decided to switch to Columbia Records, where he recorded the critically acclaimed album, Red Headed Stranger. In the same year, he collaborated with other outlaw country artists, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, and produced another outlaw country album, Wanted! The Outlaws.
The Road to Success
The following decade gave him more of stardom. It’s in this era, the 1980s, when he created another hit album like Honeysuckle Rose. Also, he recorded and released some of his biggest songs such as “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and “Pancho and Lefty.”
Moreover, this time, he teamed up with fellow outlaw country artists, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, and formed the famous supergroup The Highwaymen.
In case you did not know, Nelson was not just talented vocally. He also took part in and appeared on the big screen. He officially became an actor in 1979 when he first appeared in his first movie, The Electric Horseman. After his appearance in the said film, other appearances in more movies and television followed.
The 10 Best Willie Nelson Songs
1. “Always on My Mind” (1982)
2. “On the Road Again” (1980)
3. “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up To Be Cowboys”(1978)
4. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (1975)
5. “Georgia on My Mind” (1978)
6. “Whiskey River” (1973)
7. “All of Me” (1978)
8. “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” (1979)
9. “Blue Skies” (1978)
10. “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” (1976)
Nelson’s Music Style
Nelson uses a variety of music styles to create his own distinctive blend of country music — a hybrid of jazz, pop, blues, rock, and folk. His “unique sound,” which uses a “relaxed, behind-the-beat singing style and gut-string guitar” and his “nasal voice and jazzy, off-center phrasing,” has been responsible for his wide appeal. Also, it has made him a “vital icon in country music,” influencing the “new country, new traditionalist, and alternative country movements of the ’80s and ’90s.”
Willie Nelson’s Legacy
Regarded as an American icon, Nelson got inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. Five years later, he became a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. More awards and recognition followed. In 2011, he became a member of the National Agricultural Hall of Fame. This recognition was for his labor in Farm Aid and other fundraising activities to benefit farmers.
In 2015, Nelson earned the Gershwin Prize. The said prize is the lifetime award of the Library of Congress. And this year, The Texas Institute of Letters inducted him among its members for his outstanding songwriting.
Furthermore, Rolling Stone included Nelson on its 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists lists.
Also, an important collection of Willie Nelson materials (1975-1994) became part of the Wittliff collections of Southwestern Writers, Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. The collection contains lyrics, screenplays, letters, concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, articles, clippings, personal effects, promotional items, souvenirs, and documents.
In April 2010, Nelson received the “Feed the Peace” award from The Nobelity Project for his extensive work with Farm Aid and overall contributions to world peace. On June 23, 2010, he became a part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Nelson is an honorary trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum. In 2010, Austin, Texas renamed Second Street to Willie Nelson Boulevard. The city also unveiled a life-size statue to honor him, placed at the entrance of AustinCity Limits’ new studio. The non-profit organization Capital Area Statues commissioned sculptor Clete Shields to execute the project.
The statue was unveiled on April 20, 2012. The date selected by the city of Austin unintentionally coincided with the number 4/20, associated with cannabis culture. In spite of the coincidence and Nelson’s advocacy for the legalization of marijuana, the ceremony was held also for 4:20 pm. During the ceremony, Nelson performed the song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”. The same year, during the 46th Annual Country Music Association Awards, Nelson became the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which was also named after him.
In 2013, he received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. The following year, he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. Also included among the first inductees was his friend Darrell Royal. His jamming parties that Nelson participated in were the source of inspiration for the show.
Nelson’s Famed Hairstyle
For many years, Nelson’s image was marked by his red hair. Often, it was divided into two long braids partially concealed under a bandanna. In the April 2007 issue of Stuff Magazine, Nelson was interviewed about his long locks.
“I started braiding my hair when it started getting too long, and that was, I don’t know, probably in the ’70s.”Willie Nelson
On May 26, 2010, the Associated Press reported that Nelson had cut his hair, and Nashville music journalist Jimmy Carter published a photograph of the pigtail-free Nelson on his website. Nelson wanted a more maintainable hairstyle, as well helping him stay cool more easily at his Maui home. In October 2014, the braids of Nelson were sold for $37,000 at an auction of the Waylon Jennings estate. In 1983, Nelson cut his braids and gave them to Jennings as a gift during a party celebrating Jennings’ sobriety.
Nelson’s Personal Life
For those of you who don’t know, Nelson has married four times. In addition, he is also the father of seven children. His first marriage was to Martha Matthews which lasted for just 10 years (1952 – 1962). They had three children, namely, Lana, Susie, and Billy. The failed marriage was marked by violence. For several times, Matthews assaulted Nelson, including an incident where she sewed him up in a bed sheet then beat him with a broomstick.
His next marriage was to Shirley Collie in 1963. Again, their marriage fell shortl. Their marriage just lasted for eight years. The couple divorced in 1971, after Collie found out that Nelson and another woman named Connie Koepke had a relationship.
In the same year, Nelson and Koepke got married. They had two daughters, Paula Carlene, and Amy Lee. The couple divorced in 1988.
He then married his current wife, Annie D’ Angelo, in 1991. They had two sons, Lukas Autry and Jacob Micah.
His Forever Legacy
Throughout his enormous career of ups and downs, Nelson has never lost hope of finding his true sound and expressing his voice out. And truly, he was successful in both. No matter how hard and rough it was for him in the beginning, he has never given up and so, rolled with punches of life.
While country music nowadays is slightly moving to a more pop sound, WillieNelson is just one of the few who still clings to the true country music sound. His music is and will forever be his legacy and it will always be there for years to come and for generations to arrive.