Willie Nelson facts are pretty much thrown around these days and there’s probably not much you still don’t know about the music legend. From his early life to his career and even his failed marriages, to his sons and daughters, everything is known about him. Especially with the fact that he published Willie: An Autobiography in 1988 and then followed with a second full-length memoir titled My Life: It’s A Long Story. There’s not much mystery left around the man.
But if you’re just starting to know more about him and his music, here are 10 quick facts that you should definitely know about this country swooner and outlaw artist who did everything he wanted.
1. He was born on April 29, 1933 in Abbott, Texas.
Willie Hugh Nelson was named by his cousin Mildred who also chose the name Hugh in honor of her then-recently deceased younger brother. Willie was the son of Myrle Marie and Ira Doyle Nelson, and he had an older sister named Bobbie, who was also the pianist in his band for over 50 years. The family used to live in Arkansas but they moved to Texas in 1929 as his parents looked for work.
Willie was born during the Depression on April 29, 1933 in the small town of Abbott, Texas and after 6 months, his mother Myrle left home and went off west to work as a waitress, card-dealer, and also a dancer. His father remarried and moved away, so he and his sister Bobbie were left to be raised by their paternal grandparents, Alfred and Nancy. Alfred was a blacksmith while Nancy picked cotton and also taught piano.
2. He wrote his first song at the age of seven.
Both of Willie’s grandparents were musically inclined, and they encouraged the siblings’ musical talents. In his autobiography, Willie mentioned that his grandparents would take correspondence from the Chicago Music Institute, and they took music seriously and he grew up with that. When he was 6, his grandfather bought him a guitar and also taught him a few chords. Willie was also raised singing gospel songs in the local church alongside his sister Bobbie.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2004, he recalled his first-ever song composition when he was just seven years old. He used to take his music lessons from his grandmother and if they get the lesson right, she would take a little gold star and stick it onto the music sheet. He once wrote a line in the song, ‘They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another long ago.’ According to him, the line was so funny because he had never been left by anybody.
3. He also played sports back in high school and pursued different jobs before he eventually became a full-time musician.
Willie Nelson attended Abbott High School, where he flourished as an athlete participating as a halfback on the football team, a guard on the basketball team, and also a shortstop in baseball. Aside from sports, he also sang and played guitar in the band named The Texans, formed by his sister’s husband, Bud Fletcher.
As a kid, he worked as a cotton picker alongside his grandmother. Later on, he had a short stint as a relief phone operator in Abbott. He also worked as a tree trimmer for a local electric company, a pawnshop employee, a disc jockey, a nightclub bouncer, and surprisingly a Bible salesman as well.
After completing school in 1950, he joined the US Air Force, where he served for nine months, but he was medically discharged due to back issues. He then attended Baylor University to study farming, but he dropped the program midway to pursue music full-time.
4. He started as a songwriter for Pamper Music, a popular music label.
Willie Nelson made various efforts in hopes of landing a full-time music job. He even collaborated with a country singer and songwriter in Vancouver, Washington named Leon Payne. Their song Lumberjack sold three thousand copies which was a respectable figure for an indie artist, but it did not bring the fame or money that Willie expected.
After that, he made several demo tapes which he sent to major record labels, but his music style did not attract them. But his songwriting abilities were noticed by Hank Cochran, who then recommended him to Pamper Music, a label co-owned by Ray Price.
There he was invited to join the band Cherokee Cowboys, where he played the bass. By the early 1960s, his talent became even more noticed. During that time, he also began writing songs for other artists like Billy Walker, Faron Young, and Patsy Cline. His songs became chart-topping hits, although he still wasn’t acknowledged as a musician himself.
5. His 1978 album Stardust spent a total of two years on the Billboard 200.
Despite a lag of success in the early years, he definitely made a stamp in the country music scene with his iconic 1975 eighteenth studio album Red Headed Stranger. Aside from that and his numerous chart-topping hits, his 1978 album Stardust which featured his renditions of pop standards like Georgia on My Mind and Unchained Melody, spent two years on the Billboard 200. This album also spent a total of 540 weeks on different country music charts.
In his three-decade-long career, Willie Nelson also made powerful collaborations with different music legends like Merle Haggard with Pancho & Lefty. He also collaborated with Dolly Parton and Ray Charles, among the many greats. Willie Nelson songs are definitely good listens, so if you’re trying country, then his songs would be a good introduction.
6. He has been married four times and father to seven children.
It’s not unknown to many that this country swooner also married a lot of times. He was first married in 1952 with Martha Matthews. The couple had three children namely Lana Nelson, Susie Nelson, and the late Billy Nelson, who died in 1991 due to suicide. After a decade of marriage, the couple decided to divorce in 1962.
In 1963, Willie married his second wife, the late Shirley Collie, who died in 2010, but their marriage didn’t last and they divorced in 1971. The couple had no children. Then he was married to his mistress Connie Koepke until 1988, and they had two daughters named Paula Carlene and Amy Lee. Now, Willie Nelson is married to his fourth and hopefully his last wife, Annie D’Angelo. The couple has two sons who are both musicians, namely Lukas Autrey and Jacob Micah.
7. He recorded an album to pay off his tax debt to the IRS.
One of the well-known facts about Willie Nelson is his $32 million tax bill with the IRS in 1990, which was undeniably one of the most high-profile tax cases in the entire music history. His house was raided, and his assets were seized except for his guitar for non-payment of taxes. The rest was negotiated and settled in a very creative way.
Nelson recorded a new album with the IRS receiving at least 15 cents for every dollar made for the album. The result of that negotiation was the limited edition The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories sold for $19.95 on cassette or CD. It can also be purchased by dialing 1-800-IRS-TAPE. He successfully paid off his debt, so all was good.
8. He is an active advocate of the legalization of marijuana.
It wasn’t a secret that Willie Nelson is a pot-repreneur, and he had been using drugs for a long time. In an interview with People in 1980, he said that he once arrived to discover his Nashville home burning to the ground. He confessed that he ran into the burning house because he had a pound of Colombian grass inside, and he was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning it over to the police. Unfortunately, his stash was not as lucky as the hundred of tapes of songs that were still yet to be recorded as they all lost in the fire.
In 2015, the singer-songwriter started a company known as Willie’s Reserve, which provides marijuana products and accessories. After marijuana was legalized in different states, he also announced the launch of a chain of his stores.
9. He had been playing the same guitar for over 10,000 shows.
His only asset that the IRS did not confiscate was his guitar Trigger, which he named after Roy Rogers’ horse which he had since 1969. In a 2014 interview with Uncut, he said that Trigger had a couple of problems over the years, and they had to build up his woodwork on the inside but he is still holding up real good.
10. He is estimated to be worth $25 million.
According to Celebrity Net Worth, Willie Nelson’s estimated net worth is $25 million. He had undeniable success in the country music scene, noted as a legend and one of the pioneers of the country’s subgenre, outlaw country. Aside from his musical engagements, he also earned his net worth through films (he starred in more than 30). He also co-authored several books and of course, his marijuana company and involvement in the activism for use of biofuels also added to that.
Those are just 10 of the basic Willie Nelson facts that you should know about him. But the best way to get to know him is through music, so go and blast ahead some Willie Nelson songs!