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Willie Nelson (born April 30, 1933) is an American country singer-songwriter, author, poet, and actor. The author of several major country hits in the 1960s, he rebelled against the commercialism of the Nashville music scene and reached his greatest fame as a leader of the "outlaw" movement of the 1970s and remains an iconic figure in American popular culture.

Born in Texas, Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960 where his song, "Night Life," became a hit for country singer Ray Price and would later be covered by many artists in other genres. Nelson also wrote a number of hits for other major stars, such as "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Crazy" (Patsy Cline), and "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker).

In 1965, Nelson moved to RCA Victor Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry. Tiring of the Nashville music scene, he retired temporarily and moved to Austin, Texas. In the mid-1970s, he built Pedernales Recording Studio, which became a thriving music center. Growing his hair long and adopting the grizzled persona of a rebel, Nelson joined with Waylon Jennings to begin a genre called outlaw country as a more raw, less commercially-oriented alternative to the prevailing, slick Nashville standards. He had several major hits as a solo and duet artist, including "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Pancho and Lefty" (with Merle Haggard) and "On the Road Again." He also launched a successful film career.

In the mid-1980s, Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash formed a group called The Highwaymen. Their success included platinum-record sales and worldwide touring. Meanwhile, Nelson became increasingly involved in charity work, such as establishing the Farm Aid concerts in 1985. He has also lobbied for the legalization of marijuana.

In 1993, Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. In recent years, he has continued to tour, record, and perform.

Biography

Early life and career

Nelson was born and raised in Abbott, Texas, the son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, a mechanic and pool-hall owner. His grandparents, William Alfred Nelson and Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, gave him mail-order music lessons starting at age six. He wrote his first song when he was seven and was playing in a local band at age nine. While he was in high school, he took part in the National Future Farmers of America (FFA).

Beginning in high school, Nelson worked as a disc jockey for local radio stations, while also singing local in honky-tonk bars. He graduated from Abbott High School in 1951, joining the Air Force the same year, but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. He then studied agriculture at Baylor University for one year in 1954.

In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington to begin a musical career, recording "Lumberjack," which was written by Leon Payne. The single sold fairly well, but did not establish his career. Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer and sing in Vancouver clubs. In 1960, he sold a song called "Family Bible" for $50.00. It was a hit for Claude Gray in the same year, has been covered widely, and is considered a gospel music classic.

Popular songwriter and singer

Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960, but was unable to land a recording contract. He did, however, receive a publishing contract at Pamper Music. After Ray Price recorded Nelson's "Night Life," Nelson joined Price's touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys, as a bass player. Meanwhile, many of Nelson's songs became hits for some of country and pop music's biggest stars of the time. These include "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker), "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison), and most famously, "Crazy" (Patsy Cline).

Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released several singles, including "Willingly" (sung with his wife, Shirley Collie) and "Touch Me." In 1965, Nelson moved to RCA Victor Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry. He followed this with a series of minor hits and then retired and moved to Austin, Texas.

Outlaw country

While in Austin, with its burgeoning "hippie" music scene, Nelson decided to return to music. His popularity in Austin soared, as he played his own brand of country music, featuring rock and roll, jazz, western swing, and folk influences. A new commitment to his own health and a passion for running also began during this period.

l-r Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings at Willie's 4th of July Picnic 1972.

In the mid 1970s, Nelson purchased property near Lake Travis in Austin and built his Pedernales Studio. Nelson signed with Atlantic Records and 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 the hit single "Bloody Mary Morning." Nelson then moved to Columbia Records, where he was given complete creative control over his work. The result was the critically acclaimed popular concept album, Red Headed Stranger (1975). Although Columbia was reluctant to release an album with primarily a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson insisted and the album was a huge hit. It included a successful cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (written by Fred Rose in 1945), which became Nelson's first biggest hit as a singer.

Along with Nelson, Waylon Jennings was also achieving success in country music in the early 1970s, and the pair were soon combined into a genre called outlaw country. The term "outlaw country" is derived from the song "Ladies Love Outlaws" written by Lee Clayton and sung by Waylon Jennings on the 1972 album of the same name. It became associated with singers who grew their hair long, wore denim and leather and looked like hippies in contrast to the clean cut country singers in rhinestone-studded suits that were pushing the Nashville sound. The success of these singers did much to restore the rawness and life force to country music. The songs were often about drinking, hard working men, and honky tonk heroes. The music rejected Nashville's current penchant for slick arrangements with strings in the background in favor of straightforward country that hearkened back to honky tonk singers like Hank Williams with a hard, rock-and-roll influenced edge.

Nelson's outlaw image was cemented with the release of the album 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 the hit single "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," and Stardust, an unusual album of popular standard numbers produced by Booker T. Jones. Though most observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it ended up being one of his most successful recordings.

More hits and IRS trouble

The 1980s saw a series of hit singles: "On the Road Again" from the movie Honeysuckle Rose and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," a rather incongruous duet with Julio Iglesias). There were also more popular albums, including Pancho & 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. They achieved unexpectedly large success, including platinum-record sales and worldwide touring. Meanwhile, Nelson became more and more involved in charity work, such as establishing the Farm Aid concerts in 1985.

In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) handed Nelson a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes and seized most of his assets. He then released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS. Many of his personal possessions were auctioned and purchased by friends, who then returned them or rented them at a nominal fee. He sued the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contending that they put him into tax shelters that were later disallowed. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. His debts were paid by 1993.

American troubadour

Willie Nelson performing at the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, California.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Nelson has toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews. In 1993, he released Across the Borderline, with guests Bob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, and Paul Simon. Critically acclaimed, the 1998 Teatro featured supporting vocals by Emmylou Harris). Later that year, he joined rock band Phish onstage for several songs as part of the annual Farm Aid festival. He also performed a duet concert with fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, recorded for the VH1 Storytellers series. Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998.

In 2002 Nelson released the album, The Great Divide. A few songs on the album were written by Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 and Bernie Taupin. Willie Nelson performed a duet on "Beer for my Horses" with Toby Keith on Keith's Unleashed album released in 2002. The single topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts for six consecutive weeks. A star-studded television special celebrating his seventieth 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, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Rickie Lee Jones. On January 29, 2008 he released the album Moment of Forever. The book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski was released in April 2008, containing over 100 interviews with Nelson, his family, his band, the people he grew up with in Abbott, and many others.

Nelson continued touring widely throughout the 2000s, including several notable tours with Bob Dylan. In May 2008, Nelson appeared on a duet with Norwegian pop star and former World Idol winner Kurt Nilsen on the Hank Williams classic "Lost Highway." The single topped the Norwegian charts. Nelson also appeared in Amsterdam with rap-icon Snoop Dogg where they did a live version of "SuperMan." Subsequently the two have become friends and recently released a video "My Medicine," which has received much play on YouTube.

Acting Career

Nelson began acting, appearing in The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Thief (1981), and Barbarosa (1982). Also in 1982, he played "Red Loon," in Coming Out of the Ice with John Savage. In 1984, he starred in the movie Songwriter, with Kris Kristofferson guest starring. He then had the lead role in Red Headed Stranger (1986, with Morgan Fairchild), as country singer-songwriter Johnny Dean in Wag the Dog (1997), Gone Fishin (1997) as Billy 'Catch' Pooler, the 1986 TV movie Stagecoach (with Johnny Cash), and Dukes of Hazzard (2006).

He has continued acting since his early successes, but usually in smaller roles and cameos, some of which involve his status as a cannabis activist and icon. One of his more popular recent cameos was a performance in Half Baked as an elderly "Historian Smoker" who, while smoking marijuana would reminisce about how things used to be in his younger years. Nelson also appeared as himself in the 2006 movie Beerfest, looking for teammates to join him in a mythical world-championship cannabis-smoking contest held in Amsterdam. That same week Willie Nelson recorded, "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again" with Toby Keith.

Activism

Willie, and his guitar "Trigger," performing at Cardiff on January 25, 2007

Nelson was instrumental in organizing, Farm Aid, which started as a benefit concert on September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois to raise money for family farmers in the United States. The concert was organized by Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young. Nelson and Mellencamp also brought family farmers before Congress to testify about the state of family farming in America. Congress subsequently passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure.

In 2004, Nelson and his wife Annie became partners with Bob and Kelly King in the building of two Pacific Bio-diesel plants, one in Salem, Oregon, and the other at Carl's Corner, Texas. 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. In 2005, Nelson and several other business partners formed Willie Nelson Bio-diesel ("Bio-Willie"), a company that is marketing bio-diesel bio-fuel to truck stops. The fuel is made from vegetable oil (mainly soybean oil), and can be burned without modification in diesel engines.

Nelson is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board. He has worked with NORML for years for marijuana legalization and has produced commercials for NORML that have appeared on Pot TV programs. He has also recorded a number of radio commercials for the organization. In 2005, Nelson and his family hosted the first annual "Willie Nelson & NORML Benefit Golf Tournament," which appeared on the cover of High Times magazine.

He founded the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute in April 2007. Nelson and his daughter Amy Nelson wrote a song called "A Peaceful Solution," which they released into the public domain, and encouraged artists to render their own version of the song, which he would feature on the Institute's web site. Nelson also is an honorary trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum.

Nelson is an advocate for horses and their treatment. He has been campaigning for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) with the Animal Welfare Institute. He is on the Board of Directors and has adopted a number of horses from Habitat for Horses.

Legacy

Willie Nelson during a show in Cardiff, January 2007

Willie Nelson is widely recognized as an American icon, a country music rebel who rose to become an internationally recognized star of legendary proportions.

A prolific songwriter, Nelson has penned a number of classic hits, including: "Crazy," "Blood Mary Morning," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Hello Walls," "I'm Still Not Over You," "Island in the Sun," "On the Road Again," "Remember the Good Times," and "Night Life." The latter is arguably the most covered song of all time, recorded by major singers in practically ever genre.

Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. He has won 10 Grammies, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. Other recognition includes: TNN/Music City News: Living Legend and TNN/Music City News Minnie Pearl Awards, five Academy of Country Music Awards, nine Country Music Association Awards, and seven American Music Awards.

Discography

Studio albums

YearTitleChart PositionsCertifications
US CountryUS 200USCAN
1962And Then I Wrote
1963Here's Willie Nelson
1965Country Willie - His Own Songs14
1966Country Favorites-Willie Nelson Style9
1967Make Way for Willie Nelson7
"The Party's Over" And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs9
1968Good Ol' Country Singin'
Texas In My Soul
1969Good Times29
My Own Peculiar Way39
1970Columbus Stockade Blues
Both Sides Now
Laying My Burdens Down
1971Willie Nelson and Family43
Yesterday's Wine
1972The Words Don't Fit the Picture
The Willie Way34
1973Country Winners
Shotgun Willie41
1974Spotlight on Willie Nelson
Phases and Stages34187
1975Country Willie
What Can You Do to Me Now5
Red Headed Stranger1282× Multi-PlatinumGold
1976The Sound in Your Mind148Platinum
The Longhorn Jamboree Presents: Willie Nelson & His Friends41
Troublemaker160Gold
1977Willie - Before His Time378
To Lefty From Willie291
1978There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight46
Stardust1305× Multi-Platinum2× Platinum
Face of a Fighter42
1979Sweet Memories6154
Sings Kristofferson542PlatinumGold
Pretty Paper1173PlatinumGold
1980Electric Horseman352Gold
Honeysuckle Rose1112× Multi-Platinum
Family Bible26
1981Minstrel Man39148
1982Always on My Mind124× Multi-Platinum2× Platinum
1983My Own Way182
Tougher Than Leather439
1984Without a Song354Platinum
City of New Orleans1162PlatinumGold
Don't You Ever Get Tired (of Hurting Me)
1985Me and Paul3152
1986Partners13
The Promised Land1
1987Island in the Sea14
What a Wonderful World6
1989A Horse Called Music2
1990Born for Trouble31
1992The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?
Any Old Arms Won't Do
1993Across the Borderline1575
1994Six Hours at Pedernales
Moonlight Becomes You37
Healing Hands of Time17103
1995Just One Love
Augusta
1996Standard Time
Spirit20123
How Great Thou Art
1998Teatro17104
1999Night and Day
2000Tales Out of Luck (Me and the Drummer)
Milk Cow Blues83
2001Rainbow Connection52
2002The Great Divide543
Willie Nelson & Friends - Stars & Guitars18133
2003Crazy: The Demo Sessions32
2004Outlaws and Angels1069
It Always Will Be1275
Nacogdoches
2005Songs1364
Songs for Tsunami Relief: Austin to South Asia57
Countryman646
2006You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker24114
2008Moment of Forever856

Live albums

YearTitleChart PositionsCertifications
US CountryUS 200USCAN
1966Country Music Concert32
1976Willie Nelson Live5
1978Willie and Family Live1324× Multi-PlatinumGold
2002All of Me - Live in Concert
2003Live and Kickin'442
2004Live at Billy Bob's Texas27168

Compilation albums

YearTitleChart PositionsCertifications
US CountryUS 200USCAN
1981Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be)1274× Multi-PlatinumPlatinum
1982The Best62
20 of the Best
1985Collectors Series
Half Nelson10Platinum
1993Super Hits341932× Multi-Platinum
1995Super Hits 2
Revolutions of Timeā€¦ The Journey 1975/1993 (3-CD-Boxset)
199816 Biggest Hits29Platinum
2003The Essential Willie Nelson24179Gold
2008One Hell of a Ride46
Playlist: The Very Best of Willie Nelson63

Collaborations

YearTitleChart PositionsCertifications
US CountryUS 200USCAN
1976Wanted! The Outlaws (with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser)1102× Multi-PlatinumPlatinum
1978Waylon & Willie (with Waylon Jennings)1122× Multi-PlatinumPlatinum
1979One for the Road (with Leon Russell)325GoldGold
1980Willie Nelson And Danny Davis & The Nashville Brass (with Danny Davis)14
San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price)370Gold
1981Somewhere Over the Rainbow (with Freddie Powers)131Platinum
1982WWII357Gold
Old Friends (with Roger Miller)
In the Jailhouse Now (with Webb Pierce)
The Winning Hand (with Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee)4109
1983Pancho & Lefty (with Merle Haggard)137PlatinumGold
Take It to the Limit (with Waylon Jennings)360Gold
1984Angel Eyes (with Jackie King)116
Music from Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson)21152
Funny How Time Slips Away (with Faron Young)
1987Walking the Line (with George Jones and Merle Haggard)39
Seashores of Old Mexico (with Merle Haggard)31
1990Clean Shirt (with Waylon Jennings)28193
1997Hill Country Christmas (with Bobbie Nelson)60
1998VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (with Johnny Cash)25150
2003Run That By Me One More Time (with Ray Price)62
2006Songbird (with Ryan Adams)1987
2007Last of the Breed (with Merle Haggard and Ray Price)764
2008Two Men with the Blues (with Wynton Marsalis)20

Singles

YearSingleChart PositionsAlbum
US CountryUS Hot 100CAN Country
1962"Willingly" (w/ Shirley Collie)10Single only
"Touch Me"7And Then I Wrote
1963"Half a Man"25Here's Willie Nelson
1964"You Took My Happiness Away"33Single only
1965"She's Not for You"43Shotgun Willie
"I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye"48Live - Country Music Concert
1966"One in a Row"19Make Way for Willie Nelson
1967"The Party's Over"24Party's Over
"Blackjack County Chain"21Single only
"San Antonio Rose"50Country Favorites
1968"Little Things"22Good Times
"Good Times"44
"Johnny One Time"36Single only
1969"Bring Me Sunshine"13Spotlight on Willie
1970"I Hope So"36Face of the Fighter
"Once More with Feeling"4235Both Sides Now
"Laying My Burdens Sown"68Laying My Burdens Down
1971"I'm a Memory"28Willie Nelson and Family
"Yesterday's Wine"62Yesterday's Wine
"Me and Paul"62
1972"Words Don't Fit the Picture"73Words Don't Fit the Picture
1973"Shotgun Willie"6066Shotgun Willie
"Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)"2226
1974"I Still Can't Believe You're Gone"51Phases and Stages
"Bloody Mary Morning"1726
"Sister's Coming Home"93Phases and Stages
1975"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"1212Red Headed Stranger
1976"Fire and Rain"29What Can You Do to Me Now
"Remember Me (When The Candle Lights Are Gleaming)"2676Red Headed Stranger
"Last Letter"46Country Willie
"I Gotta Get Drunk"55101What Can You Do to Me Now
"I'd Have to Be Crazy"117The Sound in Your Mind
"If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time"15
1977"Uncloudy Day"44The Troublemaker
"I'm a Memory" (re-release)22What Can You Do to Me Now
"I Love You a Thousand Ways"9To Lefty from Willie
"You Ought to Hear Me Cry"16Willie Before His Time
1978"Georgia on My Mind"184Stardust
"Blue Skies"1
"All of Me"3
"Will You Remember Mine"67Sweet Memories
"There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight"86There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight
1979"Whiskey River"12Willie and Family Live
"Sweet Memories"4Sweet Memories
"September Song"15Stardust
1980"Help Me Make It Through the Night"4Sings Kristofferson
"My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"144Electric Horseman
"Midnight Rider"6
"On the Road Again"120Honeysuckle Rose
"Family Bible"9220 of the Best
1981"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"1Honeysuckle Rose
"Mona Lisa"11Somewhere Over the Rainbow
"Good Times" (re-release)25Minstrel Man
"I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"26Somewhere Over the Rainbow
"Mountain Dew"23Minstrel Man
"Heartaches of a Fool"39Greatest Hits (And Some That Will Be)
1982"Always on My Mind"A15Always on My Mind
"Let It Be Me"240
1983"Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning"2
"Little Old Fashioned Karma"10Tougher Than Leather
"Why Do I Have to Choose"3Take It to the Limit
"Take It to the Limit" (w/ Waylon Jennings)8102

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