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.
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.
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 troubadourWillie 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.
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.
ActivismWillie, 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.
LegacyWillie 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.
|US Country||US 200||US||CAN|
|1962||And Then I Wrote|
|1963||Here's Willie Nelson|
|1965||Country Willie - His Own Songs||14|
|1966||Country Favorites-Willie Nelson Style||9|
|1967||Make Way for Willie Nelson||7|
|"The Party's Over" And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs||9|
|1968||Good Ol' Country Singin'|
|Texas In My Soul|
|My Own Peculiar Way||39|
|1970||Columbus Stockade Blues|
|Both Sides Now|
|Laying My Burdens Down|
|1971||Willie Nelson and Family||43|
|1972||The Words Don't Fit the Picture|
|The Willie Way||34|
|1974||Spotlight on Willie Nelson|
|Phases and Stages||34||187|
|What Can You Do to Me Now||5|
|Red Headed Stranger||1||28||2× Multi-Platinum||Gold|
|1976||The Sound in Your Mind||1||48||Platinum|
|The Longhorn Jamboree Presents: Willie Nelson & His Friends||41|
|1977||Willie - Before His Time||3||78|
|To Lefty From Willie||2||91|
|1978||There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight||46|
|Stardust||1||30||5× Multi-Platinum||2× Platinum|
|Face of a Fighter||42|
|Honeysuckle Rose||1||11||2× Multi-Platinum|
|1982||Always on My Mind||1||2||4× Multi-Platinum||2× Platinum|
|1983||My Own Way||182|
|Tougher Than Leather||4||39|
|1984||Without a Song||3||54||Platinum|
|City of New Orleans||1||162||Platinum||Gold|
|Don't You Ever Get Tired (of Hurting Me)|
|1985||Me and Paul||3||152|
|The Promised Land||1|
|1987||Island in the Sea||14|
|What a Wonderful World||6|
|1989||A Horse Called Music||2|
|1990||Born for Trouble||31|
|1992||The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?|
|Any Old Arms Won't Do|
|1993||Across the Borderline||15||75|
|1994||Six Hours at Pedernales|
|Moonlight Becomes You||37|
|Healing Hands of Time||17||103|
|1995||Just One Love|
|How Great Thou Art|
|1999||Night and Day|
|2000||Tales Out of Luck (Me and the Drummer)|
|Milk Cow Blues||83|
|2002||The Great Divide||5||43|
|Willie Nelson & Friends - Stars & Guitars||18||133|
|2003||Crazy: The Demo Sessions||32|
|2004||Outlaws and Angels||10||69|
|It Always Will Be||12||75|
|Songs for Tsunami Relief: Austin to South Asia||57|
|2006||You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker||24||114|
|2008||Moment of Forever||8||56|
|US Country||US 200||US||CAN|
|1966||Country Music Concert||32|
|1976||Willie Nelson Live||5|
|1978||Willie and Family Live||1||32||4× Multi-Platinum||Gold|
|2002||All of Me - Live in Concert|
|2003||Live and Kickin'||4||42|
|2004||Live at Billy Bob's Texas||27||168|
|US Country||US 200||US||CAN|
|1981||Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be)||1||27||4× Multi-Platinum||Platinum|
|20 of the Best|
|1993||Super Hits||34||193||2× Multi-Platinum|
|1995||Super Hits 2|
|Revolutions of Time… The Journey 1975/1993 (3-CD-Boxset)|
|1998||16 Biggest Hits||29||Platinum|
|2003||The Essential Willie Nelson||24||179||Gold|
|2008||One Hell of a Ride||46|
|Playlist: The Very Best of Willie Nelson||63|
|US Country||US 200||US||CAN|
|1976||Wanted! The Outlaws (with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser)||1||10||2× Multi-Platinum||Platinum|
|1978||Waylon & Willie (with Waylon Jennings)||1||12||2× Multi-Platinum||Platinum|
|1979||One for the Road (with Leon Russell)||3||25||Gold||Gold|
|1980||Willie Nelson And Danny Davis & The Nashville Brass (with Danny Davis)||14|
|San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price)||3||70||Gold|
|1981||Somewhere Over the Rainbow (with Freddie Powers)||1||31||Platinum|
|Old Friends (with Roger Miller)|
|In the Jailhouse Now (with Webb Pierce)|
|The Winning Hand (with Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee)||4||109|
|1983||Pancho & Lefty (with Merle Haggard)||1||37||Platinum||Gold|
|Take It to the Limit (with Waylon Jennings)||3||60||Gold|
|1984||Angel Eyes (with Jackie King)||116|
|Music from Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson)||21||152|
|Funny How Time Slips Away (with Faron Young)|
|1987||Walking the Line (with George Jones and Merle Haggard)||39|
|Seashores of Old Mexico (with Merle Haggard)||31|
|1990||Clean Shirt (with Waylon Jennings)||28||193|
|1997||Hill Country Christmas (with Bobbie Nelson)||60|
|1998||VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (with Johnny Cash)||25||150|
|2003||Run That By Me One More Time (with Ray Price)||62|
|2006||Songbird (with Ryan Adams)||19||87|
|2007||Last of the Breed (with Merle Haggard and Ray Price)||7||64|
|2008||Two Men with the Blues (with Wynton Marsalis)||20|
|US Country||US Hot 100||CAN Country|
|1962||"Willingly" (w/ Shirley Collie)||10||Single only|
|"Touch Me"||7||And Then I Wrote|
|1963||"Half a Man"||25||Here's Willie Nelson|
|1964||"You Took My Happiness Away"||33||Single only|
|1965||"She's Not for You"||43||Shotgun Willie|
|"I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye"||48||Live - Country Music Concert|
|1966||"One in a Row"||19||Make Way for Willie Nelson|
|1967||"The Party's Over"||24||Party's Over|
|"Blackjack County Chain"||21||Single only|
|"San Antonio Rose"||50||Country Favorites|
|1968||"Little Things"||22||Good Times|
|"Johnny One Time"||36||Single only|
|1969||"Bring Me Sunshine"||13||Spotlight on Willie|
|1970||"I Hope So"||36||Face of the Fighter|
|"Once More with Feeling"||42||35||Both Sides Now|
|"Laying My Burdens Sown"||68||Laying My Burdens Down|
|1971||"I'm a Memory"||28||Willie Nelson and Family|
|"Yesterday's Wine"||62||Yesterday's Wine|
|"Me and Paul"||62|
|1972||"Words Don't Fit the Picture"||73||Words Don't Fit the Picture|
|1973||"Shotgun Willie"||60||66||Shotgun Willie|
|"Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)"||22||26|
|1974||"I Still Can't Believe You're Gone"||51||Phases and Stages|
|"Bloody Mary Morning"||17||26|
|"Sister's Coming Home"||93||Phases and Stages|
|1975||"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"||1||21||2||Red Headed Stranger|
|1976||"Fire and Rain"||29||What Can You Do to Me Now|
|"Remember Me (When The Candle Lights Are Gleaming)"||2||67||6||Red Headed Stranger|
|"Last Letter"||46||Country Willie|
|"I Gotta Get Drunk"||55||101||What Can You Do to Me Now|
|"I'd Have to Be Crazy"||11||7||The Sound in Your Mind|
|"If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time"||1||5|
|1977||"Uncloudy Day"||4||4||The Troublemaker|
|"I'm a Memory" (re-release)||22||What Can You Do to Me Now|
|"I Love You a Thousand Ways"||9||To Lefty from Willie|
|"You Ought to Hear Me Cry"||16||Willie Before His Time|
|1978||"Georgia on My Mind"||1||84||Stardust|
|"All of Me"||3|
|"Will You Remember Mine"||67||Sweet Memories|
|"There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight"||86||There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight|
|1979||"Whiskey River"||12||Willie and Family Live|
|"Sweet Memories"||4||Sweet Memories|
|1980||"Help Me Make It Through the Night"||4||Sings Kristofferson|
|"My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"||1||44||Electric Horseman|
|"On the Road Again"||1||20||Honeysuckle Rose|
|"Family Bible"||92||20 of the Best|
|1981||"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"||1||Honeysuckle Rose|
|"Mona Lisa"||11||Somewhere Over the Rainbow|
|"Good Times" (re-release)||25||Minstrel Man|
|"I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"||26||Somewhere Over the Rainbow|
|"Mountain Dew"||23||Minstrel Man|
|"Heartaches of a Fool"||39||Greatest Hits (And Some That Will Be)|
|1982||"Always on My Mind"A||1||5||Always on My Mind|
|"Let It Be Me"||2||40|
|1983||"Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning"||2|
|"Little Old Fashioned Karma"||10||Tougher Than Leather|
|"Why Do I Have to Choose"||3||Take It to the Limit|
|"Take It to the Limit" (w/ Waylon Jennings)||8||102