Nelson, Willie
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Nelson, Willie

Willie Nelson

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

The long and prolific musical career of Willie Nelson—not to mention his personal life—has been like a roller coaster ride, slow moving at the start, then climbing straight to the stars, dipping to a heart-rending low, and finally running straight and true once more. Cheryl McCall wrote in People, "An instant success after 25 years trying, Willie didn't cut a big-selling album until he was 40." Once Nelson's career took off, however, he became "an inadvertent and unassailable national monument." And his output has been prodigious, numbering well over 100 albums. In the early 1990s, though, Nelson had to overcome two crushing events—the suicide of his oldest son, and a multi-million-dollar battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. But, demonstrating an indomitable spirit, he managed to bounce back in 1993 with a new recording that a number of critics called his best in years, if not one of his best ever. "Imagine answering a late-night phone call from a friend who's been in a coma, only to find him lucid, clever, and loving as ever. That's what Across the Borderline feels like," noted Burl Gilyard of Request.

Nelson was born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. The country was mired in the Great Depression, and times were rough for the little farming community. When Nelson was six months old, his mother left to find a job and never returned. Nelson and his older sister, Bobbie, were then raised by their paternal grandparents, who were strict, church-going people. They were also devoted amateur musicians who pushed the children into music and performing, teaching both Nelson and his sister how to play an instrument. Nelson's grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, gave him his first and only training on the guitar. His grandmother taught Bobbie how to play piano. Nelson told Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick of McCall's that his grandparents were "his true, and earliest, inspiration."

Although his grandparents raised him and his sister to be "solid Methodists and obedient kids," Nelson related in Willie: An Autobiography that he strayed from the straight and narrow early on. Drinking and smoking were forbidden, yet, "I can't tell you how many Sundays I would be singing in the choir," he revealed, "and my heart would be sad because I was thinking I was going to fry in hell because I had already drunk beer and smoked."

Nelson worked in the cotton fields after school to help bring in money for the family. By the age of ten, he was an accomplished enough musician, along with his sister, to begin playing at local dances. After his grandfather died, Nelson learned songs listening to the radio. "He'd pick up things just like that," his sister Bobbie told McCall. "His ear is so fantastic, he doesn't even know how good he is." When Nelson was in the sixth grade, he got his first professional job, with the John Ray-check Band, an Abbott polka outfit that played the bohemian clubs in the area. Needless to say, Nelson's grandmother was horrified that he was playing in beer joints. But it was undeniable that he could make much more money there than in the cotton fields.

As a teenager, Nelson and his sister played in a band that her husband, Bud Fletcher, put together. Fletcher was able to land steady bookings for the group, and they would play whatever the club owner wanted, while Nelson honed his craft and broadened his horizons.

Turbulent Early Years

After graduating from high school, Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force. But he received a medical discharge after just nine months because of an earlier back injury. He returned to Abbott and formed a band, and again started playing in local clubs. He attended Baylor University but quickly dropped out. He also fell in love and married Martha Matthews—he was 18 years old; she was 16. From the start, they struggled to make ends meet and soon began fighting regularly. "She was a full-blooded Cherokee," Nelson told People, "and every night with us was like Custer's last stand. We'd live in one place a month, then pack up and move when the rent would come due." Nelson was making as little as 50 cents a night with his band.

The honky tonks and beer joints that were Nelson's second home were rough, rowdy places where the band had to be shielded from flying bottles by chicken-wire fences. In 1953 Nelson and his wife moved to San Antonio, Texas, and he landed a job as a disc jockey. He also continued to play his music at clubs in the evenings. He and Martha went back to Abbott for the birth of their first child, Lana, and then moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Nelson got another disc jockey job.

The family next moved West, and eventually Nelson got a job as a disc jockey in Vancouver, Canada. In 1957, his second child, Susie, was born. Also in 1957, Nelson recorded his first single, "No Place for Me." He produced the record himself and promoted and sold it over the radio. With two children and his wife pregnant with a third, Nelson decided to try a regular job. Moving back to Fort Worth, he sold encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners. But he soon went back to performing in clubs. He taught Sunday school for a while, but when the congregation complained about him playing in beer joints, he quit.

For the Record …

Born Willie Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, TX; son of Ira (a mechanic) and Myrle (a homemaker) Nelson; raised by paternal grandparents; married Martha Matthews, 1952 (divorced, 1962); married Shirley Collie (a singer), 1963 (divorced, 1971); married Connie Koepke, 1971 (divorced, c. 1989); married Anne-Marie D'Angelo (a makeup artist), 1991; children: (first marriage) Lana, Susie, Billy (deceased); (third marriage) Paula Carlene, Amy; (fourth marriage) Lukas, Jacob. Education: Attended Baylor University, c. 1950.

Taught to play guitar by grandfather; joined John Ray-check polka band, c. 1945; worked as disc jockey, San Antonio, TX (1953), and in Fort Worth, TX, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; recorded first single, "No Place for Me," 1957; worked as encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salesman, taught Sunday School, and performed in local clubs, Ft. Worth; joined Larry Butler band, Houston, TX, 1958; sold first song, "Family Bible," c. 1958; worked as songwriter for Pamper Music, Nashville, TN, beginning c. 1960; played bass with Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys; recorded and per formed with Shirley Collie; performed at dance halls and county fairs, Austin, TX; signed with Atlantic Records, c. 1971, and released Shotgun Willie, 1973; signed with Columbia Records, 1974, released Red Headed Stranger, 1975; recorded and toured extensively, 1980s; organized first Farm Aid benefit, 1985; actor, beginning in 1979; author (with Bud Shrake) of Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988. Military service: U.S. Air Force, c. 1950.

Awards: Numerous Country Music Association and Grammy Awards, including CMA entertainer of the year, 1979, and Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1989; inducted into Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, 1973; named top album artist of 1976 by Billboard; inducted into Country Music Association Hall of Fame, 1993.

Addresses: Record company—Lost Highway Records, website: http://www.losthighwayrecords.com, e-mail: losthighway@hotmail.com. Website—Willie Nelson Official Website: http://www.willienelson.com.

Sold First Song for $50

Nelson's third child, Billy, was born in 1958. The family moved to Houston, Texas, and Nelson was invited to join Larry Butler's band. He played with the band six nights a week and had a disc jockey job on Sundays. Since the mid-1950s Nelson had been writing songs, and he now tried to sell some in order to help support his family. He sold his first, "Family Bible," for $50 to pay for food and rent. It eventually became a number one country hit. He then sold another song, "Night Life," for $150. "Night Life" went on to become one of the most-recorded songs ever. Performed by more than 70 artists, it has sold more than 30 million records, though Nelson never made a dime from the royalties. Nelson then moved to Nashville to take his shot at the big time.

In Nashville, musician and songwriter Hank Cochran helped Nelson get a job as a songwriter with Pamper Music. By 1961 several of Nelson's songs had been recorded by country performers and had become hits. "Hello Walls" was released by Faron Young; "Crazy" was recorded by Patsy Cline (and became a classic); and Billy Walker did "Funny How Time Slips Away." Besides becoming country hits, "Hello Walls" and "Crazy" also made the pop top 40.

Nelson next joined Ray Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys, as a bass player. Although he was now collecting royalty checks for his songwriting, plus a salary from the band, Nelson spent his money as fast as he made it. His already stormy marriage deteriorated. He began recording his own songs but did not meet with much success. Nelson then got together with singer Shirley Collie and recorded a couple of songs, "Willingly" and "Touch Me," that became top ten hits. Nelson started dating Collie, and when his wife found out, she packed up the kids and left for Las Vegas to get a divorce. Nelson formed a small band with Collie and went on the road. In 1963 Collie filed for divorce from her husband, and she and Nelson married. The couple bought a farm near Nashville, and Nelson's children moved back in with him. Collie then became a housewife, while Nelson went on the road alone. She accepted this arrangement at first, but after a while became restless and resentful.

Throughout the 1960s, Nelson's own recordings sold few copies. He had an unusual voice that sounded high and quavering, and he favored uncommon phrasing. His music did not fit the traditional Nashville mold, so it was considered non-commercial, and his records were not adequately promoted. He was signed by Nashville record companies primarily for his songwriting talents. "They grudgingly allowed me to sing as long as they could cover up my voice with horns and strings," he stated in his autobiography.

By 1968 Nelson's second marriage was foundering. Shirley Collie discovered that Nelson had fathered a child by a woman named Connie Koepke, and she and Nelson split up, while Koepke and the child moved in.

The night before Christmas Eve in 1969, Nelson was at a party when he was told that his house had burned to the ground. When he arrived at the scene of the fire, he rushed into the smoking remains to grab a guitar case containing two pounds of marijuana, afraid that the authorities would find it. Nelson has long used marijuana, and considers it a calming medicinal herb, instrumental in containing his tremendous energy. "Most people smoke to get high," a friend remarked to McCall, "Willie smokes to get normal." But Nelson prohibits his bandmembers from using any other drugs, particularly cocaine. "If you're wired," he has said, "you're fired."

Life Among the Outlaws

With his home devastated and his Nashville recording career going nowhere, Nelson decided to move the family to Texas. He settled in Austin, which was becoming the home of the "outlaws"—country singers like himself who could never quite fit in, back in Nashville. These included Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Nelson started touring the area's dance halls and county fairs, and developed a growing following. In the early 1970s he began sporting the distinctive look he wears to this day: long hair—often fashioned in two braids—and beard, bandanna head-band, jeans, and running shoes.

In April of 1971, Connie Koepke became Nelson's third wife. Around this time, Nelson signed a contract with Atlantic Records that allowed him to use his own band to record. Previously he had been forced to use studio musicians, and had objected to this approach, since he felt that by working with him for just a few hours, the studio musicians could not get a true feel for his particular style of music.

In 1973 Nelson released the album Shotgun Willie, and it outsold all his previous albums combined. Also in 1973, Nelson was inducted into Nashville's Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his first Fourth of July picnic—a rock-style country festival—attracted a crowd of 50,000, including rock and rollers as well as country fans.

Atlantic dropped its country division in 1974 and Nelson signed with Columbia Records, where he finally enjoyed complete creative control over his recordings. In 1975 he released the album Red Headed Stranger, which became a major hit. The LP rose to number one on the country charts and cracked the top 40 of the pop charts. A single from Stranger, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," became a top ten hit, and won Nelson his first Grammy Award.

By 1976 Nelson was selling records like crazy. Seven of his albums appeared on the Billboard charts that year. Gold and platinum records were rolling in. In 1978 Nelson tried a new direction, releasing an album of pop standards called Stardust. It included such songs as the title track, by Hoagy Carmichael, and "Blue Skies," by Irving Berlin, both remade in Nelson's unique style. The album became a country and pop hit. David Gates of Newsweek noted, "The archetypal country outlaw reinvented himself as a singer beyond categories; Star-dust has sold more than 4 million copies."

As Stardust demonstrated, even when Nelson sang other people's songs, he truly made them his own. "Everything he does, he reinterprets," wrote Frank Mc-Connell of Commonweal, adding that Nelson's versions of pop classics are "a reclamation and rediscovery of songs we thought we had already heard too often." Request's Gilyard concurred, maintaining that "Nelson's truest gift is his instinctive genius for interpretation.… Singing ballads as effortlessly as he exhales, Nelson can even infuse pure corn … with genuine feeling."

In 1979 Nelson ventured into acting, taking a supporting role in the film Electric Horseman, which starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He then co-starred in the 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose, which was based loosely on his life. Other films followed, including Barbarosa in 1982, and television movies such as 1986's Stagecoach.

A song Nelson wrote for Honeysuckle Rose, "On the Road Again," reached number one on the country charts and became a top 20 pop hit; it also became the singer's unofficial theme song. Nelson continued to release successful singles and albums over the course of the 1980s, and toured extensively throughout the United States and abroad, regularly spending as many as 250 days a year on the road.

Organized Farm Aid Benefits

In 1985 Nelson organized the first Farm Aid benefit concert. He had witnessed the plight of the nation's farmers, and wanted to do something to assist them. "A farmer told me there had been four suicides in the neighborhood, and I could feel how on edge he was. Another said that he'd lost his farm, and his wife had left him, and he couldn't find any other work," Nelson told Ellen Hawkes of the Ladies' Home Journal. "Well, I know what it's like to feel down, and once I realized how bad the farm crisis was, I had to help." Farm Aid has become a yearly event, featuring a variety of musical performers and earning millions of dollars for farm groups.

By the end of the decade, Nelson's marriage to third wife Connie was breaking up. He next took up with Anne-Marie D'Angelo, a makeup artist he had met while filming one of his movies, and they had two children. They married in 1991. Discussing his marriages, Nelson told Redbook, "It's not easy being married to a man like me. It's asking a lot to let your husband run around the world, flirting with pretty girls who flirt back. That's a hard one. It's pretty obvious that entertainers marry and remarry … more than anyone else. I think it's because they're away from home so much and the temptations are so great."

The year 1991 began and ended with two shattering personal crises. At the end of 1990, the I.R.S. seized Nelson's properties and possessions to settle a tax debt totaled at $32 million after the agency had disallowed various tax shelters. The figure was later reduced to $16.7 million, but in January of 1991, the I.R.S. held what Newsweek's Gates termed a "humiliating" auction of all of Nelson's possessions. Friends and supporters stepped in and tendered bids, purchasing his property and allowing him to remain on the premises until he could buy it back. One friend bought his home, another his Pedernales Country Club and Recording Studio.

Nelson sold an album that year through an 800 number—Who'll Buy My Memories: The I.R.S. Tapes—to help pay off the seemingly insurmountable debt, and also toured heavily. Then, on Christmas Day of 1991 Nelson's son Billy was found dead, a suicide by hanging. People reported that Billy had suffered alcohol problems and "a history of despondency." He lived mostly off an allowance from his father. "I've never experienced anything so devastating in my life," Nelson admitted to a friend. Reflecting further on his troubles, he told Alanna Nash of TV Guide, "I think everything we go through is a test. I don't think we're ever asked to endure anything that we can't endure." Nelson put his faith in the power of positive thinking. "I guess I'm just living in the present," he said to Nash. "So far, more good things have come along, and the more I think that way, the more positive things happen. That's how I keep it together."

"The Best of American Music"

Eventually, Nelson's I.R.S. debt was negotiated down to $9 million. By 1993 he had paid off about half, and had agreed to a schedule to pay off the rest. That year he released a daring new album, Across the Borderline, which was widely praised by critics. Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone reported that the record, produced by pop producer Don Was, "seasons the singer's own brand of austere, hard-chugging country swing with echoes of everything from English art rock to Paul Simon's South African-flavored folk rock." Jay Cocks of Time referred to Nelson's album as a "singular achievement," and remarked that the album "will fix him for good right where he belongs, among the best of American music." Duets with pop stars Sinead O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan, as well as songs by Dylan, Paul Simon, and Lyle Lovett ensured the record's success with country and pop fans.

That year Nelson also turned 60, an age he never expected to see as a performer. He told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press that he originally saw himself retiring at 50 and getting a job as a disc jockey at "some small country station somewhere. Then I'd really enjoy life—ride my horses and play golf."

Having released close to 200 albums of both new and compiled material during his career, Nelson's first new material in five years came via the 1996 Island release Spirit. The album contained echoes of some of Nelson's finest material from the early 1970s. Nelson's 1996 gospel album How Great Thou Art also preceded the Grammy-nominated Teatro. Released in September of 1998 and produced by Daniel Lanois, Teatro was recorded in an old movie theater in Mexico with the help of singer Emmylou Harris, who appeared on 11 of the 14 tracks. All Music Guide called Teatro "Striking, beautiful and affecting. Teatro is a sonic film that displays its moving images in the minds and hearts of its listeners."

Nelson had always dabbled in various musical genres, and 1999's all-instrumental record Night And Day was no exception. Channeling gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, Nelson's guitar playing was center stage. On 2000's Me and the Drummer, Nelson included an interactive CD containing interviews with various country musicians. All Music Guide's Michael Smith saw Me and the Drummer as a return to some of Nelson's greatest work. "The songs … are a flashback to a simpler time, reminiscent of the Western-flavored tunes featured on his Red Headed Stranger and Tougher Than Leather releases."

A few months later, Nelson released his first blues record, Milk Cow Blues. Loaded with superstar duets, the album covered a number of classic Nelson songs. For 2002's The Great Divide, which earned Nelson a Grammy nomination, the country icon once again focused on duets. This time around, he stuck with mostly contemporary artists, including Sheryl Crow, Rob Thomas, Brian McKnight, and rapper Kid Rock. "Nelson's sound is so deep, so sad yet unapologetic, that he can make a lyric about the summer sun seem as dark and cold as meditation on the Arctic," wrote Pat Blashill in Rolling Stone.

Twenty-three years after Nelson recorded San Antonio Rose with Ray Price, the pair teamed up again for 2003's Run That By Me One More Time, a honky tonk record recorded in Texas. In October of 2004 Nelson released It Always Will Be on Lost Highway, which Rolling Stone called "Nelson's strongest album since 1996's Spirit." The humble and low-key album was rounded off by duets with Toby Keith, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Nelson's own daughter Paula (on a track she wrote, titled "Be That As It May").

In 2005 Nelson got back into the movie business, starring as Uncle Jesse in the big-screen remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. He also made headlines with a company he co-founded, called Willie Nelson's Biodiesel, which was set up to market BioWillie, a truck fuel made from vegetable oils, at truck stops across the United States.

Selected discography

…And Then I Wrote, Liberty, 1962.

Here's Willie Nelson, Liberty, 1963.

Country Willie—His Own Songs, RCA, 1965.

Hello Walls, Sunset, 1966; reissued, Pickwick, 1978.

Country Favorites—Willie Nelson Style, RCA, 1966.

Country Music Concert, RCA, 1966.

Make Way for Willie Nelson, RCA, 1967.

The Party's Over, RCA, 1967.

Texas in My Soul, RCA, 1968.

Good Times, RCA, 1968.

My Own Peculiar Way, 1969.

Columbus Stockade Blues, RCA/Camden, 1970.

Both Sides Now, RCA, 1970.

Laying My Burdens Down, RCA, 1970.

Willie Nelson and Family, RCA, 1971.

Yesterday's Wine, RCA, 1971.

The Words Don't Fit the Picture, RCA, 1972.

The Willie Way, RCA, 1972.

Country Winners, RCA/Camden, 1973.

Shotgun Willie, Atlantic, 1973.

The Best of Willie Nelson, United Artists, 1973.

Spotlight on Willie Nelson, RCA/Camden, 1974.

Phases and Stages, 1974; reissued, Atlantic, 1991.

What Can You Do to Me Now, RCA, 1975.

Red Headed Stranger, Columbia, 1975; reissued, 1982.

Country Willie, United Artists, 1975.

(Contributor) Texas Country, United Artists, 1976.

Willie Nelson and His Friends, Plantation, 1976.

Columbus Stockade Blues, Pickwick, 1976.

(Contributor) The Outlaws, RCA, 1976.

Willie Nelson Live, RCA, 1976.

The Sound in Your Mind, Columbia, 1976.

The Troublemaker, Columbia, 1976.

Willie/Before His Time, RCA, 1977.

To Lefty From Willie, Columbia, 1977.

There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight, United Artists, 1978; reissued, Liberty, 1984.

Stardust, Columbia, 1978; reissued, 1980.

(With Waylon Jennings) Waylon and Willie, RCA, 1978.

Willie and Family Live, Columbia, 1978.

Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson, Columbia, 1979.

Pretty Paper, Columbia, 1979.

(Contributor) The Electric Horseman (soundtrack), Columbia, 1979.

(With Leon Russell) One for the Road, Columbia, 1979.

Willie Nelson: Country Superstar, Candelite Music, 1980.

Honeysuckle Rose (soundtrack), Columbia, 1980.

(With Ray Price) San Antonio Rose, Columbia, 1980.

Family Bible, MCA/Songbird, 1980.

Danny Davis and Willie Nelson, RCA, 1980.

The Minstrel Man, RCA, 1981.

Once More With Feeling, RCA, 1981.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Columbia, 1981.

Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1981.

The Best of Willie, RCA, 1982.

(With Jennings) WW II, RCA, 1982.

Always on My Mind, Columbia, 1982; reissued, 1983.

(With Merle Haggard) Poncho & Lefty, Epic, 1982.

(With Roger Miller) Old Friends, Columbia, 1982.

(With Webb Pierce) In the Jailhouse Now, Columbia, 1982.

Willie Nelson: The Ghost, Solid Gold Productions, 1982.

The Best of Willie Nelson, Liberty Special Products, 1982.

(With Jennings) Take It to the Limit, Columbia, 1983.

Without a Song, Columbia, 1983.

Tougher Than Leather, Columbia, 1983.

On My Way, RCA, 1983.

Bandanna Land, H.S.R.D., 1983.

Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me, RCA, 1984.

City of New Orleans, Columbia, 1984.

Angel Eyes, Columbia, 1984.

(With Kris Kristofferson) Music From Songwriter (sound-track), Columbia, 1984.

Replay: Willie Nelson, Sierra Records, 1984.

Willie Nelson, RCA, 1985.

Willie, RCA, 1985.

Stardust (Classic Nelson), CBS, 1985.

Half Nelson, CBS, 1985.

Me and Paul, Columbia, 1985.

(With Jennings, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Rodriguez) The Highwaymen, Columbia, 1985.

(With Faron Young) Funny How Time Slips Away, Columbia, 1985.

(With Hank Snow) Brand on My Heart, Columbia, 1985.

Willie Nelson: A Portrait in Music, Premier Records, 1985.

Mellow Moods of the Vintage Years, 82 Music Co., 1985.

Partners, CBS, 1986.

The Promiseland, CBS, 1986.

Island in the Sea, CBS, 1987.

(With Haggard) Seashores of Old Mexico, Epic, 1987.

(With Haggard and George Jones) Walking the Line, Epic, 1987.

(With Bobbie Nelson) I'd Rather Have Jesus, Arrival, 1987.

What a Wonderful World, Columbia, 1988.

A Horse Called Music, Columbia, 1989.

(With Cash, Jennings, and Kristofferson) Highwaymen II, Columbia, 1990.

Born for Trouble, Columbia, 1990.

(With Jennings) Waylon and Willie: Clean Shirt, Epic, 1991.

Who'll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, Columbia, 1991.

Across the Borderline, Columbia, 1993.

(Contributor) Asleep at the Wheel: A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Liberty, 1993.

Moonlight Becomes You, Justice Records, 1994.

The Classic, Unreleased Collection, Rhino, 1994.

The Early Years, Scotti Bros., 1994.

Healing Hands of Time, Capitol, 1994.

Pancho, Lefty and Rudolph, Disney, 1995.

Six Hours at Pedernales, Step One, 1995.

Just One Love, Transatlantic, 1996.

Spirit, Island, 1996.

Christmas with Willie Nelson, Unison, 1997.

Hill Country Christmas, Fine Arts, 1997.

Teatro, Island, 1998.

Life's Railway to Heaven, Mercury, 1998.

Willie Nelson Live, Columbia River, 1998.

Night and Day, Free Falls Entertainment, 1999.

Me and the Drummer, Lockdown, 2000.

Milk Cow Blues, Island, 2000.

Rainbow Connection, Island, 2001.

Tales Out of Luck, Corazong, 2001.

The Great Divide, Universal, 2002.

Stars & Guitars, Universal, 2002.

Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin', Lost Highway, 2003.

Standard Time, Sony Special Products, 2003.

Run That By Me One More Time, Lost Highway, 2003.

I Just Don't Understand, Blu Mountain, 2003.

Outlaws and Angels, Lost Highway, 2004.

It Will Always Be, Lost Highway, 2004.

Countrymen, Lost Highway, 2005.

Sources

Books

Nelson, Willie, and Bud Sheldrake, Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Periodicals

Ann Arbor News (MI), July 5, 1993.

Billboard, October 2, 1993; December 11, 1993.

Cappers, February 15, 2005, p. 38.

Commonweal, October 4, 1985.

Country Music, March/April 1993; May/June 1993.

Detroit Free Press, April 16, 1993.

Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993; June 27, 2003.

Guitar Player, November 1993.

Ladies' Home Journal, September 1987.

McCall's, May 1988.

Newsweek, March 22, 1993.

People, September 1, 1980; March 4, 1991; January 13, 1992; June 21, 1993.

Redbook, December 1984.

Request, April 1993.

Rolling Stone, August 28, 1986; March 7, 1991; May 13, 1993.

Time, May 17, 1993.

TV Guide, November 21, 1992.

Vanity Fair, November 1991.

Online

"Willie Nelson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 28, 2005).

"Willie Nelson," Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com (March 28, 2005).

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Nelson, Willie

Willie Nelson

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

For the Record

Turbulent Early Years

Sold First Song for $50

Life Among the Outlaws

Selected discography

Sources

The long and prolific career of Willie Nelsonnot to mention his personal lifehas been quite a roller coaster ride, slow moving at the start, then climbing straight to the stars, dipping to a heart-rending low, and finally, running straight and true once more. As Cheryl McCall of People wrote, An instant success after 25 years trying, Willie didnt cut a big-selling album until he was 40. Once Nelsons career took off, however, he became an inadvertent and unassailable national monument. And his output has been prodigious, numbering well over a hundred albums. In the early 1990s, though, Nelson had to overcome two crushing eventsa multimillion-dollar battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the suicide of his oldest son. But, demonstrating an indomitable spirit, he managed to bounce back in 1993 with a new recording that a number of critics called his best in years, in fact, one of his best ever. Imagine answering a late-night phone call from a friend whos been in a coma, only to find him lucid, clever, and loving as ever. Thats what Across the Borderline feels like, noted Burl Gilyard of Request, adding, [it is] an album that embodies the artistry, ambition, and amazing grace of Nelsons 70s breakthroughs.

Nelson was born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. The country was mired in the Great Depression and times were rough for the little farming community. When Nelson was six months old, his mother left to find a job and never returned. Nelson and his older sister, Bobbie, were then raised by their paternal grandparents, strict, church-going people. They were also devoted amateur musicians who pushed the children into music and performing, teaching both Nelson and his sister how to play an instrument. Nelsons grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, gave him his first and only training on the guitar. His grandmother taught Bobbie how to play piano. Nelson told Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick of McCalls that his grandparents were his true, and earliest, inspiration.

Although his grandparents raised him and his sister to be solid Methodists and obedient kids, Nelson related in Willie: An Autobiography, he strayed from the straight and narrow early. Drinking and smoking were forbidden, yet, I cant tell you how many Sundays I would be singing in the choir..., he revealed, and my heart would be sad because I was thinking I was going to fry in hell because I had already drunk beer and smoked.

Nelson worked in the cotton fields after school to help bring in some money for the family. And by the age of 10, he was an accomplished enough musician, along with his sister, to begin playing at local dances. After his grandfather died, Nelson learned songs listening to the

For the Record

Born Willie Hugh Nelson, April 30, 1933, in Abbott, TX; son of Ira (a mechanic) and Myrle (a homemaker) Nelson; raised by paternal grandparents; married Martha Matthews, 1952 (divorced, 1962); married Shirley Collie (a singer), 1963 (divorced, 1971); married Connie Koepke, 1971 (divorced, c. 1989); married Anne-Marie DAngelo (a makeup artist), 1991; children: (first marriage) Lana, Susie, Billy (deceased); (third marriage) Paula Carlene, Amy; (fourth marriage) Lukas, Jacob. Education: Attended Baylor University, c. 1950.

As a child, taught to play guitar by grandfather; performed at local dances with sister; joined John Raycheck polka band, c. 1945; worked as disc jockey, San Antonio, TX, 1953; worked as disc jockey in Fort Worth, TX, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; recorded first single, No Place for Me, 1957; worked as encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salesman, taught Sunday School, and performed in local clubs, Ft. Worth; joined Larry Butler band, Houston, 1958; sold first song, Family Bible, c. 1958; worked as songwriter for Pamper Music, Nashville, beginning c. 1960; played bass with Ray Prices Cherokee Cowboys; recorded and performed with Shirley Collie; performed at dance halls and county fairs, Austin, TX; signed with Atlantic Records, c. 1971, and released Shotgun Willie, 1973; signed with Columbia Records, 1974, and released Red Headed Stranger, 1975; recorded and toured extensively, 1980s; organized first Farm Aid benefit, 1985. Actor, beginning in 1979. Author (with Bud Shrake) of Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988. Military service: U.S. Air Force, c. 1950.

Selected awards: Numerous Country Music Association and Grammy awards, including CMA entertainer of the year, 1979, and Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, 1989; inducted into Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, 1973; named top album artist of 1976 by Billboard; inducted into Country Music Association Hall of Fame, 1993.

Addresses: Management Mark Rothbaum & Associates, Inc., P.O. Box 2689, Danbury, CT 06813-2689.

radio. Hed pick up things just like that, sister Bobbie told People s McCall. His ear is so fantastic, he doesnt even know how good he is. When Nelson was in the sixth grade, he got his first professional job, with the John Raycheck Band, an Abbott polka outfit that played the bohemian clubs in the area. Needless to say, Nelsons grandmother was horrified that he was playing in beer joints. But it was undeniable that he could make much more money there than in the cotton fields.

As a teenager, Nelson and his sister played in a band that her husband, Bud Fletcher, put together. Fletcher was able to land steady bookings for the group, and they would play whatever the club owner wanted, Nelson honing his craft and broadening his horizons.

Turbulent Early Years

After graduating from high school Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force. But he received a medical discharge after just nine months because of an earlier back injury. He returned to Abbott and formed a band and again started playing in local clubs. He attended Baylor University but quickly dropped out. He also fell in love and married Martha Matthewshe was 18 years old; she was 16. From the start, they struggled to make ends meet and soon began fighting regularly. She was a full-blooded Cherokee, Nelson told People, and every night with us was like Custers last stand. Wed live in one place a month, then pack up and move when the rent would come due. Nelson was making as little as 50 cents a night with his band.

The honky tonks and beer joints that were Nelsons second home were rough, rowdy places where the band had to be shielded from flying bottles by chickenwire fences. In 1953, Nelson and his wife moved to San Antonio, and he landed a job as a disc jockey. He also continued to play his music at clubs in the evenings. He and Martha went back to Abbott for the birth of their first child, Lana. They then moved to Fort Worth, where Nelson got another disc jockey job.

The family next moved west, and eventually Nelson got a job as a disc jockey in Vancouver, Canada. In 1957, his second child, Susie, was born. Also in 1957, Nelson recorded his first single, No Place for Me. He produced the record himself and promoted and sold it over the radio. With two children and his wife pregnant with a third, Nelson decided to try a regular job. Moving back to Fort Worth, he became an encyclopedia salesman, then worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman. But he soon went back to performing in clubs. He taught Sunday school for a while, but when the congregation complained about him playing in beer joints, he quit.

Sold First Song for $50

Nelsons third child, son Billy, was born in 1958. The family moved to Houston, and Nelson was invited to join Larry Butlers band. He played with the band six nights a week and had a disc jockey job on Sundays. Since the mid-1950s, Nelson had been writing songs, and he now tried to sell some to help support his family. He sold his first, Family Bible, for $50 to pay for food and rent. It eventually became a Number One country hit. He then sold another song, Night Life, for $150. Night Life went on to become one of the most-recorded songs ever. Performed by more than 70 artists, it has sold more than 30 million records, though Nelson never made a dime off the royalties. Nelson then moved to Nashville to take his shot at the big time.

In Nashville, musician and songwriter Hank Cochran helped Nelson get a job as a songwriter with Pamper Music. And by 1961, several of Nelsons songs had been recorded by country performers and had become hits. Hello Walls was released by Faron Young; Crazy was recorded by Patsy Cline (and became a classic); and Billy Walker did Funny How Time Slips Away. Besides becoming country hits, Hello Walls and Crazy also made the pop Top 40.

Nelson next joined Ray Prices band, the Cherokee Coyboys, as a bass player. Although he was now collecting royalty checks for his songwriting, plus a salary from the band, Nelson spent his money as fast as he made it. His already stormy marriage deteriorated. He began recording his own songs but did not meet with much success. Nelson then got together with singer Shirley Collie and recorded a couple of songs, Willingly and Touch Me, that became Top 10 hits. Nelson started dating Collie, and when his wife found out, she packed up the kids and left for Las Vegas to get a divorce. Nelson formed a small band with Collie and went on the road. In 1963, Collie filed for divorce from her husband, and she and Nelson married. The couple bought a farm near Nashville, and Nelsons children moved back in with him. Collie then became a housewife, while Nelson went on the road alone. She accepted this arrangement at first but after a while became restless and resentful.

Throughout the 1960s, Nelsons own recordings sold few copies. He had an unusual voicehigh and quaveringand he favored uncommon phrasing. His music did not fit the traditional Nashville mold, so it was considered uncommercial and as such, his records were not adequately promoted. Nelson was signed by Nashville record companies primarily for his songwriting talents. They grudgingly allowed me to sing as long as they could cover up my voice with horns and strings, he stated in his autobiography.

By 1968, Nelsons second marriage was foundering. He then met a woman at one of his concerts named Connie Koepke. He and Koepke soon fell in love. A year later, wife Shirley opened a hospital bill that came in the mail and discovered that Nelson had fathered a child by Koepke. She and Nelson split up, and Koepke and child moved in.

The night before Christmas Eve, 1969, Nelson was at a party when he was told that his house had burned to the ground. When he arrived at the scene of the fire, he rushed into the smoking remains to grab a guitar case containing two pounds of marijuana. He was worried that the authorities would find it and he would go to jail. Nelson has long used marijuana and considers it a medicinal herb, calming and instrumental in containing his tremendous energy. Most people smoke to get high, a friend remarked to McCall, Willie smokes to get normal. (Rumor has is that the singer even smoked a joint on the White House roof during the Jimmy Carter era.) But Nelson prohibits his bandmembers from using any other drugs, particularly cocaine. If youre wired, he has said, youre fired.

Life Among the Outlaws

With his home devastated and his Nashville recording career going nowhere, Nelson decided to move the family to Texas. He settled in Austin, which was becoming the home of the outlawscountry singers like himself who could never quite fit in back in Nashville. These included Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Nelson started touring the areas dance halls and county fairs and developed a growing following. In the early 1970s, he began sporting the distinctive look he wears to this day: long hairoften fashioned in two braidsand beard, bandanna headband, jeans, and running shoes.

In April of 1971, Connie Koepke became Nelsons third wife, though he was still married to the fomer Shirley Collie at the time. About six months later, Shirley was granted a divorce. Around this time, Nelson signed a contract with Atlantic Records, which allowed him to use his own band to record. Previously, he had been forced to use studio musicians. He had always objected to this approach, since he felt that by working with him for just a few hours, the studio musicians could not get a true feel for his particular style of music.

In 1973 Nelson released the album Shotgun Willie; it outsold all his previous albums combined. Also in 1973, Nelson was inducted into Nashvilles Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his first Fourth of July picnica rock-style country festivalattracted a crowd of 50,000, including rock and rollers, as well as country fans.

Atlantic dropped its country division in 1974 and Nelson signed with Columbia Records, where he finally enjoyed complete creative control over his recordings. In 1975 he released the album Red Headed Stranger, which became a major hit; the LP rose to Number One on the country charts and also cracked the Top 40 of the pop charts. A single from Stranger, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, became a Top 10 hit and won Nelson his first Grammy Award. At long last, he had become a star.

By 1976 Nelson was selling records like crazy. Seven of his albums appeared on the Billboard charts that year. Gold and platinum records were rolling in. Then, in 1978, Nelson tried a new direction, releasing an album of pop standards called Stardust. It included such songs as the title track, by Hoagy Carmichael, and Blue Skies, by Irving Berlin, both remade in Nelsons unique style. The set of covers became a country and pop hit. David Gates of Newsweek noted, The archetypal country outlaw reinvented himself as a singer beyond categories; [Stardust has] sold more than 4 million copies.

As Stardust demonstrated, even when Nelson sang other peoples songs, he would truly make them his own. Everything he does, he reinterprets, wrote Frank McConnell of Commonweal. His versions of pop classics are a reclamation and rediscovery of songs we thought we had already heard too often. Requests Gilyard concurred, maintaining, Nelsons truest gift is his instinctive genius for interpretation.... Singing ballads as effortlessly as he exhales, Nelson can even infuse pure corn... with genuine feeling.

In 1979, Nelson ventured into acting, taking a supporting role in the film Electric Horseman, which starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He then costarred in the 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose, which was based loosely on his life. Other films followed, including Barbarosa in 1982, as well as television movies, such as 1986s Stagecoach.

A song Nelson wrote for Honeysuckle Rose, On the Road Again, reached Number One on the country charts and became a Top 20 pop hit; it also became the singers unofficial theme song. Nelson continued to release successful singles and albums over the course of the 1980s. He also toured extensively throughout the United States and overseas, regularly spending as many as 250 days a year on the road.

In 1985 Nelson organized the first Farm Aid benefit concert. He had witnessed the plight of the nations farmers and wanted to do something to assist them. A farmer told me there had been four suicides in the neighborhood, and I could feel how on edge he was. Another said that hed lost his farm, and his wife had left him, and he couldnt find any other work, Nelson told Ellen Hawkes of Ladies Home Journal. Well, I know what its like to feel down, and once I realized how bad the farm crisis was, I had to help. Farm Aid has become a yearly event, featuring a variety of musical performers and earning millions of dollars for farm groups.

By the end of the decade, Nelsons marriage to third wife Connie was breaking up. He next took up with Anne-Marie DAngelo, a makeup artist he had met while filming one of his movies, and had two more children. They married in 1991. Discussing his marriages, Nelson told Redbook, Its not easy being married to a man like me. Its asking a lot to let your husband run around the world, flirting with pretty girls who flirt back. Thats a hard one. Its pretty obvious that entertainers marry and remarry... more than anyone else. I think its because theyre away from home so much and the temptations are so great.

The year 1991 began and ended with two shattering personal crises. At the end of 1990, the I.R.S. seized Nelsons properties and possessions to settle a tax debt totaled at $32 million. The agency had disallowed various tax shelters. The figure was later reduced to $16.7 million, but in January of 1991, the I.R.S. held what Newsweeks Gates termed a humiliating auction of all of Nelsons possessions. Friends and supporters stepped in and tendered bids, purchasing his property and allowing him to remain on the premises until he could buy it back. One friend bought his home, another his Pedernales Country Club and Recording Studio.

Nelson sold an album that year through an 800 numberWholl Buy My Memories: The I.R.S. Tapes to help pay off the seemingly insurmountable debt. He also toured heavily. Then, on Christmas Day of 1991, Nelsons son Billy was found dead, a suicide by hanging. People reported that Billy had suffered alcohol problems and a history of despondency. He lived mostly off an allowance from his father. Ive never experienced anything so devastating in my life, Nelson admitted to a friend. Reflecting further on his troubles, he told Alanna Nash of TV Guide, I think everything we go through is a test. I dont think were ever asked to endure anything that we cant endure. Nelson put his faith in the power of positive thinking. I guess Im just living in the present, he said to Nash. So far, more good things have come along, and the more I think that way, the more positive things happen. Thats how I keep it together.

Eventually, Nelsons I.R.S. debt was negotiated down to $9 million. By 1993, he had paid off about half and had agreed to a schedule to pay off the rest. More importantly, Nelson released a daring new album in 1993, Across the Borderline, that was widely praised by critics. Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone reported that the record, produced by pop producer Don Was, seasons the singers own brand of austere, hard-chugging country swing with echoes of everything from English art rock to Paul Simons South African-flavored folk rock. These hybrids are remarkable for their lack of clutter and their ultimate fidelity to Nelsons plain-as-dirt sensibility. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly called the disc shockingly good. He added, Nelson has now topped [Garth] Brooks in the creation of an album that cuts across the borderline of country into every precinct of pop. Jay Cocks of Time, for his part, referred to Nelsons album as a singular achievement and remarked that Across the Borderline will fix him for good right where he belongs, among the best of American music. Indeed, duets with pop stars Sinead OConnor, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan, as well as songs by Dylan, Paul Simon, and Lyle Lovett ensured the records success with country and pop fans.

That triumphant year Willie Nelson also turned 60an age he never expected to see as a performer. He told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press that he originally saw himself retiring at 50 and getting a job as a disc jockey at some small country station somewhere. Then Id really enjoy liferide my horses and play golf. Nelson continued, When I was 15 and thought about a 60-year-old person, I figured they were real old and had one foot in the grave. I really dont feel that way right now. I feel pretty good, in fact. Besides, I dont have anything to retire into or for. All I do is make music and play golf, and I wouldnt want to give up either one.

Selected discography

... And Then I Wrote, Liberty, 1962.

Heres Willie Nelson, Liberty, 1963.

Country WillieHis Own Songs, RCA, 1965.

Hello Walls, Sunset, 1966, reissued, Pickwick, 1978.

Country FavoritesWillie Nelson Style, RCA, 1966.

Country Music Concert, RCA, 1966.

Make Way for Willie Nelson, RCA, 1967.

The Partys Over, RCA, 1967.

Texas in My Soul, RCA, 1968.

Good Times, RCA, 1968.

My Own Peculiar Way, 1969.

Columbus Stockade Blues, RCA/Camden, 1970.

Both Sides Now, RCA, 1970.

Laying My Burdens Down, RCA, 1970.

Willie Nelson and Family, RCA, 1971.

Yesterdays Wine, RCA, 1971.

The Words Dont Fit the Picture, RCA, 1972.

The Willie Way, RCA, 1972.

Country Winners, RCA/Camden, 1973.

Shotgun Willie, Atlantic, 1973.

The Best of Willie Nelson, United Artists, 1973.

Spotlight on Willie Nelson, RCA/Camden, 1974.

Phases and Stages, 1974, reissued, Atlantic, 1991.

What Can You Do to Me Now, RCA, 1975.

Red Headed Stranger, Columbia, 1975, reissued, 1982.

Country Willie, United Artists, 1975.

(Contributor) Texas Country, United Artists, 1976.

Willie Nelson and His Friends, Plantation, 1976.

Columbus Stockade Blues, reissued, Pickwick, 1976.

(Contributor) The Outlaws, RCA, 1976.

Willie Nelson Live, RCA, 1976.

The Sound in Your Mind, Columbia, 1976.

The Troublemaker, Columbia, 1976.

Willie/Before His Time, RCA, 1977.

To Lefty From Willie, Columbia, 1977.

Therell Be No Teardrops Tonight, United Artists, 1978, reissued, Liberty, 1984.

Stardust, Columbia, 1978, reissued, 1980.

(With Waylon Jennings) Waylon and Willie, RCA, 1978.

Willie and Family Live, Columbia, 1978.

Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson, Columbia, 1979.

Pretty Paper, Columbia, 1979.

(Contributor) The Electric Horseman (soundtrack), Columbia, 1979.

(With Leon Russell) One for the Road, Columbia, 1979.

Willie Nelson: Country Superstar, Candelite Music, 1980.

Honeysuckle Rose (soundtrack), Columbia, 1980.

(With Ray Price) San Antonio Rose, Columbia, 1980.

Family Bible, MCA/Songbird, 1980.

Danny Davis and Willie Nelson, RCA, 1980.

The Minstrel Man, RCA, 1981.

Once More With Feeling, RCA, 1981.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Columbia, 1981.

Willie Nelsons Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1981.

The Best of Willie, RCA, 1982.

(With Jennings) WW II, RCA, 1982.

Always on My Mind, Columbia, 1982, reissued, 1983.

(With Merle Haggard) Poncho & Lefty, Epic, 1982.

(With Roger Miller) Old Friends, Columbia, 1982.

(With Webb Pierce) In the Jailhouse Now, Columbia, 1982.

Willie Nelson: The Ghost, Solid Gold Productions, 1982.

The Best of Willie Nelson, Liberty Special Products, 1982.

(With Jennings) Take It to the Limit, Columbia, 1983.

Without a Song, Columbia, 1983.

Tougher Than Leather, Columbia, 1983.

On My Way, RCA, 1983.

Bandanna Land, H.S.R.D., 1983.

Dont You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me, RCA, 1984.

City of New Orleans, Columbia, 1984.

Angel Eyes, Columbia, 1984.

(With Kris Kristofferson) Music From Songwriter (soundtrack), Columbia, 1984.

Replay: Willie Nelson, Sierra Records, 1984.

Willie Nelson, RCA, 1985.

Willie, RCA, 1985.

Stardust (Classic Nelson), CBS, 1985.

Half Nelson, CBS, 1985.

Me and Paul, Columbia, 1985.

(With Jennings, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Rodriguez) The Highwaymen, Columbia, 1985.

(With Faron Young) Funny How Time Slips Away, Columbia, 1985.

(With Hank Snow) Brand on My Heart, Columbia, 1985.

Willie Nelson: A Portrait in Music, Premier Records, 1985.

Mellow Moods of the Vintage Years, 82 Music Co., 1985.

Partners, CBS, 1986.

The Promiseland, CBS, 1986.

Island in the Sea, CBS, 1987.

(With Haggard) Seashores of Old Mexico, Epic, 1987.

(With Haggard and George Jones) Walking the Line, Epic, 1987.

(With Bobbie Nelson) Id Rather Have Jesus, Arrival, 1987.

What a Wonderful World, Columbia, 1988.

A Horse Called Music, Columbia, 1989.

(With Cash, Jennings, and Kristofferson) Highwaymen II, Columbia, 1990.

Born for Trouble, Columbia, 1990.

(With Jennings) Waylon and Willie: Clean Shirt, Epic, 1991.

Wholl Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, Columbia, 1991.

Across the Borderline, Columbia, 1993.

(Contributor) Asleep at the Wheel: A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Liberty, 1993.

Moonlight Becomes You, Justice Records, 1994.

The Classic, Unreleased Collection, Rhino, 1994.

The Early Years, Scotti Bros., 1994.

Sources

Books

Nelson, Willie, and Sheldrake, Bud, Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Periodicals

Ann Arbor News (MI), July 5, 1993.

Billboard, October 2, 1993; December 11, 1993.

Commonweal, October 4, 1985.

Country Music, March/April 1993; May/June 1993.

Detroit Free Press, April 16, 1993.

Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993.

Guitar Player, November 1993.

Ladies Home Journal, September 1987.

McCalls, May 1988.

Newsweek, March 22, 1993.

People, September 1, 1980; March 4, 1991; January 13, 1992; June 21, 1993.

Redbook, December 1984.

Request, April 1993.

Rolling Stone, August 28, 1986; March 7, 1991; May 13, 1993.

Time, May 17, 1993.

TV Guide, November 21, 1992.

Vanity Fair, November 1991.

Greg Mazurkiewicz

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Nelson, Willie

Willie Nelson

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

For the Record

Selected discography

Compositions

Sources

Probably no country singer has generated more warmth from a more diverse group of fans than Willie Nelson, the outlaw superstar from Texas. Nelsons unusual voice, eclectic musical tastes, down-home personality, and songwriting talents have combined to produce an engaging performer whose fast living and hard-won wisdom stirs even the most well-guarded emotions, wrote an Esquire reviewer. In Superstars of Country Music, Gene Busnar wrote: Who would ever guess that this gritty-looking man is one of Americas most important stars. A singer whose records cross all boundaries of audience appeal; an actor with a natural presence who is as comfortable on a movie set as he is on the concert stage; a personality so magnetic that a clothes designer has even started marketing jeans with his name on them. In an era that favors glitter and glamour, Willie comes across as the kind of guy with whom you could sit down and swap stories rather than some distant pop star who lives in his own world.

Rolling Stone contributor Stephen Holden feels that it is Nelsons music, more than his casual rural persona, that attracts listeners. What makes Nelson contemporary is the way his singing lets in the darknessfear, loneliness, despairso that the lyrics emerge as statements of truth rather than as soothing homilies, Holden maintains. Willie Nelson has a touch of the preacher in him. He can stand back, look outside himself and turn pop tunes into parables that have a universal as well as a personal meaning. Frank McConnell speaks even more highly of Nelson in a Commonweal essay. According to McConnell, Nelson, God help him, seems to have turned himself into a living repository of the tradition of American popular song.

Nelson himself might be taken aback by the praise heaped upon him. His origins were extremely modest, and he spent many years behind the Nashville scenes as a songwriter for others before Americas taste in music caught up with his innovative style. Nelson was born in tiny Abbott, Texas, on April 30, 1933, the only son of Ira and Myrtle Nelson. When he was only two his parents separated, so he and his sister Bobbie (who still performs with his band) were raised by their grandparents.

Like most youngsters of his era, Nelson enjoyed listening to the radio; he heard broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and the pop standards of the Depression era, and these were offset by the live singing he heard in church and out in the cotton fields. Busnar quotes Nelson: I first heard the blues picking cotton in a field full of black people. One would sing a line at this end of the field, another one at that end. I realized they knew more

For the Record

Born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Tex.; son of Ira D. (a pool hall owner) and Myrtle Nelson; married Martha Matthews (a barmaid) c. 1951 (divorced, c. 1960); married Shirley Collie (a singer), c. 1962 (divorced, 1969); married Connie Koepke (a lab technician), 1972; children: (first marriage) Lana, Billy, Susie; (third marriage) Paula Carlene, Amy Lee; (with Ann-Marie DAngelo) Lucas Nelson. Education: Attended Baylor University. Military service: Served in U.S. Air Force.

Songwriter and performer, 1946. Worked as door-to-door salesman and radio announcer, c. 1952-59; bass player in Ray Price band, Nashville, Tenn., 1960-62; formed his own band, 1962; regular cast member of Grand Ole Opry, 1964-69.

Actor in motion pictures, including Electric Horseman, 1979, Honeysuckle Rose, 1980 (also released as On the Road Again, 1982), Thief, 1981, Barbarosa, 1982, Red-Headed Stranger, 1986, and Stagecoach (made-for-TV), 1986; has also appeared in guest roles on television, including Miami Vice.

Awards: Named to Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, 1973; winner of five Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association Awards, and one Academy Award nomination (for best song, 1980, for On the Road Again).

Addresses: Residence Colorado. Business Mark Rothbaum & Associates, P.O. Box 2689, Danbury, CT 06813. Other 6600 Baseline Rd., Little Rock AR 72209.

about music, soul, and feeling than I did. Plus they could pick more cotton.

Nelson got his first guitar at the age of nine, learned some chords from his grandfather, and was soon performing in John Rays Polka Band, a favorite of the Polish and Czech immigrants in the area. By his freshman year of high school he had joined a family band led by his father and his sister, Bobbie. This was a standard country/swing band and it soon became popular enough to perform regularly in honky tonks and local radio spots. On the side Nelson wrote songsboth lyrics and music. He wanted to be a career musician, but the obstacles seemed insurmountable to a rural Texas boy.

After a brief stint in the Air Force (he was discharged after a back injury), Nelson married Martha Matthews, a waitress, and took whatever work he could find. He soon had three children to support. For a time he sold encyclopedias and Bibles door-to-door, worked as a janitor, a plumbers helper, and a disc jockey, while continuing his nightly performing in bars and clubs. Busnar notes that some of Nelsons performing venues were so rough that chicken-wire fences were put up to protect the band from bottles and chairs that were thrown around.

Nelson might have lost hope in these lean years if some of his songs hadnt attracted attention. In 1959 he sold the rights to Family Bible, an early effort, for $50just to feed his family. The next year, Claude Gray recorded the song, and it became a top ten country hitwithout earning Nelson another dime. Still, Nelson had earned a name as a songwriter, so he decided to risk his fortune in Nashville. He sold the rights to another tune, Night Life, for $150, bought a used car, and moved to Tennessee. Ironically, Night Life became a country classic, recorded by more than seventy artists, and selling an estimated 30 million copies. But since Nelson had sold the rights, he did not earn any royalties for it.

Nelson lived a hard-drinking and brawling life in Nashville, but his songwriting and singing careers took off nevertheless. His first wife left him, and the money he earned for his tunes either went for booze or lawyers, he said in Busnars account. He married a second time, to singer Shirley Collie, and performed his own music at Tootsies Bar, a proving ground for young Nashville hopefuls. There he met Ray Price, who had had a major hit with Night Life. Price invited Nelson to join his band, and for several years Nelson played bass with the group.

During those years Nelson wrote hits for Patsy Kline (Crazy) and Faron Young (Hello Walls), and saw one of his pieces, Funny How Time Slips Away, recorded more than eighty times. Nelson was still dissatisfied, however. He wanted to sing his own songs, in his own style. Nashvilles conservative producers fought him every step of the way, convinced that his voice needed slick background instrumentation to cover its defects. Nelson had one country hit, Touch Me, in 1962, and a popular duet with his wife, Willingly, but his overproduced albums failed to sell. However, he was invited to join the regular cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, and he appeared regularly there for five years.

A chance house fire proved the final catalyst to a daring career change for Nelson in 1969. When his Nashville home suddenly went up in flamesall he saved was his beloved guitarhe decided to head home for Texas and perform the way he wanted to perform. At that time Austin had become a minor music center and was known as a refuge for disenchanted country-western bands. When Nelson returned to his home state, he immediately became the center of the Austin scene, and therefore became the focus around which the attempted mating of country and rock would take place, wrote to Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh in The Stars of Country Music.

Nelson and his pals Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, and Waylon Jennings became the nucleus of the celebrated Outlaws of country music, a group of performers who dared to integrate rock, blues, and pop into their music and their images. The Outlaws were more than mere country/rock singers howeverthey simply rebelled against Nashvilles well-groomed sound and returned in style and substance to the foot-pounding dance hall music favored by so called rednecks and cowboys.

Interestingly enough, the Outlaw sound did indeed appeal to the rural rowdies, many of whom shared Nelsons disillusionment with glitzy Nashville, but it also found an audience among the urban young of the counterculture. Nelson had finally found his stride as a performer. His 1971 album Shotgun Willie sold more copies than all his previous albums combined, and two subsequent works, Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, did even better. In 1976 Nelson and Jennings recorded Wanted: The Outlaws, an effort that won the Country Music Associations album of the year and single of the year awards.

Ironically, as Nelsons performing career accelerated, his writing career slowed. He turned out less original work and began to record more and more tunes written by other people, especially Kristofferson. This creative slowdown did not diminish Nelsons significance, however, because he experimented constantly with fresh arrangements of older material. McConnell calls Nelsons music a reclamation and rediscovery of songs we thought we had already heard too often. Like Billie Holidaythe one singer to whom he can be seriously comparedWillie brings pristine intelligence to the cliche-ridden lyrics among which we live our lives. And is this not the central act of intelligence altogether? Intelligent or simply moving, Nelson has not lacked for hits old and new in the years since 1975. He has won Grammies for Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and Georgia on My Mind, two often-recorded classics, and has had top ten hits with Mamas, Dont Let Your Babies Grow up To Be Cowboys, On the Road Again, and You Were Always on My Mind. He has been equally at home with roaring country dance tunes and wistful melodies like Somewhere over the Rainbow, and has consequently attracted fans of many different tastes.

In a final wry twist, the critics have begun to praise Nelson for the very trait that almost stymied his careerhis unusual voice. Holden contends that Nelson seizes the emotional kernels of songs, wrings out the words in a keening baritone, then shucks off the filler like chaff. McConnell simply states that Nelsons is a voice that may be one of the true marvels of twentieth-century song.

Whatever the ups and downs of Nelsons personal life may beand they are manyhe tries to keep in touch with his true fans, the devotees of decades as well as the more sophisticated newcomers. McConnell writes: Even at this stage of his legend, he will still show up in a packed auditorium redolent of corn dogs and draft beer as readily as in a room smelling of expensive grass and Beefeater martinis. Nelson most enjoys outdoors concerts such as his now-famous Fourth of July picnics and the benefit Farm Aid performances. Busnar concludes that the former country outlaw has become a primary reason why country music grew from a regional music form to one that now has devoted followers in all parts of America. If there is anything aspiring vocalists can learn from him, it would be to absorb as much music as possible and sing it as honestly as one can.

Selected discography

And Then I Wrote, Liberty, 1962.

Heres Willie Nelson, Liberty, 1963.

Country WillieHis Own Songs, RCA, 1965.

Country FavoritesWillie Nelson Style, RCA, 1966.

Hello Walls, Sunset, 1966.

Country Music ConcertWillie Nelson, RCA, 1966.

Make Way for Willie Nelson, RCA, 1967.

The Partys Over, RCA, 1967.

Texas in My Soul, RCA, 1968.

Good Ol Country Singin, CAL, 1968.

Good Times, RCA, 1968.

My Own Peculiar Way, RCA, 1969.

Both Sides Now, RCA, 1970.

Laying My Burdens Down, RCA, 1970.

Columbus Stockade Blues, Camden, 1970.

Willie Nelson and Family, RCA, 1971.

Yesterdays Wine, RCA, 1971.

The Words Dont Fit the Pictures, RCA, 1972.

The Willie Way, RCA, 1972.

The Best of Willie Nelson, United Artists, 1973.

Country Winners by Willie, Camden, 1973.

Shotgun Willie, Atlantic, 1973.

Spotlight on Willie Nelson, Camden, 1974.

Phases and Stages, Atlantic, 1974.

Red-Headed Stranger, Columbia, 1975.

Willie Nelson and His Friends, Plantation, 1975.

What Can You Do to Me, RCA, 1975.

Country Willie, United Artists, 1975.

Famous Country, RCA, 1975.

The Sound in Your Mind, Columbia, 1976.

The Troublemaker, Columbia, 1976.

(With Waylon Jennings)Wanted: The Outlaws, RCA, 1976.

Columbus Stockade Blues and Other Country Favorites, Camden, 1976.

Willie Nelson Live, RCA, 1976.

Texas Country, United Artists, 1976.

Willie Before His Time, RCA, 1977.

To Lefty from Willie, Columbia, 1977.

Willie Nelson1961, Shotgun, 1977.

(With Jennings)Waylon and Willie, RCA, 1978.

Stardust, Columbia, 1978.

Face of a Fighter, Lonestar, 1978.

Therell Be No Teardrops Tonight, United Artists, 1978.

Willie and Family Live, Columbia, 1978.

(With Leon Russell) Pretty Paper, CBS, 1979.

Help Me Make It Through the Night, Columbia, 1979.

Sweet Memories, RCA, 1979.

(With Russell)One for the Road, Columbia, 1979.

Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson, Columbia, 1979.

The Electric Horseman, Columbia, 1979.

(With Ray Price)San Antonio Rose, Columbia, 1980.

(With the Nashville Brass)Danny Davis and Willie Nelson, RCA, 1980.

Honeysuckle Rose, Columbia, 1980.

(With Davis, Price, and the Nashville Brass)Family Bible, Songbird, 1980.

Minstrel Man, RCA, 1981.

Somewhere over the Rainbow, Columbia, 1981.

Greatest Hits and Some That Be, Columbia, 1981.

Always on My Mind, Columbia, 1982.

The Best of Willie, RCA, 1982.

(With Jennings)W.W. II, RCA, 1982.

(With Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, and Brenda Lee)Kris, Willie, Dolly and Brenda: The Winning Hand, Monument, 1982.

(With Merle Haggard)Poncho and Lefty, Columbia, 1983.

Tougher than Leather, Columbia, 1983.

Without a Song, CBS, 1983.

(With Jennings)Take It to the Limit, Columbia, 1983.

Portrait in Music, Columbia, 1984.

City of New Orleans, Columbia, 1984.

(With Jackie King)Angel Eyes, Columbia, 1985.

Collectors Series, Columbia, 1985.

Partners, Columbia, 1986.

The Promiseland, Columbia, 1986.

Island in the Sea, Columbia, 1987.

Also recorded City of Dreams, Columbia;Dont You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me, RCA;My Own Way, RCA; (with Hank Snow)Brand on My Heart; and (with Faron Young)Funny How Time Slips Away.

Compositions

Composer of numerous songs, including Night Life, Crazy, Hello Walls, Funny How Time Slips Away, Family Bible, I Just Cant Let You Say Goodbye, One Day at a Time, The Partys Over, Touch Me, Pretty Paper, Half a Man, What Can You Do to Me Now, Shotgun Willie, So Much To Do, I Still Cant Believe Youre Gone, (with Waylon Jennings) Good Hearted Woman, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, On the Road Again, and Forgiving You Was Easy.

Sources

Books

Busnar, Gene, Superstars of Country Music, J. Messner, 1979.

Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Marschall, Rick, The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music, Exeter, 1985.

Nelson, Willie, Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuser, 1988.

The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.

Periodicals

Commonweal, October 4, 1985.

Country Music, January, 1974.

Esquire, March, 1985.

High Fidelity, March, 1981.

Life, August, 1986.

Newsweek, August 14, 1978.

New York Times Magazine, March 26, 1978.

Rolling Stone, June 11, 1981.

Time, September 19, 1977; September 23, 1985.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Johnson, Anne. "Nelson, Willie." Contemporary Musicians. 1989. Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Nelson, Willie

Willie Nelson

With well over 200 albums to his credit since the beginning of his country music career in the late 1950s, Willie Nelson (born 1933) has had a long run as one of the stars of the genre. As a songwriter, he penned some of the most familiar modern standards of country and pop music, including "Crazy," recorded by Patsy Cline, "Night Life," and the song that has come to represent his career: "On the Road Again." Beyond his accomplishments in country music, Nelson has become something of an icon of American popular culture, his distinctive dual hair braids and bandanna handkerchief instantly recognizable all over the United States and through much of the world.

Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas, a small farming community located between Waco and the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. His parents were migrant farmers who had come west from Arkansas. He picked cotton as a child, and later told Texas Monthly that "my desire to escape manual labor started back there in the cotton fields." After he was left with his paternal grandparents, who were voice and piano teachers, he also began spending time on music. Nelson's sister Bobbie would become an accomplished classical pianist, but his own talents ran immediately toward songwriting. When he was five years old he started writing poetry, and when he was given a guitar a year later he started to fill a songbook to which he had given the title Songs of Willie Nelson.

Various types of music shaped the young songwriter and showed up in his mature style. He learned from not only the country music and western swing dance bands that flourished all over Texas, but also the pop and jazz vocals he heard on the radio and a even less-common influence, the polka music that filled the dance halls in heavily Czech-American central Texas. In fact, it was as a polka musician that Nelson, at age ten, made his professional debut, in Abbott's John Raycheck Band. Nelson's grandparents—strict Methodists whose musical influences surfaced in Nelson's famous gospel song "Family Bible"—tried to steer the boy away from the barrooms, but to no avail. "I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was seven," Nelson told Entertainment Weekly, "because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer you're going to hell. And by seven, I was gone."

As a teenager Nelson played regularly in a band led by his sister's husband, Bud Fletcher. After graduating from high school he actually thought about embarking on a conventional career. He joined the United States Air Force but was discharged after nine months because of the back problems that would plague him his entire life. He then enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, but did not last long there. Back in Abbott in 1952, he married the first of his four wives, Martha Matthews, a woman said by Nelson to be of full-blooded Cherokee descent. He also resumed his musical life.


Sold Encyclopedias

For much of the 1950s, Nelson was torn between family responsibilities and creative inspiration. He tried to split the difference by working as a disc jockey, at first at stations in San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas, and later in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he became one of several country stars—another was Loretta Lynn—who launched their recording careers by promoting self-released singles there. Nelson's debut was called "No Place for Me." After Martha found herself pregnant with the third of Nelson's eventual seven children, the family returned to Texas where Nelson worked selling encyclopedias and then vacuum cleaners.

Soon he was back writing songs and performing with a band that played gigs in the rough honky-tonks throughout the Houston area. What steered Nelson toward a musical career for good was the sale of "Family Bible," one of his earliest compositions, to a Nashville publisher for $50. The song became a hit for vocalist Claude Gray in 1960, and that same year Nelson headed for Nashville himself. There he met veteran songwriter Hank Cochran, who realized the value of the songs flowing from Nelson's pen and steered him toward the Pamper Music publishing house. Nelson's first marriage dissolved after his wife tied him up with a children's jump rope during one dispute, but he moved in with singer Shirley Collie and married her in 1963.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were an especially rich time creatively for Nelson, who wrote songs rapidly, telling a Texas Monthly interviewer that "the air is full of melodies." He penned three of country music's greatest standards, "Crazy," "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Night Life," within a single week. Unschooled in the ways of the music business, he realized little profit from these compositions; for "Night Life," which was recorded by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to bluesman B.B. King, he received a flat fee of $150. However, he was properly paid for "Hello Walls," opening his mail one day to find a $40,000 royalty check after the song became a smash for vocalist Faron Young. Apart from songwriting, he also earned a regular paycheck as a member of singer Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys band.


Recounted Rushing into Burning House

Nelson once again made a stab at settling down, this time as a pig farmer. However, he soon returned to the road, "swallowing enough pills," he was quoted as saying in Texas Monthly, "to choke Johnny Cash." By 1969 Nelson's second marriage had dissolved after his wife opened a hospital bill containing charges for the birth of Nelson's child by another woman. Late that year his house in Nashville burned down; Nelson claimed to have rushed into the burning building to rescue a guitar and a stash of marijuana. He later gave up alcohol and other drugs, but became an advocate for marijuana usage.

During the early 1970s Nelson moved back to Texas and started his career afresh. In and around the college town of Austin, he noticed an unusual mingling between youthful rock audiences and traditional country fans, and he reacted by writing new songs carefully crafted to appeal to both groups. In 1972 he founded an annual music festival in Dripping Springs, Texas, playing host to similarly minded Nashville nonconformists such as Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and sowing the seeds of country music's socalled Outlaw movement. Nelson was signed to the Atlantic label, formerly known mostly for rhythm and blues, and he released the structurally innovative Shotgun Willie album to critical praise.

In 1975 Nelson was signed to the country division of the giant Columbia label. Newly confident about his creative vision, he insisted on complete creative control over his recordings. When he approached the label with the finished masters of his Red Headed Stranger album, Columbia personnel were dismayed by its stripped-down sound and unusual "concept" structure; the album's songs, for the first time in country-music history, collectively told a story. Powerful executive Billy Sherrill even left the room as the music was playing. Despite Columbia's concerns, Nelson was vindicated when Red Headed Stranger hit the number-one spot on the country charts and had healthy sales among pop and rock audiences as well. In the late 1970s Nelson dominated the country charts, both as a solo artist and as part of a duet with Waylon Jennings. The two spearheaded the well-marketed Outlaw brand of country music that contributed to the country genre's sales boom during those years.

Nelson confounded label expectations again in 1978 with another shift in direction: he recorded an album of pop standards titled Stardust. For Nelson it was not an extreme creative stretch; he had admired jazz-influenced pop singers such as Frank Sinatra since he was young. His quiet, conversational baritone proved an ideal match for songs like Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," and the album became a runaway success, remaining in print continuously for the next quarter century. Meditative, jazzy phrasing also provided the framework for 1982's "Always on My Mind," a song originally recorded by Elvis Presley that became one of Nelson's biggest hits.

Another blockbuster came in connection with Nelson's modest but favorably received film career: "On the Road Again," which was hurriedly written for inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose, became his signature song on tour. Asked by a Fortune contributor whether he ever got tired of playing it, Nelson replied, "Not at all. It just takes me out of one town and into the next. It keeps me movin'." True to his touring barroom-band origins, Nelson remained an inexhaustible road performer through times thick and thin. In 1985 he founded an annual concert, Farm Aid, that was designed to focus attention on the financial problems of American farmers.


Ran Afoul of IRS

Nelson topped the country charts in 1984 in a duet with pop singer Julio Iglesias, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," and the following year with "Highwayman" as part of a quartet with fellow Outlaws Jennings as well as Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. The new influence that band-oriented rock sounds exerted on country music in the 1980s and 1990s knocked Nelson from the very top reaches of the country charts, but he had by now amassed a huge following that continued to show interest in his music. His fans also stuck with him through several much-publicized difficulties, including a $16.7 million bill from the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes. Nelson paid off the debt, partly with the proceeds from a solo-vocal-and-guitar double album, Who'll Buy My Memories, that was marketed through a toll-free telephone number in 1991 and remains one of the more elusive items in the Nelson catalogue. Nelson also struggled after the suicide of his son Billy in 1991 and the subsequent breakup of his third marriage. But he married his fourth wife, makeup artist Ann-Marie D'Angelo, that same year and fathered two more children with her.

The singer remained popular partly because he never rested on his laurels. Even well into the senior citizen age range, he continued to experiment with new sounds. Another hard find for Nelson collectors was a 1984 LP of straight jazz, Angel Eyes, and Nelson continued to show an interest in jazz, releasing several albums of standards and original jazz compositions in the 1990s. He also recorded such innovative projects as the rock-oriented 1993 album Across the Borderline and 1998's Teatro, the latter produced by Daniel Lanois, a frequent collaborator with Irish rock band U2. In 2000 he recorded a blues CD, Milk Cow Blues, and he mused to the writer in Fortune that "Maybe I ought to hook up with some of those rap guys." In 2002 Nelson returned to the top of the country charts in a duet with country singer Toby Keith called "Beer for My Horses."

Despite his tumultuous personal life, during the 1990s Nelson seemed to find a sense of inner peace that cemented his status as an elder statesman of American music. Asked by Time whether he feared a backlash from conservative "red state" country fans over his antiwar song titled "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth" in light of strong emotions regarding America's involvement in the War in Iraq, Nelson replied, "I sure hope so. I don't care if people say, 'Who the hell does he think he is?' I know who I am." That year also saw Nelson touring minor-league baseball stadiums with folk-rock great Bob Dylan. He continued to make music prolifically, installing a studio near his home "so I can cut records all day and night," he told Fortune.


Books

Contemporary Musicians, Volume 11, Gale, 1994.

Country: The Music and the Musicians, Abbeville Press, 1988.

Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.


Periodicals

Entertainment Weekly, July 21, 1995; September 18, 1998.

Fortune, October 2, 2000.

People, August 28, 1995.

Texas Monthly, April 1998; December 1999; August 2004.

Time, January 12, 2004.


Online

"Willie Nelson," All Music Guide Online,http://www.allmusic.com/ (January 5, 2005).

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"Nelson, Willie." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Nelson, Willie

WILLIE NELSON

Born: Abbott, Texas, 29 April 1933

Genre: Country

Best-selling album since 1990: The Great Divide (2002)

Hit songs since 1990: "There You Are," "Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)," "Mendocino County Line"


One of the first country artists to successfully write and perform his own songs, Willie Nelson spent a decade penning hits for others before recording a series of groundbreaking solo albums beginning in the 1970s. As influenced by jazz and pop as by country, Nelson has displayed wide-ranging imagination, his singing and guitar playing reflecting subtlety, precision, and heart. As a songwriter, Nelson creates aching portraits of people trapped by circumstances; his weathered, nasal voice and idiosyncratic sense of timing provide the ideal foil for his material. Overcoming personal problems such as the loss of his house and battles with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Nelson has retained his talent and prolificacy, recording challenging, boundary-pushing albums through the late 1990s and beyond. His gentle and unassuming artistic persona only partially hides a flinty, renegade spirit; this contrast sparks his recordings and gives them life.

Raised by their grandparents in rural Texas, Nelson and older sister Bobbie were encouraged to play instruments from an early age, Bobbie taking up the piano, Willie the guitar. After graduating from high school Nelson entered the U.S. Air Force, but was forced to leave due to chronic back problems. In 1954 he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, working as a disc jockey and performing in local nightclubs and bars. Two years later, he recorded his first single, "Lumberjack," which eventually sold a respectable 3,000 copies due to extensive local radio play. After writing the hit "Family Bible" for country singer Claude Gray in 1960, Nelson moved to the music industry locus of Nashville, Tennessee, writing hits for country stars such as Patsy Cline and Ray Price. Word of Nelson's talent for detailed, incisive writing quickly spread, and by the mid-1960s his songs had been recorded by rock and R&B artists such as Roy Orbison, Joe Hinton, and Timi Yuro. During this period Nelson also released his own albums, although his restrained performance style clashed with the string-heavy "Nashville Sound" then predominating country music. In the early 1970s, after a fire destroyed his Nashville home, Nelson returned to Texas, leaving the music business and unsuccessfully venturing into pig farming.

Country Stardom

Nelson's lawyer, Neil Rushen, encouraged him to record for Atlantic Records, a major rhythm and blues label making a foray into country music. Two albums resulted from the association, including the classic Phases and Stages (1974). Recorded with an R&B band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the album is conceived as a song cycle detailing the breakup of a relationship from both points of view. On songs such as "Washing the Dishes," Nelson displays his talent for concision and psychological complexity: "Learning to hate all the things / That she once loved to do / Like washing his shirts / And never complaining / Except of red stains on the collars." Moving to Columbia Records in 1975, Nelson released the album Red Headed Stranger, dealing with the unusual subject of a preacher on the run after murdering his wife and her lover. So minimalist in sound that Columbia executives initially thought they were listening to a demo version, the album is challenging and intellectually satisfying. Spurred by the wistful hit, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," it solidified Nelson's reputation as a performer, bringing him crossover success among a rock and pop audience.

Nelson's newfound popularity tied in with the burgeoning "outlaw" movement, a loose collective of performers who eschewed the orchestrated Nashville Sound for a more swinging, traditional style based on fiddles, drums, and guitar. After being characterized as an "outlaw," Nelson surprised the public by recording Stardust, an album of popular standards from the 1930s and 1940s. By the early 1980s Nelson was a bona fide pop star, recording smooth, radio-friendly hits such as "On the Road Again" (1980) and "Always on My Mind" (1982). His success, however, was checkered by battles with the IRS. In the late 1980s, $16 million in debt after investing in faulty tax shelters, Nelson was allowed to pay off the agency with income from two albums that were recorded quickly and sold via television commercials.


New Directions in the 1990s

With many of his troubles behind him, Nelson recorded with undiminished spirit and energy in the 1990s, creating what critics describe as some of his most powerful work. Across the Borderline (1993) is a high-profile collaboration with several renowned rock artists, including Bob Dylan and Sinéad O'Connor. On songs such as "She's Not for You" Nelson creates a rich mood with dexterous guitar playing and deeply felt vocals. After several albums for small labels, Nelson signed with Island Records in 1996 and released Spirit, an album critics cite as one of his most exciting, rewarding works. Beautifully executed, the album derives its power from the balance of sound and quiet space. With sister Bobbie's churchy piano imparting a feel of rustic sincerity, "I'm Not Trying to Forget You (Anymore)" is classic Nelson, melodic with an ironic sense of humor: "I've been trying to forget someone / That my heart still adores / So I'm not trying to forget you anymore." Like many of his best songs, "I'm Not Trying to Forget You (Anymore)" is lined by a mordancy that contrasts with Nelson's gentle surface. Fans and critics find other tracks equally impressive: "She Is Gone" demonstrates a fine understanding of collaboration, with Bobbie's piano and Nelson's emotive guitar taking turns in richly textured solos, while the instrumental "Mariachi" features subtle shifts of tempo and volume, building slowly to a climax that is arresting in its muted intensity.

Turning to producer Daniel Lanois for his follow-up album, Teatro (1998), Nelson again created a series of elegant, atmospheric songs. This time, however, his effectiveness is undercut slightly by Lanois's penchant for unusual aural effects such as echoed percussion. Unlike other country artists who rely on producers to provide a strong, defining musical stamp, Nelson works best in a laid-back, casual style that displays his virtuosity unadorned. Still, the album features several memorable tracks, such as the haunting "Home Motel," a quiet song with vivid, poetic imagery: "I'm gonna hang a neon sign with letters big and blue / Home motel on lost love avenue." Like many of Nelson's best songs, "Home Motel" conjures a sadness built upon loss and resignation. Over the course of his career this resignation emerges as one of Nelson's most powerful attributes, a sign of obduracy rather than weakness. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by other career highlights: In 1988 he published his autobiography and in 1998 he was a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. This period also saw his arrest for marijuana possession in 1994. Nelson used the occasion to speak out for marijuana's legalization, criticizing the government's War on Drugs program. The story that Nelson once lit a marijuana joint during an invited visit to the White House in the 1970s only added to his iconoclastic legend.

Exerting his individualistic spirit, Nelson carved out new territory at the turn of the millennium, recording a collection of blues-based songs, Milk Cow Blues (2000) and a children's album, Rainbow Connection (2001). Despite the inclusion of juvenile material such as "Playmate" and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover," Rainbow Connection bears a universality that appeals to adults. Critics hailed the title track, often associated with children's television character Kermit the Frog, as a revelation. Strumming gently on guitar, Nelson uncovers melodic complexities and emotional currents missing from the better-known version. The sophisticated contours of Nelson's playing point to his early jazz influences, particularly Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt. Detailed in spite of its simple surface, "Rainbow Connection" captures a sense of innocence and yearning for hope that, while childlike, transcend boundaries of age.

In 2002 Nelson released The Great Divide, a collaboration with hot young performers such as hip-hop artist Kid Rock and R&B star Brian McKnight. With its high-profile roster, The Great Divide became Nelson's most commercially successful album in years, although critics have said Nelson himself often gets buried in the flashy production. Still, the album's hits, "Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)" and "Mendocino County Line," a duet with country singer Lee Ann Womack, attest to Nelson's continued relevance within contemporary country music. With older, more traditional country artists such as Loretta Lynn and George Jones being pushed off the charts in favor of younger, pop-oriented performers, Nelson's tenacity and endurance are admired by fans and critics alike.

Surviving the many transformations country music has undergone since the 1960s, Nelson has retained a distinctive sound without sacrificing his popularity. His finely etched renderings of love and loss find expression in his dry, grainy voice, quiet phrasing, and assured guitar playing. Regarded as an American original, Nelson has held his ground, recording consistently inventive works that defy categorization. His style, tender yet rooted in a core of toughness, remains uniquely his own.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

. . . And Then I Wrote (Liberty, 1962); Phases and Stages (Atlantic, 1974); Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975); Stardust (Columbia, 1978); Always on My Mind (Columbia, 1982); Across the Borderline (Columbia, 1993); Spirit (Island, 1996); Teatro (Island, 1998); Milk Cow Blues (Island, 2000); Rainbow Connection (Island, 2001); The Great Divide (Universal, 2002).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

W. Nelson and B. Shrake, Willie: An Autobiography (New York, 1988); W. Nelson, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes (New York, 2002).

WEBSITE:

www.willienelson.com.

david freeland

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Freeland, David. "Nelson, Willie." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Freeland, David. "Nelson, Willie." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. 2004. Retrieved July 24, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3428400384.html

Nelson, Willie

Willie Nelson, 1933–, American country singer, guitarist, and songwriter, b. Abbott, Tex. Nelson began playing professionally at 10 and joined a western swing band as a teenager. In the 1960s he moved to Nashville, where he became a successful songwriter, composing such tunes as "Funny How Time Slips Away" and the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy." Nelson returned to Texas in the 1970s and during that decade came into his own as a performer, creating the blues-rock-country hybrid known as "outlaw music" and becoming enormously popular. He achieved great success with the albums Shotgun Willie (1973) and Red Headed Stranger (1975) (containing the hit "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" ) and also began performing widely in concert tours, singing for a country-crossover audience. Among his later albums are Wanted: The Outlaws (1976), Stardust (1978), City of New Orleans (1984), The Promised Land (1986), Across the Borderline (1993), Teatro (1998), and the comprehensive collection One Hell of a Ride (2008). Nelson had federal tax problems in the 1980s, but they were resolved by the 1990s, in part with revenues from The IRS Tapes (1991). He has performed in a number of films, including The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), and Wag the Dog (1998), and is well known for sponsoring Farm Aid concerts.

See biography by J. N. Patoski (2008).

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