Nelson, Willie (actually, William Hugh)

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Nelson, Willie (actually, William Hugh)

Nelson, Willie (actually, William Hugh), red-headed outlaw singer/songwriter who revolutionized country music; b. Abbot, Tex., April 30, 1933. Willie Nelson was one of the most influential country songwriters (in the early 1960s) and performers (from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s). A leader of the so-called “outlaw” movement, Nelson abandoned the slick Nashville sound of the 1960s to forge his own unique style, laying the groundwork for the explosion of “new” country in the 1980s. His reedy, sun-beaten voice and bluesy songs reflecting romantic love gone awry have become an integral part of American popular culture, beyond the confines of strictly “country” music.

Nelson was the son of a rural farmer, who began performing while still in high school. He served in the Air Force until 1952, and worked in Tex. and briefly in Vancouver, Wash., as both a performer and country deejay. After publishing his first song, he moved to Nashville, where he hooked up with Ray Price, working as bassist in his backup band, The Cherokee Cowboys. His first success was as a songwriter, penning such number-one country classics as “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, both in 1961.

He signed to Liberty and then to RCA records in the 1960s as a solo artist, but his unique style was ill-suited to the heavy-handed strings and syrupy choruses typical of Nashville production of the day. When his house burned down in 1970, he returned to Austin, Tex., turning his back on the country music community. Influenced by younger performers who also were weary of the “Nashville sound,” including Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, Nelson began to experiment with writing song cycles, or groups of related songs, that would be issued on a series of seminal LPs, including 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1974’s Phases and Stages (telling the story of the breakup of a relationship from both the man’s and woman’s perspective), and 1975’s landmark Red Headed Stranger, a romantic story set in the 19th-century West. He was given artistic control over his recordings, and paired down his sound often just to his own vocals and guitars, as on his first hit, 1975’ cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” from the Stranger concept LP.

The outlaw movement was given a strong push by RCA when they released the compilation album Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, featuring Willie, Jennings, Jessi Colter (then Jennings’s wife), and Tompall Glaser. In typical contrary fashion, Willie followed this success with an album of covers of 1930s and 1940s pop standards, Stardust. He proved what country audiences long knew; that there was a strong following for these pop songs among country-music fans, as well as among the rock and “yuppie” audiences who were attracted to Willie’s straight-ahead approach to music.

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s Willie performed as a soloist and in duets with Jennings, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, and in the informal group, The Highwaymen, with Johnny Cash, Kristofferson, and Jennings. He even cut a duet with Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias on the saccharine “To All the Girls I Ever Loved.” A brief movie career also developed, including a remake of the classic tear-jerker Impromptu, about a classical musician’s love affair with his student improbably reset in the world of country music as Honeysuckle Rose (1980, yielding the hit, “On the Road Again,” which has become a theme song for Nelson), and a TV version of Red Headed Stranger (1987).

Tax problems with the 1RS led to one of the most unusual deals in music history: Willie recorded two solo LPs that featured just him and his guitar performing his “old songs” and then marketed them directly through late-night TV ads; the proceeds were used to pay off back taxes. He returned to more mainstream recording on his 60th birthday with a new album produced by mainstream pop producer Don Was and a TV special.

Nelson’s success in broadening the country market in the 1970s and early 1980s opened up the field to influences such as country rock, Western swing, and honky-tonk sounds. He proved, along with Bob Dylan, that a songwriter could be the most expressive performer of his own material, even if his vocals were not as “polished” as those of more commercially oriented performers (although Nelson, unlike Dylan, is a talented guitarist). In a culture oriented towards youth, Nelson’s well-lined face and laidback performances showed that artistry could overcome imagery.


Shotgun Willie (1973); Phases and Stages (1974); Red Headed Stranger (1975); The Sound in Your Mind (1976); To Lefty from Willie (1977); Willie and Family Live (1978); Willie SingsKristofferson (1979); One for the Road (with Leon Russell; 1979); San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price; 1980); Somewhere over the Rainbow (1981); Always on My Mind (1982); Tougher Than Leather (1983); Without a Song (1983); Old Friends (with Roger Miller; 1983); City of New Orleans (1984); Music from the Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson; 1984); Me and Paul (1985); Half Nelson (1985); Partners (1986); Willie (1986); The Promiseland (1986); Take It to the Limit (with Waylon Jennings; 1987); Island in the Seas (1987); What a Wonderful World (1988); Horse Called Music (1989); Born for Trouble (1990); Clean Shirt (with Waylon Jennings; 1991); Who’ll Buy My Memories? (1991); Moonlight Becomes You (1993); The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings Plus More (ree. 1960s; rei. 1994); Healing Hands of Time (1994); Just One Love (1995); Spirit (1996).

—Richard Carlin