Nelson, Willie (1933—)

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Nelson, Willie (1933—)

A legendary name in U.S. country music, and promoter of the more eclectic "Texas sound" that draws liberally on rock, blues, and folk motifs, Nelson in the early 1970s helped lead the revolt against Nashville's domination of orthodox country music. In a career that began in the 1950s, Nelson has recorded more than 100 albums and many hit singles in a wide variety of genres and styles, making him a significant crossover artist. He has also starred in several motion pictures and is known as the founder of Farm Aid, an annual outdoor music festival to benefit struggling farm owners.

Nelson has been surrounded by music his entire life. He was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, a small farming community near Waco, to poor parents who had recently migrated from Arkansas in search of work. The Nelsons were migrant farmers, and Willie spent much of his youth picking cotton alongside sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Both of his parents grew weary of their meager existence and left Willie and his sister Bobbi to be raised by their grandparents, who surrounded the children with music. When Willie was six, his grandfather bought him his first guitar, and by the time he was in high school he was playing in a band alongside his sister. His early musical hero was Bob Wills, whose "western swing" was sweeping the Southwest in the 1940s; elements of the upbeat dance music of Wills and his Texas Playboys have often found their way into Nelson's music, then and now. After a short and unsuccessful attempt at college, and after a brief stint in the military during the Korean War, Nelson traveled throughout the American West looking for work in the music business.

While Nelson had always planned to become a performer, his entry into the industry came through his songwriting talents. He had begun writing songs, both lyrics and melodies, as a child, and in the early 1950s sold his first song, "Family Bible," which became a hit when recorded by Pappy Daily. The success of the song brought him to Nashville, where fellow Texan Ray Price hired Nelson to write for Pamper Music. Soon thereafter he began to churn out a series of hits for several singers. In 1961, his song "Crazy," recorded by Patsy Cline, reached number one on the country charts and helped to vault Cline into the national spotlight. Other successes followed, including Ralph Emery's recording of "Hello Fool" and Faron Young's renditions of "Hello Walls" and "Three Days." Songwriting achievements opened the door for a recording contract with Liberty Records; his first album produced one hit, "Touch Me," but his own recordings failed to have the success that covers of his songs by other singers were enjoying. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Nelson started appearing on the Grand Ole Opry regularly, and continued to write and record. He signed a contract with Victor and recorded hits "The Party's Over," and "Little Things," and wrote "Night Life," a successful song recorded by Ray Price.

By the late 1960s, Nelson was an established figure in Nashville, but his career seemed to be stagnating. On a fateful day in 1971, his Nashville house burned down, and Willie saw the disaster as an omen to head back to Texas. He had, over the past few years, begun to associate with new writers and performers, including Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, and Waylon Jennings, who were outside the country music establishment. Back in Texas, Nelson began to cultivate a new style of country that borrowed from these outsiders and played upon the image of "outlaws" in the industry—a style with a harsh, edgy style more reminiscent of the "honky-tonk" style of Bakersfield, California, singers such as Merle Haggard. In 1972, Nelson organized an outdoor music festival in Dripping Springs, Texas, just outside of Austin, where he promoted new artists—Kristofferson, Jennings, and Tom T. Hall—along with established Nashville figures such as Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff. The festival, which became an annual event, drew on Austin's substantial counterculture and became legendary for its combination of country, rock, and folk music, also combined with drugs and alcohol. Nelson and others used the festivals to promote their "outlaw" image, with long hair, shaggy beards, and a rough edge that appealed to rock enthusiasts as much as country music fans. While most country artists who had crossover success did so in either pop or gospel, Nelson's 1975 album Red Headed Stranger performed well on the rock charts. The following year, Nelson and others of the outlaw group recorded Wanted: The Outlaws!, which stressed its departure from the Nashville sound even more. Several songs from this album became hits, including Jennings's "Suspicious Minds" and Nelson's "Good-Hearted Woman." The album went platinum, an unprecedented feat for a country album.

At the same time, Nelson continued to release a wave of hits. His albums Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974), recorded on the Atlantic label, met with great success, and his ballad "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (1975) was a hit on the pop and country charts. In the late 1970s, he recorded an album of pop songs, Stardust, that spent several years on the country charts, blurring the lines between musical genres even more. His recording success allowed Nelson to launch yet another career, that of a motion picture star. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he starred in several films, including The Electric Horseman, Red Headed Stranger, Honeysuckle Rose, and Barbarosa. He also began recording with other stars in a wide variety of musical genres, including Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Neil Young, and Julio Iglesias. Yet at the same time Nelson never forgot his roots, and recorded with county music legends such as Faron Young and Webb Pierce, and has recorded several albums that herald back to Bob Wills's western swing. As one of The Highwaymen (the others were Jennings, Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash), Nelson released two more albums that reinforced the outlaw image that had brought so much success in the 1970s.

In the mid-1980s, Nelson revived the spirit of his outdoor festivals to help generate financial support for struggling American farmers. These Farm Aid gatherings, which attract scores of musicians and thousands of fans, continue to be a regular part of Nelson's work, along with his busy recording and touring schedule. Nelson continues to entertain fans of all stripes, having overcome highly publicized legal problems, including a huge debt to the Internal Revenue Service and a drug possession arrest. His album Spirit (1996), recorded by Island Records, features veteran performers such as Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble on a recording that offers tunes drawn from pop, rock, swing, and gospel. After more than four decades, Willie Nelson's eclecticism continues to make him a country-music sensation.

—Jeffrey W. Coker

Further Reading:

Byworth, Terry. The History of Country & Western Music. New York, Bison Books, 1984.

Carr, Patrick, editor. The Illustrated History of Country Music. Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Co., 1979.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A., revised edition. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985.

Nelson, Willie, with Bud Shrake. Willie: An Autobiography. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1988.