Willie Nelson Biography

Willie Hugh Nelson, 30 April 1933, Abbott, Texas, USA. Following their mother’s desertion and the death of their father, Nelson and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents. Bobbie was encouraged to play the piano and Willie the guitar. By the age of seven he was writing cheating-heart-style songs. ‘Maybe I got ’em from soap operas on the radio, ’ he said, ‘but I’ve always seemed to see the sad side of things.’ Bobbie married the fiddle player Bud Fletcher, and they both played in his band. When Fletcher booked western swing star Bob Wills, the 13-year-old Willie Nelson joined him for a duet. After graduation he enlisted in the US Air Force, but was invalided out with a bad back, which has continued to plague his career to the present day. In 1953 Nelson began a traumatic marriage in Waco, Texas. ‘Martha was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, ’ says Nelson, ‘and every night was like Custer’s last stand.’ When they moved to Fort Worth, Texas, Nelson was criticized for playing beer-joints and inappropriately evangelizing - he fortunately gave up the latter. A Salvation Army drummer, Paul English, has been his drummer ever since, and is referred to in ‘Me And Paul’ and ‘Devil In A Sleepin’ Bag’.

Nelson’s first record, ‘Lumberjack’, was recorded in Vancouver, Washington, in 1956 and was written by Leon Payne. Payne, then a radio disc jockey, advertised the records for sale on the air. For $1, the listener received the record and an autographed 8 x 10 inch photo of Nelson; 3, 000 copies were sold by this method. In Houston he sold ‘Family Bible’ to a guitar scholar for $50 and when it became a country hit for Claude Gray in 1960, Nelson’s name was not on the label. He also sold ‘Night Life’ for $150 to the director of the same school; Ray Price made it a country hit and there have now been over 70 other recordings. Nelson moved to Nashville where his offbeat, nasal phrasing and dislike of rhinestone trimmings made him radically different from other country musicians. He recorded demos in 1961, which he later rescued from a fire. The demos were spread over three collections, Face Of A Fighter, Diamonds In The Rough and Slow Down Old World, but they are often repackaged in an attempt to pass off old material as new. These one-paced collections feature little to attract new fans, as the songs are either bleak, very bleak or unbearably bleak. From time to time, Nelson has re-recorded these songs for other albums.

In 1961 three of Nelson’s country songs crossed over to the US pop charts: Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’, Faron Young’s ‘Hello Walls’ and Jimmy Elledge’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’. Ray Price employed Nelson to play bass with his band, the Cherokee Cowboys, not knowing that he had never previously played the instrument. Nelson bought a bass, practised all night and showed up the next day as a bass player. Touring put further pressures on his marriage and he was divorced in 1962. The following year Nelson had his first country hits as a performer, first in a duet with Shirley Collie, ‘Willingly’, and then on his own with ‘Touch Me’. His 40 tracks recorded for Liberty Records were top-heavy on strings, but they included the poignant ‘Half A Man’ and the whimsical ‘River Boy’. He also wrote a witty single for Joe Carson, ‘I Gotta Get Drunk’. When Liberty dropped their country performers, Nelson moved to Monument. He gave Roy Orbison ‘Pretty Paper’, which made the UK Top 10 in 1964 and became Nelson’s most successful composition in the UK. Some Monument tracks were revamped for The Winning Hand, which gave the misleading impression that Nelson had joined forces with Kris Kristofferson, Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton for a double album.

In 1965 Nelson married Shirley Collie and took up pig-farming in Ridgetop, Tennessee. During the same year Ray Price refused to record any more of Nelson’s songs after an accident when Nelson shot his fighting rooster. However, they eventually joined forces for an album. Chet Atkins produced some fine albums for Nelson on RCA Records, including a tribute to his home state, Texas In My Soul. Nelson was only allowed to record with his own musicians on the live Country Music Concert album, which included an emotional ‘Yesterday’ and a jazzy ‘I Never Cared For You’. He recorded around 200 tracks for the label, including well-known songs of the day such as ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and, strangely, the UK comedy team Morecambe And Wise’s theme song, ‘Bring Me Sunshine’. Yesterday’s Wine remains his finest RCA album, although it begins somewhat embarrassingly, with Nelson talking to God. Nelson wrote seven of the songs in one night, under the influence of alcohol and drugs; ‘What Can You Do To Me Now?’, in particular, acutely indicated his anguish and instability.

During 1970 his showbusiness lawyer, Neil Rushen, thought Nelson should record for Atlantic Records in New York. The singer used his own band, supplemented by Doug Sahm and Larry Gatlin. Atlantic did not feel that the gospel-influenced The Troublemaker was right for the label and it only surfaced after he had moved to Columbia Records. Shotgun Willie was closer to rock music and included Leon Russell’s ‘A Song For You’ and the reflective ‘Sad Songs And Waltzes’. Phases And Stages (1974), made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, examined the break-up of a marriage from both sides - the woman’s (‘Washing The Dishes’) and the man’s (‘It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way’). Nelson also recorded a successful duet with Tracy Nelson (no relation) of ‘After The Fire Is Gone’. He toured extensively and his bookings at a rock venue, the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, showed that he might attract a new audience. Furthermore, Waylon Jennings’ hit with ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’ indicated a market for ‘outlaw country’ music. The term separated them from more conventional country artists, and, with his pigtail and straggly beard, Nelson no longer looked like a country performer. Ironically, they were emphasizing the very thing from which country music was trying to escape - the cowboy image.

In 1975 Nelson signed with Columbia and wanted to record a lengthy, old ballad, ‘Red Headed Stranger’. His wife suggested that he split the song into sections and fit other songs around it. This led to an album about an old-time preacher and his love for an unfaithful woman. The album comprised Willie’s voice and guitar and Bobbie’s piano. Columbia thought it was too low-key, too religious and needed strings. They were eventually persuaded to release it as it was and Red Headed Stranger (1975) has since become a country classic. Nelson’s gentle performance of the country standard ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ was a number 1 country hit and also made number 21 on the US pop charts in 1975. With brilliant marketing, RCA then compiled Wanted! The Outlaws with Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It became the first country album to go platinum and included a hit single, ‘Good Hearted Woman’, in which Jennings’ thumping beat and Nelson’s sensitivity were combined beautifully (the 1996 anniversary reissue added nine tracks, plus the brand new Steve Earle song ‘Nowhere Road’, sung by Nelson and Jennings). The first Waylon And Willie (1978) album included Ed Bruce’s witty look at outlaw country, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’, and two beautifully restrained Nelson performances, ‘If You Can Touch Her At All’ and ‘A Couple More Years’. Their two subsequent albums contained unsuitable or weak material and perfunctory arrangements, although the humorous Clean Shirt (1991) was a welcome return to form. Since then, they have added Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson for tours and albums as the Highwaymen. Nelson has also recorded two albums with Merle Haggard, including the highly successful ‘Poncho And Lefty’, as well as several albums with country stars of the 50s and 60s. His numerous guest appearances include ‘Seven Spanish Angels’ (Ray Charles), ‘The Last Cowboy Song’ (Ed Bruce), ‘Are There Any More Real Cowboys?’ (Neil Young), ‘One Paper Kid’ (Emmylou Harris), ‘I Gotta Get Drunk’ (George Jones), ‘Waltz Across Texas’ (Ernest Tubb), ‘They All Went To Mexico’ (Carlos Santana) and ‘Something To Brag About’ (Mary Kay Place). Utilizing modern technology, he sang with Hank Williams on ‘I Told A Lie To My Heart’. He invited Julio Iglesias to join him at the Country Music Awards and their duet of Albert Hammond’s ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’ was an international success.

Nelson has recorded numerous country songs, including a tribute album to Lefty Frizzell, but more significant has been his love of standards. He had always recorded songs like ‘Am I Blue?’ and ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, but Stardust (1978), which was produced by Booker T. Jones of the MGs, took country fans by surprise. The weather-beaten, top-hatted character on the sleeve was Willie Nelson but the contents resembled a Bing Crosby album. Nelson sang 10 standards, mostly slowly, to a small rhythm section and strings. The effect was devastating as he breathed new life into ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, and the album remained on the US country charts for nearly 10 years. Nelson recorded 103 songs in a week with Leon Russell but their performance of standards falls far short of Stardust. Nelson tried to recapture the magic of Stardust on the lethargic Without A Song, which contained the first Nelson/Iglesias duet, ‘As Time Goes By’. In terms of both performance and arrangement, his Christmas album, Pretty Paper (1979), sounded like a mediocre act at a social club, but the jaunty Somewhere Over The Rainbow was much better.

In 1982 Johnny Christopher showed Nelson a song he had written, ‘Always On My Mind’. Nelson had originally wanted to record the song with Merle Haggard, but Haggard did not care for it; Nelson recorded an emotional and convincing version on his own, and it went to number 5 in the US charts. It was some time before Nelson learnt that Elvis Presley had previously recorded the song. The resulting album, which included ‘Let It Be Me’ and ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, showed his mastery of the popular song. Other modern songs to which he has added his magic include ‘City Of New Orleans’, ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ and ‘Please Come To Boston’. He sang another Presley hit, ‘Love Me Tender’, on the soundtrack of Porky’s Revenge. When Robert Redford met Nelson at a party, he invited him to join the cast of The Electric Horseman. Willie had an entertaining role as Redford’s manager, and he made a major contribution to the soundtrack with ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’. Redford wanted to star in the movie of Red Headed Stranger (1987) but it was eventually cast with Nelson in the title role. His other movies include Barbarosa (in which he played an old gunfighter), a remake of Stagecoach with his outlaw friends, and the cliché-ridden Songwriter with Kris Kristofferson. He is more suited to cameo roles and has the makings of a latter-day Gabby Hayes.

Nelson’s record label, Lone Star, which he started in 1978 with Steven Fromholz and the Geezinslaw Brothers, was not a commercial success, but he later developed his own recording studio and golf course at Pedernales, Texas; he produced Timi Yuro - Today there in 1982. He took over the Dripping Springs Festival and turned it into a festival of contemporary country music: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. He has organized several Farm Aid benefits, and he and Kenny Rogers represented country music on the number 1 USA For Africa single, ‘We Are The World’. With all this activity, it is hardly surprising that his songwriting has suffered and he rarely records new compositions. He wrote ‘On The Road Again’ for the country music film in which he starred, Honeysuckle Rose, and he also wrote a suite of songs about the old west and reincarnation, Tougher Than Leather, when he was in hospital with a collapsed lung. Among the many songs that have been written about Willie Nelson are ‘Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me’ (Billy Joe Shaver), ‘Willie, Won’t You Sing A Song With Me’ (George Burns), ‘Crazy Old Soldier’ (Lacy J. Dalton), ‘Willon And Waylee’ (Don Bowman), ‘The Willie And Waylon Machine’ (Marvin Rainwater), ‘Willie’ (Hank Cochran and Merle Haggard) and ‘It’s Our Turn To Sing With Ol’ Willie’ (Carlton Moody And The Moody Brothers).

Nelson’s touring band, Family, is a very tight unit featuring musicians who have been with him for many years. Audiences love his image as an old salt, looking rough and playing a battered guitar, and his headbands have become souvenirs in the same way as Elvis’ scarves. His greatest testimony comes from President Jimmy Carter, who joined him onstage and said, ‘I, my wife, my daughter, my sons and my mother all think he’s the greatest’. Unfortunately, the USA’s Internal Revenue Service took a different view, and in an effort to obtain $16 million in back-taxes, they had Nelson make an acoustic album, which was sold by mail order. His collaboration with artists such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon on Across The Borderline brought him back into the commercial mainstream for the first time in several years.

In 1991, Nelson married Annie D’Angelo and the couple started a family. Albums have flowed fast and furiously as Nelson brings himself back into the black financially, with Just One Love (1995) and Teatro (1998), the latter recorded with Daniel Lanois, the high points of his prolific 90s period. Milk Cow Blues, Nelson’s first release of the new millennium, was a straightforward blues album.

Nelson is a true outlaw and probably the greatest legend and performer in country music since Hank Williams.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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