Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


NELSON, Willie

(b 30 April 1933, Abbott TX) Country singer, guitarist and songwriter who reached superstardom. His mother was a wanderer and he was raised by his grandparents after his parents were divorced; the family was devastated by the grandfather's sudden death when Willie was six. He picked cotton as a child, earning 75 cents for 100 pounds. He began on guitar as a child and played in local honky tonk bands as a teenager, also in polka bands favoured by the local Czech community. His older sister Bobbie (d 3 March 2022, aged 91) was an excellent pianist, and in fact an inspiration to him throughout his life and musical career.

He served in USAF in Korea, worked in Waco as a farm labourer, a vacuum cleaner salesman, then as a disc jockey on a local station. Next he had a daytime country show in Fort Worth, playing in a honky tonk evenings; he’d begun writing songs and sold his early efforts ‘Family Bible’ and ‘Night Life’ for less than $200 (the former was a top ten country hit by Claude Gray '60; ‘Night Life’ reached the top 30 by Ray Price '64, no. 31 by Gray '68). He moved to Nashville in 1960, joined Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys on bass and had more writing success: ‘Funny (How Time Slips Away)’ (top 15 pop hit '64 and Joe Hinton’s biggest; soul singer Hinton b 1929, died 13 August 1968), ‘Hello Walls’ (no. 1 country hit '61 by Faron Young), ‘Crazy’ (no. 2 country hit by Patsy Cline '61), more. He had recorded in Texas, mainly demos; signed with Liberty '62, made two LPs including And Then I Wrote ‘63, had a top ten hit with ‘Touch Me’ the same year; recorded for Monument October '64 but nothing was released. He debuted on Grand Ole Opry that year (but didn't stay long) and joined RCA in December, making some 18 albums in eight years, including Country Music Concert '66 (reissued '76 as Willie Nelson Live), Texas In My Soul '68, Laying My Burdens Down '70, Yesterday’s Wine '71, The Words Don’t Fit The Picture '73; also had minor hit singles ‘The Party’s Over’ '67, ‘Little Things’ '68, ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ '69.

His songs tended to be more complex technically than the usual country tune; he sang in a highly personal, yet lackadaisical and almost conversational way. He grew tired of the increasing slickness of Nashville; when his house in Ridgetop TN burned to the ground in 1971 he moved back to Texas. He organized the first 4th of July Picnic '72 in Dripping Springs, near Austin; it was a financial disaster; subsequent events also lost money and lacked something in organization and security (Willie liked chaos), and finally in 1980 they were too big to be what they were intended to be, and stopped. Meanwhile he had changed his image: growing long hair and a beard and wearing jeans, he signed with Atlantic, made LPs Shotgun Willie and Phases And Stages, which brought recognition from the rock press (the latter LP made the pop album chart when reissued '76); he had hit country singles ‘Stay All Night’, ‘Bloody Mary Morning’, and a duet with Tracy Nelson (no relation) on ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, all '73-4.

Most people thought that his relocation to Texas must have been a mistake, but this was precisely the time of The Improbable Rise Of Redneck Rock (the title of a famous book by Jan Reid). Country rock and Austin discovered each other; the western swing band Asleep At The Wheel relocated from California to Austin; and suddenly Nashville's 'countrypolitan' style was out and the outlaws were in. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic had been a Willie Nelson fan, but Ahmet Ertegun couldn't have cared less; none of Willie's albums had done as well as everybody had wanted, and they had all been overproduced (especially at RCA). Atlantic closed their Nashville office, releasing Nelson from his contract and giving him his master tapes, including an unreleased album; but by this time Nelson was big in Texas and the rest of the country was waking up. Playing live was the best part of it all anyway, as far as Nelson was concerned; sister Bobbie had made a living in piano bars, which she enjoyed, learning new music all the time, but now she rejoined her brother, and the Nelson show was a rolling, raunchy, unpredictable family, where the object was first of all to have fun.

He signed with Columbia (then CBS/USA) and made Redheaded Stranger in early 1975, in a new studio in Garland, Texas, near Dallas, which had a Bösendorfer piano and the state's first 24-track recording console. The album was a concept about a road trip; the songs ranged from brand new to 30 or 40 years old, associated with Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry and Fred Rose (who'd made a star out of Hank Williams); the title track was a lullaby made famous 20-some years earlier by Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith; Nelson had sung it to his children. The album cost about $4000 to make; when Nashville producer Billy Sherrill heard it he thought it hadn't been produced at all, but Bruce Lundvall, then CEO at Columbia, had begun to suspect that that was the whole point: it was the first album that presented Willie as himself, not covering him up with glitz. The launch party was in Houston on Halloween night and the album was certified gold the following March, the first Nelson album (of 33 1975-85) to make the pop album chart. The first Columbia single ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain’ was a no. 1 country hit and made the pop top 20; his old labels began scrabbling in their vaults and he had eight singles in the country charts on three labels in '76, with ‘If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time’ (on Columbia) hitting no. 1.

He had achieved success by refusing to be limited by commercial considerations, and from then on did as he pleased. His gospel set The Troublemaker '76 was the one unreleased on Atlantic. A tribute to Lefty Frizzell (who had died recently) was To Lefty From Willie '77; Willie And Family Live '78 was recorded in Lake Tahoe; the two-disc One For The Road '79 with Leon Russell. The new mood in country music was already being called the ‘Outlaw’ movement; RCA released Wanted: The Outlaws '76 with tracks by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter: it was the first country album to sell a million copies. The same year ‘Good Hearted Woman’, a duet by Waylon and Willie, was no. 1 country, made the pop top 30 and was named CMA Single of the Year. Stardust '78 on CBS was his first set of standards, produced by Booker T. Jones; it stayed in the pop album chart 117 weeks, selling millions, including no. 1 country hits with Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’. The first Waylon And Willie album on Jennings’s label RCA included a no. 1 hit with Ed Bruce song ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Boys Grow Up To Be Cowboys’, which also won a Grammy '78; they toured together and outgrossed every other country act, released further duet LPs WWlI '82 on RCA, Take It To The Limit '83 on CBS. Nelson moved into films: Electric Horseman '79 (soundtrack LP had one side by Willie, the other instrumental), Honeysuckle Rose '80 (soundtrack LP no. 11, with hit single ‘On The Road Again’), Thief '81, Barbarosa '82, Song-Writer '85 (with Kris Kristofferson; the album charted), film of Redheaded Stranger '87.

He made duet LPs Angel Eyes '84 with guitarist Jackie King, San Antonio Rose '80 with his old boss Price, Brand On My Heart with Hank Snow, Old Friends with Roger Miller, In The Jailhouse Now with Webb Pierce, Funny How Time Slips Away with Faron Young; Half Nelson '85 is a selection of duets, but the most successful duet set apart from those with Jennings was Poncho And Lefty with Merle Haggard '83, a top 40 pop LP and CMA Album of the Year, the title track a no. 1 country hit. Among many RCA recyclings of Nelson material was Before His Time '77, remixed by Jennings; other Columbia LPs included The Sound In Your Mind '76, Somewhere Over The Rainbow '81, Always On My Mind '82 (pop hit LP for 99 weeks, reaching no. 2; title single a top five hit), Tougher Than Leather and Without A Song '83. Nelson could make a songwriter a lot of money by including a song on an album: ‘Poncho And Lefty’ was written by his friend Townes Van Zandt; City Of New Orleans '84 included title song by Steve Goodman when that much-loved singer/songwriter was dying of leukaemia. Me And Paul '85 had title song about his drummer, Paul English; The Promiseland '86, Island In The Sea '87 followed, the latter half written by Nelson, Jennings co-writing some of the rest. Seashores Of Old Mexico '87 was another duet LP with Haggard. He teamed with Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash for The Highwayman '85, title song by Jimmy Webb reaching no. 1; they toured and made further albums Highwayman II '90 and The Road Goes On Forever '95. Meanwhile trouble with the Internal Revenue Service saw him stripped of everything he owned; the final settlement was double album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories, accompanied by just his guitar, the same year he was elected to the County Music Hall of Fame and recorded Across The Borderline '93, produced by Don Was with guests including Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor. String-laden gospel album Healing Hands Of Time '94 was on Liberty; he teamed with son Willie Nelson Jr for Peace In The Valley on Promised Land (Willie Jr committed suicide Christmas '94); joined independent Texas Justice Records for MOR-styled Moonlight Becomes You and Just One Love '94-5; Spirit '96 was his first on Island, while Six Hours At Pedernales '94 on Step One was yet another set of Willie.

On his early recordings his songs and vocal delivery were confined by straight country contexts, yet still repay attention: reissues and compilations on many labels include The Complete Liberty Recordings 1962-64 ‘93 on EMI and even his earliest demos have been recycled on bargain-bin issues. Columbia once issued a limited edition ten-LP set; Revolution Of Time--The Journey 1975-1993 on Legacy was a three-CD set including 16 country no. ones and an album’s worth of duets with Neil Young, Santana, Bob Dylan etc; Classic And Unreleased on Rhino was another three-CD compilation; all tributes to an artist who not only crossed over but flattened the fence. Master Of Suspense '87 on Blue Note by ex-Charles Mingus trumpeter Jack Walrath had a Nelson chorus on Hank Williams’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ accompanied by Walrath’s septet, and on the venerable country hit ‘(I’m Sending You A Big) Bouquet Of Roses’ backed by just trumpet, piano and Nelson's guitar. Willie once taped a live instrumental gig with three guitars, string bass and a fiddle, the same instrumentation as Django Reinhardt's classic quintet; the gentle jazz outing was used by Public Broadcasting TV during their fund-raising campaigns.

Daughters Susie published a family memoir Heartworn Memories '87 and Lana Nelson Fowler the Willie Nelson Family Album, Willie with Bud Shrake put together Willie: An Autobiography '88; Joe Nick Patoski published Willie Nelson: An Epic Life in 2008, comprehensive and a rollicking read. On his 70th birthday he was honored by the Texas State Senate, which temporarily suspended its rules so that he could appear on the Floor without a tie.

One Hell Of A Ride 2008 on Columbia/Legacy was a 4-CD compilation covering his entire career, from the RCA, Atlantic and Columbia labels. A new album, Two Men With The Blues in 2008, featured yet another duet partner, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. In February 2009 Willie sang Ray Charles songs for two nights in New York with Marsalis and Norah Jones, then went to the Count Basie Theatre In Red Bank NJ to rehearse Western Swing style, for a tour supporting a new album with the 12-piece band Asleep at the Wheel, led by Ray Benson, who has known Willie since the 1970s. 'That's why we came to Texas--he was the only one that'd give us gigs,' said Benson. In fact the recording project was the idea of legendary producer Jerry Wexler, and they had recorded eight of the 13 tracks before Wexler died in 2008 at age 91.  

Heroes 2012 was back on Columbia/Legacy, guests including Ray Price (on 'This Cold War With You'); it wasn't top-drawer Nelson, yet some of the tracks were not to be missed: western-swing style 'Home In San Antone', and a cover of Tom Waits's gospel-styled 'Come On Up To The House'. The weather-beaten voice was as good as ever.