Willie Nelson

He was a pioneer in the anti-establishment outlaw image. He wrote hundreds of songs, and was a remarkable country performer.
Willie Nelson was a performer and songwriter who played an important role in the development of post-rock & rolling country music. While he wasn’t a major star until the mid-1970s, Nelson spent the 1960s writing hits for stars such as Ray Price (“Night Life”) and Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and Faron Young (“Hello Walls”) and Billy Walker (“Funny How Time Slips away”), in addition to releasing a number of records on Liberty Records and RCA, which earned him a loyal following. Willie teamed up with Waylon Jennings during the early 1970s to help the fledgling outlaw country movement make him a superstar in 1975. After the success of “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” and “Red Headed Stranger”, Nelson became a star. He was as well-known in pop circles as the country audience. He also started an acting career in early ’80s. Willie was never one to be afraid of music, even though he was a superstar. He drew inspiration from many styles including Western swing, jazz and traditional country. Nelson was at the top of country charts until mid-’80s when his lifestyle, which was close to outlaw cliches that his music flirted with, began to spiral outof control. This culminated in a infamous battle against the IRS in late ’80s. Nelson’s sales did not reach the same heights in the 1990s and 2000s but he was still a major figure in country music. He had a great influence on the new, traditionalist and alternative movements in country music and left behind a legacy with classic songs and recordings. Nelson started performing music when he was a small child in Abbott, Texas. Nelson and his sister Bobbie were adopted by their grandparents after his father passed away and his mother fled. They encouraged them to learn how to play the guitar. Willie started playing the guitar at seven years old and was writing songs by age seven. Bobbie began playing piano and eventually met Bud Fletcher. He invited the siblings to join his band. Nelson was already a member of Raychecks’ Polka Band. However, Fletcher became the group’s frontman. Willie was with Fletcher through high school. After graduating, he joined Fletcher’s Air Force. However, he was soon plagued with back problems and had to leave. After he was disenrolled from the service, his search for full-time employment began.

After working several jobs part-time, he was offered a job at Fort Worth’s KCNC as a country DJ in 1954. Nelson sang in honky-tonks while he was working as a DJ. He decided to try his hand at a recording career by 1956. He moved to Vancouver, Washington in 1956, and recorded Leon Payne’s “Lumberjack”. Payne was at that time a DJ, and he promoted “Lumberjack”, which eventually led to a sales figure of 3,000, which is a good number for an independent single but not enough to get much attention. Willie continued to perform in clubs and DJ for the next few years. During this period, he sold his song “Family Bible”, which he wrote, to a guitarist instructor for 50 bucks. When the song was a huge hit with Claude Gray in 1960 and Nelson moved to Nashville to try his luck, Although his off-center, nasal voice and off-center phrasing did not win him many friends, several demos were made, then rejected by different labels. However, his songwriting talent was noticed and Hank Cochran soon helped Willie secure a publishing deal at Pamper Music. Ray Price, co-owner of Pamper Music, recorded Nelson’s “Night Life” and invited Willie to be a bassist in his touring band, The Cherokee Cowboys.

Price’s invitation to Nelson at the start of 1961 marked a turning point in Nelson’s life. He not only played with Price, but he also took members of the Cherokee Cowboys and formed his own touring band. His songs were also major hits for many other artists. Faron Young took “Hello Walls”, which remained at number one for nine consecutive weeks, to No. 1. Billy Walker made “Funny How Time Slips away” a Top 40 country hit, while Patsy Cline made the pop crossover hit “Crazy”. He signed a contract to Liberty Records earlier in the year and began releasing singles that were often soaked in strings. Nelson’s 1962 hit “Willingly”, a duet with Shirley Collie, was a Top Ten hit. “Touch Me” followed later in the year. It seemed like Nelson was on the verge of becoming a star with both singles, but his career stagnated just as fast as it had taken off and he soon found himself in the lower regions. In 1964 Liberty’s country division was closed. This happened the same year Roy Orbison released “Pretty Paper.”

Nelson, who was a Grand Ole Opry member in 1965, moved to RCA Records after the Monument recordings were not successful. Willie enjoyed a steady stream minor hits over the next seven-year period, with the highlight being “Bring Me Sunshine”, his number 13 hit in 1969. He was frustrated with RCA after his time with them. They tried to force him into their Nashville sound. He didn’t even make it to the Top 40 in 1972. After a short and unsuccessful stint in pig farming, Nelson was discouraged by his failure to achieve success. He decided to quit country music and move back to Austin, Texas. Nelson discovered that there were many young fans of country music, as well as the traditional honky-tonk audience, when he arrived in Austin. Willie saw an opportunity and began to perform again. He ditched his Nashville-centric sound and image in favor of a rock-and-folk-influenced outlaw look. He was soon signed to Atlantic Records.

Shotgun Willie (1973), Nelson’s first album for Atlantic was a sign of his changing musical style. It received good reviews and developed a loyal following. His version of Bob Wills’ “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer”)” reached the Top 40 by the fall 1973. He released the concept album Phases and Stages the following year. This increased his popularity even further with the hits singles “Bloody Mary Morning”, and “After The Fire Is Gone”. The real commercial breakthrough came in 1975 when he broke off all ties with Atlantic Records and signed to Columbia Records. This gave him full creative control over his records. Columbia’s first album, The Red Headed Stranger was Willie’s concept album about a preacher. It featured only his guitar and the piano of his sister. Although they were reluctant to release such stark arrangements, Columbia eventually relented and the album became a huge success thanks to Nelson’s subtle cover of Roy Acuff’s “Blue Eyes Cry in the Rain”.

After the success of The Red Headed Stranger and Waylon Jennings’ simultaneous success outlaw country, which was so named because it operated outside the Nashville area, became a huge success. RCA compiled The Outlaws! using material Nelson, Jennings and Tompall Glaser had previously recorded for them. The compilation had a number-one single, the Jennings/Nelson duet “Good Hearted Woman”, which was also named single of the year by the Country Music Association. Nelson charted consistently on the pop and country charts for the next five years. “Remember Me,” the “If You’ve got the Money I’ve Got to Time” single, and “Uncloudy Day”, were Top Ten country singles. “I Love You A Thousand Ways” by Mary Kay Place and “Something to Brag About” were Top Ten country singles. In 1978, Waylon and WillieNelson had their most successful year yet. He charted with two albums that were very different. Waylon and Willie was his first duet album, which he released with Jennings. It was a huge success, and spawned the iconic song “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys.” Stardust was released later in the year by Booker T. Jones, which is a string-augmented collection pop standards. Many people thought that Nelson’s unconventional album would be a disaster. However, it was unexpectedly one of his most successful records. It spent almost ten years on the country charts, and eventually sold over four million copies. After Stardust’s success, Willie ventured into film. He starred in Robert Redford’s 1979 movie The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose in the following year. This was the inspiration for the song “On the Road Again,” which would become another Nelson classic.

Willie had hits all through the 1980s. In 1982, Willie’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Always On My Mind” was a huge crossover hit. It reached number five on the pop chart after two weeks. The album was also at number two on both the pop charts and quadruple platinum. He had two more hit albums with Merle Haggard (1983’s Poncho & Lefty), and Jennings (1982’s WWII and 1983’s Take It to the Limit), while “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” a duet featuring Latin pop star Julio Iglesias, was a major crossover success. It reached number five on the pop charts, and number one on the country singles charts.

After a string number one singles in 1985, including “Highwayman”, the first single by the Highwaymen (a supergroup Nelson formed with Jennings and Johnny Cash), Nelson’s popularity began to decline. The attention of the country crowd had shifted to a new generation of artists, which severely reduced his audience. He continued to tour less and record less for the rest of the decade. However, he did continue to do charitable work such as Farm Aid, which he started in 1985 to help ailing farmers. Willie’s career was in decline, but an old enemy began to attack him: the IRS. He was issued a $16.7 million tax bill in November 1990. In the next year, nearly all his assets, including many houses, studios and farms, were removed. To pay the bill, he released The IRS Tapes: who’ll buy my Memories? The records were originally released separately and were promoted through TV commercials. All profits went to the IRS. He was 60 years old when 1993 saw him pay off his debts and he relaunched the recording business with Across the Borderline. This ambitious album, produced by Don Was, featured cameos from Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Sinead O’Connor. It received positive reviews and was his first solo album to chart on the pop charts since 1985.

Nelson released Across the Borderline in 1993. He continued to work hard, releasing at most one album per year and touring continuously. He was inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. However, by then, he was already a legend for country music lovers around the globe. He signed to Island in 1996 for Spirit. Two years later, he returned with the critically-acclaimed Teatro, which was produced by Daniel Lanois. Nelson followed up that success with the instrumental-oriented Night and Day a year later; Me and the Drummer and Milk Cow Blues followed in 2000. In spring 2001, The Rainbow Connection was released. It featured an eclectic mix of old-time country songs.

Nelson, a prolific recording artist, released The Great Divide on Universal Records in 2002. In 2003, Sugar Hill released Crazy: The Demo Sessions, a collection of his early-’60s publishing demos. In 2003, Nelson released Run That by Me Another Time. This reunited Nelson with Ray Price and started a relationship with Lost Highway Records. In 2004, It Always Will be, Outlaws, and Angels appeared on Lost Highway. Then, in 2005, Nelson released Countryman, his long-delayed attempt to a country-reggae-fusion. You don’t know me: Songbird and The Songs of Cindy Walker were released the next year by Lost Highway. They were Nelson’s collaborations with Ryan Adams, an alt-country singer/songwriter, and his band, the Cardinals. Lost Highway released the double-disc Last of the Breed in 2007. The album was followed by the Buddy Cannon-produced Moment of Forever in 2008. Two Men with the Blues In 2008, Nelson teamed up with Wynton Marsalis, a jazz trumpeter, to record the live album Two Men with the Blues. He also teamed up with Mickey Raphael (harmonica player and producer) for serious-repair remixes from vintage Nelson records that were originally recorded between 1966-1970 and called Naked Willie. In 2009, Lost Highway was released. It featured duets with pop and country singers, including Shania Twain and Elvis Costello. The jazz-inflected American Classic, Blue Note Records, also appeared in 2009. Rounder Records followed Country Music in 2010 with Country Music. Nelson was reunited again with Marsalis for 2011’s Here We Go Again. Celebrating the Genius and Ray Charles. The recording was made live at the Rose Theater on February 9, 2009, with Norah Jones joining the crew. Blue Note released a CD containing clips from both shows in spring 2011; in fall 2011, Willie released a collection of covers called Remember Me, Vol. 1. Then, he signed with Sony Legacy. He released Heroes in summer 2012 and followed it with Let’s face the Music and Dance in spring 2013. He released To All the Girls …,, a collection featuring new duets with female vocalists.

Nelson continued to tour despite turning 80 in 2013. Nelson, who had been recording covers for over a decade began to re-engage as a songwriter while he was on the road. Band of Brothers was released in June 2014 and featured nine original songs (co-written by Buddy Cannon), among 14 new songs. Six months later, Nelson released a series of planned albums, given the collective name Willie’s Stash, which he devoted to music close to his heart. December Day was a low-key collaboration between Nelson and his sister Bobbie Nelson in which they performed old standards and lesser-known songs from Willie’s songbook. Merle Haggard, Willie’s old friend, joined him for Django & Jimmie in 2015. This was their first collaboration in twenty years. The album, which was preceded by the hit single “It’s All Going to Pot”, debuted at the top of the Billboard country charts in June 2015. In 2016, Nelson released Summertime. Willie Nelson sings Gershwin. Later that year, he paid tribute to Ray Price with For the Good Times.

Willie Nelson released the album God’s problem Child in April 2017. It was co-produced once more by Buddy Cannon. Later in October, Nelson released the second volume of the Willie’s Stash Series: Willie Nelson and the Boys. This collection included classic country songs recorded with his sons Lukas and Micah. Light in the Attic also released two Nelson catalogue projects that month. Teatro – The Complete Sessions, produced by Daniel Lanois, featured seven previously unreleased tracks as well as a DVD of Wim Wenders’ documentary about the sessions that took place in a charming vintage movie theatre. This volume was a Record Store Day reissue from 1996 Island Records’ Spirit on gold vinyl. It was not celebrated at the time, but it is now one of the most beloved outings of Cannon’s late career. It features Johnny Gimble, the legendary fiddler, and has been treasured ever since. Cannon and Nelson returned with Last Man Standing in April 2018. It featured the single “Me and You”. It debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart.

Leave a Comment