Willie Hugh Nelson was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas. Abandoned by his mother after 6 months, he and his older sister Bobbie were raised by their paternal grandparents. Despite the poverty of the Great Depression, they survived and were encouraged to learn to play music. Music lessons came via mail order and their early influences were Gospel, Country and Frank Sinatra. Willie started writing poetry aged 5 and received his first guitar a year later. He wrote his first song when he was seven and played with a local polka band aged 9. Ten-year-old, Willie joined Bud Fletcher and the Texans (aka Bohemian Fiddlers) and became a firm favourite with his own fan club by 14. He worked as a disc jockey while still at school and sang in local honky- tonk bars. In 1950/51 he left high school and joined the U.S. Air Force but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. To help pay for tuition fees at Baylor University he sold encyclopaedias door to door until he dropped out in 1954. Willie continued working as a radio disc jockey and got married. Now with a family to support he moved to Vancouver, Washington to start his musical career. He had modest success with ‘Lumberjack,’ but not sufficient to establish a career.
Nelson sold his first song ‘Family Bible’ for $50 and it became a hit for Claude Gray in 1960.
Determined to become a successful writer he penned many of the songs which would later become hits. Song-writer and promoter, Mae Axton recognized his talent and begged him to return to the south and try his luck there. He moved to Nashville and worked as a staff writer for Pamper Music. Two years later Patsy Cline recorded ‘Crazy’ which became an enormous hit.
Other chart toppers included ‘Hello Walls’ (Faron Young); and the trifecta was complete with ‘Night Life’ by Ray Price.
Willie Nelson temporarily joined Ray Price's touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys, as a bass player. More and more artists started recording Willie’s songs including: Billy Walker (Funny How Time Slips Away) and Roy Orbison (Pretty Paper).
Despite his undoubted success as a writer his debut album failed to attract attention.
Subsequent Nashville producers including Chet Atkins tried to tailor Willie’s singing voice to contemporary country, but without success. Nelson enjoyed drinking and gained a reputation as awkward to work with. In 1971 went back to Austin Texas and influence by the Hippie Era he grew his hair, wore a bandanna and started playing outlaw country (not mainstream Nashville). Like minded musicians such Waylon Jennings, became known as the “Outlaws”. In 1973 he released Shotgun Willie, although it did not sell too well it did take the critics’ interest.
His next album Phrases and Stage confirmed him as a singer/songwriter and after he moved to Columbia he was given artistic control over his music.
Red Headed Stranger (1975) was a huge cross-over success appearing in both rock and country album charts.
A year later the album Wanted! The Outlaws which also featured Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, went platinum.
Waylon and Willie was another success but it was Stardust produced by Booker T Jones which catapulted Willie Nelson into super stardom.
More collaborations came with Half Nelson with Ray Charles.
Nelson started to appear as an actor in movies like The Electric Horseman (1979) and Honeysuckle Rose (1980).
He combined acting and singing which brought him to a much wider audience. He continued as a solo artist and enjoyed much success on the charts, then in the middle of the 80s Willie joined Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash in the supergroup called The Highwaymen.
As the decade passed Willie Nelson became more involved in charity work, like Farm Aid concerts in 1985.
In 1990, Willie fell fowl of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) who seized most of his assets. When they were auctioned many of his friends purchased them and gave them back or rented them at a nominal fee. By 1993 the artist had paid off his debts. Willie continues to tour and record. He is an accomplished actor and continues as a popular cameo in many movies.
Worth a listen
San Antonio Rose (1969)
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (1975)
Georgia on my mind (1976)
Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (1978)
September Song (1979)
"On the Road Again (1980)
Always on my mind (1981)
To all the girls I’ve loved before (1984) with Julio Iglesias
City of New Orleans (1984)
Are there anymore Real Cowboys (198) with Neil Young)
Hello Walls (1961)