JAM Magazine Main Features

Willie Nelson - Country Fever 2008 - Jun. 12-15

Well Known Red-headed Stranger

There aren’t enough superlatives in the English dictionary to describe the impact Willie Nelson has had on the American music scene the past 45 years. To say this “red-headed” stranger is a musical icon would be an understatement. The reverent tones in which his name is spoken to this day speaks volumes about Willie’s musical career, which is still going strong at the tender age of 75.

Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933, the son of Myrtle and Ira Nelson. Six months after his birth, Willie’s mother packed up and abandoned the family. A few years later his father, a mechanic and pool hall owner, left his son and older daughter, Bobbie, in the care of his parents and never returned. Nelson was six years old when he got his first guitar, a Sears Stella. Taught from mail-order music lessons, Willie wrote his first song a year later. At age nine and accompanied on piano by his older sibling by two years, Bobbie, Willie made his formal debut in his grandparent’s living room. He wrote his first songbook, Songs by Willie Nelson, at age 11. When his 16-year old sister married Bud Fletcher, the three of them formed the Bohemian Fiddlers (accompanied by a high school teacher on trombone). Willie’s first paying job was in the city of West at the Nite Owl, owned by Marjorie and U.J. Lundy. While in high school the young Nelson took part in the National F.F.A. Organization (Future Farmers of America) activities. This early introduction to the F.F.A. would create a lifelong bond with the group, and one day lead Willie to form the first Farm Aid benefit concert for American farmers, with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, in 1985. (To date, the annual concert series has raised tens of millions of dollars for farmers while raising the collective conscious of the nation about the plight of this country’s dwindling farm lands).

Nelson graduated from Abbott High School in 1951. He joined the Air Force that same year, but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. The next year, Willie met and married the first of his four wives, Martha Matthews. The couple had three children the ten years they were married, sisters Lana and Susie, and a son Billy. Nelson enrolled at Baylor to study agriculture and sold encyclopedia’s to supplement his income. With a growing family making it tough to make ends meet, Willie dropped out of college in 1954 and took a job as a deejay at KBOP in San Antonio.

In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career, recording and releasing a song written by Leon Payne called “Lumberjack.” Though the single sold fairly well, Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer and sing in clubs to establish a career. In 1958, Nelson sold a song he’d written called “Family Bible” for $50. It became a big hit in 1960, and to this day, is often considered a gospel music classic.

A year after he wrote “Family Bible,” Nelson relocated to Pasadena, Texas where he penned his classic country staples “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Pretty Paper,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life,” (reputedly the most covered country song of all time.) Though Nelson wasn’t getting his due as a performing artist, his genius as a songwriter was undeniable. Nelson began a recording career with RCA Records and even joined the Grand Ole Opry. He followed these moves with a series of minor hits and then, at age 32, retired from the music business to become a pig farmer with his second wife, Shirley Collie. A third wife later (Connie Koepke) found Willie Nelson living in Austin, Texas. While performing around town, Nelson’s popularity soared. His rebranding of country music, that featured undertones of rock and roll, western swing, jazz and folk was soon labeled ‘outlaw country.’ This era of music helped Nelson reposition himself in country music circles to attract a diverse fan base. The move led Willie to unprecedented success throughout the ‘70s. He was the nation’s top touring act in 1978 due in large part to his duet with Waylon Jennings on the mega-hit single, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” In between concert appearances, Nelson also got the acting bug and appeared in such films as The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Thief (1981), and Barbarosa (1982). Over the years, Willie has made numerous guest appearances on television dramas and acted in made-for-TV movies.

The ‘80s saw a series of hit singles for Willie including “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” from the movie Honeysuckle Rose and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (a duet with Julio Iglesias). More popular albums ensued that decade including Pancho & Lefty with Merle Haggard, and two huge recordings with Waylon Jennings WWII and Take It To The Limit. Also in the mid-1980s, Nelson, Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson formed a group called The Highwaymen. They unexpectedly achieved universal success, including platinum record sales and sold out tours around the globe.

Willie’s world came to a crashing halt in 1990 when the Internal Revenue Service handed him a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes. The IRS seized most of Willie’s assets to help pay the charges, but the red-headed stranger took it all in stride. In 1991, Nelson released The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? All the profits from the recording went straight to the government. Devotion to Willie was such, that many of his assets when auctioned were purchased by friends (some for a $1), who either gave his possessions back or rented them at a nominal fee until he was ready to take them back permanently. He sued accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contending they put him into tax shelters that were later disallowed. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount, and by 1993, Willie Nelson was debt free.

During most of the 1990s, Nelson toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews, with the exception of 1998’s critically acclaimed Teatro (helmed by renowned rock producer Daniel Lanois and featuring Emmylou Harris on vocals). Later that year, he joined rock band Phish onstage for several songs as part of the annual Farm Aid festival. He also performed a duet concert with fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, recorded for the VH1 Storytellers series.

Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. A star-studded television special celebrating his 70th birthday aired in 2003. In 2004, Willie had a platinum album with Outlaws & Angels, featuring guests Toby Keith, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Al Green, Shelby Lynne, Carole King, Ben Harper, Lee Ann Womack, Los Lonely Boys, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rickie Lee Jones. Willie Nelson: an Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski was released in April, 2008. Patoski did over 100 interviews with Willie, his family, his band, the people he grew up with in Abbott, and many others, in writing this memoir to celebrate Willie’s 75th birthday.

-Record Label: Lost Highway