Willie Hugh Nelson (/wɪli nɛlsən/; born April 29, 1933) is an American country music singer-songwriter, as well as an author, poet, actor, and activist. The critical success of the album Shotgun Willie (1973), combined with the critical and commercial success of Red Headed Stranger (1975) and Stardust (1978), made Nelson one of the most recognized artists in country music. He was one of the main figures of outlaw country, a subgenre of country music that developed in the late 1960s as a reaction to the conservative restrictions of the Nashville sound. Nelson has acted in over 30 films, co-authored several books, and has been involved in activism for the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana.
Born during the Great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, Nelson wrote his first song at age seven and joined his first band at ten. During high school, he toured locally with the Bohemian Polka as their lead singer and guitar player. After graduating from high school, in 1950, he joined the Air Force but was later discharged due to back problems. After his return, Nelson attended Baylor University for two years but dropped out because he was succeeding in music. During this time, he worked as a disc jockey in Texas radio stations and a singer in honky tonks. Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, where he wrote "Family Bible" and recorded the song "Lumberjack" in 1956. In 1958, he moved to Houston, Texas after signing a contract with D Records. He sang at the Esquire Ballroom weekly and he worked as a disk jockey. During that time, he wrote songs that would become country standards, including "Funny How Time Slips Away", "Hello Walls", "Pretty Paper", and "Crazy". In 1960 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and later signed a publishing contract with Pamper Music which allowed him to join Ray Price's band as a bassist. In 1962, he recorded his first album, ...And Then I Wrote. Due to this success, Nelson signed in 1964 with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ole Opry the following year. After mid-chart hits in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Nelson retired in 1972 and moved to Austin, Texas. The rise of the popularity of hippie music in Austin motivated Nelson to return from retirement, performing frequently at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
In 1973, after signing with Atlantic Records, Nelson turned to outlaw country, including albums such as Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. In 1975, he switched to Columbia Records, where he recorded the critically acclaimed album, Red Headed Stranger. The same year, he recorded another outlaw country album, Wanted! The Outlaws, along with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. During the mid-1980s, while creating hit albums like Honeysuckle Rose and recording hit songs like "On the Road Again", "To All the Girls I've Loved Before", and "Pancho & Lefty", he joined the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with fellow singers Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. In 1990 Nelson's assets were seized by the Internal Revenue Service, which claimed that he owed US $32,000,000. It was later discovered that his accountants, Price Waterhouse, did not pay Nelson's taxes for years. The difficulty of paying his outstanding debt was aggravated by weak investments he had made during the 1980s. In 1991, Nelson released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?; by 1993, the profits of the double album, destined to the IRS, and the auction of Nelson's assets cleared his debt. During the 1990s and 2000s, Nelson continued touring extensively, and released albums every year. Reviews ranged from positive to mixed. He explored genres such as reggae, blues, jazz, and folk. Nelson made his first movie appearance in the 1979 film The Electric Horseman, followed by other appearances in movies and on television.
Nelson is a major liberal activist and the co-chair of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which is in favor of marijuana legalization. On the environmental front, Nelson owns the bio-diesel brand Willie Nelson Biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oil. Nelson is also the honorary chairman of the Advisory Board of the Texas Music Project, the official music charity of the state of Texas.
Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas on April 29, 1933, during the Great Depression, to Myrle Marie (née Greenhaw) and Ira Doyle Nelson. He was born on April 29, 1933, but his birth was recorded by doctor F. D. Sims on April 30. He was named Willie by his cousin Mildred, who also chose Hugh as his middle name, in honor of her recently deceased younger brother. Nelson's ancestry includes English, Irish, and Cherokee. His parents moved from Arkansas in 1929, to look for work. Nelson's grandfather, William, worked as a blacksmith, while his father worked as a mechanic. His mother left soon after he was born, and his father remarried and also moved away, leaving Willie and his sister Bobbie to be raised by their grandparents. The Nelsons, who taught singing back in Arkansas, started their grandchildren in music. Nelson's grandfather bought him a guitar when he was six, and taught him a few chords, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age seven, and when he was nine, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summer, the family picked cotton along with other citizens of Abbott. Nelson didn't like picking cotton, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky tonks from age thirteen, and continuing through high school. Nelson's musical influences were Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Django Reinhardt, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong .
Nelson attended Abbott High School where he was a halfback on the school football team, and also played basketball as a guard, and shortstop in baseball. He also raised pigs for the Future Farmers of America organization. While still at school he sang and played guitar in The Texans, a band formed by his sister's husband, Bud Fletcher. The band played in honky-tonks, while also had a Sunday morning spot at KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas. Meanwhile, Nelson had a short stint as a relief phone operator in Abbott, followed by a job as a tree-trimmer for the local electrical company, as well as pawnshop employee. After leaving school, in 1950, he joined the United States Air Force for eight to nine months.
Upon his return, in 1952, he married Martha Matthews, and from 1954 to 1956 studied agriculture at Baylor University. Nelson joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, but dropped out to pursue a future in music. He worked as a bouncer for a nightclub, as a partsman in an autohouse, saddle maker, trimmed trees again and worked in oilfields. He later joined Johnny Bush's band. Nelson moved with his family to Pleasanton, Texas, where he auditioned for a disc jockey job in KBOP. The owner of the station, Dr. Ben Parker gave Nelson the job, despite realising that he did not have experience working on radio. He had then stints working for KDNT in Denton, Texas; KCUL and KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas, where he hosted The Western Express; while also playing in nightclubs. Nelson then decided to move to San Diego, California. After being unable to find a job, he hitchhiked to Portland, Oregon, where his mother lived.
He was soon hired by KVAN in Vancouver, Washington, while he also appeared frequently on a television show. He made his first record in 1956, "No Place For Me", that included Leon Payne's "Lumberjack" on the B-side. The recording failed to succeed. Nelson continued working as a radio announcer and singing in Vancouver clubs. He made several appearances in a Colorado nightclub, later moving to Springfield, Missouri. After failing to land a spot on the Ozark Jubilee, he started to work as a dishwasher. Unhappy with his job, he moved back to Texas. After a short time in Waco, he settled in Fort Worth, and quit the music business for a year. He sold door-to-door bibles, vacuum cleaners, and eventually became a sales-manager for the Encyclopedia Americana.
After his son Billy was born in 1958, the family moved to Houston, Texas. On the way, Nelson stopped by the Esquire Ballroom to sell his original songs to house band singer Larry Butler. Butler refused to purchase the song "Mr. Record Man" for US$10, giving instead Nelson a US$50 loan to rent an apartment and a six-night job singing in the club. Nelson rented the apartment near Houston in Pasadena, Texas, where he also worked at the radio station as the sign-on disk jockey. During the sime time, he recorded two singles for Pappy Daily on D Records, "The Storm Has Just Begun"/"Man With the Blues" and "What a Way to Live"/"Misery Mansion". Nelson then was hired by guitar instructor Paul Buskirk to work as an instructor on his school. He sold to Buskirk "Family Bible" for US$50 and "Night Life" for US$150. "Family Bible" turned into a hit for Claude Gray in 1960.
Written by Willie Nelson, Hello Walls, was a hit for Faron Young in 1961, and the song that gave Nelson national recognition as a songwriter. He recorded the song for his debut album ...And Then I Wrote.
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Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960, but no label signed him. Most of his demos were rejected. Nelson used to frequent Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a bar that was located near the Grand Ole Opry, which was also frequented by the show stars, as well as another singers and songwriters pursuing a career. There Nelson met Hank Cochran, a songwriter who worked for the publishing company Pamper Music, which was owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith. Cochran heard Nelson during a jam session with Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day. Cochran had received a raise of US$50 a week, but instead, he convinced Hal Smith to pay Nelson the money, in order to sign him to Pamper Music. In Tootsie's they met Faron Young, who decided to record Nelson's song "Hello Walls" after he sang it for him. After Ray Price recorded Nelson's "Night Life", and his previous bassist Johnny Paycheck quit, Nelson joined Price's touring band as a bass player. While playing with Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, his songs became hits for other artists, including "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison), and, most famously, "Crazy" by Patsy Cline. In Tootsie's, Nelson and Cochran met her husband, Charlie Dick. Dick liked a song by Nelson that he had previously heard on the jukebox of the bar. Nelson played later for him a tape of "Crazy", Dick decided to take the record with the demo and play it the same night to Cline. Cline also liked the song, and she decided later to record it. “Crazy” became the biggest jukebox hit of all time.
Nelson signed with Liberty Records and was recording by August 1961 at Quonset Hut Studio. His first two successful singles as an artist were released by the next year, including "Willingly" (which became his first charting single and first Top Ten at No. 10) and "Touch Me" (his second Top Ten, stalling at No. 7), a duet with his soon-to-be second wife, Shirley Collie. Nelson's tenure at Liberty yielded his first album entitled ...And Then I Wrote, released in September 1962. When his marriage to Martha Matthews was over, he moved to Texas and married Collie. He remained there until 1963. He then worked on the west coast offices of Pamper Records, in Pico Rivera, California. Since the job did not allowed him the time to play music of his own, he left it and bought a ranch in Ridgetop, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.Fred Foster of Monument Records signed Nelson in early 1964, but only one single was released, "I Never Cared For You".
By the fall of 1964, Nelson had moved to RCA Victor Records at the behest of Chet Atkins, signing a contract for US $10,000 per year.Country Willie – His Own Songs became Nelson's first RCA album, recorded in April 1965. That same year he joined the Grand Ole Opry, and he met and became friends with Waylon Jennings after watching one of his shows in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1967, he formed his backing band "The Record Men", featuring Johnny Bush, Jimmy Day, Paul English and David Zettner. During his first few years on RCA, Nelson had no significant hits, but from November 1966 through March 1969, his singles reached the Top 25 in a consistent manner. "One In a Row" (#19, 1966), "The Party's Over" (#24 during a 16-week chart run in 1967), and his cover of Morecambe & Wise's "Bring Me Sunshine" (#13, March 1969) were Nelson's best-selling records during his time with RCA.
By 1970, most of his songwriting royalties were invested in tours that did not produce significant profits. In addition to the problems in his career, Nelson divorced Shirley Collie in 1970. In December, his ranch in Ridgetop, Tennessee burned down. He interpreted the incident as a signal for a change. He moved to a ranch near Bandera, Texas, and married Connie Koepke. In early 1971 his single "I'm a Memory" reached the top 30. After recording his final RCA single – "Mountain Dew" (backed with "Phases, Stages, Circles, Cycles and Scenes") in late April 1972, RCA requested that Nelson renew his contract ahead of schedule, with the implication that RCA would not release his latest recordings if he did not. Due to the failure of his albums to succeed, and particularly frustrated by the reception of Yesterday's Wine, although his contract was not over, Nelson decided to retire from music. He moved to Austin, Texas, where the burgeoning hippie music scene (see Armadillo World Headquarters) rejuvenated the singer. His popularity in Austin soared as he played his own brand of country music marked by country, folk and jazz influences. In March, he performed on the final day of the Dripping Springs Reunion, a three-day country music festival aimed by its producers to be an annual event. Despite the failure to reach the expected attendance, the concept of the festival inspired Nelson to create the Fourth of July Picnic, his own annual event, starting the following year. Nelson decided to return to the recording business: he signed Neil Rashen as his manager to negotiate with the RCA, who got the label to agree to end his contract upon repayment of US$14,000. Rashen eventually signed Nelson to Atlantic Records for US$25,000 per year, where he became the label's first country artist. He formed his backing band, The Family, and by February 1973, he was recording his acclaimed Shotgun Willie at Atlantic Studios in New York City.
Outlaw country and success (1973–1989)
"Shotgun Willie introduction"
Introduction of the song "Shotgun Willie", opening track of the album of the same name that marked a change of style from Nelson's earlier recordings.
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Shotgun Willie, released in May 1973, earned excellent reviews but did not sell well. The album led Nelson to a new style, later stating that Shotgun Willie had "cleared his throat". His next release, Phases and Stages, released in 1974, was a concept album about a couple's divorce, inspired by his own experience. Side one of the record is from the viewpoint of the woman, and side two is from the viewpoint of the man. The album included the hit single "Bloody Mary Morning." The same year, he produced and starred the pilot episode of PBS' Austin City Limits.
Nelson then moved to Columbia Records, where he signed a contract that gave him complete creative control, made possible by the critical and commercial success of his previous albums. The result was the critically acclaimed, and massively popular 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger. Although Columbia was reluctant to release an album with primarily a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson and Waylon Jennings insisted. The album included a cover of Fred Rose's 1945 song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", that had been released as a single previous to the album, and became Nelson's first number one hit as a singer. Throughout his 1975 tour, Nelson raised founds for PBS-affiliated stations across the south promoting Austin City Limits. The pilot was aired first on those stations, later being released nationwide. The positive reception of the show prompted PBS to order ten episodes for 1976, formally launching the show.
As Jennings was also achieving success in country music in the early 1970s, the pair were combined into a genre called outlaw country, since it did not conform to Nashville standards. The album Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976 with Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser cemented the pair's outlaw image and became country music's first platinum album. Later that year Nelson released The Sound in Your Mind (certified gold in 1978 and platinum in 2001) and his first gospel album Troublemaker (certified gold in 1986). In 1978, Nelson released two more platinum albums. One, Waylon & Willie, was a collaboration with Jennings that included "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", a hit single written and performed by Ed Bruce. Though observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it went platinum the same year. Nelson continued to top the charts with hit songs during the late 1970s, including "Good Hearted Woman", "Remember Me", "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time", and "Uncloudy Day".
"On the Road Again"
Part of the hit album Honeysuckle Rose. On the Road Again peaked number one on Hot Country Songs in 1980.
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During the 1980s, Nelson recorded a series of hit singles including "Midnight Rider", a 1980 cover of the Allman Brothers song which Nelson recorded for The Electric Horseman, the soundtrack "On the Road Again" from the movie Honeysuckle Rose, and a duet with Julio Iglesias titled "To All the Girls I've Loved Before". Pancho & Lefty, a duet album with Merle Haggard, and WWII, with Jennings, came out in 1982, while Take it to the Limit was released in 1983, also with Jennings.
In the mid-1980s, Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash formed The Highwaymen, who achieved platinum record sales and toured the world. Meanwhile, he became more involved with charity work, such as singing on We are the World in 1984. In 1985, Nelson had another success with Half Nelson, a compilation album of duets with a range of artists such as Ray Charles and Neil Young. In 1980, Nelson performed on the south lawn of the White House. The September 13 concert featured First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Nelson in a duet of Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother". Nelson frequently visited the White House according to his biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, where he smoked marijuana on the White House roof.
IRS and later career (1990–present)
In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized most of Nelson's assets, claiming that he owed US$32,000,000. It was later discovered that his accountants, Price Waterhouse, had not been paying Nelson's taxes for years. In addition to the unpaid taxes, Nelson's situation was worsened by the weak investments he had made during the early 1980s. His lawyer, Jay Goldberg, negotiated the sum to be lowered to US$16,000,000. Later, Nelson's attorney renegotiated a settlement with the IRS in which he paid US$6,000,000, although Nelson did not comply with the agreement. Nelson released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits destined for the IRS. Many of his assets were auctioned and purchased by friends, who donated or rented his possessions to him for a nominal fee. He sued Price Waterhouse, contending that they put his money in illegal tax shelters. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount and Nelson cleared his debts by 1993.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Nelson toured continuously, recording several albums including 1998's critically acclaimed Teatro, and performed and recorded with other acts including Phish, Johnny Cash, and Toby Keith. His duet with Keith, "Beer for My Horses", was released as a single and topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts for six consecutive weeks in 2003, while the accompanying video won an award for "Best Video" at the 2004 Academy of Country Music Awards. A USA Network television special celebrated Nelson's 70th birthday, and Nelson released The Essential Willie Nelson as part of the celebration. Nelson also appeared on Ringo Starr's 2003 album, Ringo Rama, as a guest vocal on "Write One for Me".
Nelson headlined the 2005 Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia concert to benefit the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which raised an estimated US$75,000 for UNICEF. Also in 2005, a live performance of the Johnny Cash song "Busted" with Ray Charles was released on Charles' duets album Genius & Friends. Nelson's 2007 performance with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center, was released as the live album Two Men with the Blues in 2008; reaching number one in Billboard's Top Jazz Albums and number twenty on the Billboard 200. In 2009 Nelson and Marsalis joined with Norah Jones in a tribute concert to Ray Charles, which resulted in the Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles album, released in 2011.
In 2010, Nelson released Country Music, a compilation of standards produced by T-Bone Burnett. The album peaked number four in Billboard's Top Country Albums, and twenty on the Billboard 200. It was nominated for Best Americana Album in the 2011 Grammy Awards. In 2011 Nelson participated in the concert Kokua For Japan, a fundraising event for the victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan which raised US$1.6 million.
In February 2012, Legacy Recordings signed a deal with Nelson that included the release of new material, as well as past releases that would be selected and complemented with outtakes and other material selected by him. His first release for the label was Heroes, that included guest appearances by his sons Lukas and Micah of the band Insects vs Robots, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver and Sheryl Crow. The album reached number four on Billboard's Top Country Albums. His 2013 release To All the Girls..., a collection of duets with all female partners, featured among others Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. The album entered Billboard's Top Country Albums at number two, marking his highest position on the chart since the release of his 1989 A Horse Called Music, and extending his record to a total of forty-six top ten albums on the country charts. Nelson scored as well his second top ten album on the Billboard 200, with the release entering at number nine.
Nelson's acting debut was in the 1979 film, The Electric Horseman, followed by appearances in Honeysuckle Rose, Thief, and Barbarosa. He played the role of Red Loon in Coming Out of the Ice in 1982 and starred in Songwriter two years later. He portrayed the lead role in the 1986 film version of his concept album Red Headed Stranger. Other movies that Nelson acted in include Wag the Dog, Gone Fishin' (as Billy 'Catch' Pooler), the 1986 television movie Stagecoach (with Johnny Cash), Half Baked, Beerfest, The Dukes of Hazzard, Surfer, Dude and Swing Vote. He has also made guest appearances on Miami Vice (1986's "El Viejo" episode), Delta, Nash Bridges, The Simpsons, Monk, Adventures in Wonderland, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, King of the Hill, The Colbert Report, Swing Vote and Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
In 1988 his first book, Willie: An Autobiography, was published.The Facts of Life: And Other Dirty Jokes, a personal recollection of tour and musical stories from his career, combined with song lyrics, followed in 2002. In 2005 he co-authored Farm Aid: A Song for America, a commemorative book about the twentieth anniversary of the foundation of Farm Aid. His third book, co-authored with long-time friend Turk Pipkin, The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart, was published in 2006. In 2007 a book advocating the use of bio-diesel and the reduction of gas emissions, On The Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and The Future of the Family Farm, was published. His next book, A Tale Out of Luck, published in 2008 and co-authored by Mike Blakely, was Nelson's first fictional book. In 2012, it was announced the release of a new autobiography by Nelson, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road. Set to be released on November 13, it is named after the song from his album Heroes. The book contains further biographical details, as well as family pictures and stories about Nelson's political views, as well as his advocation for marijuana. The artwork of the book was designed by Nelson's son, Micah, and the foreword written by Kinky Friedman.
In 2002, Nelson became the official spokesman of the Texas Roadhouse, a chain of steakhouses. Nelson heavily promoted the chain and appeared on a special on Food Network. The chain installed Willie's Corner, a section dedicated to him and decked out with Willie memorabilia, at several locations.
In 2008, Nelson reopened Willie's Place, a truck stop in Carl's Corner, Texas. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court allowed Nelson to invest in it. The establishment had about 80 employees and was used as a concert hall with a bar and a 1,000 square feet (93 m2) dance floor. It closed in 2011 after defaulting on a loan, leading to foreclosure and bankruptcy. In 2010, Nelson founded with the collaboration of producers and filmmakers Luck Films, a company dedicated to produce feature films, documentaries and concerts. The next year, he created Willie's Roadhouse, aired on channel 56 of SiriusXM radio. The channel was a result of the merger of his two other channels The Roadhouse and Willie's Place.
Nelson uses a variety of music styles to create his own distinctive blend of country music, a hybrid of jazz, pop, blues, rock and folk. His "unique sound", which uses a "relaxed, behind-the-beat singing style and gut-string guitar", and his "nasal voice and jazzy, off-center phrasing", has been responsible for his wide appeal, and has made him a "vital icon in country music", influencing the "new country, new traditionalist, and alternative country movements of the '80s and '90s".
In 1969, the Baldwin company gave Nelson an amplifier and a three-cord pickup electric guitar. During a show in Helotes, Texas, Nelson left the guitar on the floor of the stage, and it was later stepped on by a drunk man. He sent it to be repaired in Nashville by Shot Jackson, who told Nelson that the damage was too great. Jackson offered him a Martin N-20 Classical guitar, and, at Nelson's request, moved the pickup to the Martin. Nelson purchased the guitar unseen for US$750 and named it after Roy Rogers' horse "Trigger". The next year Nelson rescued the guitar from his burning ranch.
Constant strumming with a guitar pick over the decades has worn a large sweeping hole into the guitar's body near the sound hole—the N-20 has no pick-guard since classical guitars are meant to be played fingerstyle instead of with picks. Its soundboard has been signed by over a hundred of Nelson's friends and associates, ranging from fellow musicians to lawyers and football coaches. The first signature on the guitar was Leon Russell's, who asked Nelson initially to sign his guitar. When Nelson was about to sign it with a marker, Russell requested him to scratch it instead, explaining that the guitar would be more valuable in the future. Interested in the concept, Nelson requested Russell also to also sign his guitar. In 1991, during his process with the IRS, Nelson was worried that Trigger could be auctioned off, stating: "When Trigger goes, I'll quit". He asked his daughter, Lana, to take the guitar from the studio before any IRS agent got there, and bring it to him on Maui. Nelson then hid the guitar in his manager's house until his debt was paid in 1993.
In his book, The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart, Nelson described the influence of the guitar in his style: "One of the secrets to my sound is almost beyond explanation. My battered old Martin guitar, Trigger, has the greatest tone I’ve ever heard from a guitar. ... If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them on the radio or even at last night’s show, I’d always be a copy of myself and we’d all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me ... I’ll always be an original".
Nelson is active in a number of issues. Along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, he set up Farm Aid in 1985 to assist and increase awareness of the importance of family farms, after Bob Dylan's comments during the Live Aid concert that he hoped some of the money would help American farmers in danger of losing their farms through mortgage debt. The first concert included Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Neil Young among many others, and raised over $9 million for America's family farmers. Besides organizing and performing in the annual concerts, Nelson is the president of the board of Farm Aid.
Nelson is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board. He has worked with NORML for years, fighting for marijuana legalization. In 2005 Nelson and his family hosted the first annual "Willie Nelson & NORML Benefit Golf Tournament", leading to a cover appearance and inside interview in the January 2008 issue of High Times magazine. After his arrest for possession of marijuana in 2010, Nelson created the TeaPot party under the motto "Tax it, regulate it and legalize it!".
In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, he participated in the benefit telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes, leading the rest of the celebrities singing the song "America the Beautiful". In 2010, during an interview with Larry King, Nelson expressed his doubts with regards to the attacks and the official story. Nelson explained that he could not believe that the buildings could collapse due to the planes, attributing instead the result to an implosion.
Nelson supported Dennis Kucinich's campaign in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. He raised money, appeared at events, and composed the song "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?", criticizing the war in Iraq. He recorded a radio advertisement asking for support to put musician/author Kinky Friedman on the ballot as an independent candidate for the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election. Friedman promised Nelson a job in Austin as the head of a new Texas Energy Commission due to his support of bio-fuels. In January 2008, Nelson filed a suit against the Texas Democratic Party, alleging that the party violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by refusing to allow co-plaintiff Kucinich to appear on the primary ballot because he had scratched out part of the loyalty oath on his application.
In 2004, he and his wife Annie became partners with Bob and Kelly King in the building of two Pacific Bio-diesel plants, one in Salem, Oregon, and the other at Carl's Corner, Texas (the Texas plant was founded by Carl Cornelius, a longtime Nelson friend and the namesake for Carl's Corner). In 2005, Nelson and several other business partners formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel ("Bio-Willie"), a company that is marketing bio-diesel bio-fuel to truck stops. The fuel is made from vegetable oil (mainly soybean oil), and can be burned without modification in diesel engines.
Nelson is an advocate for better treatment for horses and has been campaigning for the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) alongside the Animal Welfare Institute. He is on its Board of Directors and has adopted a number of horses from Habitat for Horses. In 2008, Nelson signed on to warn consumers about the cruel and illegal living conditions for calves raised to produce milk for dairy products. He wrote letters to Land O'Lakes and Challenge Dairy, two of the major corporations that use milk from calves raised at California's Mendes Calf Ranch, which employs an intensive confinement practice that was the subject of a lawsuit and campaign brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
A supporter of the LGBT movement, Nelson published in 2006 through iTunes a version of Ned Sublette's "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other", that met instant success. During an interview with Texas Monthly in 2013, regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and Same-sex marriage in the United States, Nelson responded to a comparison the interviewer did with the Civil Rights Movement, stating: "We'll look back and say it was crazy that we ever even argued about this". He presented also two logos with the pink equal sign, symbol of the LBGT movement. The first one, featured the sign represented with two long braids; while the second one, featured the sign represented with two marijuana cigarettes. The use of the logos became viral instantly in social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Nelson lives in Maui, Hawaii, in a largely self-sustaining community where all the homes use only solar power. Neighbors include Kris Kristofferson, Woody Harrelson, and Owen Wilson.
Willie Nelson has married four times and fathered seven children. His first marriage was to Martha Matthews; it lasted from 1952 to 1962. The couple have two living children: Lana and Susie. Their third child Billy died by suicide in 1991. The marriage was marked by violence, with Matthews assaulting Nelson several times, including one incident when she sewed him up in a bed sheet and then beat him with a broomstick. Nelson's next marriage was to Shirley Collie in 1963. The couple divorced in 1971, after Collie found a bill from the maternity ward of a Houston hospital charged to Nelson and Connie Koepke for the birth of Paula Carlene Nelson. Koepke and Nelson married the same year and had two daughters, Paula Carlene and Amy Lee. Following a divorce in 1988, he married his current wife, Annie D'Angelo, in 1991. They have two sons, Lukas Autry and Jacob Micah. Nelson traces his genealogy to the American Revolutionary War, in which his ancestor John Nelson served as a major.
While swimming in Hawaii in 1981, Nelson's lung collapsed. All of his scheduled concerts were cancelled and he was taken to the Maui Memorial Hospital. Nelson temporarily stopped smoking cigarettes each time his lungs became congested, and resumed when the congestion ended. He smoked between two and three packages per day. After suffering of pneumonia a repeated number of times, he decided he had to quit either marijuana or tobacco. Nelson decided to quit tobacco. In 2008 he started to smoke marijuana with a carbon-free system to avoid the effects of smoke in his lungs. In 2004 Nelson underwent surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, as he had damaged his wrists by continuously playing the guitar. On the recommendation of his doctor, he cancelled his scheduled concerts and only wrote songs during his recovery. In 2012 he cancelled a fund-raising appearance in the Denver area. Nelson suffered of breathing problems due to high altitude and emphysema, he was taken to a local hospital. His publicist Elaine Schock confirmed soon after that Nelson's health was good, and that he was heading to his next scheduled concert in Dallas, Texas.
Nelson has been arrested several times for marijuana possession. The first occasion was in 1974, in Dallas, Texas. Twenty years later, in 1994, highway patrolmen found a marijuana cigarette in his car near Waco, Texas; the resulting court appearance caused him to cancel his appearance at the Grammy awards. While travelling to Ann W. Richards' funeral in 2006, Nelson, along with his manager and his sister, Bobbi, were arrested in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana and charged with possession of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Nelson received six months probation. On November 26, 2010, Nelson was arrested in Sierra Blanca, Texas, for possession of six ounces of marijuana found in his tour bus while travelling from Los Angeles back to Texas. He was released after paying bail of US$2,500. Prosecutor Kit Bramblett supported not sentencing Nelson to jail due to the amount of marijuana being small, but suggested instead a US$100 fine and told Nelson that he would have him sing "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" for the court. Judge Becky Dean-Walker stated that Nelson had to pay the fine but did not require him to perform the song, explaining that the prosecutor was joking. Nelson's lawyer Joe Turner reached an agreement with the prosecutor. Nelson was set to pay a US$500 fine to avoid a two-year jail sentence with a 30-day review period, which in case of another incident would end the agreement. The judge later rejected the agreement, claiming that Nelson was receiving preferential treatment for his celebrity status, when the offence normally carried a one-year jail sentence. Regarding the status of the case, Bramblett declared that the case would remain open until it is either dismissed, or the judge changed her opinion.
During his childhood, Nelson grew interested in martial arts. He ordered by mail the self-defense books advertised on the Batman and Superman comics, which included jujitsu and Judo. Nelson started to formally practice Kung Fu after he moved to Nashville, in the 1960s. During the 1980s, Nelson started to train on Tae Kwon Do, in which he holds a second-degree blackbelt. During the 1990s, Nelson started to practice the Korean martial art GongKwon Yusul. In 2014, after twenty years on the discipline, his Grand Master Sam Um presented him with a fifth-degree black belt on a ceremony held in Austin, Texas.
Nelson is widely recognized as an American icon. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. In 2011, Nelson was inducted to the National Agricultural Hall of Fame, for his labor in Farm Aid and other fund risers to benefit farmers.
In 2003 Governor Perry signed bill No. 2582, introduced by State Representative Elizabeth Ames Jones and Senator Jeff Wentworth, which funded the Texas Music Project, the state's official music charity. Nelson was named Honorary Chairman of the Advisory Board of the project. In 2005, Democratic Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos introduced a bill to name 49 miles (79 km) of the Travis County section of State Highway 130 after Nelson, and at one point 23 of the 31 state Senators were co-sponsors of the bill. The legislation was dropped after two Republican senators, Florence Shapiro and Wentworth, objected, citing Nelson's lack of connection to the highway, his fundraisers for Democrats, his drinking, and his marijuana advocacy.
An important collection of Willie Nelson materials (1975–1994) became part of the Wittliff collections of Southwestern Writers, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas. The collection contains lyrics, screenplays, letters, concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, articles, clippings, personal effects, promotional items, souvenirs, and documents. It documents Nelson's IRS troubles and how Farm Aid contributions were used. Most of the material was collected by Nelson's friend Bill Wittliff, who wrote or co-wrote Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarosa and Red Headed Stranger.
In April 2010, Nelson received the "Feed the Peace" award from The Nobelity Project for his extensive work with Farm Aid and overall contributions to world peace. On June 23, 2010 he was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Nelson is an honorary trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum. In 2010, Austin, Texas renamed Second Street to Willie Nelson Boulevard. The city also unveiled a life-size statue to honor him, placed at the entrance of Austin City Limits' new studio. The non-profit organization Capital Area Statues commissioned sculptor Clete Shields to execute the project. The statue was unveiled on April 20, 2012. The date selected by the city of Austin unintentionally coincided with the number 4/20, associated with cannabis culture. In spite of the coincidence and Nelson's advocacy for the legalization of marijuana, the ceremony was scheduled also for 4:20 pm. During the ceremony, Nelson performed the song "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die". The same year, Nelson was honored during the 46th Annual Country Music Association Awards as the first recipient of the Lifetime Archivement Award, which was also named after him. In 2013, he received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. The following year, he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. Among the first inductees was also included his friend Darrell Royal, whose jamming parties which Nelson participated of, were the source of inspiration for the show.
For many years, Nelson's image was marked by his red hair, often divided into two long braids partially concealed under a bandanna. In the April 2007 issue of Stuff Magazine Nelson was interviewed about his long locks. "I started braiding my hair when it started getting too long, and that was, I don't know, probably in the 70's." On May 26, 2010, the Associated Press reported that Nelson had cut his hair, and Nashville music journalist Jimmy Carter published a photograph of the pigtail-free Nelson on his website. Reportedly, he wanted a more maintainable hairstyle, as well helping him stay cool more easily at his Maui home.
Nelson's touring and recording group, the Family, is full of longstanding members. The original lineup included his sister Bobbie Nelson, drummer Paul English, harmonicist Mickey Raphael, bassist Bee Spears, Billy English (Paul's younger brother), and Jody Payne. The current lineup includes all the members but Jody Payne, who retired, and Bee Spears, who died in 2011.Willie & Family tours North America in the bio-diesel bus Honeysuckle Rose IV, which is fueled by Bio-Willie.
Discography and other works
As well as recording over sixty studio albums, Nelson has appeared in over thirty films and TV shows. His acting debut was in the 1979 movie, The Electric Horseman, followed by appearances in Honeysuckle Rose, Thief, and Barbarosa.
- Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988, with Bud Shrake
- The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes, Random House, 2002
- The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart, Gotham, 2006, with Turk Pipkin
- A Tale Out of Luck (a novel), Center Street, 2008, with Mike Blakely
- On The Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and The Future of the Family Farm, Fulcrum Publishing, 2007
- Farm Aid: A Song for America, Rodale Books, foreword by Willie Nelson, 2005
- Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road, William Morrow, foreword by Kinky Friedman, 2012
- Inductees of the Country Music Hall of Fame
- List of country musicians
- Music of Austin
- Johnny Bush; Rick Mitchell (2007). . University of Texas Tech. ISBN 978-0-292-71490-8.
- Cartwright, Gary (2000). Turn Out the Lights: Chronicles of Texas in the 80's and 90's. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71226-3.
- Dicair, David (2007). The First Generation of Country Music Stars. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3021-5.
- Erlewine, Michael (1997). All Music Guide to Country: The Experts' Guide to the Best Recordings in Country Music. Miller Freeman. ISBN 978-0-87930-475-1.
- Harden, Lydia Dixon; Hoekstra, Dave; McCall, Michael; Morris, Edward; Williams, Janet (1996). The Stars of Country Music:The Legends & The New Breed. Publications International, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-56173-697-3.
- Hartman, Gary (2008). The History of Texas Music. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 978-1-60344-002-8.
- Jennings, Waylon; Kaye, Lenny (1996). Waylon: An Autobiography. Warner Brooks. ISBN 978-0-446-51865-9.
- Kienzle, Richard (2003). Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-94103-7.
- Kosser, Michael (2006). How Nashville Became Music City, U.s.a.: 50 Years of Music Row. ISBN 9780634098062.
- Milner, Jay Dunston (1998). Confessions of a Maddog: A Romp Through the High-Flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the Seventies. University of North Texas Press. ISBN 978-157441050-1.
- Nelson, Willie; Pipkin, Turk (2007). The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart. Gotham. ISBN 1-59240-287-9.
- Nelson, Willie; Bud Shrake; Edwin Shrake (2000). Willie: An Autobiography. Cooper Square Press.
- Patoski, Joe Nick (2008). Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. Hachette Digital. ISBN 978-0-316-01778-7.
- Reid, Jan (2004). The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock: New Edition. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-70197-7.
- Quay, Sara; Damico, Amy (2010). September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-35505-9.
- Reid, Jan; Sahm Shawn (2010). Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-72196-8.
- Richmond, Clint (2000). Willie Nelson: Behind the Music. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-03960-8.
- Riggs, Thomas (2007). Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television. Gale Research Co. ISBN 978-0-7876-9049-6.Show all...