Learn more about Willie Nelson here!
Many of our customers ask about Willie Nelson when stopping in the Museum or General Store. Over the years we’ve always been happy to share the stories we have about having worked with Willie.
People are fascinated with his journey from a small town boy in Texas to his current status as a legendary musician, songwriter, actor, activist and philanthropist.
He’s accomplished a lot throughout the years and continues entertaining crowds to this day making great music, racking up accolades like the prestigious George Gershwin Award and logging thousands miles on his bus, the “Honeysuckle Rose” accompanied as always by his trusted guitar “Trigger”.
Born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. During his extensive career, Willie Nelson has written more than 2,500 songs and has released close to 300 albums. He is recognized worldwide as an American troubadour and icon, transcended musical genres, and has remained relevant through five decades through his music, his acting, and as the face of such social causes as Farm Aid, development of bio-diesel, and the legalization of Hemp.
The son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, Willie Nelson and his older sister Bobbie (see Bobbie’s facebook page) were raised by their paternal grandparents during The Great Depression. With their grandmother, Willie and Bobbie attended their town’s small Methodist church where they were first exposed to music. “The first music we learned was from the hymnbooks. Willie had such a beautiful voice,” his sister Bobbie told Texas Monthly in 2008.
Both grandparents loved music and encouraged Willie and his sister to play. Nelson’s famous gospel song “Family Bible” reflects the influence of his musical beginnings. He sold the song for $50 to his guitar teacher and it became a hit for Claude Gray in 1960, and has been covered widely and is often considered a gospel music classic.
Nelson got his first guitar at the early age of six and soon started writing his own songs. A few years later, he played his first professional gig with a local polka band. Nelson later joined Bud Fletcher and the Texans and played the local club circuit. Also in the group was his sister Bobbie, who played piano. She later married Bud Fletcher. One of his early inspirations was Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys—a group known for their upbeat country dance music, which included some elements of swing.
After graduating high school in 1950, Nelson went into the U.S. Air Force. He did not last long, however. Stationed in Lackland in San Antonio, Texas, Nelson had to leave the service because of back problems. He tried college, attending Baylor University for a time. To make ends meet, Nelson took on odd jobs, including selling encyclopedias door to door.
Dropping out, Nelson worked as a radio disc jockey for several years and played gigs in his spare time. He continued writing songs, producing some of his most famous works—including “Night Life,” “Crazy,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”—in the late 1950s.
In 1960, Nelson moved to the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee. He got a job as a songwriter for Pamper Music, earning about $50 a week. The next year, two of Nelson’s songs become hits for other artists — Faron Young’s version of “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline’s legendary rendition of “Crazy.”
His first album was released the next year without generating much notice. Singer Ray Price, with whom Nelson had played with previously, made Nelson’s song “Night Life” a big hit in 1963. It seemed that his songs were only successful when they were sung by other people.
With his gritty, road house sound, Nelson did not fit into the traditional Nashville country music scene. Producers tried to make him fit the more classic country mould, but they just stripped away his unique style, such as his unusual manner of phrasing.
And his resistance to these efforts made him a bit of an outlaw, as did his reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-living man. His home in Ridgetop, Tennessee burned down in 1970. Taking the fire as a sign, Nelson moved away from Nashville, returning to his native state of Texas.
He became part of the country music scene in Austin and started hosting his now legendary Fourth of July picnics. Inspired by Woodstock, the gatherings became popular musical celebrations, and included performances from other country music outlaws such as Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
During this time period he also purchased property near Lake Travis in Austin and converted Pedernales Country Club into the Perdernales Studio. The studio underwent state of the art renovations during the mid 1990’s, and many top recording artists adorn its client list. Its amenities include a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts and an Olympic size swimming pool.
Nelson also kept recording albums, but now he was definitely going his own way. Soon the long haired, bandana-wearing guitarist started to develop a following. Shotgun Willie (1973) is considered to be one of his greatest albums of all time, and showcased his abilities as a singer, storyteller, and performer.
The next year, Nelson released Phases and Stages (1974), which became another popular album for the rising star. With his album, Red Headed Stranger (1975), Nelson had his first taste of crossover success. It did well on both the country and rock charts and featured the hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose.
Along with being his first song to reach No. 1 on the country charts, the song also brought Nelson his first Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1975.
Around this time, he contributed to the compilation Wanted: The Outlaws, which also featured Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. Nelson and Jennings also collaborated on the popular song “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” which won the 1978 Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Always interested in different music styles, Nelson recorded his own takes on some American standards on his album Stardust (1978). His cover of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind” earned him his second Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance. Beyond its critical success, the album proved to have staying power as well, lingering on the country charts for a decade.
Around this time, Willie also branched out into acting. He first appeared in The Electric Horseman (1979) starring Robert Redford. Soon after, he starred in Honeysuckle Rose (1980), in which he played a veteran country musician performer. His character was torn between his wife (played by Dyan Cannon) and the young singer (Amy Irving) who joins him on the road.
The film also featured the song “On the Road Again,” which earned Nelson an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Now considered a trademark Willie Nelson tune, “On the Road Again” also won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1980.
In 1979, Willie Nelson received Country Music’s highest honor when he was selected “Entertainer of the Year” by the Country Music Association.
That same year Willie also opened the “Willie Nelson and Family General Store” in Nashville, Tennessee along with his friends and storekeepers, Frank and Jeanie Oakley. That store is still open today after 36 years and has since expanded to include the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum.
Willie’s successful streak—both commercially and critically—continued into the 1980s. He has also appeared in Thief (1981), and Barbarosa (1982). Also in 1982 he played “Red Loon” in Coming Out of the Ice with John Savage. In 1984 he starred in the movie Songwriter with Kris Kristoferson guest starring.
He then had the lead role in Red Headed Stranger (1986, with Morgan Fairchild), Wag the Dog (1997), Gone Fishin’ (1997) as Billy ‘Catch’ Pooler, the 1986 TV movie Stagecoach (with Johnny Cash), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and Surfer, Dude (2008).
He has continued acting since his early successes, but usually in smaller roles and cameos, some of which involve his status as a cannabis activist and icon. One of his more popular recent cameos was a performance in Half Baked as an elderly “Historian Smoker” who, while smoking marijuana, would reminisce about how things used to be in his younger years.
Nelson also appeared as himself in the 2006 movie Beerfest, looking for teammates to join him in a mythical world-championship cannabis-smoking contest held in Amsterdam. That same week Willie Nelson recorded, “Weed with Willie” with Toby Keith.
He has made guest appearances on Miami Vice (1986’s “El Viejo” episode), Delta, Nash Bridges, The Simpsons, Monk, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, King of the Hill, Bones, The Colbert Report and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. He played country singer-songwriter Johnny Dean in the 1997 film Wag the Dog. He played Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard, the 2005 cinematic treatment of the television series, and was the only member of the big screen cast to reprise the role in the TV/DVD movie prequel The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning (2007). He also briefly appeared in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. In 2008, Willie appeared in the movie Swing Vote where he played himself, an idol of the character played by Kevin Costner
The ballad “Always on my Mind” won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1982. Albums Without A Song (1984) and City of New Orleans (1984) reached the top or near the top of the country charts. Singing with singer Julio Iglesias, Nelson scored a big hit with the ballad “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” in 1984.
The following year, Nelson teamed up with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen. Their first release, Highwayman (1985) was a big hit, as was the title track. The group went on to produce a live album and another studio effort, Highwayman 2 (1995).
Known for his compassion, Nelson—along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp—organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 in an effort to help family farmers. To date, the Farm Aid organization has raised more than $30 million and continues to work to keep family farmers on their land. In 2007, Ben & Jerry’s even released “Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler Ice Cream” with a portion of Nelson’s proceeds donated to Farm Aid.
In 1990, Nelson ran into his own financial problems and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) handed Nelson a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes and seized most of his assets to help pay the charges. How did he respond to that? He released The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS.
Many of his assets were auctioned and purchased by friends, who gave his possessions back to him or rented them at a nominal fee. He sued accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contending that they put him into tax shelters that were later disallowed. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. His debts were paid by 1993.
And as it turned out, 1993 wasn’t such a bad year for Willie Nelson as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. Watch this great video and listen as Willie pays tribute to some of his great friends and urges their inclusion into the the Hall of Fame as well.
On a much more personal level, Nelson was dealt another devastating blow when his son Billy committed suicide on Christmas Day in 1991. Still, Nelson managed to keep going and keep recording. Several of his albums, including Across the Borderline (1993) and Healing Hands of Time (1994) reached the top 20 on the country album charts.
Famously known for for smoking marijuana, Nelson was arrested in 1994 after pot was found in his car. The case was later thrown out. In 2006, Nelson was again arrested for possession in Louisiana. This time he received six months probation. However the views toward marijuana have radically changed and it is now legalized in several states. So who better than Willie market his own line of marijuana called “Willie’s Reserve”!
Nelson has also helped out his hometown of Abbott, Texas. He bought and continues to support the town’s church and grocery store, which were both in danger of failing. Nelson has also worked on behalf of the environment, promoting an alternative, cleaner burning fuel known as biodiesel.
In 2007, he even started marketing his own brand called BioWillie, which is a combination of diesel and biodiesel made from soybeans. “It seems like that’s good for the whole world if we can start growing our own fuel instead of starting wars over it.” said Nelson in a 2005 interview.
Not only is he generous with his money, but also his time. Over the years, Nelson has shown a deep commitment to his fans. After a show, “He’ll stay there for hours, signing autographs and meeting people,” friend Kris Kristofferson told Texas Monthly. And Nelson shows no signs of slowing down. He still tours heavily, playing approximately 150 dates a year at the age of 82.
Willie Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. A star-studded television special celebrating his 70th birthday aired in 2003.
In 2004, he released Outlaws & Angels, featuring guests Toby Keith, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Al Green, Shelby Lynne, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Ben Harper, Lee Ann Womack, The Holmes Brothers, 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. Mr. Patoski did over 100 interviews with Willie, his family, his band, the people he grew up with in Abbott, and many others. This is part biography, part memoir, part history, from the Depression to Willie as he celebrates his 75th birthday.
In 2004, Nelson 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).
If you’re a long time listener of “Willie’s Place” on XM radio like we are you’re sure to be familiar with Carl’s Corner that once served as the central broadcast location for the radio show prior to its closing.
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.
Always experimenting, Nelson continues to try out new types of material. In 2005, he released Countryman, which incorporated elements of reggae. Willie Nelson released Moment of Forever in 2008, which garnered much critical praise. He also scored a Grammy that same year for the single “Lost Highway,” another of his collaborations with Ray Price.
Willie Nelson also performed live in Amsterdam with rap icon Snoop Dogg in May of 2008. The duo have since work together on several projects, including the video “My Medicine.”
In February 2009, Willie Nelson teamed up with music group Asleep at the Wheel to release the country swing album entitled Willie and the Wheel. In March, he released his latest solo effort entitled Naked Willie. The album includes remixes of his early recordings.
He also continues to perform live into 2009 with his “On the Road Again” tour. Nelson also appeared on the big screen in more films such as Surfer Dude (2008), Shoot Out of Luck (2008), Beer for My Horses (2008) and The Boom Boom Room (2008).
During the past few years Willie has continued doing what he does best – touring the country making great music with his family and many talented friends. As proof of that, you need to look no further than his recent #1 album with good buddy Merle Haggard titled, “Django and Jimmie”.
Watch and listen as they sing and play “It’s All Going To Pot” one of the big hits from the album.
Further validation of Willie’s talent and impact (as if any more is needed…) was evidenced by him being honored with the Gershwin Prize this past November.
Presented by the Library of Congress, the Gershwin award honors “musical artists whose lifetime contributions in the field of popular song exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin by promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding, entertaining and informing audiences and inspiring new generations.” Willie Nelson is the first country artist to receive the award.
In his personal life, Nelson has seen many ups and downs. He married Martha Matthews in 1952, and they had three children together, Lana, Susie, and Billy, before splitting up in 1962.
Paula and Amy are also musicians and can be seen and heard performing regularly with Willie and out on the road with their own bands as well.
In 1991 Willie married Ann Marie “Annie” D’Angelo. Annie and Willie have been together ever since and have two sons, Lucas Autrey and Jacob Micah who often play with Willie on tour and also have their own bands.
There’s a whole lot more available if you’d like to learn even more about Willie Nelson. He can’t be defined in a single page so be sure and visit some of the other sites about Willie.
One of my favorite sites is StillisStillMoving. It is a great site maintained by Willie superfan Linda Banks. I doubt you will find a better site anywhere for seeing great photos, reading great articles and getting all kinds of insider information about Willie, his family and the band. Don’t miss it!