Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

Synopsis of Pop Music

“On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.
I find love is makin’ music with my friends.
And I can’t wait to get on the road again...”

On the road and not, the only ones who aren’t entirely charmed by Willie Nelson are those stiffs in the IRS—and even they let up after he made good on his debts. He’s just one of those guys that can put a spell on people, from his family to his “Family” (the name of his longtime backing band and crew), to his duet partners and his peers in Hollywood, to all his fans. Even if you’re not a country music fan, this guy, with his wry humor and his ponytail, will still get to you. After all…when a sixty-something artist has sold Bibles and tried his hand at hog farming, butted heads with an old-school c&w establishment and come out the winner, and then sold millions of records just to make sure no one forgot it, how can you not be seduced?

After his dad died and his mom hit the road (and not the touring road), Willie Nelson and sister Bobbie were reared by their music-loving grandparents. Nelson played the guitar, and was writing weepy unrequited-love songs at the tender age of seven. He worked in cotton fields, he played guitar in local German and Czech polka bands as a ten-year-old, and after high school graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force but came right back out again when his bad back pain decided the military wasn’t for him. Then he got married, moved to Fort Worth with Martha, his Cherokee bride, and embarked on a series of odd jobs. And we don’t use the word 'odd' lightly. He sold Bibles and encyclopedias, he played at honky-tonk beer joints on Saturday nights and then woke up and taught Sunday school, he taught guitar and worked as a disc jockey—and through all his vocational stints, he hammered away on his own songs.

With the fifty bucks Nelson made from selling his song “Family Bible” to a local guitar teacher (which later became a country hit for Claude Gray), he headed to Nashville in the early 60’s. No one much cared for the way he sounded, so the demos he recorded didn’t open many doors. But thankfully his songwriting did. Hank Cochran got him a publishing contract at Pamper Music, and Nelson’s “Crazy” became a Patsy Cline hit. It was first of many great songs that he penned for other artists…“Night Life” for Rusty Draper, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson, “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, “Wake Me When It’s Over” for Andy Williams and “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison.

But while he wrote for others, Willie Nelson was also starting to edge his way into his own spotlight. He played bass in a band called the Cherokee Cowboys (an instrument he had to learn overnight after Pamper Music co-founder Ray Price hired him). And he recorded more than 40 tracks for Liberty Records, most of them very string-laden. “Willingly,” a duet with Shirley Collie, who would become his second wife, and “Touch Me” were his first hits.

In 1965, still working overtime to get Nashville love him, Nelson moved to RCA Records and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But RCA wanted him to have a conventional Nashville sound—much more pop and rhinestones than he could stomach. When his hog farming venture didn’t bring home enough bacon and, to make things worse, that home burned down, Nelson ignored the writing on the wall no longer. He moved back to Texas in 1970—to Austin this time—where he could sound however he wanted.

In Austin, Nelson finally found the audience for his rock- and folk-influenced sound that had always eluded him in Nashville, and he began to cultivate what was called an 'outlaw' cowboy image—no rhinestones, no goofy 'yee-haw' stuff. And to the delight of the Texans, he held his first Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs, a day of music and revelry that became an annual tradition.

Nelson released his concept albums Phases and Stages in 1974, and the following year, another concept record called Red Headed Stranger—just him on guitar and sister Bobbie on piano. Both were mature, innovative works, and with his hit remake of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he was on his way to a greatly successful run of albums. He was a part of a hit compilation album called Wanted: The Outlaws with Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter (who, like Nelson, had all been knocked around by good ole’ Nashville).

For the next five years, Nelson was a frequent visitor to pop and country charts, generally concentrating on duets more than songwriting. His Waylon and Willie record, the first of several albums he would make with country legend Waylon Jennings, hatched their classic “Mamma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” He made records with George Jones, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, and released Stardust, a soft, string-backed collection of standards produced by Booker T. Jones.

But outlaws are never afraid of new trails. In 1980, Nelson made his acting debut in The Electric Horseman—he met the film’s star Robert Redford at a party, and was seduced by the actor’s invitation to join him onscreen. The acting bug bit again the following year, when he starred in Honeysuckle Rose, and for that film's soundtrack he wrote the hit “On the Road Again.” With old duet partner Jennings, as well as Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, he formed the Highwaymen, a collaboration which would continue for a couple of records. Nelson duetted with that Spanish outlaw of love, Julio Iglesias, on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” in 1984.

Inspired by the U.K.’s benefit concert 'Band Aid,' Nelson helped organize the first Farm Aid concert in ’85. Appearances by himself, Neil Young and John Mellencamp helped raise money for the country’s struggling farmers and their families, and Nelson has been apart of many Farm Aids since. But the good karma he earned didn’t wash over him just yet. In 1990, the IRS seized Nelson’s monies and real estate holdings because of a calculated $16.7 million dollar debt.

To help get solvent again, Nelson auctioned off lands and properties (some of which were reportedly bought up by farmer friends, who held them for Nelson until he was back on his financial feet). He also released the gallows-humored Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, with all profits going straightaway to those government coffers. In 1993 he was solvent once more, and he celebrated by releasing Across the Borderline, produced by Don Was, and featuring friends both old and new: Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Sinead O’Connor, David Crosby and Kris Kristofferson.

From there on out, Nelson averaged at least an album a year, and never slowed his touring schedule. He acts sporadically (opposite De Niro and Hoffman in Wag the Dog, for instance), does his charity work, enjoys his fourth marriage, strums his more than forty-year-old guitar, and still retains the charm that he peddled those Bibles with, many years ago. Now that's durable stardom.

Artist Release History

1961 – Love & Pain
1962 – And Then I Wrote
1963 – Here’s Willie Nelson
1965 – Country Willie: His Own Songs
1966 – County Favorites Willie Nelson Style
1967 – Make Way For Willie Nelson
1967 – The Party’s Over
1968 – Texas In My Soul
1968 – Good Times
1969 – My Own Peculiar Way
1970 – Both Sides Now
1970 – Laying My Burdens Down
1971 – Yesterday’s Wine
1971 – Willie Nelson & Family
1972 – The Willie Way
1972 – The Words Don’t Fit the Picture
1973 – Shotgun Willie
1974 – Phases and Stages
1975 – Red Headed Stranger
1976 – The Sound in Your Mind
1976 – The Troublemaker
1977 – To Lefty from Willie
1978 – Stardust
1978 – Waylon & Willie
1979 – Sweet Memories
1979 – Sings Kris Kristofferson
1979 – Pretty Paper
1979 – One For the Road
1980 – San Antonio Rose
1980 – Gospel Favorites
1980 – Honeysuckle Rose
1981 – Blue Skies
1981 – The Troublemaker
1981 – Somewhere over the Rainbow
1982 – Poncho & Lefty
1982 – In the Jailhouse Now
1982 – Old Friends
1982 – Always On My Mind
1983 – Without a Song
1983 – Tougher Than Leather
1983 – Take It To the Limit
1984 – City of New Orleans
1984 – Portrait in Music
1984 – Angel Eyes
1984 – City of New Orleans
1985 – Somewhere Over the Rainbow
1985 – Half Nelson
1985 – Me & Paul
1985 – Brand on My Heart
1986 – Partners
1986 – The Promiseland
1987 – Island in the Sea
1987 – Seashores of Old Mexico
1988 – What a Wonderful World
1989 – The Best of Gospel
1989 – Horse Called Music
1990 – Born for Trouble
1992 – Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes
1992 – Pure Willie
1992 – Broken Promises
1993 – Across the Borderline
1994 – The Legend Begins
1994 – Six Hours at Pedernales
1994 – Moonlight Becomes You
1994 – Healing Hands of Time
1994 – Christmas With Willie Nelson
1995 – Pancho, Lefty and Rudolph
1995 – Just One Love
1995 – And Then I Wrote…
1995 - Revolutions of Time, The Journey 1975-1993
1996 – Standard Time
1996 – Spirit
1996 – How Great Thou Art
1997 – I Let My Mind Wander
1997 – Hill Country Christmas
1998 – Teatro
1998 – Nashville Was the Roughest…
1998 – A Step Beyond
1999 – Singer, Songwriter
1999 – Old Friends/Funny How Time Slips Away
1999 – Night & Day
1999 – Backtracks
1999 - The Very Best of Willie
2000 – Me & the Drummer
2000 – Outlaws
2000 – Honky Tonk Heroes
2000 – Milk Cow Blues
2000 – Good Ol’ Country Singin’

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

The Very Best of Willie (Sony)

Band Members

Willie Nelson  vocals, guitar