This week Willie Nelson hosted a virtual concert entitled “At Home With Farm Aid” alongside Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. The annual concert, which typically takes place in September, was founded in 1985 by Nelson, Mellencamp, and Young, in order to raise money for family farms across America. The most recent hour-long iteration of the event came together in the past week as Nelson and his co-founders decided to take action to help provide farmers with relief amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. During the concert, Willie Nelson performed alongside his sons Lukas and Micah, and sang some of his classics: from “On The Road Again,” and “Hands On The Wheel” to the topical “I Thought About You Lord.”
While Willie Nelson has spent most of adult life performing for audiences, at almost eighty-seven years old, he has recently taken some time to rest. During this time he has hosted several at-home concerts and performances, and he has spent time catching up with family. As his son Lucas told NPR, “He's doing incredibly right now. He may be getting the most rest he's gotten in a long time.” When asked about what they’ve been up to at the family ranch in Austin, Lucas shared, "We're just hanging out. We're playing a lot of chess and dominoes.” Indeed, in this time in which we all seem to be at home, including the great Willie Nelson, we thought it would be fitting to revisit the origins of his musical career and some highlights.
With a career spanning seven decades, Nelson has made an indelible print upon the world of folk and country music and carved his own path—with elements of blues, jazz, and Outlaw Country at the center of his work. You’d be hard pressed to find even a casual country listener who hasn’t heard his work with the Highwayman—the quintessential country supergroup consisting of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Nelson—or someone who hasn’t heard “Always On My Mind” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” But long before Willie Nelson changed the face of country music as a solo act and front man for the Highwayman, he was penning hit songs for artists such as Billy Walker, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline. “Crazy,” a song which Nelson played on a demo tape for Dick Cline (Patsy’s husband), went on to be recorded by Cline and would become her biggest hit to date.
For Nelson, songwriting has always been at the core of his musicality. However, Nelson’s career did not spring from nowhere. Nelson, a child of the Great Depression, was brought up by his grandparents in Abbott, Texas. Nelson’s grandfather gave him a guitar at the age of six, and he quickly began learning the instrument and singing. He often played and sang gospel hymns at church, and by the age of seven he had begun composing his own songs. With eclectic influences including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ray Price, and Hank Williams, Nelson continued to pursue performance and songwriting throughout his childhood, joining a band and performing at honky tonks and clubs in Texas throughout his teenage years.
After two year at Baylor University, Nelson dropped out to pursue music and found himself working an odd assortment of jobs to pay the bills and support his passion. But in 1952, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey at KBOP radio in Pleasanton, Texas, a job which would introduce Nelson to recording equipment. Nelson began making cassette tapes and sending his songs to the local label SARG Records, but found no success. From there, Nelson bounced around radio stations before finding his way to KVAN radio in Vancouver, Washington. At KVAN, Nelson became a radio announcer and a recurring face on a local television broadcast. In the midst of this, he continued recording songs and released his debut single, “No Place For Me,” but still found no success.
Nelson continued performing at night clubs in Vancouver, but eventually moved to Missouri, where he sought to gain a spot of the network television show Ozark Jubilee. However, Nelson did not get the job and soon found himself back in Texas, low on funds, and back to odd jobs to make ends meet.
By 1960, Nelson had a wife and young child, and was still struggling to forge a path for himself in music. Once more, Nelson moved: this time to Nashville, where he hoped to find a label that would sign him. However, he failed to find a label that was willing to sign him to their roster. Nonetheless, Nelson took what performance opportunities came his way, and often sang at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (now a Nashville institution) where he was discovered by Hank Cochran. Cochran, a songwriter who penned songs for Patsy Cline, Ray Price, and Eddy Arnold among many others, convinced his label (Pamper Music) to sign Nelson, and Nelson soon began writing songs for other artists. As other musicians began to recognize Nelson’s capabilities, he earned a spot in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys. From there, Nelson was able to make many of the connections he needed to within the industry. In 1961, he signed to Liberty Records and linked up with his future wife, Shirley Collie, for the song “Willingly,” which would become his first song to chart—eventually climbing to #10 on the Billboard Country charts.
In late 1962, Nelson released his debut album, …And Then I Wrote, for Liberty Records, which failed to yield any notable chart success other than “Touch Me,” which peaked at #7.
In 1964, Nelson moved on to a new label, RCA Victor, and began performing at the Grand Ole Opry. For the following years, Nelson experienced some success with songs occasionally breaking into the Billboard Country Top 25, but nothing incredibly substantial. By the early 1970s, a confluence of factors: issues within the music industry, his private life, and a fire at his Ridgetop, Tennessee home, led him to leave Nashville and return to Texas. In a new town, Nelson found inspiration. In Austin, Nelson began to perform his own songs which incorporated his diverse musical influences—elements of jazz, blues, and even folk. Soon enough, Nelson found his way to Atlantic Records where he produced the 1973 album Shotgun Willie. The album did not lead to significant commercial sales, but critics were positive in their judgments, and Nelson now had a clearer sense of identity.
Take for example, “Whiskey River”
Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” the second song on the album, featured bluesy organ and guitar alongside a fantastic bassline—Nelson’s vocals are clear and sincere—and the entire record feels forward thinking for its time. Songs like this helped usher in a new moment for Willie Nelson: one where he could call the shots and define his own sound.
In the following year, Nelson moved to Columbia Records, where he signed a deal that would give him creative liberties and freedoms he had lacked for almost the entirety of his career. Moreover, now that Nelson had found some success, he had the financial stability to commit to his approach wholeheartedly. As a result, Willie Nelson released one of his finest albums, Red Headed Stranger. One of the break-out songs on the album was a cover of Fred Rose’s 1945 “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
The cover of Rose’s song catapulted Nelson to number one on the country charts, for the first time in his career. And while Nelson was finding his footing musically, he starred in the show Austin City Limits, which helped him earn further recognition. Thus, the 1970s marked the first time in Nelson’s career where he found national recognition and success in the country world—albeit outside the confines of country conventions. The new sound Willie Nelson and his friend and frequent collaborator (Waylon Jennings) began to be associated with was known as Outlaw Country, for its elements of rock and folk as well as thoughtful, reflective lyrics. To this day, Nelson and Jennings are considered innovators in the country music sphere, particularly for the work they did to advance the genre in the 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s Nelson found continued chart success with songs such as “Midnight Rider” (a cover of the Allman Brothers original) and “Pancho & Lefty”.
He also released two collaborative albums with Waylon Jennings: WWII in 1982 and Take it to the Limit in 1983. That same decade marked the formation of Willie Nelson’s group, the Highwaymen: a legendary ensemble.
Beyond his success in music over the years, Nelson has dedicated his career and his time to meaningful causes. As we mentioned at the top of the article, Nelson has done fantastic things to help independent farmers across America with his Farm Aid organization and concert series, and he has been involved in climate activism and LGBT rights. In 2004, he helped plan and fund the construction of two Bio-diesel plants: one in Salem, Oregon, and one in Texas. What’s more, he has been an advocate for the Animal Welfare Institute and animal rights organizations that support humane treatment of animals: namely horses and cattle.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Nelson has continued to write music and tour the states. Most recently, he put out the album Last Man Standing, in 2018. Last Man Standing was Nelson’s sixty-seventh solo studio album. He has been prolific. But if there’s anything we can take from Willie Nelson’s remarkable career, it’s that sometimes you must follow your own path, and if you stick to it long enough, it will take you somewhere.
Willie Nelson was, and still is, a pioneer in our musical landscape. To this day, at eighty-six years old, he continues to share his songs and his vision for a better world. With that, I leave you with one final Willie Nelson song: a recent one, but one that seems indicative of his unconquerable spirit. Last Man Standing (2018).
Written by Brennan White