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Willie Nelson

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Willie Nelson - Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images for Shock Ink
Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images for Shock Ink

American country singer, guitarist and songwriter Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 29, 1933 in Abbott, Texas. His birthday was incorrectly recorded by Dr. F. D. Sims as April 30.

He was named Willie by his cousin Mildred, who also chose Hugh as his middle name, in honour of her recently deceased younger brother. Nelson traces his genealogy to the American Revolutionary War, in which his ancestor John Nelson served as a major.

His mother left soon after he was born and his father remarried and also moved away, leaving Nelson and his sister Bobbie to be raised by their grandparents, who taught singing in Arkansas and started their grandchildren in music.

Nelson’s grandfather bought him a guitar when he was six, and taught him a few chords and Nelson sang gospel songs in the local church alongside Bobbie. He wrote his first song at age seven and when he was nine, he played guitar for local band Bohemian Polka.

After leaving school in 1950, he joined the US Air Force; he served for nine months before being medically discharged because of issues with his back.

From 1954 to 1956 he studied agriculture at Baylor University, where he joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, until dropping out to pursue a career in music. During this time he worked as a nightclub bouncer, autohouse partsman, saddle maker, and tree trimmer.

Nelson moved with his family to Pleasanton, Texas, where he auditioned for a job as a DJ at KBOP. The owner of the station, Dr. Ben Parker, gave Nelson the job despite his lack of experience working on radio. With the equipment of the station, Nelson made his first two recordings in 1955: ‘The Storm Has Just Begun’ and ‘When I’ve Sung My Last Hillbilly Song’.

Nelson was hired by KVAN in Vancouver, Washington, and 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.

Nelson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960. During this period he often spent time at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a bar near the Grand Ole Opry. There Nelson met Hank Cochran, a songwriter who worked for the publishing company Pamper Music, owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith. Cochran heard Nelson during a jam session. Cochran had just earned a raise of $50 a week, but convinced Smith to pay Nelson the money instead to sign him to Pamper Music.

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. Nelson and Cochran also met Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick at Tootsie’s. Dick liked a song of Nelson’s he heard on the bar’s jukebox. Nelson played him a demo tape of ‘Crazy’. Later that night Dick played the tape for Cline, who decided to record it. ‘Crazy’ became the biggest jukebox hit of all time.

By the fall of 1964, Nelson had moved to RCA Victor at the behest of Chet Atkins, signing a contract for $10,000 per year. Country Willie – His Own Songs became Nelson’s first RCA Victor album, recorded in April 1965. That same year he joined the Grand Ole Opry and he met and became friends with Waylon Jennings.

Nelson later moved to Columbia Records, where he signed a contract that gave him complete creative control, 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.

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’. 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’.

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 album Red Headed Stranger.

In 1990, the IRS seized most of Nelson’s assets, claiming that he owed $32 million. In addition to the unpaid taxes, Nelson’s situation was worsened by the weak investments he had made during the early 1980s. 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 named his guitar after Roy Rogers’ horse “Trigger”. The Martin N-20 classical guitar has a large sweeping hole from constant strumming with a guitar pick over the decades. 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.

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.

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, promoting marijuana legalization.

Nelson has been married four times and has eight children.

Nelson temporarily stopped smoking cigarettes when his lungs became congested. He was then smoking between two and three packs per day. After suffering from pneumonia several times, he decided to quit either marijuana or tobacco. He chose to quit tobacco. Nelson has been arrested several times for marijuana possession.

Following the U.S. coronavirus pandemic lockdowns that began in March 2020, Nelson live-streamed a series of benefit concerts. The first two raised $700,000 for people who had suffered financial loss due to effects on the US economy.

Since his professional debut in 1962. Nelson’s discography includes 100 studio albums (consisting of 75 solo studio albums and 26 collaborative studio albums), 14 live albums and 51 compilation albums.

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 labour in Farm Aid and other fundraisers to benefit farmers. In 2015 Nelson won the Gershwin Prize, the lifetime award of the Library of Congress.

Important Dates In The Life Of Willie Nelson:

On this day in music
29 Apr 2023
Willie Nelson celebrated his 90th birthday with the first of two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Guest performers included Norah Jones, The Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, George Strait, Sheryl Crow, and Snoop Dogg, who joined Nelson on their duet 'Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.'
14 Jan 2022
American country musician and songwriter Dallas Frazier died aged 82. Frazier's 1957 song 'Alley Oop', taken to No. 1 in the US by The Hollywood Argyles, became his first hit, (The lyric from 'Alley Oop' "look at that caveman go" is referenced in David Bowie's 'Life on Mars'). He wrote 'There Goes My Everything', a big hit for Jack Greene in 1966 that earned him a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Country Song. His tunes were recorded by George Jones (who recorded an entire album of Frazier's songs in 1968), Diana Ross, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley.
13 Aug 2021
US singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith died at the age of 68. In 1994 she won a Grammy Award for the album Other Voices, Other Rooms as well as recording duets with many artists, among them Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Don McLean, Jimmy Buffett, Adam Duritz (singer of Counting Crows), Darius Rucker (lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish) and Willie Nelson.
10 Jul 2021
American fiddle player Byron Berline died at the age of 77 of complications of a stroke. He joined The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1971, worked with Stephen Stills's band Manassas and played on ‘Country Honk’ on the Rolling Stones' album Let It Bleed. He also worked with many other artists including: Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Byrds, Janis Ian, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Rod Stewart, The Eagles and The Band.
20 May 2021
American drummer Roger Hawkins died age 75. He was best known for playing as part of the studio band known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. His drumming can be heard on dozens of hit singles, including tracks by Percy Sledge (‘When a Man Loves a Woman’), Aretha Franklin (‘Respect’), Wilson Pickett (‘Mustang Sally’. Hawkins also worked with Duane Allman, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Bonnie Bramlett, Boz Scaggs, Albert King, Traffic, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson.
20 Apr 2020
Stuck at home in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, Willie Nelsonstaged the "Come And Toke It" live stream (in reference to 420 day, "the unofficial weed holiday"), to support efforts to legalize marijuana and free those incarcerated for it. Other guests included Ziggy Marley, Kacey Musgraves, Billy Ray Cyrus and Toby Keith.
11 Feb 2020
American drummer Paul English died after a bout of pneumonia age 87. He was Willie Nelson's long-time drummer and was the titular "Paul" of the Willie Nelson album Me and Paul as well as the title track of that album. English also had a role in Nelson's movie Red Headed Stranger (1986).
1 Mar 2019
Country Music Hall of Fame member Fred Foster died age 87. He is credited as producer behind all of Roy Orbison’s biggest hits including ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, ‘Only the Lonely’, and ‘Crying’ and also produced major hits for Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Ray Stevens and Kris Kristofferson.
31 Jan 2019
Harold Bradley the American country and pop guitarist died age 93. As a session musician into the 1970s, he performed on hundreds of albums by country stars such as Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and Slim Whitman. Bradley, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, is believed to be one of the most recorded instrumentalists in history.
11 Jan 2017
Rockabilly guitarist Tommy Allsup, who narrowly avoided boarding the plane that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, died aged 85. The musician famously lost a coin toss for a seat on the plane. His place was taken by teen star Ritchie Valens, who also perished when the plane crashed. Allsup went on to become a Grammy-winning musician, who played with Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson.
20 Jul 2015
American country musician, songwriter and record producer Wayne Carson died at the age of 72 after suffering congestive heart failure. He co-wrote Always On My Mind, (a hit for Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and others), 'The Letter', (recorded by The Box Tops, Joe Cocker and Leon Russell), and 'Soul Deep'.
19 Jun 2015
Blues musician Wendell Holmes died aged 71. He released 12 albums as part of The Holmes Brothers, a family band that included his siblings Sherman and Willie. During their career, the brothers played with many artists including Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Rosanne Cash, Levon Helm and Willie Nelson.
27 Mar 2015
Country singer Willie Nelson announced that he and his family were hard at work on a new brand of marijuana called Willie's Reserve. Stores of that same name were being planned and were to include his signature brand and other strains that would be grown to meet quality standards.
23 Apr 2012
American country rock bass guitarist Chris Ethridge died age 65 from pancreatic cancer. He was a member of the International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Ethridge also worked with Nancy Sinatra, Leon Russell, Delaney Bramlett, Johnny Winter, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, Jackson Browne, and Willie Nelson.
22 Feb 2012
American singer, songwriter, guitarist Billy Strange died aged 81. As a session musician with the famed Wrecking Crew, he appeared on hit songs for Elvis Presley, including 'A Little Less Conversation', Nancy and Frank Sinatra's 'Somethin' Stupid', played guitar on numerous Beach Boys hits, including 'Sloop John B' and the Pet Sounds album and worked with The Ventures, Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Randy Newman, and Nat King Cole, among others.
26 Nov 2010
Willie Nelson was arrested for possession of six ounces of marijuana found in his tour bus while travelling from Los Angeles to Texas. He was released after paying bail of $2,500. Prosecutor Kit Bramblett supported not sentencing Nelson to jail due to the amount of marijuana being small, but suggested instead a $100 fine and told Nelson that he would have him sing 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain' for the court.
23 Jul 2009
On the afternoon of tonight's concert at First Energy Park, Lakewood, New Jersey, Bob Dylan was picked up by a young policewoman who had been alerted of a man who was 'acting suspiciously'. The police officer drove up to Dylan, who was wearing a blue jacket, and asked him his name, but she did not recognise him. When he was unable to produce any identification, Dylan was driven to his hotel where staff were able to vouch for him. The incident happened when Dylan decided to go for a walk in the afternoon while on tour with Willie Nelson who were due to perform at the local baseball stadium with John Mellencamp.
4 Oct 2008
Darius Rucker former singer with Hootie & the Blowfish went to No.1 on the US Country chart with his first country single, 'Don't Think I Don't Think About It,' making him the first African American singer to top the chart since 1985, when Ray Charles hit the top with 'Seven Spanish Angels,' a duet with Willie Nelson.
18 Sep 2006
73 year old country singer Willie Nelson and four members from his band were charged with drug possession after marijuana and magic mushrooms were found by police on his tour bus. Police had stopped the tour bus near Lafayette, Louisiana.
27 Oct 2002
American record producer Tom Dowd died of emphysema. He recorded albums by many artists including: Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Derek and the Dominos, Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Lulu, Chicago, The Allman Brothers Band, The J. Geils Band, Meat Loaf, Sonny & Cher, The Rascals, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Kenny Loggins, Dusty Springfield, The Drifters and Otis Redding.
13 Feb 2002
American country singer, songwriter Waylon Jennings died in his sleep after a lengthy fight with diabetes. He was the bassist for Buddy Holly following the break-up of The Crickets. Released a series of duet albums with Willie Nelson in the late 1970s. Scored the 1980 US No.21 single 'Theme From The Dukes Of Hazzard', he was also the narrator of the television series. Member of The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
3 Aug 1999
Country Music singer Patsy Cline received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Prior to her death at the age of 30 in a private plane crash, she was at the height of her career. She is considered to be one of the most influential, successful, and acclaimed female vocalists of the 20th century. Some of the more notable hits she had during her lifetime began in 1957 with Donn Hecht's 'Walkin' After Midnight' Harlan Howard's 'I Fall to Pieces', Hank Cochran's 'She's Got You', Willie Nelson's 'Crazy', and ended in 1963 with Don Gibson's 'Sweet Dreams'.
25 Mar 1999
73-year-old Country music singer Ray Price was arrested in his Texas home for possession of marijuana. He was fined $200 after pleading no contest to the charges. According to Price in a 2008 interview, old friend Willie Nelson - no stranger to marijuana arrests - phoned and told him he'd just earned $5 million in free publicity with the drug bust.
16 Dec 1997
American singer songwriter Nicolette Larson died aged 45 of complications arising from cerebral edema. Worked with Neil Young, (Comes a Time and Harvest Moon albums), Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, The Beach Boys and The Doobie Brothers. Best known for her 1978 cover of Neil Young ‘Lotta Love’.
1 Jan 1997
American singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt died age 52. His music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song 'Pancho and Lefty', scoring a No.1 hit on the Billboard country music charts.
26 May 1995
The Rolling Stones played two semi-acoustic concerts at the Paradiso Amsterdam over two days. Keith Richards later said that the Paradiso concerts were the best live shows the Stones ever did. The venue is housed in a converted former church building that dates from the nineteenth century, subsequently squatted in 1967 by hippies who wanted to convert the church into an entertainment club. Artists who have recorded concerts at the Paradiso include Joy Division, Willie Nelson, Phish, Nirvana, The Cure, Lenny Kravitz, Nick Cave, Dave Matthews and Amy Winehouse.
2 Feb 1993
Willie Nelson agreed to pay $9 million of the $16.7 million he owed the Internal Revenue Service. His accountants, Price Waterhouse, had not been paying Nelson's taxes for years and in addition to the unpaid taxes, Nelson's situation was worsened by the weak investments he had made during the early 1980s.
9 Nov 1990
The internal revenue seized all of US country singers Willie Nelson's bank accounts and real estate holdings in connection with a $ 16 million tax debt. His lawyers convinced the IRS to accept a $6 million cash payment to settle the entire debt, but even this was more than Nelson was able to pay, despite being the most bankable country music star of the day.
4 Jul 1986
The second Farm Aid benefit concert took place at Manor Downs Racetrack, Manor, Texas. Held to raise money for family farmers in the US, the concerts were organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Artists who appeared included: Alabama, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Emmylou Harris, Jason & the Scorchers, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Vince Neil and Willie Nelson.
22 Sep 1985
The first Farm Aid benefit concert was held before a crowd of 80,000 people at the Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, the event had been spurred on by Bob Dylan's comments at Live Aid earlier in that year that he hoped some of the money would help American farmers. The star studded line-up of country stars included: Alabama, Hoyt Axton, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels Band, John Denver, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Rogers.
28 May 1983
The four day US Festival '83' took place in California, featuring The Clash, U2, David Bowie, The Pretenders, Van Halen, Stray Cats, Men At Work, Judas Priest, Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson. INXS, Joe Walsh, Motley Crue and Ozzy Osbourne. Over 750,000 fans attended the festival.
18 Jul 1982
Willie Nelson was at No.1 on the country album chart with Always On My Mind, which became the Billboard No.1 country album of the year. The album spent 22 weeks at the top of the charts and stayed for a total of 253 weeks on the Billboard Country charts. The track 'Always on My Mind' was originally recorded by B.J. Thomas in 1970, and has since been recorded by dozens of performers including Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, John Wesley Ryles and Pet Shop Boys.
16 Oct 1961
Decca records released 'Crazy' by Patsy Cline. The ballad, composed by Willie Nelson gave Cline a No.2 country hit in 1962. Nelson originally wrote the song for country singer Billy Walker, but Walker turned it down. The song's eventual success helped launch Nelson as a performer as well as a songwriter. It spent 21 weeks on the chart for Cline and eventually became one of her signature tunes.
21 Aug 1961
Patsy Cline recorded the classic Willie Nelson, ‘Crazy’. Cline was still on crutches after going through a car windshield in a head-on collision two months earlier and had difficulty reaching the high notes of the song at first due to her broken ribs. 'Crazy' spent 21 weeks on the chart and eventually became one of her signature tunes.
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