Born Willie Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, TX; son of Ira (a mechanic) and Myrle (a homemaker) Nelson; raised by paternal grandparents; married Martha Matthews, 1952 (divorced, 1962); married Shirley Collie (a singer), 1963 (divorced, 1971); married Connie Koepke, 1971 (divorced, c. 1989); married Anne-Marie D'Angelo (a makeup artist), 1991; children: (first marriage) Lana, Susie, Billy (deceased); (third marriage) Paula Carlene, Amy; (fourth marriage) Lukas, Jacob. Education: Attended Baylor University, c. 1950. Addresses: Record company--Lost Highway Records, website: http://www.losthighwayrecords.com, e-mail: losthighway@hotmail.com. Website--Willie Nelson Official Website: http://www.willienelson.com.

The long and prolific musical career of Willie Nelson---not to mention his personal life---has been like a roller coaster ride, slow moving at the start, then climbing straight to the stars, dipping to a heart-rending low, and finally running straight and true once more. Cheryl McCall wrote in People, "An instant success after 25 years trying, Willie didn't cut a big-selling album until he was 40." Once Nelson's career took off, however, he became "an inadvertent and unassailable national monument." And his output has been prodigious, numbering well over 100 albums. In the early 1990s, though, Nelson had to overcome two crushing events---the suicide of his oldest son, and a multimillion-dollar battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. But, demonstrating an indomitable spirit, he managed to bounce back in 1993 with a new recording that a number of critics called his best in years, if not one of his best ever. "Imagine answering a late-night phone call from a friend who's been in a coma, only to find him lucid, clever, and loving as ever. That's what Across the Borderline feels like," noted Burl Gilyard of Request.

Nelson was born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. The country was mired in the Great Depression, and times were rough for the little farming community. When Nelson was six months old, his mother left to find a job and never returned. Nelson and his older sister, Bobbie, were then raised by their paternal grandparents, who were strict, church-going people. They were also devoted amateur musicians who pushed the children into music and performing, teaching both Nelson and his sister how to play an instrument. Nelson's grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, gave him his first and only training on the guitar. His grandmother taught Bobbie how to play piano. Nelson told Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick of McCall's that his grandparents were "his true, and earliest, inspiration."

Although his grandparents raised him and his sister to be "solid Methodists and obedient kids," Nelson related in Willie: An Autobiography that he strayed from the straight and narrow early on. Drinking and smoking were forbidden, yet, "I can't tell you how many Sundays I would be singing in the choir," he revealed, "and my heart would be sad because I was thinking I was going to fry in hell because I had already drunk beer and smoked."

Nelson worked in the cotton fields after school to help bring in money for the family. By the age of ten, he was an accomplished enough musician, along with his sister, to begin playing at local dances. After his grandfather died, Nelson learned songs listening to the radio. "He'd pick up things just like that," his sister Bobbie told McCall. "His ear is so fantastic, he doesn't even know how good he is." When Nelson was in the sixth grade, he got his first professional job, with the John Raycheck Band, an Abbott polka outfit that played the bohemian clubs in the area. Needless to say, Nelson's grandmother was horrified that he was playing in beer joints. But it was undeniable that he could make much more money there than in the cotton fields.

As a teenager, Nelson and his sister played in a band that her husband, Bud Fletcher, put together. Fletcher was able to land steady bookings for the group, and they would play whatever the club owner wanted, while Nelson honed his craft and broadened his horizons.

Turbulent Early Years

After graduating from high school, Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force. But he received a medical discharge after just nine months because of an earlier back injury. He returned to Abbott and formed a band, and again started playing in local clubs. He attended Baylor University but quickly dropped out. He also fell in love and married Martha Matthews---he was 18 years old; she was 16. From the start, they struggled to make ends meet and soon began fighting regularly. "She was a full-blooded Cherokee," Nelson told People, "and every night with us was like Custer's last stand. We'd live in one place a month, then pack up and move when the rent would come due." Nelson was making as little as 50 cents a night with his band.

The honky tonks and beer joints that were Nelson's second home were rough, rowdy places where the band had to be shielded from flying bottles by chicken-wire fences. In 1953 Nelson and his wife moved to San Antonio, Texas, and he landed a job as a disc jockey. He also continued to play his music at clubs in the evenings. He and Martha went back to Abbott for the birth of their first child, Lana, and then moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Nelson got another disc jockey job.

The family next moved West, and eventually Nelson got a job as a disc jockey in Vancouver, Canada. In 1957, his second child, Susie, was born. Also in 1957, Nelson recorded his first single, "No Place for Me." He produced the record himself and promoted and sold it over the radio. With two children and his wife pregnant with a third, Nelson decided to try a regular job. Moving back to Fort Worth, he sold encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners. But he soon went back to performing in clubs. He taught Sunday school for a while, but when the congregation complained about him playing in beer joints, he quit.

Sold First Song for $50

Nelson's third child, Billy, was born in 1958. The family moved to Houston, Texas, and Nelson was invited to join Larry Butler's band. He played with the band six nights a week and had a disc jockey job on Sundays. Since the mid-1950s Nelson had been writing songs, and he now tried to sell some in order to help support his family. He sold his first, "Family Bible," for $50 to pay for food and rent. It eventually became a number one country hit. He then sold another song, "Night Life," for $150. "Night Life" went on to become one of the most-recorded songs ever. Performed by more than 70 artists, it has sold more than 30 million records, though Nelson never made a dime from the royalties. Nelson then moved to Nashville to take his shot at the big time.

In Nashville, musician and songwriter Hank Cochran helped Nelson get a job as a songwriter with Pamper Music. By 1961 several of Nelson's songs had been recorded by country performers and had become hits. "Hello Walls" was released by Faron Young; "Crazy" was recorded by Patsy Cline (and became a classic); and Billy Walker did "Funny How Time Slips Away." Besides becoming country hits, "Hello Walls" and "Crazy" also made the pop top 40.

Nelson next joined Ray Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys, as a bass player. Although he was now collecting royalty checks for his songwriting, plus a salary from the band, Nelson spent his money as fast as he made it. His already stormy marriage deteriorated. He began recording his own songs but did not meet with much success. Nelson then got together with singer Shirley Collie and recorded a couple of songs, "Willingly" and "Touch Me," that became top ten hits. Nelson started dating Collie, and when his wife found out, she packed up the kids and left for Las Vegas to get a divorce. Nelson formed a small band with Collie and went on the road. In 1963 Collie filed for divorce from her husband, and she and Nelson married. The couple bought a farm near Nashville, and Nelson's children moved back in with him. Collie then became a housewife, while Nelson went on the road alone. She accepted this arrangement at first, but after a while became restless and resentful.

Throughout the 1960s, Nelson's own recordings sold few copies. He had an unusual voice that sounded high and quavering, and he favored uncommon phrasing. His music did not fit the traditional Nashville mold, so it was considered non-commercial, and his records were not adequately promoted. He was signed by Nashville record companies primarily for his songwriting talents. "They grudgingly allowed me to sing as long as they could cover up my voice with horns and strings," he stated in his autobiography.

By 1968 Nelson's second marriage was foundering. Shirley Collie discovered that Nelson had fathered a child by a woman named Connie Koepke, and she and Nelson split up, while Koepke and the child moved in.

The night before Christmas Eve in 1969, Nelson was at a party when he was told that his house had burned to the ground. When he arrived at the scene of the fire, he rushed into the smoking remains to grab a guitar case containing two pounds of marijuana, afraid that the authorities would find it. Nelson has long used marijuana, and considers it a calming medicinal herb, instrumental in containing his tremendous energy. "Most people smoke to get high," a friend remarked to McCall, "Willie smokes to get normal." But Nelson prohibits his bandmembers from using any other drugs, particularly cocaine. "If you're wired," he has said, "you're fired."

Life Among the Outlaws

With his home devastated and his Nashville recording career going nowhere, Nelson decided to move the family to Texas. He settled in Austin, which was becoming the home of the "outlaws"---country singers like himself who could never quite fit in, back in Nashville. These included Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Nelson started touring the area's dance halls and county fairs, and developed a growing following. In the early 1970s he began sporting the distinctive look he wears to this day: long hair---often fashioned in two braids---and beard, bandanna headband, jeans, and running shoes.

In April of 1971, Connie Koepke became Nelson's third wife. Around this time, Nelson signed a contract with Atlantic Records that allowed him to use his own band to record. Previously he had been forced to use studio musicians, and had objected to this approach, since he felt that by working with him for just a few hours, the studio musicians could not get a true feel for his particular style of music.

In 1973 Nelson released the album Shotgun Willie, and it outsold all his previous albums combined. Also in 1973, Nelson was inducted into Nashville's Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his first Fourth of July picnic---a rock-style country festival---attracted a crowd of 50,000, including rock and rollers as well as country fans.

Atlantic dropped its country division in 1974 and Nelson signed with Columbia Records, where he finally enjoyed complete creative control over his recordings. In 1975 he released the album Red Headed Stranger, which became a major hit. The LP rose to number one on the country charts and cracked the top 40 of the pop charts. A single from Stranger, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," became a top ten hit, and won Nelson his first Grammy Award.

By 1976 Nelson was selling records like crazy. Seven of his albums appeared on the Billboard charts that year. Gold and platinum records were rolling in. In 1978 Nelson tried a new direction, releasing an album of pop standards called Stardust. It included such songs as the title track, by Hoagy Carmichael, and "Blue Skies," by Irving Berlin, both remade in Nelson's unique style. The album became a country and pop hit. David Gates of Newsweek noted, "The archetypal country outlaw reinvented himself as a singer beyond categories; Stardust has sold more than 4 million copies."

As Stardust demonstrated, even when Nelson sang other people's songs, he truly made them his own. "Everything he does, he reinterprets," wrote Frank McConnell of Commonweal, adding that Nelson's versions of pop classics are "a reclamation and rediscovery of songs we thought we had already heard too often." Request's Gilyard concurred, maintaining that "Nelson's truest gift is his instinctive genius for interpretation.... Singing ballads as effortlessly as he exhales, Nelson can even infuse pure corn ... with genuine feeling."

In 1979 Nelson ventured into acting, taking a supporting role in the film Electric Horseman, which starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He then co-starred in the 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose, which was based loosely on his life. Other films followed, including Barbarosa in 1982, and television movies such as 1986's Stagecoach.

A song Nelson wrote for Honeysuckle Rose, "On the Road Again," reached number one on the country charts and became a top 20 pop hit; it also became the singer's unofficial theme song. Nelson continued to release successful singles and albums over the course of the 1980s, and toured extensively throughout the United States and abroad, regularly spending as many as 250 days a year on the road.

Organized Farm Aid Benefits

In 1985 Nelson organized the first Farm Aid benefit concert. He had witnessed the plight of the nation's farmers, and wanted to do something to assist them. "A farmer told me there had been four suicides in the neighborhood, and I could feel how on edge he was. Another said that he'd lost his farm, and his wife had left him, and he couldn't find any other work," Nelson told Ellen Hawkes of the Ladies' Home Journal. "Well, I know what it's like to feel down, and once I realized how bad the farm crisis was, I had to help." Farm Aid has become a yearly event, featuring a variety of musical performers and earning millions of dollars for farm groups.

By the end of the decade, Nelson's marriage to third wife Connie was breaking up. He next took up with Anne-Marie D'Angelo, a makeup artist he had met while filming one of his movies, and they had two children. They married in 1991. Discussing his marriages, Nelson told Redbook, "It's not easy being married to a man like me. It's asking a lot to let your husband run around the world, flirting with pretty girls who flirt back. That's a hard one. It's pretty obvious that entertainers marry and remarry. ... more than anyone else. I think it's because they're away from home so much and the temptations are so great."

The year 1991 began and ended with two shattering personal crises. At the end of 1990, the I.R.S. seized Nelson's properties and possessions to settle a tax debt totaled at $32 million after the agency had disallowed various tax shelters. The figure was later reduced to $16.7 million, but in January of 1991, the I.R.S. held what Newsweek's Gates termed a "humiliating" auction of all of Nelson's possessions. Friends and supporters stepped in and tendered bids, purchasing his property and allowing him to remain on the premises until he could buy it back. One friend bought his home, another his Pedernales Country Club and Recording Studio.

Nelson sold an album that year through an 800 number---Who'll Buy My Memories: The I.R.S. Tapes---to help pay off the seemingly insurmountable debt, and also toured heavily. Then, on Christmas Day of 1991 Nelson's son Billy was found dead, a suicide by hanging. People reported that Billy had suffered alcohol problems and "a history of despondency." He lived mostly off an allowance from his father. "I've never experienced anything so devastating in my life," Nelson admitted to a friend. Reflecting further on his troubles, he told Alanna Nash of TV Guide, "I think everything we go through is a test. I don't think we're ever asked to endure anything that we can't endure." Nelson put his faith in the power of positive thinking. "I guess I'm just living in the present," he said to Nash. "So far, more good things have come along, and the more I think that way, the more positive things happen. That's how I keep it together."

"The Best of American Music"

Eventually, Nelson's I.R.S. debt was negotiated down to $9 million. By 1993 he had paid off about half, and had agreed to a schedule to pay off the rest. That year he released a daring new album, Across the Borderline, which was widely praised by critics. Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone reported that the record, produced by pop producer Don Was, "seasons the singer's own brand of austere, hard-chugging country swing with echoes of everything from English art rock to Paul Simon's South African-flavored folk rock." Jay Cocks of Time referred to Nelson's album as a "singular achievement," and remarked that the album "will fix him for good right where he belongs, among the best of American music." Duets with pop stars Sinead O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan, as well as songs by Dylan, Paul Simon, and Lyle Lovett ensured the record's success with country and pop fans.

That year Nelson also turned 60, an age he never expected to see as a performer. He told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press that he originally saw himself retiring at 50 and getting a job as a disc jockey at "some small country station somewhere. Then I'd really enjoy life---ride my horses and play golf."

Having released close to 200 albums of both new and compiled material during his career, Nelson's first new material in five years came via the 1996 Island release Spirit. The album contained echoes of some of Nelson's finest material from the early 1970s. Nelson's 1996 gospel album How Great Thou Art also preceded the Grammy-nominated Teatro. Released in September of 1998 and produced by Daniel Lanois, Teatro was recorded in an old movie theater in Mexico with the help of singer Emmylou Harris, who appeared on 11 of the 14 tracks. All Music Guide called Teatro "Striking, beautiful and affecting. Teatro is a sonic film that displays its moving images in the minds and hearts of its listeners."

Nelson had always dabbled in various musical genres, and 1999's all-instrumental record Night And Day was no exception. Channeling gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, Nelson's guitar playing was center stage. On 2000's Me and the Drummer, Nelson included an interactive CD containing interviews with various country musicians. All Music Guide's Michael Smith saw Me and the Drummer as a return to some of Nelson's greatest work. "The songs ... are a flashback to a simpler time, reminiscent of the Western-flavored tunes featured on his Red Headed Stranger and Tougher Than Leather releases."

A few months later, Nelson released his first blues record, Milk Cow Blues. Loaded with superstar duets, the album covered a number of classic Nelson songs. For 2002's The Great Divide, which earned Nelson a Grammy nomination, the country icon once again focused on duets. This time around, he stuck with mostly contemporary artists, including Sheryl Crow, Rob Thomas, Brian McKnight, and rapper Kid Rock. "Nelson's sound is so deep, so sad yet unapologetic, that he can make a lyric about the summer sun seem as dark and cold as meditation on the Arctic," wrote Pat Blashill in Rolling Stone.

Twenty-three years after Nelson recorded San Antonio Rose with Ray Price, the pair teamed up again for 2003's Run That By Me One More Time, a honky tonk record recorded in Texas. In October of 2004 Nelson released It Always Will Be on Lost Highway, which Rolling Stone called "Nelson's strongest album since 1996's Spirit." The humble and low-key album was rounded off by duets with Toby Keith, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Nelson's own daughter Paula (on a track she wrote, titled "Be That As It May").

In 2005 Nelson got back into the movie business, starring as Uncle Jesse in the big-screen remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. He also made headlines with a company he co-founded, called Willie Nelson's Biodiesel, which was set up to market BioWillie, a truck fuel made from vegetable oils, at truck stops across the United States.

by Greg Mazurkiewicz and Shannon McCarthy

Willie Nelson's Career

Taught to play guitar by grandfather; joined John Raycheck polka band, c. 1945; worked as disc jockey, San Antonio, TX (1953), and in Fort Worth, TX, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; recorded first single, "No Place for Me," 1957; worked as encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salesman, taught Sunday School, and performed in local clubs, Ft. Worth; joined Larry Butler band, Houston, TX, 1958; sold first song, "Family Bible," c. 1958; worked as songwriter for Pamper Music, Nashville, TN, beginning c. 1960; played bass with Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys; recorded and performed with Shirley Collie; performed at dance halls and county fairs, Austin, TX; signed with Atlantic Records, c. 1971, and released Shotgun Willie, 1973; signed with Columbia Records, 1974, released Red Headed Stranger, 1975; recorded and toured extensively, 1980s; organized first Farm Aid benefit, 1985; actor, beginning in 1979; author (with Bud Shrake) of Willie: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1988. Military service: U.S. Air Force, c. 1950.

Willie Nelson's Awards

Numerous Country Music Association and Grammy Awards, including CMA entertainer of the year, 1979, and Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1989; inducted into Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, 1973; named top album artist of 1976 by Billboard; inducted into Country Music Association Hall of Fame, 1993.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

October 30, 2005: Nelson hosted a benefit in support of Kinky Friedman's independent candidacy for governor of Texas. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2005-10-31-nelson-fundraiser_x.htm, November 1, 2005.

February 8, 2006: Nelson launched BioWillie, a signature brand of clean-burning fuel made from soybeans. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, February 9, 2006.

May 9, 2006: Nelson's book The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart, written with Turk Pipkin, was published by Gotham. Source: Amazon, www.amazon.com, May 23, 2006.

July 2006: Nelson bought and preserved the Abbot Methodist Church in his hometown of Abbott, Texas. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-07-04-nelson_x.htm, July 6, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

We all encounter times in our lives of booms and busts. Willie is a man that has not let the low times in his life destroy him. A very talented man, that has contributed so much to contemporary American culture. He and his music has transcended, age, demographics, culture, regions and sounds. He is what America is. Bravo, Willie! Keep up the good work.

over 9 years ago

Your websight has given us a lot of information and help.We used your websight to help to help us on a music project.We thank you very much for the websight. That is all for now, from Your loving 5th grade students at Cedar Creek Intermediate.

over 9 years ago

Your websight has given us a lot of information and help.We used your websight to help to help us on a music project.We thank you very much for the websight. That is all for now, from Your loving 5th grade students at Cedar Creek Intermediate.