Willie Nelson Biography

Willie Nelson

Profile of the iconic American troubadour, whose career as a muscian, actor and political activist has spanned five decades and has seen him collaborating with many of music's greats.

'Outlaw' country music star, songwriter, actor, author and philanthropist, there is little left for Willie Nelson to accomplish during his life-time. With an apparently open and affable character Nelson has always been, nevertheless, a somewhat guarded man. In interviews his natural manner glosses over much information and he reveals only as much, or rather as little, as he feels like. It has been suggested that this stems from his poor Texan childhood.

Born 30 April 1933 in Abbott, Texas, then abandoned by his mother at only six months old, he and his older sister Bobbie were raised by their paternal grandparents. Despite the poverty which the family underwent during the Great Depression, Nelson and Bobbie were never deprived of music. They grew-up with Gospel, Country and of course Frank Sinatra.

Nelson began scribbling poetry at the age of five and when he received his first guitar, aged six, he began to put his lyrics to music. Both he and Bobbie benefited from the knowledge of their musical grandparents. Sadly, when Nelson was still very young, his grandfather died, leaving a gaping hole in his life. Nelson used his talent and song-writing ability to translate his grief into music. It was this honesty and simplicity that would become an unwavering part of his style and character over the years, earning him devoted fans from all walks of life.

By the age of 10 Nelson was playing his first gigs with a local polka band. Then when his sister married at the age of 16 both Nelson and Bobbie joined her husband Bud Fletcher's band. Playing local dances and even on the radio Nelson stood out from the rest of the band. So much so that by the time he was 14 he had his own fan-club.

After graduating from high school and a short stint in the Air Force, Nelson found himself married with three kids before he reached 25. Broke and with a family to support Nelson took to the road to try and find jobs. Working at radio stations and performing in local clubs the family struggled to pay the rent, often having to up and leave in the middle of the night to avoid the landlords.

It was during these difficult years that Nelson sold his first song to keep his family afloat. 'Family Bible', now a country classic, was sold for the sum of $50. With one hit under his belt Nelson was convinced he could write more. Two of his most famous songs, 'Crazy' and 'Nightlife' were written at the wheel of his car driving to and from gigs in Houston, Texas.

While working in a radio station in Vancouver, Washington, Nelson often performed on air. It was here that he met song-writer and promoter Mae Axton. She advised him to take his songs back with him to Texas or Tennessee and play amongst his peers.

Nelson headed for Nashville where he found a music scene that was not quite ready for him. Ahead of his time, Nelson did not conform to the local 'Nashville Sound' and finding gigs became difficult. With little success as a performer Nelson continued to write songs eventually finding himself as a popular regular at Tootsie's, the hangout of the local songwriters.

As the writer of 'Family Bible' he gained the respect and attention of his peers and it earned him a job as a staff writer for Pamper Music. In 1962 Nelson's big break came in the form of country music legend, Patsy Cline. Her version of 'Crazy' became one of the biggest songs she ever recorded, cementing Nelson's reputation as one of the greatest Nashville songwriters of all time.

Throughout the '60's Nelson continued to write and even had some success as a performer. His unique style, however, was too progressive for the Nashville scene. But, in 1971, everything changed. When his house tragically burned down in Nashville, Nelson took the initiative to move back to Texas with his band and his family.

On his way to visit his sister in Austin, Nelson stumbled upon a bar called The Armadillo World Headquarters. Known more as a Hippie hang-out no one ever presumed it would be here that Nelson would find an audience for his eclectic style and start a musical revolution.

Spreading outwards from Austin in Texas, a new cultural and musical movement began. Nelson, with his close friend and fellow musician Waylon Jennings, became known as the 'Outlaws' of country music. Nelson brought together musicians from across the board in his first 4 July picnic in 1973, taking his inspiration from Woodstock. The festival found Rock & Roll, Folk, Country and Soul stars all performing together at an event that still continues today.

With three iconic albums in the 70's Nelson became an international star as well as a local Southern hero. After 'Shotgun Willie' (1973) and 'Phases and Stages' (1974) came one of Nelson's most important albums of all time, 'Red Headed Stranger' (1975). When he signed with Columbia Records Nelson was given artistic control over his music, a feat almost unheard of in those days.

This resulted in a concept album, with which he intended to tell the story of his own journey so far. The song 'Red-Headed Stranger' (1945) had been an old hit for Fred Rose, and Nelson had used it as part of a children's radio hour back in his days on the road. From there he put together the album and handed over a completed version to the record company. The rough-cut, sparse acoustical album sounded more like a demo than the final product. But with the final artistic decision in his hands Nelson was determined to release it in this form. The album, simplistic and honest, was a huge success putting Nelson and country music into the mainstream view.

In 1978, Nelson released the album 'Stardust' (1978). Up to this point his albums had consisted mainly of his own songs. "Honestly I did most of my own songs until I started running out and then I did the 'Stardust' album". Compiled of both top ten country hits and pop hits it was a project that Nelson had had in mind for some time. But it wasn't until he was living in LA that he found the perfect producer in Booker T Jones, who happened to be living in the apartment below him at the time. The album was a hit and brought Nelson's voice to a pop audience.

Now a superstar song-writer and performer, Nelson needed a fresh challenge and so he turned his talent to the movies. His first part was a small role in the Sydney Pollack film 'The Electric Horseman' (1979) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. His laid-back and mischievous humour and his knack for improvisation kept the film crew laughing throughout his scenes.

After getting a taste of how movies were made, Nelson was hooked and went on to act in a number of movies over the following decades. His first starring role was in the film 'Honeysuckle Rose' (1980) based on his life as a musician. At the request of the producer, Sydney Pollack, Nelson wrote one of his most famous songs for the movie 'On the Road Again' (1980). The song would go on to play its own part in several subsequent films, most famously in 'Forrest Gump' (1994).

Along with fellow country legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristoffesson Nelson formed the super-group, The Highwaymen. As a band they topped the charts with the song 'Highwayman' (1985) and the album of the same title went platinum. Modest, and all with a fantastic sense of humour, the band performed together for the next ten years releasing two more albums.

In that same year Nelson became aware of an issue close to his heart and his roots, that of the plight of the American farmers. Inspired by Bob Geldof's epic charity concert Live Aid, Nelson decided to do something similar closer to home. The first Farm Aid concert took place on 22 September 1985 at Champaign, Illinois. In the run up to the event Nelson took the opportunity to visit some of the family farmers he was trying to help.

Listening to and empathising with all their personal stories, he earned not only their unwavering respect but also their love. Further down the line it would be these farmers who united together to buy Nelson's Texan ranch and give it back to him when it was seized by the IRS.

In 1990 disaster struck Nelson's life. Following some bad tax investment advice from accounting giant Price Waterhouse, Nelson found himself owing $17 million in back taxes to the IRS. All his property was seized including his home and he was left destitute.

In true Willie Nelson style he took it with a laid back attitude, telling his friends not to be worried because he wasn't. Along with those farmers he'd helped over the years Nelson's friends helped to buy back his property and give or rent it back to him for a nominal fee.

When Nelson's fans began to throw money on stage he felt that things had gone too far. To remedy matters he cut a deal with the IRS to release an album of the tapes they had seized from him and so 'The IRS Tapes: Who'll buy my memories' (1992) album was born. By 1993 the debts were settled.

The 90s signalled a run of collaborations with various well-known artists for Nelson. The first album 'Across the Borderline' (1993) included artists such as Sinead O'Connor, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon amongst others. Several albums later there came the critically acclaimed album 'Teatro' (1998), Nelson's biggest hit of the '90's. The album proved that at the age of 65 Nelson was still up there with the best of them.

The 00's have been a culmination of Nelson's philanthropic causes. With Farm Aid still going strong with Nelson still on the charity's board of directors, a new project was looming. Having discovered the benefits of bio-diesel in Hawaii both to the environment and to the economical plight of farmers, Nelson decided to invest in it.

He formed his own company BioWillie. Although the company no longer exists, Willie continues to practice what he preaches, using only biodiesel in his own tour buses. Willie's belief is that by using biodiesel we not only save the environment but also promote world peace. Without the urgent need for crude oil, conflicts over the finite energy source would be unnecessary. Nelson is still the part owner of a bio-diesel plant in Oregon.

Respected and loved by those who know him and those who know of him, Nelson has never been altered by his fame. Described as centred and down to earth, he has remained true to his childhood dream of being a musician, using his influence for philanthropic purposes. With so many causes to fight Nelson has a lot on his plate. Despite this he continues to tour tirelessly, still writes songs and has even turned his hand to writing books.

In 2003, he released a duet with Toby Keith called 'Beer for My Horses', which topped Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart for six consecutive weeks. He then put out the album 'The Essential Willie Nelson' as part of his 70th birthday celebrations.

Nelson headlined the 2005 Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia concert, which raised funds for victims of the Indian Ocean earthquake, which occurred on 26 December 2004. In 2009, he joined Norah Jones and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in a tribute concert for Ray Charles. This resulted in the 'Here We Go Again: Celebrating The Genius of Ray Charles' album, which was released in 2011.

He also took part in the concert Kokua for Japan, which raised money for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. In February 2012, Nelson signed a deal with Legacy Recordings, which will see him release new material.

Nelson's next album 'Heroes' will be released on 5 May 2012 and it features duets with Snoop Dogg and Sheryl Crow, to name just a couple.

He has also ventured into the world of writing, publishing 'Willie: An Autobiography' in 1988, while personal anecdotes from his tours were included in the 2002 book 'The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes.' He then co-authored 'Farm Aid: A Song for America' to mark its 20th anniversary in 2005.

This was followed by 'The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness' in 2006 and 'On The Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farm' in 2007. His first fictional book 'A Tale Out Of Luck' was released in 2008.

With music running through their veins it is no surprise that Nelson's two youngest sons have become musicians. 'They have a band called 40 Points and have toured with me over the last couple of years, but they're back in school now,’ he says. ‘They're just two really talented kids. I'm proud of them.' Among his family Nelson counts the members of his band whose core players have been with him since the '70's.

From his roots in Texas where he began playing music with his pianist sister Bobbie, Nelson has achieved an almost unbelievable amount. With 2,500 hit songs and almost 300 albums under his belt, it is often hard to believe that Nelson's tastes remain simple and unaffected. With his feet firmly on the ground it is still his family that accompanies him along his journey as a musician.

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