Willie Nelson at 80. Seeing as how we are in a betting town, you can be pretty certain the over/under on him reaching that age 20 years ago was prohibitive on the under. Say +350. But Nelson has always been about beating the odds…both in his career and his life.
Known as a great songwriter by early Nashville and Memphis music centers (he did write “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, after all), he decided to sing his own songs and was almost laughed out of Dodge. His voice was too nasal, they said; he was not handsome enough, they said. Well, he pushed ahead, and though it took quite a while, he broke through as one of country music’s most iconic singers. He’s had them all waiting in line to join him in duets. “Hey, Nashville! Ray Charles is on the line and wants to sing a song with me…but I told him I had to sing with Dolly and Julio first.”
When everyone, but everyone, in the music industry said an album had to have 12 songs of about three minutes tops in length, each having a different topic or theme, Willie Nelson went out and recorded an album that defied all convention. It told one long story about a strange man filled with sorrow of a lost love, utilizing ballads that wound the theme around his haunting acoustic guitar work. Songs would fade away, meld into each other, appear again later on the album…the sum creating a national sensation that introduced Willie Nelson to a bigger audience than most artists would ever enjoy. The album was the heralded Red Headed Stranger (1975) and set the stage for more second guessing by the experts on Nelson.
After Red Headed Stranger there were those who thought he should clean up his act to help his career roll along. What did he do? He let his hair grow even longer and took to wearing in-your-face braids and a scraggly beard. He plowed along, and with friend Waylon Jennings in tow, created the whole “Outlaw” musical genre, warning every mama not to let their “babies grow up to be cowboys.” This pairing gave a shot in the arm for both Nelson and Jennings and gained them respect outside the country music genre.
It looked like the honky tonk road was the one that Willie Nelson was going travel now. He owned it and could sing songs about whiskey, women and worry until the truck broke down. But in true Nelson fashion he turned left when everyone else was going right. On the heels of the release of the Wanted: The Outlaws album, he released a compilation of classic songs from the American songbook in his Stardust album. Willie singing “Blue Skies” and “Stardust”? Really? Well, the wily Willie knew what he was doing. His natural jazz influenced vocal stylings (see his quote about Bob Wills in the box above) with his syncopated and half-beat lag worked wonders on these songs. The album became the most successful of his career to date, reaching No. 1 on the country charts (they didn’t know exactly where to put this album so they went with Nelson’s identity as a country singer), earning multi-platinum sales awards and a Grammy.
Many established singers, and friends of Nelson, were now fully on board with him. Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, joined him for the Highwaymen album and experience; the duets started flowing in great number; movie roles came his way (“The Electric Horseman”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Stagecoach” and others); and then the IRS came calling.
It has always been said that “you can’t fight City Hall.” Well, Willie Nelson had a $16 million bill from the IRS, and his take on it was, “I think it’s funny that a cotton picker from Texas owes the government $16 million dollars.” But that cotton picker could also sing, so he sold off a lot of his assets, held concerts “for the government” and settled his debt within a couple of years. He fought “City Hall” and came away O.K. Not saying he won, but he came away O.K.
As the years accumulated, Willie Nelson became more than just a country singer/western actor. He became something of the “wise man on the mountain as evidenced by his sayings on this page. To that end, a few years ago, he came out with a book called The Tao of Willie in which he relates his journey of bumps and scrapes, forks in the road, detours, disastrous twists and hairpin turns—from swimming against the currents of a whiskey river to the Zen-like figure of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin.
Another publishing venture by Willie Nelson was his Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die – Musings from the Road, published by HarperCollins in May 2012.
So how many more “takes” is Willie Nelson going to perform before he’s satisfied enough to call it quits?
His response: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”