Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
by Joe Nick Patoski
He’s just celebrated his 75th birthday: Wanna bet that country music icon Willie Nelson is in better shape than you?
He’s an avid jogger, a serial golfer and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He’s still on the road performing more than 100 dates annually, and in the studio so often he averages two albums a year at a time when most artists struggle to put out an album once every three years.
There’s no shortage of energy on the activism front, either: He still hosts the annual Farm Aid concert that he co-founded to help the farming community he feels the U.S. government has all but abandoned, and recently he lent his name to a biodiesel fuel brand partly due to his concern for the environment.
Those are only the somewhat recent accomplishments in a pioneering career that has seen its fair share of ups and downs. His albums may not be selling in the millions anymore, but there was a time in the mid-to-late ’70s when Willie was everywhere: the radio, the concert stage, the silver screen. He was country music’s most pervasive superstar.
And you all know the hits: “On The Road Again,” “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” and many, many more. He’s recorded and released close to 300 albums, and if he isn’t in the Guinness record books for issuing the most duets (he’s sung with everyone from Julio Iglesias (“To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”) and Ray Charles (“Seven Spanish Angels”) to Waylon Jennings and even Aerosmith ) he should be.
As Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan biographer Joe Nick Patoski so succinctly summarizes in the title of his latest work, Willie Nelson has indeed lived An Epic Life“ a life that includes four wives, eight children, a battle with the Internal Revenue Service, and the respect of the world.
For those who haven’t read Nelson’s 1988 self-penned tome Willie, An Epic Life is a good way to get caught up and perhaps even burst some of the myths and perceptions you have about this Lone State wonder.
Born in Abbott, Texas, on April 29, 1933, the son of a blacksmith and a singing teacher was actually raised by his grandparents from the age of 6 months, due to his parents’ split.
Nelson got into heavy living early: not only did he receive his first guitar and write his first lyrics when he was 6 years old, but he also smoked his first cigarette. Labour in the cotton fields followed a year later, and he got drunk for the first time on beer at the age of 9.
At 10, he joined a local polka band and received $6 for playing guitar, a catalyst for Nelson to realize his dream of making a living at music.
Now the way most of these stories go, you’d expect Nelson to be a troublemaker who spent more time in jail than on his education, but that wasn’t the case at all with Willie. He was an exceptional student, an accomplished athlete and one of the most popular kids at school.
However, his restless gypsy spirit was best suited to music, although it took him quite a while to achieve that goal, toiling as a D.J. and a salesman to make ends meet and support his family. Nelson was also a prolific songwriter, and when times were especially lean, he thought nothing selling future hits like “Night Life” which included the potentially lucrative publishing rights â€“ for cash.
In fact, his future classics “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” were offered to a bandleader for $10 apiece, but Larry Butler refused and just lent Nelson what he needed. “Night Life” eventually landed with another party for $100.
Nelson tried to sell the song “Hello Walls” to Faron Young for $500 when he reached Nashville in 1960, but Young also did Nelson the favour of lending him the money rather than take the publishing rights. When “Hello Walls” hit No. 1, Nelson received his first royalty cheque for $14,000.
Willie was on his way, although it would take awhile for him to establish himself as a major country artist. In the 1970s, he recorded the bare-bones Red Headed Stranger and later married pop and country together for the standards album Stardust. But where Nelson really broke out was through an RCA Record compilation album called Wanted: The Outlaws, on which he was paired with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser.
The album sold more than one million copies and began a phenomenon, and Willie fever exploded. In 1976 alone, seven Willie Nelson albums dominated the charts, a trend that was to last well into the ’80s, spurred on by the Urban Cowboy movement.
With his rickety nasal voice, unique style of phrasing and a tempo-challenged guitar technique that felt somewhere between jazz and country, Nelson has been an unlikely influence on today’s generation of Americana and roots-driven country talent.
He wasn’t perfect â€“ he had battles with the bottle and has been a womanizer â€“ but the Country Music Hall Of Fame legend has shown five consistent qualities throughout his career: confidence, composure, productivity, persistence, and modesty.
Still going healthy and strong midway through his eighth decade, Willie Nelson has done it his way and is an inspiration to us all.