Archive for the ‘museums and collections’ Category

The Willie Nelson & Friends Museum and General Store, “Nashville’s Hidden Gem”

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

by:  Lori Liebig

If you’re a country music lover, there are plenty of historic sites that come to mind when you think of Nashville: Music Row, Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sure, those places are must-sees for tourists, but if you’re longing for a unique look into the lives of country music’s biggest legends, there’s one lesser-known museum you should visit — the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum.

Owner Mark Hughes inherited the museum from his father, Frank Hughes, who was a friend of Nelson’s. Frank and his wife once owned framing store in Madison, Tenn., which Nelson regularly visited. Over the years, they collected memorabilia from Nelson and other famous regulars, like Johnny Cash. After legions of country music fans began visiting the store for its array of unique souvenirs, the frame shop evolved into the “Willie Nelson General Store.” The store moved to various locations around town before becoming the “Willie Nelson and Friends Museum.”

Today, the bright blue building sits in a strip mall across the street from what was once known as Opryland, which is now home to the sprawling Opry Mills shopping mall. Nearby you’ll find the historic Nashville Palace music venue.


Back in the early 1990s, the McGavock Pike area of East Nashville was a huge tourist destination, thanks to Opryland and its new Grand Ole Opry House, along with the large outlet malls and shops in the area. Opryland closed in 1997, and during that time there was a huge focus on reviving the downtown district. With the opening of the Bridgestone Arena, Wildhorse Saloon and rebirth of the Ryman Auditorium, there wasn’t much left to keep business in East Nashville.

Yet, somehow, the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum stayed afloat as the businesses around them went under. Although it doesn’t have the interactive touchscreen exhibits or modern design of its much newer counterparts downtown, it has a story that makes it a truly special place.


Willie’s likeness is found on nearly every inch of the museum and store’s interior.

One of the big reasons why the museum is still operating, even when other businesses around it began to close, was because of their ever-expanding gift shop. Along with the novelty Nelson-themed items, you can buy souvenirs of all shapes and sizes shapes from the Music City. As downtown Nashville has blossomed, many of these types of tourist-friendly shops have closed, making theirs one of the last of its kind.

Once you get to the back of the massive store, you’re greeted by a set of saloon doors that mark the entrance to the museum. As you step through, hundreds of items that hold their own amazing stories greet you.

Many of the objects found inside the museum came from an 1990 IRS auction of all the country legend’s personal items. Although the Hughes family gave most of those items back to Nelson, the rest are currently on display in the museum for fans to enjoy.



The original guitar that Nelson played during his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1964.

One of Nelson’s worn out pairs of running sneakers. For years, Nelson has been an avid runner and will only wear New Balance brand shoes to jog

museumcountry4Read the entire article and see more photos:

Inside the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Nashville’s Hidden Gem

Visit the Willie Nelson Museum and General Store in Nashville

Friday, June 3rd, 2016


2613 McGavock Pike
Nashville, TN
(615) 885-1515

Visit the Willie Nelson & Friends Museum and General Store in Nashville, when  you get the chance. It is so much fun.  I  got to go last March and it was just as cool as I thought it would be.  My friend Jodi and I went to Nashville  to see a couple Willie Nelson & Family shows and we went a couple days early to site-see.  And the Willie Nelson & Friends Museum was at the top of my list, before the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Tennessee State Museum (which was my second favorite museum in Nashville).


The Willie Nelson and Friends General Store & Museum was founded July 4th, 1979 in Madison, TN with Willie’s good friends Frank and Jeanie Oakley as the storekeepers.  The General Store began life as a local art & picture framing store that Willie frequented often while visiting his friends in nearby Ridgetop, Tennessee.   It is the oldest, continuously operated country music artist Museum and souvenir shop in Nashville

I’ve always wanted to visit the Museum,  ever since I first heard about it.  And it’s not just because I love looking at collections of Willie Nelson stuff, which you know I do.    But when I read about how the museum got started by close friends of Willie Nelson  I knew it would have be different than lots of museums.   And there are lots of museums in Nashville,  but this one really does have heart. It has an unusual collection of original photographs, movie souvenirs, posters and more.

And it is a real country music museum in town.  Not only it’s rare Willie Nelson collections and photos and movie props, the Museum features other country music artists, friends of Willie Nelson.  The exhibits change, as well, as they get new items to display.

Their website is very entertaining and interesting, too, and they are on FaceBook.



Check out more of their great souveniers and gifts on their website:

They have a giant souvenir and gift shop.  Not just Willie Nelson merchandise, which they have a lot of, but also a huge assortment of Nashville souvenirs and T-shirts, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Jack Daniels and Elvis Presley merchandise.   They have a large selection of  T-shirts and toys for the kids and grandkids.  The collection includes many cowboy hats, key chains, coffee mugs, shot glasses, clothing, western products, jewelry, souvenir guitars, specialty foods, snacks, drinks, belts and many, many other one-of-a-kind gift ideas.DSC_0414hotsauce


The store is open seven days a week, and the adult admission price is only $8.00. That is really a great value, considering the collections they have — and compared to the other museums we visited.    Children under 12 are free with a paid adult admission.  Also, every visitor receives a detailed four page written guide that describes all the great exhibits and items you’ll see as you tour the museum.  They have plenty of free parking, and are located right off the interstate and directly across the street from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry House.  They are 15 minutes from downtown Nashville, with easy access to hotels, shopping, restaurants.  We found it very easily.

I’ve got to know Mark Hughes, who operates the Museum now with wife Kay Kennemore Hughes.   Mark is so interesting to talk to and knowledgeable about Willie Nelson and the museum exhibits.  Mark and Kay were out of town the week we were in Nashville, but his staff was so welcoming and helpful.  And they weren’t just clerks taking money behind the counter, they were friendly and involved and described the exhibits and answered questions.  We were sorry not to get to meet Mark and Kay, but we had a great time at the museum with the folks working that day.


Museum stores are always fun to visit, and their gift shop is great.  I got some really cool souvenirs, too, including a Willie Nelson doll.   They really have the biggest and most unusual collection of Willie Nelson stuff in Nashville, and you know I looked for those (The Country MusicHall of Fame gift show didn’t have any Willie Nelson stuff — they said they can only sell what’s on current exhibit upstairs)  The Willie Nelson Museum and General Store had the best collections, at really fair prices.

The Museum and General store has a great website, with information about their exhibits and stories about Willie Nelson and his friends.  They have an on-line store., if you can’t visit Nashville.

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 Willie Nelson on 11/28/1964

Willie Nelson, November 28, 1964
photo by Les Leverett

“We’re very proud at the Willie Nelson Museum is to announce an exciting new Les Leverett photographic exhibit opening very soon – an historic country music photographic collection taken by long-time Grand Ole Opry photographer and Nashville resident Les Leverett.

Les Leverett’s photographs have been seen on hundreds of album covers, books, magazines, newspapers and video. Les’ photographic career at the Grand Ole Opry spanned more than 32 years. His love of the Grand Ole Opry and its many stars are evident throughout the images captured through the lens of his trusty Nikon camera.

Willie Nelson shotglass

Sunday, March 6th, 2016


I gave my friend Ben Holmes, from Centennial Seeds, a Willie Nelson shot glass, and he’s using it to count his marijuana seeds.

You can get your seeds from Ben,  and he carries some horticultural supplies.  He sells the brands that he uses for his successful business and research.  If you are in Colorado, you should visit his shop and lab in Lafayette.

And you can get that cool Willie Nelson shotglass from the Willie Nelson & Friends Museum and General Store in Nashville, where I got mine.  They have a website, too!

Willie Nelson featured in California Science Center’s exhibit, “Earth in Concert”

Friday, January 8th, 2016


The  California Science Center  is featuring an exhibit about protecting our planet through music.  The #EarthInConcert features Willie Nelson Jack Johnson Sheryl Crow Sting Pharrell Williams and Ziggy Marley — in Los Angeles, California.

Willie Nelson featured in Earth in Concert Exhibit (opens Nov. 12, 2015)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015



Today our planet faces many challenges. As we lose important species every year, we also lose their unique contributions to their ecosystems, and the diversity of life on our planet—called biodiversity—shrinks. Scientists and environmentalists around the world are working in creative ways to protect biodiversity and ensure a healthy planet now and for future generations. Some very dedicated and concerned musicians are also helping.

The California Science Center, the GRAMMY Museum, and Global Wildlife Conservation have partnered to create a one-of-a-kind exhibit that examines the status of the Earth’s biodiversity, while exploring how artists like Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Willie Nelson, Sting, and Pharrell Williams have helped raise awareness of the global issues that present threats to our planet. Through original compositions, unique footage, and personal artifacts from well-known musicians, as well as multimedia and interactive exhibits, Earth in Concert: Protecting the Planet through Music examines Earth’s ecosystems and the health of biodiversity in our oceans, grasslands and forests.


Some things you’ll do:

  • Discover the diversity of species that settle on tropical coral reefs.
  • Help complete a new composition by musician Jack Johnson about reducing plastic pollution in the ocean to inspire others to action.
  • Listen to animal calls and match the sounds to the species that made them, just like real ecologists do to explore biodiversity.
  • Use sounds of nature to compose a wild symphony and discover how positive action works to keep the Earth in Concert.

Explore the contributions of leading artists and scientists as they use their talents to preserve our natural world. Earth in Concert opens at the California Science Center on November 12, 2015.

Free admission.

California Science Center
700 Exposition Park Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90037

(323) 724-3623

The California Science Center is located in Exposition Park at the corner of Figueroa Street and 39th Street, west of the 110 (Harbor) freeway.

The Science Center is adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and across the street from the University of Southern California.


Willie Nelson General Store

Sunday, August 30th, 2015


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If you are ever in Nashville, be sure to visit the Willie Nelson General Store. If you can’t make it you can see their collections and buy souvenirs from their giftshop at:

Willie Nelson and Jerry Retzloff

Friday, May 22nd, 2015


Last March, when Janis from Texas and I were in New Braunfels for the Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard shows, we got to spend some time with Jerry Rezloff.   Jerry has an extensive Willie Nelson & Family collection of photos, posters and memorabilia from the ’70’s and ’80’s when he was with Lone Star Beer and spent time with Willie Nelson.


Last year Jerry donated some of his collection to the Wittliff exhibit, at the Texas State University in San Marcos.   When I was in Texas, Jerry kindly gave Janis and I a tour of the exhibit.




Armadillo Rising marks the debut of a major new archive recently acquired by the Wittliff: the 1970s Texas Music/Lone Star Beer Collection of JERRY RETZLOFF (featured in Texas Monthly’s November 2014 issue). As the Lone Star Beer district manager in Austin during the 1970s, Retzloff was in the thick of the action. He was a longtime friend of Willie Nelson, and he collected many keepsakes now recognized as pop-culture treasures. The Retzloff Collection includes posters, flyers, unique 1970s memorabilia, and personal photos of Nelson and other stars, richly illuminating the Austin music scene during this era. LONG LIVE THE LONGNECK!—a satellite exhibition of Retzloff’s collection is on view on the first floor of Texas State’s Alkek Library through March 31.

When Willie Nelson returned to Texas from Tennessee in 1972, Willie saw the lively, growing music scene in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters and other clubs. He felt strongly those young music lovers would appreciate his live shows, if given a chance to hear him.   Lonestar Beer was also interested in that youthful market and Willie called Jerry Retzloff, and invited him to get together after a show and throw around ideas.  The result was a lasting friendship and an informal  relationship, that helped blur that demarcation between redneck straight folks and hippies.  Willie struck a deal with his friend who would would provide beer for backstage, and Willie would enjoy that beer onstage.  Jerry would also provide LoneStar for Willie’s friends, Kris Kristofferson, and Leon Russell, too.

Back then I had about a $90,000-a-year backstage beer tab. Poodie [Willie’s longtime stage manager, Poodie Locke] and the boys really had a way with the beer.”
— Willie Nelson

Author John Spong sat down and interviewed Jerry Retzloff and wrote a great article here:

The well known picture of John Travolta in Urban Cowboy with his long neck showed young people had started thinking differently about Lonestar Beer




Artwork of famous Austin graphic artist Jim Franklin helped promote the brand further  with his  Lone Star posters.

“Retzloff was a reluctant newcomer to Austin, having been abruptly transferred from the brewery’s San Antonio headquarters the previous summer. Budweiser had started taking huge bites out of Lone Star’s Austin sales, in large part by targeting college kids. Retzloff knew that Lone Star president Harry Jersig, a first-generation German Texan and beer man of the old school, was unwilling to court the youth market. Their long hair sat ill with Jersig’s buttoned-up sensibility, and he didn’t want to appear to encourage underage drinking. And even if Jersig eased up, Retzloff would still have Lone Star’s long-standing image to contend with. Its slogan at the time, as voiced in commercials by Ricardo Montalbán, was “The Beer From the Big Country.” It was a rural, outdoorsman’s beverage, a beer for cattle pens, deer blinds, and bass boats.

But when Retzloff arrived in Austin, he saw a surefire new angle emerging. He spent his days cultivating relationships with the distributors who brought Lone Star to town and the bartenders who sold it. His nights, however, were spent listening to music in the city’s budding progressive country scene, and he noticed an ungodly amount of Lone Star being drunk at its epicenter, the Armadillo. A check of the books at the brewery confirmed his impression: more Lone Star draft beer was sold at the ’Dillo, capacity 1,500, than any venue in the state except the 44,500-seat Astrodome. Whether it was a Texas nativism that even a hippie couldn’t shake or some precursor to modern-day hipster irony, the longhairs were threatening to make the cowboy beer their own.

Retzloff persuaded his superiors to let him pursue them. He brought the vice president of marketing, a thick-necked Canadian named Barry Sullivan, to the ’Dillo to hear the scene’s golden boy, Michael Murphey. When Murphey opened the second verse of his anthem, “Cosmic Cowboy, Pt. 1,” by singing, “Lone Star sipping and skinny-dipping,” every hippie in the room raised a Lone Star toward the rafters and screamed. Sullivan was sold.”

by John Spong
Read complete article, see more photos:


Janis took these photos, thanks, Janis.  That’s me with the Lone Star.


The exhbit ended at the end of March, but there are some items from Jerry’s collection still on display.




Willie Nelson featured in 2015 Wittliff Collection exhibits

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015


Thank you, Jerry Retzloff for sharing this flyer about upcoming Wittliff Collection Exhibits. Some of Jerry’s collections are on display at the Armadillo Rising: Austin’s Music Scene in the 1970s.

by: John Spong

What it was was a generational shift, and not one that Music Row wanted. In the late sixties, Nashville country music was defined by the string-swelling, countrypolitan gloss of Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell. RCA executive Chet Atkins was a chief architect of the Nashville sound, and when people asked him to define it, he liked to jingle?the change in his pockets and say, “It’s the sound of money.” No tweaks to the formula were tolerated. Even Willie Nelson and Waylon?Jennings, two Texas boys with ideas of their own, were forced to fit the mold. They recorded for RCA, and their records sounded exactly the way Atkins wanted.

The rest of the nation had less success maintaining the old order. In cities like San Francisco, the counterculture was popular culture. Hair was long, love was free, and dope smoking was considered tame. The music ranged from the psychedelic extremes of Jefferson Airplane to the rootsier jangle of Creedence Clearwater Revival, with acts like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead straddling the two. Nashville, with its pompadours, whiskey, and quiet reliance on truck-driver amphetamines, had no use for any of it. When Los Angeles bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers started playing country rock, winking at Nashville in Nudie suits festooned with rhinestone pot leaves, Music Row responded with disgust.

Halfway between the coasts sat Texas, where hundreds of honky-tonks functioned as Nashville’s farm system. But that music belonged to the old guard. Texas kids were more interested in the state’s thriving folkie circuit. The hub was a Dallas listening room called the Rubaiyat, from which young singer-songwriters like Steve Fromholz and B.?W. Stevenson sallied forth to coffeehouses around the state. The music they played was distinct from the protest songs of Greenwich Village. Texas folk was rooted in cowboy, Tejano, and Cajun songs, in Czech dance halls and East Texas blues joints. It was dance music. And when the Texas folkies started gigging with their rock-minded peers, they found a truer sound than the L.A. country rockers. There was nothing ironic about the fiddle on Fromholz’s epic “Texas Trilogy.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when that sound and scene coalesced into something cohesive enough to merit a name, but then again none of the labels people came up with—cosmic cowboy, progressive country, redneck rock, and, ultimately, outlaw country—made everyone happy. Still, the pivotal year was 1972, and the place was Austin. Liquor by the drink had finally become legal in Texas, which prompted the folkies to migrate from coffeehouses to bars, turning their music into something you drank to. Songwriters moved to town, like Michael Murphey, a good-looking Dallas kid who’d written for performers such as the Monkees and Kenny Rogers in L.A. He was soon joined by Jerry Jeff Walker, a folkie from New York who’d had a radio hit when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band covered his song “Mr. Bojangles.” In March, Willie played a three-day country festival outside town, the Dripping Springs Reunion, that would grow into his Fourth of July Picnics. Then he too moved to Austin and started building an audience that didn’t look like or care about any Nashville ideal. By the time the scene started to wind down, in 1976, Willie and Austin were known worldwide.

Read the entire article:

Willie Nelson collection featured on Antique Roadshow

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Willie Nelson: The Face of Texas (Photographs by Michael O’Brien) #theWitliffCollection

Sunday, January 25th, 2015


The Face of Texas is the Wittliff Collections’ first solo exhibition of work by one of America’s finest portrait photographers, Michael O’Brien.  From his latest book by the University of Texas Press, these images celebrate the individuality and independent spirit of Texans — from the rich and famous to ordinary folks — who’ve made their mark on the Lone Star State.  Among them are ranchers and farmers, conservationists, church members, bar owners, artists, schoolteachers, performers, writers, athletes, and business owners.

Each of the 48 photographs on view at the Wittliff Collections is accompanied by a narrative written by former Life reporter Elizabeth O’Brien.  This winning combination of portraits and stories about a fascininating, eclectic mix of Texans is a fitting homage to our unique state.

The Face of Texas is on view at the Wittliff Collections January 12 – May 15, 2015

Willie Nelson: Texas Icon (Briscoe Center for American History)

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015


Willie Nelson’s shoes

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Willie Nelson’s running shoes
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, TN

Willie Nelson, Austin City Limits

Thursday, January 1st, 2015



This photo hangs on second floor of Austin City Live Moody Theater, part of a great historical, photographic exhibit of Austin City Limits.  You have to have a VIP ticket, or be member, to go to the mezzanine level to see it, though.

Texas Music Museum in Irving, TX to feature Willie Nelson memorabilia

Saturday, December 27th, 2014


photo:  Rose Baca

Clothes worn by Willie Nelson and other pieces of music memorabilia will be on display in the Texas Musicians Museum in Irving. The city is looking to start construction on the project in January.

Thomas Kreason has been fine-tuning the Texas Musicians Museum since 2004. It’s been a long road for Kreason, the museum’s director and curator. He has worked steadily to build up a Texas music memorabilia collection. He moved the museum from Hillsboro in 2007 to Waxahachie in 2010. But soon, the museum will open in what Kreason hopes is its next home: Irving. In October 2013, the Irving City Council approved a development agreement with Kreason.

The museum will occupy the former Toyota of Irving dealership at 222 E. Irving Blvd. in the Heritage Crossing area downtown. The 8,500-square-foot museum project was likely go out for bid around October or November, said Kevin Kass, who is the redevelopment and TIF administrator for the city of Irving development services. The city anticipates about 10 months to a year for construction, he said. Though the museum is beginning to pick up momentum, Kreason said, the wait has been challenging. “Hopefully, we’re going to be able to pick up the pace and make up for some of that time,” Kreason said.

Update: During the Oct. 23 Irving City Council meeting, the board awarded a contract for construction manager at-risk to Core Construction Services of Texas, Inc. During a special meeting on Dec. 18, the Council approved the guaranteed maximum price submitted by Core Construction Services of Texas, Inc. of $1,667,718 for building renovations of the Texas Musicians Museum.

The City Council also approved a lease agreement with Texas Music Group, LLC, D/B/A Texas Musicians Museum for use of the city building at 222 E. Irving Blvd. in Irving for $42,000 annually. The city is likely to start construction in January now that the GMP is approved. The original construction schedule was estimated for 10 months to a year. In bringing a construction manager on board already, that has drawings and pricings for the project, the city anticipates about a five months construction time schedule on the project, Kass said. “We still see this, and it is, a catalyst project for downtown in terms of bringing outside visitors to downtown, show them what we have going on downtown,” Kass said.

Willie Nelson exhibit, Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Janice and Kenneth made a trip to Nashville, and kindly sent these pictures of the Willie Nelson display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.


The Willie Nelson Story

Since the mid-1970s Willie Hugh Nelson has emerged as one of the most versatile, enduring, and influential talents in late twentieth-century country music. As a vocal stylist, songwriter, bandleader, and even occasional movie actor, Nelson’s long commercial reign (20 #1 hits and 114 chart singles between 1962 and 1993) has been outstripped only by his boundless energy as a performer and songwriter. Since the mid-1950s, his recorded output has been so vast as to confound all but the most dedicated discographers.

Growing up in central Texas, Nelson came under the influence of a wide diversity of abiding musical influences—not just the Grand Ole Opry stars of the day, but also more indigenous sounds: the Texas honky-tonk of Ernest Tubb, the western swing of Bob Wills, and even the German-American polka bands he often played in as a youth.

Nelson did a brief stint in the air force and married Martha Mathews (the first of four wives) in 1952. He played in various local Texas bands and worked as a DJ at stations in Texas and Vancouver, Washington, where, in the mid-1950s, he made his earliest self-released recordings.

Back in Texas in the late 1950s, Nelson worked at various day jobs and performed extensively in rough-and-tumble honky-tonks in the Houston area. He had begun writing songs as a little boy, and by the 1950s he was starting to turn out fully realized masterpieces such as “Night Life” (recorded by dozens of artists over the years, including Frank Sinatra) and “Family Bible.”

In 1960 Nelson relocated to Nashville, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who connected Nelson with Hal Smith and his Pamper Music publishing house. Nelson soon blossomed as one of Music City’s most gifted and prolific writers. “Crazy” (first popularized by Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (a hit for Billy Walker), and “Hello Walls” (Faron Young) are a few of the best known of his compositions from the early 1960s. In 1963 Nelson married his second wife, Shirley Collie (ex-wife of Biff Collie).

In 1962 Nelson signed his first major label recording contract, with Liberty Records. In that same year his first two singles—“Touch Me” and “Willingly” (a duet with Shirley Collie)—reached the country Top Ten. In November 1964 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Yet despite numerous single and album releases on Liberty and then RCA Records, it would not be until 1975 that Nelson reached the Top Ten again. His wiry baritone and his manner of phrasing—singing slightly ahead of or behind the beat, which was something he learned listening to Frank Sinatra and other pop singers—were just a bit too far off the beaten path of 1960s mainstream Nashville conventions.

In 1970, with his second marriage over and his house destroyed by fire, Nelson moved back to Texas. He was already a popular performer in his home state, and the looser, more progressive musical atmosphere of Austin proved a freer milieu in which his music could evolve and flourish.

An iconoclast and something of a gypsy, Nelson, a former door-to-door salesman, has always been a brilliant, unabashed self-promoter. Thus it was with great earnestness, much foresight, and a dash of calculation that he developed a countercultural persona replete with long hair, earrings, and worn-out denim, and began courting the youthful audience that had already enabled southern rock to grow from a grassroots phenomenon to a national craze. Allying himself with longtime friend and fellow musician Waylon Jennings, Nelson began laying the groundwork of what, by the mid-1970s, would explode into country music’s Outlaw movement.

In 1973 Nelson was signed to Atlantic Records’ fledgling country division by Jerry Wexler. Nelson recorded a pair of vivid and surprisingly rustic concept albums, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, for the label, as well as a gospel album, The Troublemaker. Though the singles from these LPs had minimal impact in the charts and the sales were modest, they were still respectable and the critical reception warm.

On July 4, 1973, Nelson held his first annual Willie Nelson Picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas. Within a few years, the festival, with its star-studded cast of Nashville and Texas artists, would become a national media event in and of itself (“Woodstock South of the Brazos” was one writer’s description), thus affording Nelson still more exposure.

One of Nelson’s many creative high-water marks and his first real commercial breakthrough came with The Red Headed Stranger. This 1975 concept album was recorded in a small Texas studio on a shoestring budget. Some of the executives at Columbia Records, Nelson’s label at this time, balked at releasing it. (Its raw minimalism, to them, suggested a mere demo record.) Yet it ultimately became the first of many million sellers Nelson would enjoy during the 1970s. From it also came Nelson’s first #1 single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” ironically not a song written by Nelson but an ethereal version of a 1945 Fred Rose composition.

Another milestone came in 1976 with the release of Wanted! The Outlaws. This compilation album, released by RCA, Nelson’s former label, cleverly repackaged old recordings by Nelson and Jennings, as well as erstwhile Outlaw musician Tompall Glaser and Jennings’s wife, singer Jessi Colter. The Outlaws also quickly became country music’s first LP to be certified platinum (indicating sales of 1 million copies) by the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) and helped boost both Jennings’s and Nelson’s national recognition to the point that they were often paired in the public imagination as Waylon & Willie, incidentally the title of one of their LPs. Their #1 country duets include “Good Hearted Woman” (1975) and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (1978).

Though Nelson has made many fine recordings both before and since, the 1970s constituted his creative and commercial zenith. One of his many uncommon musical gifts has been his ability to assimilate and interpret many different American popular musical styles within the steadfast dimensions of his own rustic yet fluid baritone and his bedrock rural Texas musical instincts. An example of his versatility is seen in his 1977 LP, To Lefty From Willie, a heartfelt salute to country star Lefty Frizzell and a tribute to Nelson’s own Texas honky-tonk roots. Predictably unpredictable, Nelson followed with Stardust (1978), an inspired collection of classic pop songs that eventually sold 4 million copies and that is still considered one of his all-time best works.

In the late 1970s, at the height of his stardom, Nelson ventured into feature films and proved a competent actor as well. He played a supporting role with Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman (1979) and went on to play the lead in Honeysuckle Rose (1980), The Songwriter (1984) (with Kris Kristofferson), and Red Headed Stranger (1987). In the western Barbarosa (1982), with actor Gary Busey, Nelson even earned accolades from Vincent Canby, film critic of The New York Times. Television films in which Nelson has starred include Where The Hell’s The Gold (1988) and Once Upon a Texas Train (1988).

Unsurprisingly, Nelson’s immense creativity and ambition have, at times, wreaked havoc with his personal life. He and his third wife, Connie Koepke, whom he married in 1971, were divorced in 1988. In 1991 he married his fourth and present wife, Ann-Marie D’Angelo. By the early 1990s, he had accumulated millions of dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service (he has since erased his tax burden), and in the same period of time, his son, Billy, took his own life.

Yet Nelson’s passion for music-making has yet to wane. Now in his seventies, he has continued recording and performing with the energy of a man half his age. In 1993, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. His duets with Lee Ann Womack (the Grammy- and CMA-award-winning “Mendocino County Line,” 2002) and Toby Keith (“Beer for my Horses,” 2003), and his creative collaboration with producer Matt Serletic and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas (“Maria [Shut Up and Kiss Me],” 2002) extended his tenure on the country singles chart.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) presented Nelson with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. A star-studded concert in Nashville in 2002, recorded and released as Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars & Guitars, and a second in New York in 2003, issued as Willie Nelson & Friends: Live and Kickin’ paid tribute to Nelson and his inspiring example. Both were telecast on cable TV. As of 2003, the Farm Aid concerts begun in 1985 by Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young had raised over $24 million to benefit family farming in the U.S.

– Bob Allen
Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.