Willie Nelson: Still the “Wanted” outlaw

Whoot Weekly
January 24, 2002
by Steve Angelucci

Once a daytime door-to-door Bible salesman and a night-time honky-tonk entertainer, Willie Nelson just wanted to be a Texas country singer.

Through a Nashville stint in which e established himself as a major songwriter, super-stardom as an outlaw country-rock singer, and several movie roles, he has  done that and more. 

“I was always dumb enough to think I could do anything,” Nelson once siad, “and got lucky and did it sometimes.”

Born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Nelson and his sister Bobbie Lee Nelson were raised by their paternal grandparents, who tutored them using mail order music courses.   A quick learner, Nelson received a Stella guitar at age six and played his first job at a dance at age 10 with John Raycjeck’s Bohemian Folks Band.  Weaned on the music of such fellow Texans as Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb, he was also fascinated by big bands, and particularly the music of Frank Sinatra.  Nelson began playing at dances and later, honky-tonk bars.  While in high school, he worked for a local radio station and had his own show.

After a stint in the Air Force, Nelson self-produced and promoted his first song, “No Place for Me.”  By 1959, he was a full-time disk jockey, writing songs in his spare time.  Struggling to make a living, he was divorced and the father of two children.

“Well, I was raised in a Christian atmosphere and church and raised in a Methodist Church,” Nelson said in an online interview. “I remember one time I was a disc jockey down in Pleasanton, Texas, and every Sunday morning there would be about four or five different denominations come through there and do the radio show and they were all looking right at me.  So, I got preached to by every denomination imaginable, and I’ve been around gospel music all my life.”

In 1960, Nelson began making money from songwriting.  He sold “Night Life,” which became a hit for Ray Price, and other songs.  He arrived in Nashville and found his songs were in demand.  Pasty Cline recorded “Crazy,” Faron Young had a big hit with “Hello Walls,” and Roy Orbison hit pay dirt with “Pretty Paper.”  However, Nelson and the heavily orchestrated Nashville sound of the Early ’60s never gelled; his own music was strongly influenced by earlier country music and the blues.

In December of 1970, Nelson found his Nashville home ablaze.  He raced into the burning building and returned slightly scared with a battered guitar case in hand.  While most spectators assumed it housed a highly prized instrument, it actually contained high quality marijuana.  Nelson decided it was a sign to go home to Texas, where his iconoclastic attitude and “outlaw” music made him a hero.

There, he began performing his own work and gaining fame as a singer-songwriter.  In Nelson’s first year back in Texas, he recorded two albums, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages.  In 1975, Nelson achieved popular stardom with the Red Headed Stranger album.  Containing the hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” it helped establish him as one of the top artists in country music.  The simple instrumentation and spare production of this concept album challenged Nashville’s musical attitudes.  Wanted:  The Outlaws, his album with Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter and TOmpass Glaser, soon followed and firmly established Nelson nationally.  It sold over one million copies, became the top-selling country music album in history, and sparked an outlaw country revolution.

One of Nelson’s biggest hits was the Stardust album of 1977 in which he sang standards such as the title song and “Georgia on My Mine.”  It spent more than a decade on the country charts.  Other albums have included tributes to Lefty Frizzell and Kris Kristofferson, gospel music, and popular duets with Waylon Jennings.  Nelson, a prolific writer and musician, has recorded over 200 albums.

All the while, Nelson has continued to produce new hits.  In the early ’80s, he performed duets with such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, and Leon Russell.  Yet, he did not neglect song swith country peers like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and George Jones, nor influences like Ray Price, Webb Pierce, faron Young, and Hank Snow.  In 1993, Nelson’s 1983 song “On the Road Again” was used in the soundtrack to Forest Gump.  Throughout the ’90s, he released albums such as Across the Borderline (his last record for Columbia, produced by Don Was), Moonlight Becomes You (a collection of standards), and Just One Love (a return to straight ahead Texas-style country).

Spirit, Nelson’s stunning first album for Island Records, included an intimate acoustic combination of friends and family performing at Pedernales Studios out side of Austin.  It featured Texas legend Johnny Gimble on fiddle, sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, and veteran Family member Jody Payne on rhythm guitar.

Nelson’s single “You Were Always on My Mind” won a Grammy Award, one of five such awards in his career.  Other donors include eight Country Music Awards, four American Country Music Awards, a 1973 induction into the Songwriters received 18 RIAA Certifications, including seven gold, five platinum, three double platinum, one triple platinum and two quadruple platinum records.

Nelson is the president and co-founder (along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp) of Farm Aid and has been instrumental in raising funds to help American farmers since 1985.  Nelson launched Farm Aid in 1985 after a comment by Bob Dylan at the Live aid concert.  Dylan mentioned that the farmers in America needed their own benefit concert and Nelson decided to take action.

In recent years, Nelson has found success as an actor, performing in several films, including Red Headed tranger, Thief, Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarossa, Pair of Aces, Songwriter, Electric Horseman, Stagecoach and Wag the Dog.  Nelson’s television work included a guest appearance on Nash Bridges and a recurring role on Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

In this age of commercial country music, many country icons such as Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., and Waylon Jennings receive little airplay.  However, Nelson doesn’t let this bother him.  “I haven’t ever been a regular guy with country radio,” he said.  “My relationship with the music industry has always been tenuous.  It’s been like, ‘Well, we’ll play this, but he’d better shape up.'”

This month, Lost Highway/ The Island Def Jam Music Group released his new album, The Great Divide.  It features duets such as “The Last Stand in Open Country” with Kid Rock, “You Remain” with Bonnie Raitt, “Maria” with Lee Ann Womack, and “Don’t Fade Away” with Brian McKnight.

Willie Nelson’s performance is a rare Atlantic City appearance for this musical legend.  He often sings a few songs from each of his hit albums and is renowned for his live performances.

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