“According to my grandmother,” Willie Nelson once said, “the definition of music is anything that’s pleasing to the ear. Once I learned that, I quit thinking about it.”

That’s a perfect Willie quote. It touches on family and music, the two things that matter to him most. Like the songs he’s written, it’s clean, short, and simple on its face, with a dose of his signature everyman humility. Since 1962, Willie has recorded an astounding 143 albums in just about every genre but hip-hop and heavy metal. If you’ve ever wondered why he has ranged so widely, the quote explains it: apparently Willie heard something in the various styles and songs he’s explored that made him feel good. And he never worried about whether that made sense to anyone else; his grandmother told him it didn’t matter.

Last summer, some editors at the magazine broached the unthinkable: What do we publish when Willie is gone? It’s a question that media outlets around the world have asked every time he’s canceled a tour date in the past twenty years. But our answer was immediate and resounding: Screw that. We need to celebrate Willie—to thank him—while he’s around.

Willie Nelson Platon
Photograph by Platon

So we embarked on a special issue… and a few other projects. On this page you’ll find new essays on Willie’s singular stature as a songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and, oddly, landlord; episodes of our podcast “One by Willie,” featuring conversations with prominent folks about the Willie songs that matter to them most; a comprehensive ranking of every album Willie ever published; as well as an animated video of Willie’s epic 2016 ACL Festival performance. And, of course, Texas Monthly has been covering Willie Nelson since 1973, so there’s so much more TKTK.

We’ve learned a lot from Willie over the years, and the biggest lesson became the guiding philosophy for this special issue: When life gets hard, Willie Nelson gives people a song. And Texas Monthly gives people Willie Nelson.