Willie Nelson

Willie Hugh Nelson, the unofficial patron saint of Texas music, is a country legend who has written more than 350 songs and released more than 100 albums (not counting greatest hits collections). He’s also known for his social activisim, co-creating Farm Aid. But his work with that organization is overshadowed by his support of the legalization of marijuana. (He’s been arrested multiple time for possession of the drug, most recently after being stopped at the infamous Sierra Blanca border checkpoint).

Willie was born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933. He started writing songs when he was five years old, and when he was six, Willie’s grandfather gave him a Stella guitar. The first song Willie learned was “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”

He scored his first gig playing rhythm guitar in John Rejcek’s polka band in West, Texas. He was paid $8. (“The first night that I made money making music, I knew that I had succeeded,” he told Texas Monthly‘s former editor Evan Smith in 2005.) Willie joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950, but a bad back forced him to quit. He briefly attended Baylor University, but dropped out and became a disk jockey, writing songs when he had the time. By the late fifties, he had composed “Night Life,” “Crazy,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

A few of Willie’s songs—particularly “Crazy,” recorded by Patsy Cline, and “Night Life,” by Ray Price—became hits after he moved to Nashville in 1960, where he got a job as a songwriter. Still struggling to make a name for himself, Willie attempted to play bass for Price’s band in 1961. “When we came off the tour the first time,” Price told senior editor Michael Hall for a 2008 oral history, “he said, ‘I bet you didn’t know I couldn’t play bass.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘The first night.’”

Willie’s songs were selling well for other artists, but his own recordings flopped. Contributing editor Gary Cartwright wrote in 1998, “Disillusioned, Willie bought a small farm outside Nashville and determined to be a gentleman farmer-songwriter. He smoked a pipe, wore overalls, raised weaner pigs with fellow musician Johnny Bush, and gained thirty pounds on [his wife] Shirley’s good country cooking.”

After his home in Tennessee burned down in 1970, Willie moved to Austin, where he embedded with the outlaw country music scene. Robert Draper wrote in 1991 that “the man who once wore gaudy rhinestone-and-glitter Nudie suits as one of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys and then took to wearing a poncho after seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly now wore jeans and T-shirts and hair past his shoulders.”

In 1973 he started hosting his famous Fourth of July picnic, and his albums during this decade—particularly Red Headed Stranger and Stardust—contributed to his crossover success.

Willie also dabbled in film, appearing in The Electric Horseman (1979), starring Robert Redford, and Honeysuckle Rose (1980). Willie remained a commercially successful musician, recording songs such as “Always on my Mind” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” He also formed a supergroup, the Highwaymen, with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash.

The generally charmed musician had a spurt of bad luck in 1990 when the IRS went after him and demanded he pay $16 million in back taxes. (Willie retained his sense of humor throughout the traumatic ordeal: “What’s the difference between an IRS agent and a whore?” he’d ask. “A whore will quit f-ing you after you’re dead.”) To pay down his substantial debt, Willie auctioned off assets and released a double-album titled, The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?

Willie continues to tour regularly, playing Trigger, a Martin N-20 classical guitar he has used since 1969, an instrument so iconic Hall profiled it in December 2012. (Willie also lovingly embraced Trigger on our May 2009 cover, one of nine times he’s graced our front page.)

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 2012, the Country Music Association paid him tribute at the Country Music Awards. Willie is renowned for being an affable collaborator and has worked with Phish, Toby Keith, T Bone Burnett, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones, and most recently—and perhaps most impressively—he convinced Snoop Dogg to croon along with him on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

The Culture|
March 13, 2015

“The First Roadie—Ever”

Ben Dorcy, who turns 90 next month, has been a roadie since 1950, and in that time has worked with Willie, Waylon, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Jerry Jeff, Randy Rogers, Jack Ingram,  . . . well, you get the idea.

September 22, 2014

Willie Nelson Gave New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd A Pot Tutorial

After a new campaign in Colorado has literally made Dowd the poster child for how not to consume legal marijuana, she turned to the nation's most beloved expert for advice on how to do it right—and shared what she learned in the pages of the Grey Lady.

First Times|
January 15, 2014

My First Willie

Somehow I lived in Texas more than twenty years without seeing Willie Nelson. This had to end.

January 21, 2013

That ’70s Show

Forty years ago, Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, and a whole host of Texas misfits grew their hair long, snubbed Nashville, and brought the hippies and rednecks together. The birth of outlaw country changed country music forever.

January 21, 2013

A Q&A With John Spong

The senior editor on writing about outlaw country, hearing Jerry Jeff Walker tell stories, and listening to good music.

The Culture|
January 20, 2013


From Buzz Bissinger arriving in Odessa—with a notepad—to Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen writing songs in College Station

January 20, 2013

The Full Nelson

April 30, 1933Born in Abbott. His mother leaves six months later; his father leaves a few years after that. Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, are raised by their grandparents, Daddy and Mama.1939Gets his first guitar, a Sears Stella.1942Lands his first paying job, playing with the John Rejcek Bohemian Polka

January 20, 2013

The Ballad of Billy Joe Shaver

If the Corsicana native is the best songwriter in Texas, perhaps it's because he knows his material. Hardscrabble upbringing. Sinful behavior. Redemption. Personal tragedy. Profound sorrow. And, finally, more redemption.

July 31, 2012

Willie Nelson Statue, Austin

Washington, D.C., has Abraham Lincoln, Salt Lake City has Brigham Young, Philadelphia has Rocky Balboa. And now Austin has Willie. The massive bronze sculpture, which was commissioned by a local group called Capital Area Statues, rests downtown at the corner of Willie Nelson Boulevard (formerly Second Street) and Lavaca outside the new studios of Austin City

April 30, 2012

Like Father, Like Son

Andy Langer talks with Willie Nelson and his youngest son, Lukas, about "The Family," Willie's new album (Heroes), and passing the torch.

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