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.”

Eat My Words|
April 14, 2011

Cook Like a Texan: More Last Meals

Our April “Home Plates” package included “Last Meals” from Jim Lehrer (“no dessert or coffee” – with good reason), Willie Nelson, Jason Moran (who takes up for mac-and-cheese as a vegetable), Charles Butt, Karen Hughes and Governor Rick Perry (bing-cherry congealed salad with cream cheese and pecan topping –

April 30, 2008

Say Hey Willie

To the famously short list of things that are certain in life—death and taxes—you can confidently add another: Willie Nelson sells copies of Texas Monthly. The iconic singer, golfer, actor, bus rider, weed smoker, and all-around good guy has been on our cover more times than anyone else (seven, this

April 30, 2008

One Hell of a Ride

Not bad for 75 years. It would take most artists two lifetimes to catch up to the output of wildly prolific Willie Nelson, and even then it’s inconceivable that anyone would leave a greater legacy. At first glance, the aptly titled box set One Hell of a Ride

March 31, 2008

Willie Nelson: An Epic Life

The first time nine-year-old Booger Red got drunk on beer, he decided, “I had already fucked up more ways than God was going to put up with . . . so I had in mind, the sky’s the limit from here on, I mean I can’t go to hell twice.”

March 1, 2008

Moment of Forever

Though he’d likely prefer a live afternoon session with his Family Band, Willie Nelson, to his credit, occasionally loosens his laissez-faire hegemony enough to let a producer take charge in the studio. The results, a far cry from his more casual recordings, are sometimes real successes (1993’s Across the

Jordan's Pick|
September 30, 2007

Big State Festival

Here comes another all-the-decibels-you-can-handle musical gathering. The Big State Festival, which spans a weekend this month (and has a moniker only a Texan could love), is aiming to do for country music what the Austin City Limits Music Festival does for rock and roll: that is, lure in thousands

June 30, 2006

Body of Work

For twenty years, the Southwestern Writers Collection, on the campus of Texas State University, in San Marcos, has gathered up manuscripts, personal papers, photos, and other mementos from various icons and at least one outlaw. Want to have a look-see?

December 1, 2005

Willie Nelson

“I always thought that if I was having fun doing what I was doing and making a living doing it, then I was already successful.”

January 1, 2002

Punchline Willie

We knew he could sing, of course. What we didn't know was that he had such a great sense of humor. Here are some of Willie Nelson's favorite jokes from his just-published memoir, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes.

January 1, 2001

Outlaw Country

Rick Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels could have been bigger than Willie Nelson—if only bank robbery hadn't been on the playlist.

June 30, 1999

CD and Book Reviews

MUSICTownes Van ZandtA Far Cry From DeadAristaA Townes joke: what has a front cover, a back cover, and “Pancho and Lefty”? The new Townes Van Zandt album! That song, and others like “To Live’s to Fly,” “For the Sake of the Song,” and “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die” filled the various

February 1, 1999

Music to Our Ears

Texans (natives or onetime residents) have quite an impressive record when it comes to the Grammy awards. Most years we’ve practically dominated—big surprise—the country music category, but we chalked up our share of wins in other classes too. Here’s the score:• Total number of Grammys awarded to Texans from 1958

December 1, 1998

CD and Book Reviews

Hot CDsComing Home, the debut release from Paula Nelson (Luck Records), one of Willie’s daughters, proves that the 29-year-old shares at least one thing with her father: the ability to say so much with so few words. This contemporary singer-songwriter’s CD, which deftly weaves a “chamber pop” ensemble around torchy,

September 30, 1998

The Improbable Rise of Lyle Lovett

Twenty years ago, he was inspired by the redneck rock of Steve Fromholz and Guy Clark. On his new album, he says thanks.

July 31, 1998

CD and Book Reviews

Hot CDsYou could plunk Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers down on a stage anywhere in the world, with any sidemen, and they could deliver the irresistible dit-dit-dit they’ve plied for more than thirty years without missing a beat. On The Sir Douglas Quintet/Live Texas Tornado (Takoma), a reissue of a

April 1, 1998

Full Nelson

Ain’t it funny how time slips away? Before you know it, you’ve made two hundred albums, thirty movies, and had one amazing career. What follows is the Compleat Willie: a discography—including every U.S. album release as well as his early 45 rpm singles (before he signed with RCA in

August 31, 1997

My Willie

Willie Nelson and I have been friends for years, so why did I decide only now to make him a character in one of my mystery novels? The plot thickens.

June 30, 1996

Around the State

THE MAIN EVENTWillie Powerby Erin Gromen This July 4 in Luckenbach, you can get Kinky, start Waylon, and fall Asleep at Willie Nelson’s annual picnic—.When he first sang “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys” almost twenty years ago, Waylon Jennings forever linked himself and

March 1, 1996

Steady Shawn

Austin singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin is at Cedar Creek studios this month completing a new album, to be released by Columbia Records as early as this summer. Some songs will be produced by John Leventhal, who did Colvin’s Steady On, and others by Malcolm Burn, who has worked with the Neville

News & Politics|
January 1, 1996

Walken Tall

If you can’t get enough of creepy character actor Christopher Walken, boot up The Darkening, one of this year’s CD-ROM releases from Austin’s Origin Systems. Walken, like John Hurt and Amanda Pays, plays one of the fifty characters who meet up with the game’s hero, an amnesiac who roams the

January 1, 1996

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson may not be a radio staple anymore, but a new tribute album recorded by some of rock’s coolest stars shows that his music is still moving to them.

April 30, 1991

Poor Willie

When the IRS seized all that Willie Nelson had, it was a case of the man who can’t say no meeting the men who won’t take no for an answer.

December 1, 1976

Who Killed Redneck Rock?

Love beads are out at rock concerts these days.

News & Politics|
July 31, 1976

Texas Monthly Reporter

PEOPLEThe red-hot rumor, blazing from mouth to mouth in Dallas recently, had longtime radio programming genius Gordon McLendon raising $2 million for a group of Dallas investors to buy WRR-AM, the city-owned, all-news station that’s up for sale. Not so, says son Bart McLendon, manager of McLendonowned KNUZ-FM in Dallas.

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