Texan Willie Nelson is warm, witty, talented, intelligent, caring, loyal, and
a country music icon of gigantic proportions. He is also a humanitarian. He’s
celebrated more than 70 birthdays, yet the songwriter, actor, musician and singer
shows no signs of slowing his pace as he continues to record, tour, play golf
and lend his name and talents to causes he believes in such as a recent benefit
concert with Arlo Guthrie in New Orleans to help musicians displaced by hurricane
Katrina. When the courthouse
in Hillsboro burned down in the
1990s he staged a benefit concert to help raise funds to rebuild it. Ditto when
Carl’s Corner, a truck stop on Interstate 35 south of Dallas
near Hillsboro, burned down. Nelson
scheduled a benefit concert to help his friend and domino playing partner, Carl
Cornelius, rebuild. |
Nelson is a red white and blue American who has never
forgotten his small town roots. He is a founding member Farm Aid, established
to help family farmers survive and raise awareness of the problems they must deal
with. Farm Aid concerts have generated millions of dollars for farmers since it
was established in 1985.
More recently Nelson lent his name to Willie’s
Biodiesel, a combination vegetable oil and petroleum fuel that could help reduce
our nation’s dependence on foreign oil while providing cash crops for family farmers.
It is difficult to even try to imagine the country music landscape without Nelson.
He has grown into one of our most enduring and beloved entertainers. Yet there
was a time when the country music didn’t seem to have a place for him. Industry
folk admired his talent as a songwriter but when it came to singing one of his
boss’s, I think it may have been Johnny Bush, once asked him not to.
problem, the way some saw it, was Nelson did not sound like anyone anywhere. He
had this sort of flat voice that sounded like he was carrying on an intimate conversation
with his audience. And his phrasing was, well, it was unique. I’ve heard stories
about how he played for some rowdy audiences in the Fort
Worth-Dallas area in the early days
of his. At least some of them are probably true. But the few times I remember
seeing him in the days when he was still an opening act, the audience listened
as if mesmerized. You could have heard that proverbial pin drop.
for everyone, Nelson either could not or would not follow the advice of the people
who wanted shape him into a mold of someone else. He kept doing things his way
even when that way was branded “outlaw country.” Eventually, when the world at
large had enough time to get used to Nelson’s style, they realized that was the
way they had wanted him to do it all along. And so everyone lived happily ever
after, more or less.
was born in Abbott, Texas,
a small farming community south of Fort
Worth. He and his sister Bobbie were raised by his grandparents who encouraged
the children’s musical abilities from an early age. His grandfather is credited
with giving Nelson his first guitar. By age seven Nelson was writing songs and
by at age 10 made his professional debut in a polka band. At age thirteen he put
together his own musical group, but he was decades away from “having it made.”
A short stint in the Air Force during the Korean conflict was followed with a
study in agriculture and business at Baylor University in Waco.
In the mid-1950s Nelson was writing some great songs but he was struggling financially.
For a total of $150 he sold rights to two songs that were destined to become classics.
Night Life, a song at first considered too bluesy for country would be
recorded by dozens of artists, and Family Bible, a song that reflects his
bible-belt roots. While he was struggling to establish a career in Nashville,
one of the songs he’d sold became a hit. Another man might have felt regret, but
Nelson does not appear to be a man who dwells on negativity or might-have-beens.
When asked why he sold the songs on recent televised interview, Nelson said he
needed the money. And he knew he could write more.
Nelson’s belief in
himself served him well in the ensuing years as he experienced highs and lows
both personally and professionally. He gained respect as a writer but his success
as a recording artist was slower in developing. In 1971 that began to change with
an album titled Shotgun Willie. Within six months it had out sold all his
previous recording efforts. This was followed by Phases and Stages in 1974
which sold 400,000 copies.
In 1973 Nelson staged his first Fourth
of July Picnic in Dripping
Springs. He would later say that was where he and his audience found each
other and started growing together. Then a chance meeting with Robert Redford
on a plane led to Nelson being offered an acting role in the movie Electric
Horseman and another door opened in Nelson’s career. A string of movies and
television productions have since followed including, Honeysuckle Rose,
Barbarosa, Stagecoach and Songwriter.
recently if he had thought about retiring Nelson said, I make music and I play
golf, which would I give up? One thing is sure, as long as Nelson wants to make
music he has legions of fans of all ages who will be there to hear him.
and Music" Column
- January 6, 2006 column
Texas Music & Musicians | People
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Phases and Stages