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Texas | Music | "Words and Music"


by Dorothy Hamm
Native 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.

The 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.

Fortunately 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.

Nelson 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.

When asked 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.

© Dorothy Hamm
"Words and Music" Column - January 6, 2006 column

Willie Nelson Related Articles:

Abbott, Texas
"Old-timers still remember Willie carrying his guitar to school..."

Wild Willie's Picnic by Murray Montgomery
July 1976 in Gonzales County

Willie Nelson Loses Domino Championship by Michael Barr 2-1-23

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