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.
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
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.
"Words and Music"
- January 6, 2006 column