Nelson was born and raised in Abbott, Texas, the son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, who was a mechanic and pool hall owner. His grandparents William Alfred Nelson and Nancy Elizabeth Smothers gave him mail-order music lessons starting at age six. He wrote his first song when he was seven and was playing in a local band at age nine. Willie played the guitar, while his sister Bobbie played the piano. He met Bud Fletcher, a fiddler, and, while he was still in high school, formed a band, the Bohemian Fiddlers, that included two of his siblings.
Nelson took part in the National FFA Organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America) while in high school.
Beginning in high school Nelson worked as a disc jockey for local radio stations. Nelson had short DJ stints with KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas, and later with KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas, as well as singing gigs in honky tonk bars.
Nelson graduated from Abbott High School in 1951. He joined the Air Force the same year but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. He then studied agriculture at Baylor University for one year in 1954.
In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career, recording "Lumberjack," which was written by Leon Payne. The single sold fairly well, but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer in Vancouver and to sing in clubs. He sold a song called "Family Bible" for $50; the song was a hit for Claude Gray in 1960, has been covered widely and is often considered a gospel music classic.
Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960, but was unable to land a record label contract. He did, however, receive a publishing contract at Pamper Music. After Ray Price recorded Nelson's "Night Life" (reputedly the most covered country song of all time; a version of "Night Life" was even recorded by convicted killer and former cult leader Charles Manson), Nelson joined Price's touring band as a bass player. While playing with Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, many of Nelson's songs became hits for some of country and pop music's biggest stars of the time. These songs include "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker), "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison) and most famously, "Crazy" (Patsy Cline). Willie later did an album with Ray Price in 1980 called San Antonio Rose. Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released several singles, including "Willingly" (sung with his wife, Shirley Collie) and "Touch Me."
He was unable to keep his momentum going, however, and Nelson's career ground to a halt. Demo recordings from his years as a songwriter for Pamper Music were later discovered and released as Crazy: The Demo Sessions in 2003.
In 1965, Nelson moved to rca victor Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry. He released a string of standard, mid-60s nashville sound-inspired country albums, mostly produced by Chet Atkins. He had a number of mid-level chart hits throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the early '70s, before retiring and moving to Austin, Texas. While in Austin, with its burgeoning "hippie" music scene (see Armadillo World Headquarters), Nelson decided to return to music. His popularity in Austin soared, as he played his own brand of country music marked by rock and roll, jazz, western swing, and folk influences. A lifelong passion for running and a new commitment to his own health also began during this period.
In the mid 1970's, Nelson purchased property near Lake Travis in Austin and converted Pedernales Country Club into the Perdernales Studio. The studio underwent state of the art renovations in the mid 1990's, and many top artists recorded there. Its amenities include a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts and an Olympic size swimming pool.
Nelson signed with Atlantic Records and released Shotgun Willie in 1973, which won excellent reviews but did not sell well. Phases and Stages (1974), a concept album inspired by his divorce, included the hit single "Bloody Mary Morning." Nelson then moved to Columbia Records, where he was given complete creative control over his work. The result was the critically acclaimed, massively popular concept album, Red Headed Stranger (1975). Although Columbia was reluctant to release an album with primarily a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson insisted (with the assistance of Waylon Jennings), and the album was a huge hit, partially because it included a popular cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (written by Fred Rose in 1945). "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" became Nelson's first number one hit as a singer.
Along with Nelson, Waylon Jennings was also achieving success in country music in the early 1970s, and the pair were soon combined into a genre called outlaw country ("outlaw" because it did not conform to Nashville standards). Nelson's outlaw image was cemented with the release of the album Wanted! The Outlaws (1976, with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser), country music's first platinum album. Nelson continued to top the charts with hit songs during the late 1970s, including "Good Hearted Woman" (a duet with Jennings), "Remember Me", "If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time", "Uncloudy Day", "I Love You A Thousand Ways", and "Something To Brag About" (a duet with Mary Kay Place).
In 1978, Nelson released two more platinum albums, Waylon And Willie (a collaboration with Jennings that included "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," which was written and originally recorded as a hit single by Ed Bruce a couple of years earlier), and Stardust, an unusual album of popular standards. It was produced by Booker T. Jones. Though most observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it ended up being one of his most successful recordings. Willie also had a notable success with the CD titled Half Nelson, including such great artists as Ray Charles.
Nelson began acting, appearing in The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Thief (1981), and Barbarosa (1982). Also in 1982 he played the character Red Loon in Coming Out of the Ice with John Savage. In 1984 he starred in the movie Songwriter with Kris Kristoferson guest starring. He then had the lead role in Red Headed Stranger (1986, with Morgan Fairchild), Wag the Dog (1997), Gone Fishin' (1997) as Billy 'Catch' Pooler, the 1986 TV movie Stagecoach (with Johnny Cash), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and Surfer, Dude (2008).
He has continued acting since his early successes, but usually in smaller roles and cameos, some of which involve his status as a cannabis activist and icon. One of his more popular recent cameos was a performance in Half Baked as an elderly "Historian Smoker" who, while smoking marijuana, would reminisce about how things used to be in his younger years. Nelson also appeared as himself in the 2006 movie Beerfest, looking for teammates to join him in a mythical world-championship cannabis-smoking contest held in Amsterdam. That same week Willie Nelson recorded, "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again" with Toby Keith.
He has made guest appearances on Miami Vice (1986's "El Viejo" episode), Delta, Nash Bridges, The Simpsons, Monk, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, King of the Hill, Bones and The Colbert Report. He played country singer-songwriter Johnny Dean in the 1997 film Wag the Dog. He played Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard, the 2005 cinematic treatment of the television series, and was the only member of the big screen cast to reprise the role in the TV/DVD movie prequel The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning (2007) (V). He also briefly appeared in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
The Eighties saw a series of hit singles: "Midnight Rider" (1980; a cover of the Allman Brothers song, which Nelson recorded for The Electric Horseman soundtrack), "On The Road Again" (1982) from the movie Honeysuckle Rose and "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" (a duet with Julio Iglesias). There were also more popular albums, including Pancho & Lefty (1982, with Merle Haggard), WWII (1982, with Waylon Jennings) and Take It To The Limit (1983, with Waylon Jennings).
In the mid-1980s, Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash formed a group called The Highwaymen. They achieved unexpectedly massive success, including platinum record sales and worldwide touring. Meanwhile, he became more and more involved in charity work, such as singing on the We Are the World single in 1984 and establishing the Farm Aid concerts in 1985.
In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) handed Nelson a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes and seized most of his assets to help pay the charges. He released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS. Many of his assets were auctioned and purchased by friends, who gave his possessions back to him or rented them at a nominal fee. He sued accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contending that they put him into tax shelters that were later disallowed. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. His debts were paid by 1993.
In 1996, Willie Nelson was featured on The Beach Boys' now out-of-print album Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1 singing a cover of their 1964 song "The Warmth of the Sun" with the Beach Boys themselves providing the harmonies and backing vocals. He also starred in Baywatch as an old man in boxer shorts.
He released Across The Borderline in 1993, with guests Bob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Simon.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Nelson has toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews, with the exception of 1998's critically acclaimed Teatro (which was produced by Daniel Lanois—more commonly known for his work with U2—and featured supporting vocals by Emmylou Harris). Later that year, he joined rock band Phish onstage for several songs as part of the annual Farm Aid festival. He also performed a duet concert with fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, recorded for the VH1 Storytellers series.
Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. A star-studded television special celebrating his 70th birthday aired in 2003. In 2004, he released Outlaws & Angels, featuring guests Toby Keith, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Al Green, Shelby Lynne, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Ben Harper, Lee Ann Womack, The Holmes Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rickie Lee Jones. The book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski was released in April, 2008. Mr. Patoski did over 100 interviews with Willie, his family, his band, the people he grew up with in Abbott, and many others. This is part biography, part memoir, part history, from the Depression to Willie as he celebrates his 75th birthday.
In 2007, Nelson performed with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in a concert at New York City's Lincoln Center, a date commemorated the following year with both a compact disc (titled Two Men With The Blues) and DVD.
Also in 2008, Willie Nelson teamed up with World Idol contest winner Kurt Nilsen from Norway and recorded the duet American classic "Lost Highway". The duet reached the top of the charts in Norway, and was performed live for the first time when Nelson made a surprise guest appearance at Nilsen's show in Hamar on 2 May.
In 2004, Nelson and his wife Annie became partners with Bob and Kelly King in the building of two Pacific Bio-diesel plants, one in Salem, Oregon, and the other in Carl's Corner, Texas, (the Texas plant was founded by Carl Cornelius, a longtime Nelson friend). In 2005, Nelson and several other business partners formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel ("Bio-Willie"), a company that is marketing bio-diesel bio-fuel to truck stops. The fuel is made from vegetable oil (mainly soybean oil), and can be burned without modification in diesel engines.
Nelson is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board. He has worked with NORML for years for marijuana legalization and has produced commercials for NORML that have appeared on Pot TV programs. He has also recorded a number of radio commercials for the organization. In 2005, Nelson and his family hosted the first annual "Willie Nelson & NORML Benefit Golf Tournament," which appeared on the cover of High Times magazine.
On January 9, 2005, Nelson headlined an all-star concert at Austin Music Hall to benefit the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia raised an estimated $120,000 for UNICEF and two other organizations.
Nelson was a supporter of Kinky Friedman's campaign in the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election. In 2005, he recorded a radio advertisement asking for support to put Friedman on the ballot as an independent candidate. Friedman promised Willie a job in Austin as the head of a new Texas Energy Commission due to Nelson's support of bio-fuels. (Friedman was on the ballot but came in fourth with 12.43 percent, losing to Republican Rick Perry).
Nelson supported Dennis Kucinich's campaign in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. He raised money, appeared at events, composed a song ("Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?"), and contributing a quote for the front cover of Kucinich's book for the campaign. In January 2008, Nelson filed suit against the Texas Democratic Party. Nelson alleges that the party violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution when it refused to allow co-plaintiff Dennis Kucinich to appear on the primary ballot because he had scratched out part of the loyalty oath on his application.
Nelson is an honorary trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum.
Nelson is an advocate for horses and their treatment. He has been campaigning for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) with the Animal Welfare Institute. He is on the Board of Directors and has adopted a number of horses from Habitat for Horses.
In March 2007, Ben & Jerry's released a new flavor, "Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler Ice Cream". Nelson's proceeds will be donated to Farm Aid. The flavor has been re-released and is now available, after Ben & Jerry's voluntary recall of 250,000 pints of the new flavor on March 19, 2007, as wheat was incorrectly excluded from the list of ingredients.
Willie Nelson founded the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute in April 2007. Nelson and his daughter Amy Nelson wrote a song called "A Peaceful Solution", which they released into the public domain, and encouraged artists to render their own version of the song, which he would feature on the Institute's web site.
Nelson questions the official story of what happened on September 11. On February 4, 2008, Nelson appeared on Alex Jones's radio show and talked about the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, stating his belief that the Twin Towers and WTC7 were imploded: "I saw one fall and it was just so symmetrical, I said wait a minute I just saw that last week at the casino in Las Vegas and you see these implosions all the time and the next one fell and I said hell there's another one - and they're trying to tell me that an airplane did it and I can't go along with that."
Nelson released the song "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other," a song promoting the awareness and acceptance of homosexuality, in reference to gay cowboys, as a digital single through the iTunes Music Store on Valentine's Day 2006, shortly after the release of the film Brokeback Mountain. The song was encouraged by Nelson's tour manager and close friend David Anderson, who said "This song obviously has special meaning to me in more ways than one. I want people to know more than anything—gay, straight, whatever—just how cool Willie is and … his way of thinking, his tolerance, everything about him." Regarding the song, Nelson quoted "The song's been in the closet for 20 years. The timing's right for it to come out. I'm just opening the door."
During the controversial 2003 Texas Congressional Redistricting, Nelson made the news by sending a case of whiskey to the Democrats of the Texas Legislature. An attached note read "Stand your ground." In 2005 a Democratic representative in Texas' legislature attempted to name part of a highway after Nelson, but after opposition Willie did not want his name associated with the controversial toll road. And when some Republican lawmakers claimed Nelson did not warrant mention since he had nothing to do with the creation of the highway, the representative dropped his plan.
Willie Nelson performed a duet of "Beer For My Horses" with Toby Keith on Keith's Unleashed album released in 2002. This song was released as a single in 2003 and Nelson shot a video with Keith in 2003. It won an award for "Best Video" at the Academy of Country Music Awards held on May 26, 2004.
In 2002, Nelson signed a deal to become the official spokesperson to the Texas Roadhouse, a fast-growing chain of steakhouses in the U.S. Since then, Nelson has heavily promoted the chain, including a special on Food Network. Meanwhile the Texas Roadhouse itself installed "Willie's Corner" at several locations, which are a section dedicated to Nelson and decked out with memorabilia.
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