Childhood & Early Life
Willie Nelson was born on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, during the Great Depression. His father, Ira Doyle Nelson, worked as a mechanic, and his mother, Myrle Marie, was a homemaker.
Willie did not have an average childhood. Soon after his birth, his mother left the family, and sometime later, his father, too, abandoned them after marrying another woman. Willie and his sister, Bobbie, were raised by their grandparents, who lived in Arkansas and taught music for a living. Under their guardianship, Willie and Bobbie started getting inclined toward music.
Willie got his first guitar at the age of 6. It was a gift from his grandfather. His grandfather would take the siblings to a nearby church where Willie would play the guitar and his sister would sing the Gospel. By the age of 7, Nelson started writing his very own songs, and a few years later, he joined his first music band.
By the time he reached middle school, he was playing music all over the state. His family picked cotton during summers, but Willie made money by playing music in parties, halls, and other small venues.
He was part of a local, small-time country music band, ‘Bohemian Polka,’ and learned a lot from that experience. He attended ‘Abbott High School.’ In school, he developed a liking toward sports and was part of the school’s football and basketball teams. While in school, he also sang and played the guitar for a band named ‘The Texans.’ He completed high school in 1950.
Willie joined the ‘American Air Force’ soon after graduating from high school but was being honorably discharged within a year due to a back pain. In the mid-1950s, he joined ‘Baylor University’ and studied farming, but midway through the program, he decided to quit academics and pursue music seriously.
In the next few months, utterly confused and broke, Willie moved to different places in search of a job. He decided to go to Portland, where his mother lived. He finally reached Portland on a loan of US$ 10 from a driver.
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By 1956, Willie had started looking for full-time work. He headed to Vancouver, Washington. There, he met Leon Payne, who was an esteemed country singer and songwriter, and their collaboration created the song ‘Lumberjack.’ The song sold three thousand copies, which was a respectable figure for an indie artist. However, it did not bring Willie the fame and money that he thought he deserved. He worked as a disc jockey for the next few years, before moving to Nashville.
Willie made several demo tapes and sent them to major record labels, but his jazzy and laid-back music did not attract them. However, his songwriting abilities did get noticed by Hank Cochran, who recommended Willie to ‘Pamper Music,’ a popular music label. The label was co-owned by Ray Price. Ray was impressed by Willie’s music and invited him to join the band ‘Cherokee Cowboys.’ Willie became part of the band as a bass player.
By the early 1960s, touring with the ‘Cowboys’ proved greatly beneficial for Willie, as his talent was noticed by other band members. He also began producing music and writing songs for several other artists. During this early stage of his career, he collaborated with ace country musicians Faron Young, Billy Walker, and Patsy Cline. Several of his singles made their way to the ‘Country Top 40’ chart.
He recorded a duet with his then-wife, Shirley Collie, titled ‘Willingly.’ The song became a big hit. Soon after, his songs stopped resonating with the listeners, and after a couple of years, he changed the music label. He joined ‘RCA Victor’ (now ‘RCA Records’) in 1965 but was disappointed yet again. This continued till the early 1970s, when he finally decided to quit music and returned back to Austin, Texas, where he focused on pig farming.
He then closely observed the reasons behind his failure in music. He decided to give music a final shot and experimented with a rock-influenced country sound. The transformation worked, and he landed a record deal with ‘Atlantic Records.’ This was the true beginning of his music career.
Willie released his debut album for ‘Atlantic,’ titled ‘Shotgun Willie,’ in 1973. The album presented fresh sounds but did not immediately receive encouraging reviews. Over time, the album picked up pace and attained cult success. ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ and the cover version of ‘After the Fire Is Gone’ were two of his big hits in the mid-1970s. However, Willie thought that he did not have complete creative control over his final output.
In 1975, Willie released the album ‘Red Headed Stranger,’ which was a sleeper hit. In 1978, Willie released two albums: ‘Waylon and Willie’ and ‘Stardust.’ Both the albums were big successes and turned Willie into the biggest country music star at that time.
In the 1980s, Willie reached the ultimate peak of his career, delivering a number of hits. His cover for Elvis Presley’s ‘Always on My Mind’ from the album of the same name topped many charts. The album, which released in 1982, garnered the “quadruple-platinum” status. He also collaborated with Latin pop star Julio Iglesias for the single ‘To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,’ and it became another career milestone for Willie.
‘The Highwaymen,’ formed by Willie, was a legendary supergroup of a number of major country music stars such as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. It became a rage with the release of their self-titled album. The late-1980s saw the arrival of many more young country musicians who followed Willie’s style.
Willie’s success began to fade away gradually. The success of his 1993 solo album, ‘Across the Borderline,’ was followed by some mediocre work. The same year, he was inducted into the ‘Country Music Hall of Fame.’ In the next few years, Willie attained success with a string of albums such as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Teatro,’ ‘Night and Day,’ and ‘Milk Cow Blues.’
Even after turning 80, Willie has not stopped making music. In 2014, around his 81st birthday, Nelson released yet another album, ‘Band of Brothers,’ and delivered a number one country hit.
Willie has regularly appeared in films and TV series, too. Some of his most popular films are ‘The Electric Horseman,’ ‘Starlight,’ ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ ‘Blonde Ambition,’ and ‘Zoolander 2.’
Willie has penned more than half a dozen books, and some of his most popular books are ‘The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes,’ ‘Pretty Paper,’ and ‘It’s a Long Story: My Life.’