Artist and Musician Biographies


Here is a Youtube Playlist of Music by Willie Nelson.

In 1933 in Abbot, Texas, Ira and Myrle Nelson gave birth to a son they called Willie Nelson. Shortly after, however, Willie's father would die and his mother would abandon the boy and his sister, Bobbie Lee. The two children were then taken in by their paternal grandparents and raised to be music lovers. Each child selected an instrument to study; Willie chose guitar and Bobbie, piano.

Willie loved listening to a variety of music as a child. He had a great love of Frank Sinatra, but he also listened to Big Band and Texas country music. Willie gave his first public music performance at the age of ten when he played for a dance. He continued to play at dances and local entertainment establishments throughout high school, sometimes joining the fiddle player, Bud Fletcher, whom Bobbie Lee Nelson would eventually marry. During school, Willie also kept jobs as a door-to-door salesman and a disc jockey at a local radio station.

After Nelson graduated from high school, he joined the United States Air Force, but soon had to be discharged due to back problems. Needing fulltime employment, he returned to radio and became a country music DJ at KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas in 1954.

Nelson had not given up singing in clubs and by 1956, he had decided to record some music. Without the help of a record label, he recorded his first song, "No Place for Me" and sold it. After briefly relocating to Vancouver, Washington, he recorded a cover of the Leon Payne piece, "Lumberjack" and received some positive local attention. He was writing other music at the same time and sold "Family Bible" for mere pocket change only to have it be made a hit by Claude Gray in 1960.

In 1961, Nelson made an important move to Nashville, Tennessee in order to sell his music. During his time in Nashville he did attempt to record some work. Although his demos were consistently rejected, his flare for songwriting landed him a contract with Pamper Music. He still kept his foot in the door of live performance when he played as a bassist with the Cherokee Cowboys. At the beginning, the sales of Nelson's songs kept him afloat and helped to make stars out of other performers. Faron Young held the number one spot for nine weeks with Nelson's "Hello Walls" and Patsy Cline took "Crazy" and made it into a hit in both the country and pop realms.

But it was Nelson's stint as a Cherokee Cowboys bassist that gave him his big break. Willie eventually formed his own touring band with members of the Cowboys and made a deal with Liberty Records to begin releasing a series of singles. In 1962, he and his current wife, Shirley Collie, got into the top ten with "Willingly" and then also with "Touch Me." But just when Nelson was teetering on the edge of stardom, Liberty Records closed the door on its country section in 1964.

In search of another label, Nelson signed on with Monument but had little success. He then moved to RCA in 1965 and also became a Grand Ole Opry member. Modest success was achieved during the following seven years that climaxed with "Bring Me Sunshine" at number 13 in the charts in 1969. The early 1970's proved bleak for Nelson and in 1972 he packed his bags and returned to Texas. Frustrated by music, he took a fruitless side trip into hog farming. He tried to go back into the sales of his songs, but found that Texas did not have the demand for music that Nashville did.

He did find, however, that there was still a large group of country music fans in Texas. Signing on with Atlantic records, he began recording and performing again having modified his style into a rock influenced folk music that was deemed by some to be redneck style. Nelson's first album with Atlantic, "Shotgun Willie" (1973), was only a moderate commercial success, but won Nelson a faithful following of fans. It is important to remember that Willie had long been unhappy with the music scene in Nashville because it was too predictable, and this move to Texas freed him from the Nashville formula. Willie settled in Austin and there spearheaded what became known as the "Outlaw" movement in country music. In late 1973 he found his way back into the country top forty with a cover of Bob Will's "Stay All Night." He boosted his fan base again in 1974 with Phases and Stages that produced the hits "Bloody Mary Morning" and "After the Fire is Gone."

His ultimate stardom was still yet to come. His next move was to change labels again and move to Columbia in 1975. Here, he was allowed full creative freedom with his records and Nelson responded with the minimalist album, Red Headed Stranger. This album was about a minister and employed only Willie's voice, guitar and Bobbie Lee Nelson's piano. Reluctant to release such a bare album, Columbia finally did and the single "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" achieved wide success.

True stardom was finally met with many other hits coming in the late 1970's, among them the Waylon Jennings and Nelson piece "Good Hearted Woman." Willie experienced a stellar year in 1978. Two albums became very hot commodities: the early 1978 Waylon and Willie with "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "Stardust", later in the year. Nelson continued on in the 1980's and had a 1982 hit with Elvis Presley's "Always on My Mind." Like many musicians, Nelson also took up acting and appeared in an assortment of films including "The Electric Horseman" and "Honeysuckle Rose" that featured his hit song "On the Road Again" (1983).

In 1985, Willie founded Farm Aid with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to help rural American causes. Over the years, this series of concerts has raised millions of dollars to help farmers and brought the plight of the small American farmer a great deal of public attention.

The 1990's were a mixed time for Willie as he was plagued by the IRS in pursuit of back taxes in 1990. He lost much of what he owned and even released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? in order to raise money to lessen his debt. By 1993, he was debt-free and he began recording again and released Across the Borderline with guest spots by Bonnie Rait, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Sinead O'Connor, Kris Kristofferson and David Crosby. He was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and has continued to release about one album a year since then.

Willie's enduring popularity is built upon a unique musical approach that combines traditional country with pop, western swing, cowboy songs, jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk, and rock. This is a combination, which appeals to both country and pop music fans.

Page author: N.G. & C.F.