This story is part of a #30DayWritingChallenge chronicling historical figures of Austin. Read this for more context.
This is something of a cheat, but I am going to see him at ACL Live this evening, so it’s timely. Plus, technically a few blocks of 2nd St. are named after him, so.
Willie Nelson was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, a small town north of Waco in Texas’ Hill Country. Abbott’s population peaked in 1914 at 713 people. It has declined since then.
Willie was named by his cousin Mildred. She also gave him the middle name Hugh in honor of her little brother, who had recently passed away. Though Willie was born on April 29th, his birthday was recorded by the doctor as April 30th.
Willie’s mother left the family soon after his birth, and his father, who remarried, left shortly after. Willie and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents, who taught singing and encouraged their grandchildren to get into music. Willie received his first guitar, from his grandfather, at six and wrote his first song at seven. Together with his sister, Willie sang gospel at church and started playing in the local band, Bohemia Polka, at age nine. At age 13, Willie started earning money singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky tonks.
After graduating from Abbott High School, where he played football, baseball, and basketball, Willie enlisted in the Air Force. Due to back problems, he was honorably discharged less than a year later. He got married and attended Waco’s Baylor University for two years, studying agriculture and joining a frat.
Willie ended up dropping out of Baylor to pursue a career in music, and his career path included stints as a bouncer and a radio DJ, as well as a tree trimmer and pawn shop employee.
Willie bounced around a fair bit for a few years, from San Diego to Portland to Vancouver to Springfield, Missouri, before settling in Nashville in 1960. In Nashville, he couldn’t find a label to sign him, but often played at a bar called Tootsie’s. Tootsie’s was not too far from the Grand Ole Opry and was frequented by singers and songwriters involved in the show, and Willie’s career started taking off thanks to some of the connections he made there.
A pivotal moment for Willie was the night he played a demo tape of a song called “Crazy” for Patsy Cline’s husband Dick. Dick played the tape for Patsy later that evening and she decided to record it. “Crazy” went on to become the most popular jukebox song of all time.
Still, Willie’s sound didn’t fit in well with the traditional Nashville country music scene. His resistance to studio efforts to transform his sound, together with a reputation as a hard-living, hard-drinking man, made Willie something of an outlaw.
In 1970, after his home in Tennessee was destroyed by a fire, Willie moved to Austin, where he quickly embraced, and was embraced by, the burgeoning hippie music scene. His popularity in Austin soared and he started hosting his now-legendary Fourth of July picnics. A description of the picnics, from Biography:
Inspired by Woodstock, the gatherings became popular musical celebrations and included performances from other country music outlaws, such as Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. In honor of his contributions, in 1975 the Texas State Senate declared July 4 to be Willie Nelson Day. The annual event remains a popular attraction to the present.
Willie started achieving critical and commercial success in 1975, when his album Red-Headed Stranger not only reached number one on the country music charts, it also achieved crossover success on the pop Top 40. Willie paired up with Waylon Jennings “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which won the 1978 Grammy Award for best country vocal performance by a duo or group.
Other collaborators Willie has worked with during his long career include:
- Julio Iglesias
- Johnny Cash
- Merle Haggard
- Kris Kristofferson
- Sheryl Crow
- Cyndi Lauper
- Snoop Dogg
Willie also started working in the film industry in the late 70s, appearing with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in 1979’s The Electric Horseman. He also visited the White House frequently during the Carter administration, WHERE HE APPARENTLY SMOKED POT ON THE ROOF.
In the 1980s, Willie started getting more involved with charity work, singing on “We Are the World” in 1984 and launching Farm Aid. Willie’s activist work continues to this day, and extends to supporting his home town of Abbott, investing in green fuel, and protecting animal welfare.
The 1990s were rocky for Willie. He got in some trouble with the IRS, who fined him $16 million for failing to pay taxes and seized most of his property. His son Billy died by suicide on Christmas Day in 1991. In 1994, he was arrested for marijuana possession.
Willie is now well into his 80s and remains active and relevant, in both music and as a powerful force for social good. He tours heavily, playing up to 200 shows a year. He released one album in 2017 and two in 2018. He earned his fifth-degree black belt in the martial art GongKwon Yusul at the age of 81. He continues to appear in movies. And in 2015, he launched Willie’s Reserve, a line of marijuana products grown and sold in the few states where it is already legal.
Widely considered an American icon, Willie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. In 2015, Willie won the Gershwin Prize, the lifetime award of the Library of Congress. In 2014, his braids were sold for $37,000 at an auction of the Waylon Jennings estate. Also in 2014, he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame.
Willie has been married four times and has seven children. In 1991, he married Ann Marie D’Angelo. They have two sons, one of whom, Lukas, also has a successful music career. The couple currently resides in Hawaii.