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One of the most prolific and respected figures in American music, multiple Grammy winner Willie Nelson was a singer, songwriter and occasional actor whose five-decade career produced some of the most memorable country and pop songs of the postwar era, including "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "On the Road Again." He was also a founding member of the outlaw country scene of the 1970s, which rebelled against the slick orchestrations of Nashville productions in favor of grittier, biographical fare. Even among that eclectic group, Nelson stood out by virtue of his unique voice and phrasing, which incorporated elements of vocal jazz and pop standards into a blend of country, blues, swing and rock. By the 1980s, Nelson had risen from cult hero to national treasure, and emerged from a lengthy battle with the IRS with his legend firmly intact and his creative drive even stronger than before. A hero to celebrities, politicians, pro-marijuana activists and the common man alike, Nelson's colorful life was matched only by his extraordinary breadth of talent.He was born Willie Hugh Nelson in Abbott, TX on April 30, 1933,...
One of the most prolific and respected figures in American music, multiple Grammy winner Willie Nelson was a singer, songwriter and occasional actor whose five-decade career produced some of the most memorable country and pop songs of the postwar era, including "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "On the Road Again." He was also a founding member of the outlaw country scene of the 1970s, which rebelled against the slick orchestrations of Nashville productions in favor of grittier, biographical fare. Even among that eclectic group, Nelson stood out by virtue of his unique voice and phrasing, which incorporated elements of vocal jazz and pop standards into a blend of country, blues, swing and rock. By the 1980s, Nelson had risen from cult hero to national treasure, and emerged from a lengthy battle with the IRS with his legend firmly intact and his creative drive even stronger than before. A hero to celebrities, politicians, pro-marijuana activists and the common man alike, Nelson's colorful life was matched only by his extraordinary breadth of talent.
He was born Willie Hugh Nelson in Abbott, TX on April 30, 1933, one of two children born to mechanic and pool hall owner Ira Doyle Nelson and his wife, Myrle Marie Greenhaw. Nelson's father died when he was still a boy, and his mother abandoned the children soon after, leaving him and sister Bobbie to be raised by their grandparents, William Nelson and Nancy Smothers. The siblings were both given music lessons, and Nelson gravitated immediately to the guitar and songwriting. His first tune was penned when he was only seven, and within two years, he was playing in a local band. He would continue to do so throughout high school, including a stint with Bobbie in Bud Fletcher's Bohemian Fiddlers, while working as a DJ at area radio stations to supplement his pay.
After graduating from high school, Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force, but chronic back problems required a discharge after only a few months. He continued to work in radio while singing at honky tonks and pursuing a recording career. In 1956, he released a cover of Leon Payne's "Lumberjack," which generated modest sales but no interest in a follow-up. In 1960, his song "Family Bible," which he sold for $50, became a hit for singer Claude Gray, spurring Nelson to move to Nashville and try his hand in the country music capital. His unique voice and phrasing, which hewed towards a mellow, nasal croon with more jazz inflections than traditional country, kept him from landing a record deal, but his skill at songwriting quickly garnered him a reputation, as well as a publishing contract with Ray Price's Pamper Music.
By 1961, several of Nelson's compositions were entering the upper stratosphere of the country charts. Faron Young's version of "Hello Walls" went to No. 1, while Patsy Cline's soaring take on "Crazy" was a crossover hit on the pop charts. Billy Walker also brought "Funny How Time Slips Away" to the Top 40, while Ray Price was the first of countless artists to cover "Night Life." Unfortunately, Nelson was unable to translate his success as a writer into a recording career. He scored two Top Ten hits: "Willingly," which he recorded with his second wife, singer Shirley Collie, and "Touch Me." Both were heavy with the lush orchestrations that were a hallmark of Nashville productions in the early 1960s. But by 1964, his singing career had lost his momentum, and after his label, Liberty, abandoned its country division, he signed with RCA and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. From 1965 to 1972, he released a wealth of material, some of which broke the Top 25, but despite his best efforts, he remained firmly outside the top ranks of country music. In 1972, he retired from the music business and relocated to Austin, TX, where he tried and failed at pig farming.
While in Austin, Nelson began to take notice of the city's music scene, which appeared to embrace a broader and more diverse audience, as well as a wider range of musical styles. At clubs like the famous Armadillo World Headquarters, it was not unusual to see hippies listening to Western swing and traditional blues alongside older establishment types, or rock fans enjoying jazz acts. Nelson took inspiration from this freedom of choice, and returned to the music scene with renewed vigor. He also cast off the clean-cut, well-scrubbed Nashville look in favor of a more counterculture aesthetic and began displaying a sizable appetite for marijuana. His music reflected this "outlaw" vibe as well, mixing jazz and swing with pre-World War II country and his own new material, which combined a gentle world-weariness and puckishly clever lyrics.
After signing with Atlantic in 1973, Nelson released a string of popular and critically acclaimed records that pushed the boundaries of country music. 1974's Phases and Stages was a concept album that detailed the collapse of a marriage, while The Red-Headed Stranger (1975) was a spare, gorgeous song-poem LP. The latter proved to be his breakthrough release, yielding his first No. 1 single, a cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Its success was the opening salvo in a series of commercial and critical hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s that put Nelson at the top of the country music heap. Wanted! The Outlaws (1976) was a compilation of previously released material by Nelson and like-minded performers Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser that became the first country music album to sell a million copies, while Waylon and Willie, a collaboration with Jennings, produced the single "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," which earned them a Grammy. Ever the individualist, Nelson even tackled an album of standards, which industry wags dubbed a failure before it was completed. But the resulting LP, Stardust (1978), was a colossal hit that held a spot on the Billboard charts for over a decade, while establishing Nelson as one of the most versatile artists in the business.
In 1979, Nelson made his acting debut as the cynical manager of Robert Redford's ex-rodeo star in Sydney Pollack's "The Electric Horseman," to which he also contributed five songs to its soundtrack. His first starring role came a year later with Jerry Schatzberg's "Honeysuckle Rose" (1980), with Nelson as a veteran country singer who returns to touring against the wishes of his wife (Dyan Cannon). Though only a modest success, Nelson gave a winning performance in a role that reflected his own life, and the picture produced "On the Road Again," a signature tune for the singer, as well as an Academy Award nominee for Best Song. An understated supporting turn as an aging con in Michael Mann's "Thief" (1981) preceded one of his best screen roles as the aging but still dangerous titular gunman in the Western "Barbarosa" (1982), a terrific latter-day example of the genre, as well as a rueful meditation on the pitfalls of mythologizing.
Nelson's music career remained exceptionally fruitful during this period as well. He scored a Top Five crossover hit on the pop charts with a 1982 cover of Elvis Presley's "Always On My Mind," then struck gold with two collaborations with Jennings, 1982's WWII and 1983's Take It To the Limit. A third duet album, Poncho and Lefty (1983) with Merle Haggard, also followed suit. He then formed a supergroup with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson called The Highwaymen, whose 1985 debut album yielded a No. 1 single with "Highwayman." Perhaps his most unlikely success during this period was 1984's "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," a duet with Latin crooner Julio Iglesias that reached No. 5 on the pop charts. The following year, he teamed with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to launch Farm Aid, an annual benefit concert supporting family farmers in the United States. Their efforts, as well as testimony before Congress, helped to pass the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which saved family farms from epidemic foreclosures that were occurring at that time.
But the bottom dropped out for Nelson in the early 1990s. The IRS presented him with a bill for some $32 million in unpaid taxes, one of the largest debts ever incurred by an individual. Nelson was forced sell most of his belongings, including his home, his recording studio and many of his gold records to pay down the fee, and later released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories, a compilation album of outtakes and demos, to fend off the government. While contending with the loss of his entire fortune, Nelson also suffered a personal setback when his son, Billy, committed suicide in 1991. Nelson eventually paid off his government debt with the help of a lawsuit against his accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, who settled for an undisclosed sum.
In 1993, he returned to recording with Across the Borderline, an eclectic mix of original material and cover songs that was his first to place on both the country and pop charts since 1985. Its critical success kicked off a steady string of releases and tours that re-established him as a vital and respected force in country music; his 1993 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Kennedy Center Honors in 1998, and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 1999 cemented his status as living legend. Despite his newly minted status as country's elder statesman, he refused to fall back on his older material. Instead, he returned to the experimental vibe of his best work from the 1970s, dabbling in blues with Milk Cow Blues (2000); standards with The Rainbow Connection (2001); collaborations with old friends like Ray Price with Run That By Me One More Time (2003) and alt-country hero Ryan Adams with Songbird (2006); jazz with Two Men with the Blues (2008); and even reggae with Countryman (2005). His 70th birthday was celebrated with the pomp and affection granted to a beloved national icon.
In addition to his prolific music career and forays into acting, Nelson was an outspoken activist for a number of liberal-minded causes. He served on the advisory board for the National Organizations for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel to promote a bio-fuel at truck stops. He was also a passionate defender of animal rights, campaigning for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and against cruelty to calves raised by major dairy corporations to produce milk. He also supported several outsider political candidates, including eccentric songwriter-turned-mystery author Kinky Friedman in his 2006 bid for governor of Texas, and Dennis Kucinich's campaign for the Presidency in 2004.
Nelson continued to act through the years, though the roles were greatly reduced in terms of dramatic impact. Instead, Nelson played variations on his own persona; in Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" (1997), Nelson played a semi-cameo as himself, crafting a patriotic song to assist in the Hollywood spin-doctoring of a political scandal. He was the Historian Smoker, who recounted marijuana usage through the ages in the pot comedy "Half Baked" (1998), then played himself as a competitive weed smoker in the broad comedy "Beerfest" (2006). However, he was the only possible choice to play the congenial Uncle Jesse in the big-screen version of "The Dukes of Hazzard" (2005), which even allowed him to enjoy some romantic moments with co-star Lynda Carter. In 2006, he appeared in a feature film based on "Beer for My Horses," a chart-topping duet with country artist Toby Keith. That same year, he released the single "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other," a gently comic Western waltz that satirized the similarities between cowboys and the gay community. The single, released in the wake of "Brokeback Mountain" (2006), was his highest charting solo release since "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" in 1984. In 2010, he generated worldwide press when he clipped his back-length hair braid, which he'd cultivated since the 1970s.
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