Trumpeter and singer Willie Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in Abbot, Texas, to Ira and Myrtle Nelson, in the midst of the Great Depression. Ira was a mechanic who travelled often. Myrtle left one day to find work and never returned. Willie was raised by his grandparents and handful of aunts. His first public performance was at age 5 at a church picnic where he recited a poem he had written.
Willie’s grandfather gave him his first guitar when he was six. The family was deeply involved with the church and gospel music. Willie was obsessed with the radio, listening to the Grand Ole Opry, New Orleans jazz, big band singers, Black blues from the South, and Western swing—especially Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. At 10, young Willie played his first dancehall in a band with his older sister, Bobbie, on piano and the local football coach on trumpet. It’s been nightlife ever since.
The teenage Willie played dances and honky tonks with local musician Bud Fletcher. By the time he graduated from high school, he had his own regular radio show.
In the ensuing years, he sold Bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, worked as a janitor, studied law at Waco’s Baylor University, joined the Air Force, married, fathered and divorced.
By 1959, Willie Nelson was a 26-year-old part-time disc jockey and frequented the notorious Jacksboro Highway on the outskirts of Fort Worth where he played the roudiest beer bars. That was the year he wrote the songs “Night Life” and “Family Bible.” Because of his financial situation, he sold both songs for $200 and financed a trip to Nashville where he landed a job with Ray Price’s publishing company. Patsy Cline recorded Willie’s “Crazy” in August, 1961. Faron Young followed with “Hello Walls.” Both songs reached number one and kept the money flowing, but Nelson’s recordings for Liberty, Monument and RCA failed to connect commercially, as most good music does.
Willie recorded more than 20 albums in the ’60s but didn’t attain super-stardom until the ’70s, with hit records such as “Shotgun Willie” and “Phases & Stages” and “Red Headed Stranger”, which featured “Blue Eye’s Crying In The Rain”, an unexpected pop hit which sparked a traditional country revival and helped establish Willie as one of the top artists in country music. “Stranger” was a concept album and the simple instrumentation and spare production ran against Nashville’s conventions at the time.
Willie’s annual Farm Aid shows have called attention to the horrific and largely ignored plight of the American farmer since 1985. He has also acted in several films such as “Thief”, “The Electric Horseman”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Barbarosa” and “Wag The Dog.”
Still relavent in the ’90’s, he had an all-star record (“Spirit”), albums and performances with the Highwaymen (featuring comrades Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson), a $9 million tax debt to the IRS, and an unconventional tribute album (“Twisted Willie”) featuring X, Jello Biafra and others, as well as a version of “3 Days” performed by Willie and L7.
On May 10, 1994, Willie was arrested for marijuana possession when a police officer found a joint in his ashtray during an illegal search of his car. He faced six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Months later, he passed up performing at the Grammys to fight for his constitutional rights in a court hearing where he said: “It is becoming apparent in this country that we are losing our rights one after another.”
There were discrepancies in the officer’s version of where he found the marijuana. Also, during the encounter, police twice switched off a microphone that was part of the patrol car’s video recording system.
“He was not a fan,” Nelson said of the arresting officer. “I do think that once he found out who I was, he thought this might be good for his career.”
The judge agreed that police had no business searching Willie’s car. He threw out the evidence and, on March 23, 1995, he dropped the case entirely. Willie admitted to the press that he was a long-time regular marijuana user and took the opportunity to call for the legalization of marijuana. “I think it should be taxed and regulated like your cigarettes,” he said.
In addition to his Farm Aid activism, Willie has also endorsed Ralph Nader’s Green Party presidential candidacy as well as this year’s Millenium Marijuana March. He has also lent his voice and one of his most recognized songs (“On The Road Again”) to a 30-second radio public service announcement calling for an end to marijuana arrests and the government’s failed and misguided War on Drugs. Legend has it that Willie once fired up a joint during a visit to the White House.
Now on Island Records, Willie is experimenting with reggae and blues, remaining as creative as ever. His latest album is “Milk Cow Blues.”