With songs as familiar as the color of the sky and a face as worn as the Rocky Mountains, Willie Nelson is a true American icon. He's been instrumental in shaping both country and pop music, and his appeal crosses all social and economic boundaries. During the past half century, Willie has played countless concerts across America and around the world. Willie Nelson celebrates his 70th birthday on April 30, and Katherine Cole reports the redheaded kid from the Lone Star State still sings strong and clear.
Born in the small farming town of Abbot, Texas, Willie Nelson was raised by grandparents who gave him his first guitar when he was just six years old. Willie's first paying gig came at age ten 10. By the time he was in his teens, Willie Nelson could be found playing dances and in honky tonks throughout the state.
After a brief time in the Air Force, Willie Nelson made his living as a radio announcer, and wrote songs in his free time. He was just 26 when he wrote the now classic songs Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, and Night Life all in the same week.
Although Night Life is today considered one of the greatest blues numbers of all time, and has been recorded by everyone from B.B. King to Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson hasn't become rich off of the song. Times were so tough in 1959, that Willie sold all rights to that song for $150, and let another future hit, Family Bible, get away for a mere $50. While meager, the money from those sales was enough to fund Willie's first trip to Nashville, where he found work as a songwriter. Soon, performers including Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price were among those making hits out of Willie Nelson's songs.
In an interview last year, Willie said that while he appreciated his popularity as a songwriter, hearing other artists sing his songs was both flattering and difficult.
"I guess a writer is always critical of other people doing his material," he said. "Even though he appreciates their doing it, he wants it to sound right, I'm sure. But most of mine I've been very pleased with. Well, when you have guys like Ray Price that did Night Life, and Roy Orbison and Pretty Paper, and Faron Young and Hello Walls, Patsy Cline Crazy, those were great recordings."
By the mid-1960s, all the stars in Nashville were recording Willie Nelson's songs. Yet, no one was buying Willie's own albums. By 1970, he'd all but retired from the music business. He returned home to Texas the following year, after a fire destroyed his Nashville home. At the same time, Willie Nelson grew his hair long, regrouped his band, and realized he could make a living by just playing clubs in Texas. Away from the confines of the music establishment in Nashville, his music changed, and soon Willie Nelson and his band had merged blues, rock and country into something altogether original. Success came soon after, and in 1975, Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain became Willie Nelson's first hit as a singer.
By 1978, with his career established, Willie Nelson decided once again to go against convention. He asked Columbia records to release an album of standards including Moonlight in Vermont, Stardust and Georgia On My Mind.
They refused, until Willie pointed out that his audience was not the typical country music fan. He was right, and Stardust was a pivotal album in the history of country music, opening up the style to a whole new audience.
Thanks to hits like Georgia On My Mind, Stardust spent more than 10 years on the hit charts, and made Willie Nelson into one of the biggest country stars the industry had ever seen.
At the same time, he embarked on an acting career, with roles in film including The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose.
Willie's almost annual Fourth of July concerts have become legendary parties, while his Farm Aid shows have helped call attention to the plight of the American farmer since 1985.
The years have also seen the singer record duets with such diverse stars as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias and Neil Young, as well as with country peers Kris Kristofferson, George Jones and Merle Haggard.
Unlike most artists of his stature, Willie Nelson doesn't go on tour just for the sake of promoting an album. He still plays between 200 and 250 dates each year, and jokes that he just stops long enough to play a round of golf and make another record.
To date, Willie has recorded more than 250 albums and written over 2,500 songs, many of which are so familiar they're now considered "standards" having been recorded by countless artists. Willie Nelson's fans are celebrating his big birthday through the release of several new CDs, including The Essential Willie Nelson, a compilation featuring songs recorded over 41 years for nine different record labels. Expanded versions of some of his classic albums will be released later this year, as will a previously unreleased live concert recording.
While he's rightly famous for his singing, don't discount Willie Nelson's musicianship. As you'll hear in the title track from his 1999 instrumental album Night and Day, his guitar playing is just as distinctive as Willie Nelson's voice.