The music industry is extremely dynamic. Throughout the decades, you can see a huge change in music styles and genres. Musicians are generally talented figures who can touch people’s hearts through their art. Singers often gain celebrity status thanks to their talent, and some can permanently impact the industry. Many big names fade away as time goes by, and new music styles take over pop culture. It’s only the incredibly gifted ones that can truly stand the test of time.
One of these lucky individuals is Willie Nelson. He is now in his late 80s and remained well-known and loved to this day. He had a passion for music since he was a young child and never let anything stop him from reaching his dreams. That kind of determination is rare, but Nelson’s hard work paid off. However, things weren’t always easy. Nelson had a complicated life and had a hard road to success. Check out the life of Willie Nelson, one of music’s most legendary artists.
Back in the Day
Willie Nelson was born on April 29th, 1933, making him 86 years old today. Nelson was brought into the world when Franklin Roosevelt was the president of the United States, The Lone Ranger radio program debuted, the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, and the Great Depression was looming. Nelson was raised by his grandparents.
The singer was born in a Texas town, and he can trace his family back all the way back to the first war (The Revolutionary War). He has strong American roots and comes from a long line of proud Americans. Nelson always had a passion for music. He wrote his first song at age seven and joined a band at age ten.
He Was Left Alone
Willie Nelson was born into a complicated life. Unfortunately, when he was just an infant, his mother left the family. Soon after, his mechanic dad got remarried and moved away with his new wife, abandoning his son and daughter. It can be devastating for children to grow up feeling like both their mother and father don’t want them.
Children need to grow up, surrounded by love, feeling safe, and secure. For Willie, it was the complete opposite; he was left alone. Willie and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents from Arkansas. It all worked out in the end, though. It was his grandparents who introduced young Willie to music and helped him pursue his passion and God-given talent.
A Musical Passion
Although Nelson’s grandfather worked as a blacksmith, both of his grandparents were musically inclined. They were the ones that brought the magic of music into Willie’s life. When Nelson was only six, his grandfather bought him his first guitar and even taught him some basic chords. Needless to say, he’s been playing ever since.
Willie and his sister grew up singing gospel at their local church, and Willie had a clear talent for music. His life wasn’t easy, though. Every summer, Willie and other residents of their Texan town would all pick cotton together. This was exhausting and backbreaking work, especially for a child. Since Nelson hated cotton picking, at age 13, he started to make money by singing at dance halls and honky-tonks.
The All American Boy
Willie didn’t want to go back to picking cotton, so instead, he continued to sing locally throughout high school to make some money. He was able to get jobs thanks to his charm and incredible talent on the guitar. Since he was a young child, people were drawn to his singing voice. He looked up to musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Louis Armstrong.
During high school, Nelson made all of the sports teams. He played halfback in football, a shortstop in baseball, and a guard in basketball. He was also raising pigs with the Future Farmers of America, so he had his hands full. He was growing up to be a true American boy.
A Hard Worker
He was a talented sportsman and a hard worker. But his true passion was always music. His sister’s husband, Bob Fletcher, started a band called The Texans, and Willie sang and played guitar while still in high school. And don’t forget, he was also raising pigs at the time. I barely have enough time to go to the gym, let alone be on 3 sports teams, working as a singer, farmer, and in a band.
Like many artists, he worked many more odd jobs. Nelson was a phone operator, tree trimmer, and electrician. He even worked in customer service at a pawn shop, and if you have ever worked in customer service, you know it’s not easy. Willie did it all, and still, he continued singing throughout his teenage years.
A Frat Boy
Once Nelson graduated high school, he joined the United States Air Force. He came back to America in 1952 after serving for eight months. When he came home from war, he married Martha Matthews. Unfortunately, the marriage was the fairy tale ending that Willie dreamed of (but we’ll get to that later). Throughout the 50s, Willie wanted to get an education.
He attended Baylor University to study agriculture and even joined a fraternity. I’m sure frat life back then was a little bit different than it is now. Similarly to his high school years, Willie had a bunch of different jobs during college. He was trying to figure out what he wanted to do, and ultimately, he became a guitarist in Johnny Bush’s Band.
In 1955, Nelson moved his family to a different town in Texas, where he was able to make his first recordings and work as a DJ. Sadly, his first songs were rejected by a record label and didn’t do so well. It felt like his music career wasn’t going anywhere, and it affected the talented artist. On top of that, his marriage with Martha was extremely difficult.
She was violent towards the singer and even beat him with a broomstick several times. Obviously, this isn’t the way a wife and future mother should act. Willie was unhappy in a relationship where he felt unloved. He felt like his life and marriage were falling apart, but then, music came to save him.
In an attempt to find his big break, Nelson went all around America, from Portland to Vancouver to Springfield. He failed to produce a hit record, and playing in bars wasn’t helping his career, so Nelson was starting to lose hope. In 1958, Nelson had his first child and moved back to Texas. There, Larry Butler gave him his first break.
Nelson was writing songs and then selling them for a few hundred dollars. He was happy to be working with music, but he still struggled to find his big break, which was discouraging. Still, Willie was filled with passion and knew what he was meant to be doing. He didn’t give up. He continued to pursue music and make his dreams come true.
When Willie’s second child was born, he slowly moved his family to Nashville. He was hoping to find a label to sign him, but it was difficult. Eventually, a songwriter who worked for Pamper Music named Hank Cochran, heard him play at a jam session. He was so impressed that he convinced his bosses to sign Nelson.
It worked, and Nelson finally got the big break he was searching for. Willie was so kind and friendly, and the label was looking forward to working with him. Meanwhile, Nelson was continuing to write songs for other artists, but he had yet to release a song. Although he enjoyed hearing his words on the radio, he wanted to hear his voice.
His Dreams Were Coming True
In 1961, everything changed. Willie Nelson began recording and releasing his own songs. At the time, his third child was born, and his marriage was getting to a breaking point. His career, on the other hand, was finally beginning. He recorded a song with Shirley Collie called, Willingly which made it to number ten on the charts. His next song, Touch Me, was also a hit and made it to number seven on the charts.
He released a full album one year later. He worked so hard trying to pursue a music career, and his dreams were finally starting to come true with his album…And Then I Wrote. The name was pretty fitting for an artist who wrote so many songs trying to catch a break. However, almost 30 years after writing his first song, he began recording them.
Business and Pleasure
As his music career was taking off, Nelson’s marriage to Martha was falling apart. He finally divorced her because he couldn’t stand her abusive, aggressive, and violent behavior. But Nelson didn’t give up on love. Just a short while later, Nelson married Shirley Collie. Remember her? The girl he sang a duet with on his very first successful song.
The couple moved to a ranch in Tennessee, where Nelson continued to write while trying to make more music. At this point, he wasn’t only trying but succeeding. His personal life was happier, and it reflected in his music. He developed a particular sound that was about to take America by storm. He had the skills, talent, voice, and ambition.
Nelson was able to beautifully blend country, jazz, rock, and blues into his music. People appreciated a nasally yet powerful voice and unique talent. He sounds so comforting and friendly that it almost feels like you are sitting by a campfire when he sings. That soothing voice and guitar helped him earn entry into the Grand Ole Opry in 1965.
Nelson is obviously an incredible guitar player, but he also plays bass. His musical inclination was so strong that it flowed right out of him. From 1966 to 1969, his career was taking off. Many of his singles reached the top 25 on country charts, plus, he had written hit songs for other singers. However, his career didn’t fully take off yet.
A Baby Daddy
His career was kind of flat, and so was his second marriage. After it was revealed that Nelson had a child with a different woman, Shirley Collie left. That’s right – during his marriage, not only was Nelson seeing another woman, but he got her pregnant, and she had his daughter. I would divorce him, too, if I was in Collie’s position!
At this point, it was obvious that Willie wasn’t doing so well in the marriage department, and his career wasn’t looking too great either. It seemed like Willie’s life was continuously taking one step forward, two steps back. He became so angered and frustrated with these changes and his life that he decided to quit music.
Peace and Love
In an attempt to escape the music industry, Nelson moved back to Texas. He quickly got caught up with the hippy movement and was captivated by their philosophy of peace, love, and marijuana. Willie did have a kind heart and was always the kind of man who stood for peace. He was intrigued by the hippy music scene, and it brought back his passion.
While he was trying to become a successful musician, Nelson got caught up with his career and forgot why he even loved music in the first place. To him, music was a way to send messages, connect, and bring people together. Since the hippy movement helped him do that, he decided to try and pursue music one more time.
His rekindled passion for music led to the now-famous album, Shotgun Willie, which was released in 1973. At first, the album didn’t do so well, but it became very well-known since. The album showed a change in Nelson’s music style and his new outlook on life. He then released a new album based on his failed marriages.
Although the album was focused on his experiences with divorce, he took the opportunity to tell a story through music interestingly and uniquely. At this point, he started gaining praise and recognition for his musical abilities. He deservingly earned critical and commercial success. In 1974, the singer was able to create an album entirely how he wanted to.
Freedom to Feel
With completely free reign, Willie Nelson was able to pour his heart and soul into his music, and then, the album Red Headed Stranger was born. Included in this album was his cover of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, which was Nelson’s first number one hit. Audiences were able to understand Willie’s heart and feel his emotion through his music.
This eventually led his fans to feel the hope that was underlying his music throughout his entire career. He stayed focused and determined to follow his passion and follow his dreams. Nelson inspired many people when he reached his dreams of musical success. At this point, Nelson’s personal life was getting better, and his love life took an unexpected turn.
Life is Good
Nelson found love once again. He married Connie Koepke, the woman he previously cheated on Shirley with and had his daughter. Together, they had another daughter, and Connie stayed by his side as his career was blooming. Willie helped create a new music genre known as Outlaw Country. The music was quite unique compared to the typical genres at the time.
The word “outlaw” was even in the title of his first platinum album. This showed that Willie didn’t need to follow the norm to become successful. He took risks as he followed his passion, and it all paid off in the end. A platinum album is extremely rare, and he managed to achieve one thanks to his talent and determination.
Becoming a Legend
Nelson was talented in all types of music styles. Outside of his genre, Nelson had a unique musical resume. In 1976, he released a gospel album titled Troublemaker. Twenty years later, the album ultimately became a gold album. This basically means that the album continued to be successful throughout those twenty years that he earned a golden status. It’s a pretty big deal.
Meanwhile, there was a lot of drama going on between Nelson, his managers, and producers. Eventually, he switched up people who represented him. That’s when he released Stardust, a twenty-second album that got critical reviews. After that album came out, many people thought it might ruin his career. However, they couldn’t be more wrong.
A Super Star
The year that Stardust was released, it went platinum. Nelson’s career skyrocketed, and throughout the late 70s, he was topping all the charts. He came out with popular songs, including If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time, Uncloudy Day, and Good Hearted Woman. The songs touched people all around the world. Everyone related to him.
No matter what their age or where they came from, people felt something when they heard Nelson sing. Nelson was on top of the world, and it seemed like he reached the peak of his success. His music was extremely popular, and all his dreams came true. Well, the best has yet come for the singer, and it did in the 1980s.
An Award-Winning Singer
In the 1980s, one of Nelson’s most well-known songs came out, On the Road Again. The lyrics speak of friendship and destiny while the melody features plucky guitar tunes. Next came another classic Nelson song, To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before. He proved his talent further with his song, Always on My Mind; during the 25th Grammys, the song won three awards.
It won Best Country Song, Song of the Year, and Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Those awards were well-deserved. Not many people can carry such an emotional and tender sound throughout a ballad. The song even landed a spot on the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s a huge honor that most music artists don’t achieve in their careers.
Highway Men to Hell
Willie wanted to change things around when the mid-80s rolled around. Along with Johnny Cash, Kristofferson, and Jennings, he formed The Highwaymen, which quickly became an internationally famous band. They toured the world, sold millions of albums, and were constantly surrounded by screaming fans everywhere they went. It sounds like the good life.
Willie was just a little kid with big dreams and a passion for music. He went from charging $10 for a song to a global sensation, selling out stadiums, and recording with Johnny Cash. He had something special from the very start. He later released yet another solo album. This time, it included duets with Neil Young and Ray Charles, also big names in the country music world.
Meeting the President
Willie was one for taking risks and living on the edge. He decided to hitchhike to Oregon, where he was selling bibles. However, music was still his number one passion. He quickly found himself singing on the lawn on the White House. His audience was the President of the United States and the First Lady. This is a huge honor and achievement for any performer.
Just think of how unbelievable this experience must have been for him. Someone who came from nothing not only had the opportunity to perform at the White House but became a frequent guest there. Although he was on good terms with the president, Nelson did run into a few government issues, more specifically, with the IRS.
Issues with the Law
The IRS claimed that Willie Nelson owed them thirty million dollars and seized all of his assets. That is a lot of money. For most people, 30 million dollars is an unattainable fantasy that only exists in their imagination. Unfortunately, the URS claimed that the singer did not pay enough taxes on his sudden increase in income.
Ultimately, Willie’s lawyers worked it all out. Also, the friends he made throughout his career stood by his side during this difficult time. This must have been an extremely hard time for Nelson, but he didn’t have to go through it alone. I mean, can you imagine working so hard your entire life, and then someone coming in and taking all your stuff?!
Another Divorce, Another Marriage
In 1988, Willie’s marriage to Connie Kopeke ended, making it his third divorce. Nelson remained single for a little while. He must have needed a break after three failed marriages. Instead, he focused on his career. He was releasing albums, going on tour, and even performed with iconic acts, including Phish.
Eventually, Nelson did find love again. In 1991, he married Annie D’Angelo. The couple had two children together, and they are still married today. You know what they sat, fourth time is the charm. The two of them met on the set of Stagecoach when Willie was starting his film career. Annie was a makeup artist, and they have been going strong for almost three decades.
Big Voice, Bigger Heart
By the 1990’s Willie was a household name and an established musician and proved himself with country music, rock, and even jazz. He was considered a talented performer, an inspirational singer, and an overall musical genius. If you wanted a good time and an incredible show, you can count on Willie Nelson. He truly did make history when it comes to the music scene.
He had a friendly smile filled with hope and encouragement that rubbed off on everyone around him. He has been an inspiration for both aspiring musicians and music lovers all over the world. He is known as being a kind man with a generous heart. He used his celebrity status to champion many different causes.
Lending a Helping Hand
Nelson is an advocate for LGBT rights, gender equality, and race equality. He also used his powerful voice to those who had no voice, like animals. He has been trying to show the abuse that animals suffer when they are raised for the purpose of slaughter. Nelson is also actively running a campaign that focuses on helping horses live peacefully without being put down.
Nelson actually rescued dozens of horses and allows them to roam freely around his ranches. He also lends a hand to the farmers of America and advocates for the small family farmers who are being pushed out of business by large corporations taking over the industry. His charity and support doesn’t stop there. After 9/11, he performed a concert supporting America, the beautiful country he loves.
Another Important Cause
In addition to fighting for peace, Willie Nelson is also a well-known advocate for weed. Throughout his life, he has been arrested several times for marijuana possession. Luckily, he had a good lawyer who helped him get out of these charges. He is now a popular activist for the reform of laws related to weed.
In fact, once weed started to become legal in certain states across America, Nelson opened up his own marijuana brand called Willie’s Reserve. His wife Annie is completely supportive and plans to made marijuana edibles to also sell. The couple believes that the drug has true healing power and can open up your mind and heart. Many people have the same belief system when it comes to weed.
A Movie Star
Believe it or not, Nelson has many other passions outside of music. He has always loved to golf. He has been playing for years, and with all that practice, he got pretty good. In addition to golfing, Nelson was also featured in several movies. He played himself in some modern films. On and an episode of the Simpsons, he voiced himself; he also played himself in Austin Powers and Dukes of Hazzard.
However, Nelson did play characters other than himself. His most notable role was in The Electric Horseman, Pair of Aces, and Stagecoach. Apparently, Nelson loves to act and is really good at it despite not having any formal training. He learned from other actors on the job, but reportedly, he was strongly influenced by action movies.
Determined in Everything
Willie has another interesting hobby. He developed an interest in martial arts thanks to superhero comic books. His interest in martial arts followed him into adulthood, and he pursued it with the same determination he used to pursue music. Willie started official taekwondo training in the early 1980s and earned a black belt.
Nelson began to practice Korean martial arts in the 1990s and eventually, also earned a black belt in that. In 2014, he got a fifth-level black belt. What makes this more impressive is that Nelson was in his seventies at the time. He must be in incredible shape, especially for his age. It just shows that with strong determination, you can master anything you set your mind to.
The Nelson Kids
From all four of his marriages, Nelson has a total of seven children. Three from his first marriage, two from his third, and two from his fourth. Tragically, in 1991, Willie’s second-oldest son killed himself. Losing someone to suicide is never easy, and Willie took it extremely hard.
Raising that many kids is difficult enough, especially when the situation with their mothers with destructive at times. Also, he was simultaneously trying to establish a musical career. However, Willie’s children don’t seem to hold any resentment towards their father. They seem to love their dad, and some of them have gotten into the entertainment industry as well. Just as he inspired strangers, he inspired his own children.
These days, Willie gets to spend a lot of time with his family on his ranches and on his tour bus. He has a house in Hawaii, where he frequently visits. He likes to swim there and to hang out with his celebrity neighbors. Sadly, on one of his paradise vacations in Hawaii (over thirty years ago), a horrible thing happened to Willie.
He was swimming in the pool like he normally would, but one of his lungs collapsed! This was apparently due to years of smoking cigarettes and marijuana. He had to quit tobacco immediately and started smoking weed ways that didn’t harm his lungs. For the sake of his family, he took other health precautions, like taking care of his hands when he is experiencing a Carpal Tunnel.
Inspired to Inspire
Once upon a time, Nelson was influenced by musicians like Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills, Frank Sinatra, Ray Prince, Louis Armstrong, and more. He was just a young boy with big dreams. Today, millions of fans are looking to him as an inspiration. It was more than his lifestyle and life story that drew people in.
Willie’s was known for is hippy philosophies and free love. He believes everyone should live how they are, understand each other, and constantly work on themselves, which is an inspirational attitude. Nelson loves to perform aspiring performers and help encourage them. He left a powerful mark on the music industry, and everyone knows his name. He is a respected artist that nobody takes for granted.
As a musical genius, Willie Nelson is recognized as an icon. As of 1993, he has been on the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rolling Stones often includes him in their lists of top 100 Greatest Singers and the top 100 Greatest Artists. Amongst his many awards, he has a Country Music Lifetime Achievement Award named after him (because he is the first to win it).
The music legend is also recognized for all his charities and advocacy, especially in his Farm Aid to help local farmers. He is also known for his fun-loving lifestyle and his red hair – although it is now grey. He has inspired music lovers, aspiring artists, and complete strangers. He truly is one of a kind who left a mark on the world.
Lessons from Nelson
Willie brings love, memories, and peace to his life philosophies, but it wasn’t all good times for him. He was eventually successful, but he went through hard years struggling to make. He also found the love of his life, but after three previous failed marriages. If there is one thing everyone can learn from Nelson is to have faith and never give up.
No matter how old we are, it’s never too late to reach your dreams. We just have to stay determined and keep trying; it’s never too late to succeed. And of course, on the road to success, keep a smile on your face, a peaceful philosophy… and maybe a little bit of smoke (if that’s your thing).
He Wrote Crazy
As we mentioned, in 1960, Nelson was struggling to break into the music industry so, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee. That’s where he joined a band and started selling his songs to make money. He wrote some hit songs for popular artists, including Night Life (Ray Prince), Funny How Time Slips Away (Billy Walker), and Pretty Paper (Roy Orbison).
Well, in 1962, Nelson wrote Crazy, which was recorded by Patsy Cline. What neither of them knew was that it would be a breakout hit that year! It was a smashing success and is still considered one of the greatest country songs of all time. This is just more evidence proving that Nelson’s musical talent goes far beyond his voice.
Austin City Limits
Willie Nelson really enjoyed the Austin hippy scene. After getting frustrated with his life and quitting music, he adapted the hippy’s philosophy of peace and love. That was when his passion for music returned, and he started adding folk and jazz influences into his country music. This was also called Outlaw Country because it didn’t fit into the Nashville standards.
Soon after, an Austin TV station made a program called Austin City Limits, to showcase Austin music; the show became a classic on PBS. The pilot starred Willie Nelson and aired on October 14th, 1974. The production wasn’t the best, which was humorous for viewers and the singer. This show may not have even been created without Nelson and outlaw country.
His Guitar’s Name Is Trigger
Many people name their beloved possessions. Some people name their cars, and other people name their bongs, but Willie Nelson named his guitar. This isn’t so surprising considering how connected he is to music. The singer actually named his guitar Trigger, after Roy Roger’s horse, and has been with Nelson since 1969. That’s over five decades!
The guitar is Martin N-20 Classical guitar. Nelson usually plays using a pick, but the N-20 doesn’t have a pickguard. Therefore, the singer has worn a big hole next to the soundhole of his guitar. A worn-out guitar makes it that much more sentimental if you ask me. Over 100 of Nelson’s friends and associates signed the soundboard.
Biofuels Tour Bus
As we know, Nelson is an advocate for many different causes, including Farm Aid, marijuana legalization, animal rights, and more. One of the many causes that are close to his heart is biofuels. He partnered up with his wife Annie in 2004 to build two pacific Bio-diesel plants, one in Carl’s Corner, Texas, and the other in Salem, Oregon.
Nelson also formed the Willie Nelson Biodiesel (Bio-Willie) in 2005. The company sells bio-diesel bio-fuel to truck stops, and the fuel is made out of vegetable and soybean oil. It can be burned without altering the diesel engine. His tour bus, Honey Suckle Rose V, runs on the stuff. Yes, similarly to his guitar, Nelson named his tour bus.
A Gunfight at Willie’s
He isn’t called Shotgun for nothing. When Willie found out that his daughter’s husband had assaulted her, he jumped in his truck and drove to their house. Like any protective father, he ‘slapped around’ his son-in-law (which he very much deserved). Later that evening, things escalated, and the two of them got into a gunfight at Willie’s house.
Willie recalled, “I was standing in the door of the barn, and a bullet tore up the wood two feet from my head. I grabbed an M-1 rifle and shot.” Who can blame him? That must have been terrifying, but I wouldn’t mess with Willie Nelson. He ended up calling his 1973 album Shotgun Willie, and reportedly, it was after this incident.