With his long-time friend and fellow Texan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson pioneered country music's "outlaw" movement of the 1970's. But he'd been a well-known and respected songwriter for many years before, with credits including Ray Price's hit "Night Life," Patsy Cline's "Crazy," and Billy Walker's "(Funny) How Time Slips Away" - all of which became standards in the country (and to some degree pop) music repertoires. His distinctive style on the gut-string guitar and jazzy vocal phrasing mark him as a true original, with influences far beyond the musical sphere surrounding Nashville - whose musical community for many years didn't know quite what to make of him.
Born April 30, 1933 in Abbott, a small town south of Austin, Nelson learned to play guitar at a young age; his older sister, Bobbie, learned piano. In high school, Willie fronted a band lead by fiddler Bud Fletcher; Bobbie's husband. .Following a brief stint in the Air Force, Willie moved from town to town, often working as a disc jockey in addition to time spent on the bandstand. His first hit as a songwriter was "Family Bible," recorded by Claude Gray in 1960. Moving to Nashville, Willie was signed to a music publisher co-owned by Ray Price. Recording "Night Life," Price hired Willie to join his Cherokee Cowboys band as bassist.
Nelson recorded several albums for the Liberty and RCA Victor labels, with limited commercial success, though his reputation as a songwriter continued to grow, After a divorce from his second wife and losing his Nashville home in a 1970 fire, Nelson moved back to Texas and dove into the counterculture lifestyle; trading his shiny business suits for denim, letting his hair grow to shoulder length, and adopting his trademark-to-be headband.
When Atlantic started its short-lived (at the time) country division in 1973, Willie was among the first - and was the best-known - artists contracted. He recorded four albums for the label, only two of which - Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages - were released on the label at the time. In 1973, Willie held the first of his Woodstock-inspired "Picnic" festivals in Dripping Springs, Texas, cleverly booking a combination of old and young Nashville and Texas performers. Later, Nelson would expand the format, inviting rock musicians as well, for the Farm Aid concerts aiding independent farmers.
Signed to Columbia Records, Nelson's first effort for the label was Red-Headed Stranger, a minimally-produced "concept" album featuring Nelson's biggest hit single to date, a version of the vintage Fred Rose composition, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." In the same year - 1975 - Waylon Jennings recorded "Good-Hearted Woman" for RCA Victor, overdubbing Nelson's voice and prerecorded audience response for an artificially "live" duet that topped Billboard's country singles chart and became the first of a series of hit Nelson collaborations.
The fact is, Nelson seemed willing - downright eager - to record with pretty much anybody who asked. In addition of paying tribute to his country music ancestors by cutting duet albums with artists including Hank Snow, Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Ray Price and Merle Haggard, he recorded with rocker Leon Russell, Spanish superstar Julio Iglesias ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before"), actress Mary Kay Place, Ray Charles, Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas, Lee Ann Womack, Toby Keith and numerous others. Often, the duets were hits; always, they brought out the best in both singers. In addition to his recordings of original material and country standards, Nelson has released albums of pop standards, western swing, and what can be referred to as hillbilly jazz.
a marketing triumph for RCA Victor, the 1976 album Wanted: The Outlaws gathered vintage tracks by Nelson; Jennings; Jennings' wife, Jessi Colter; and singer-songwriter Tompall Glaser. The album became the first certified million-seller in country music history.
Nelson has also worked as an actor, starring or co-starring in features including The Electric Horseman with Robert Redford; Honeysuckle Rose; Red-Headed Stranger and Barbarosa.
He was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and received a lifetime achievement award from The Recording Academy seven years later.
Constantly on the road and a prolific recording artist now in his eighth decade, Nelson shows no sign of slowing down.