As one of the original outlaws of American country music, Willie Nelson has come to symbolize the freedoms and common sense principles that make Western culture great. He is a living icon, and his formidable catalog of songs is outnumbered only by the array of anecdotal stories that portray his personality and bolster his legend. There will never be another performer quite like Willie, so it’s a good thing that he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas during the Great Depression and raised by his grandparents. Like many others from this time period, Nelson’s childhood was difficult. He helped support the family income as a cotton picker. He showed an interest in music early on, picking up a guitar for the first time at age six and learning gospel music at his church. Before long, he had found a way to make more money as a performer in local honky tonks and dance halls than in the cotton fields. His music was unique in its reflection of his greatest influences – Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong – and he was able to catch the ear of a publishing company and pick up a contract as a songwriter and touring musician. He paid his dues for years, but became friends with Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, and other Grand Ole Opry musicians along the way. In these early years, Nelson wrote several songs that were made famous by other performers, such as “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline.
By the mid-70’s, Nelson was ready to take the spotlight. The albums Shotgun Willie and Red Headed Stranger put him on the map, on the airwaves, and on the sales charts. He helped spark a national craze known as “outlaw country,” for its diversion from the standard themes and songwriting structures that were common in popular Nashville country music. Some of his fellow “outlaws” included Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, with whom he would later form the supergroup The Highwaymen. Over the course of his impressive career, Nelson has won countless awards, including several Grammys and an inductance into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Nelson has supported many causes and devoted himself to helping others. He sang on “We Are the World” in support of Africa, is a vocal supporter of civil rights issues, and has performed for countless charitable events. For decades he has supported American farmers, and he was one of the co-founders of Farm Aid alongside John Mellencamp and Neil Young. He is a firm believer in green technologies and has even made significant investments in starting his own bio fuel company, Willie Nelson Biodiesel. He has advocated for gay rights issues, humanitarian causes, and many of the other major sociopolitical issues of our time. Most importantly, he speaks his mind with a simple elegance and a “live and let live” logic that breaks down even the most complex issues to their most basic core. He continues to be a voice of the people – someone they can trust and are willing to follow.
Willie Nelson is the quintessential example of the American Dream, a rags to riches story bolstered by his own ambition, grit, hard work, and sense of humor. Willie is more than a great songwriter and performer – he is a great person. His career and his activism continue to have a lasting impact on the world, and, with a sly wink, he continues to convince people to do the right thing for themselves and for each other.