If ever the words “living legend” were more than just public relations bluster, the application would be to WILLIE HUGH NELSON. The iconic Texan is the creative genius behind historic recordings like “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Red Headed Stranger,” and “Stardust.” His career has spanned six decades. His catalog boasts more than 200 albums. He’s earned every conceivable award and honor to be bestowed on a person in his profession. He has also amassed reputable credentials as an author, actor, and activist.
In many ways, however, the weighty distinction “living legend” does Nelson a disservice, for it discounts the extent to which he is a thriving, relevant, and progressive musical force now. He has released several new albums, recently embarked on an imaginative tour with a fellow musical icon, again headlined Farm Aid, established himself as a top television ratings draw, and he has a recent No. 1 single and a Super Bowl performance under his belt. Most importantly, Nelson’s music is as adventurous as ever – mixing sounds and styles, bending genre boundaries, and engendering the talents of today’s most vibrant artists.
Born April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Nelson and his sister were raised by their paternal grandparents, who encouraged both children to play music. He began writing songs in elementary school and played in bands as a teenager. After high school, Nelson served a short stint in the Air Force, but music was a constant pull. By the mid Fifties, he was working as a country deejay in Ft. Worth while continuing to pursue a musical career, recording independently, and playing nightclubs. He sold some of his original compositions, including “Family Bible,” which became a hit for Claude Gray in 1960.
That success and others convinced Nelson to move to Nashville, where record labels were initially resistant. His songwriting talents were quickly embraced, however, and 1961 proved to be his breakthrough year. His “Hello Walls” became a nine-week No. 1 for Faron Young, and Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” became an instant classic. In 1962, Nelson scored his first two Top 10 hits as a recording artist for Liberty Records, but he struggled for a breakthrough the remainder of the decade. Disillusioned with Nashville and with RCA Records’ insistence on lush, string-laden arrangements, he moved back to Texas in 1972.
Emboldened by the rock and folk music becoming popular in Austin, Nelson and his music began to change. Nelson’s first album with Atlantic Records, 1973’s Shotgun Willie, got the attention of music critics if not the masses, and the 1974 follow-up, Phases & Stages, helped him build a loyal following.
The breakthrough he’d been seeking for the better part of two decades came in 1975 when he parted ways with Atlantic Records and signed with Columbia Records. Red Headed Stranger became one of country’s most unlikely hits. The acoustic concept album vaulted Nelson to country music’s top ranks, much to the surprise of Music Row. Nelson’s convention-busting stardom, combined with the concurrent popularity of maverick Waylon Jennings, prompted journalist Hazel Smith to dub the trend “Outlaw Music” and a movement was underway.
Nelson’s career has been recognized with eight Grammy wins, a President’s Merit Award, a Grammy Legend Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, the Academy of Country Music recognized him with the Video of the Year Award for “Beer For My Horses,” and the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award honoring Nelson’s “unprecedented and genre-defying contributions to popular music over his nearly 50-year career.” His latest recording, released yesterday, is Two Men With the Blues, with Wynton Marsalis.