To write a little piece about Willie Nelson’s work when he is arriving at 90, is bound to be just tipping your toe into the great ocean of songs, performances, genres, collaborations & discography of this unique original wandering gypsy of music. I remember seeing him in the nineties with a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, the Highwaymen, with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings & Kris Kristofferson – a beautiful show with four masters at work. Still, each time the humble Willie Nelson stepped into the spotlight, the crowd went wild, both before he started singing & playing, after each guitar solo on Trigger and of course after the song ended. Waylon Jennings pretended, with a wink in the eye, to be insulted by the audience favoritism of Willie thorough the whole show, but the other three knew they were in company of an almost magical kind of greatness, they all deeply admiring him.
Willie Nelson is a force of nature, still standing in his 90th year, releasing new material and even performing, now planning the Outlaw Music Festival Tour 2023.
Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 29, 1933 in Abbott, Texas, a little town with about 320 people living there at the time, about the same today. He got his first guitar at six, and soon was playing gospel songs in the church with his two years older sister, Bobbie, playing the piano with Willie almost until her death in 2021, aged 91. Willie always was a family man, in more ways than one, and in due time, in the early seventies, he would name his band “The Family”, with Bobbie onboard.
His love of music has always been there, but the start in music business was quite challenging, even after his first record in 1956, which not was a success, he had to quit music, and went to dishwashing, selling bibles and vacuum-cleaners to make a living.
Moving to Nashville in 1960, he was striving to get signed by a record company, his voice and style of singing breaking many rules of the day. Still, he soon got his first success as a songwriter for other artists, notably Faron Young with “Hello Walls”, Billy Walker with “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Ray Price with “Night Life”, and then of course, Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy”, all songs now classic country standards.
The success of those recordings made way for Willie, and he soon got his own recording contract, with Liberty in 1961.
Willie recorded more than a dozen records from 1962 to 1972, toured a lot, but was dissatisfied with how things worked out when it came to selling records, and decided to retire from making records, heading back to Texas and Austin, a wise choice, and things soon changed. His extraordinary mix of country, folk & jazz elements started to get new attention live, and Willie was inspired to get a new recording contract with Atlantic Records, not exactly mostly known for country music. The recording of “Shotgun Willie” in 1973 was an important milestone, in Willie Nelson’s life and career, as well for the genre soon to be known as “outlaw country”, introducing horns and mixing his own songs and cover versions, even “A Song For You” by Leon Russell. Willie was back, and back for good.
“Shotgun Willie” was just a fresh start of something that should grow into one of the most monumental artistic and creative careers in the field of country music. The record got great reviews, but didn’t sell much. Still, Willie got a new self-confidence, and Atlantic Recordings believed in him, and he got to release “Phases And Stages” in 1974, a real break-up-record, with many beautiful songs, including “I Still Can’t Belive You’re Gone”.
A stronger Willie knew what he needed, full creative control of his music and recordings. He moved to Columbia Recordings, where he got exactly what he wanted. He returned their faith in him by in 1975 releasing one of his all-time classic albums, the concept-album “Red Headed Stranger”, which also came to include his first number one as a singer, almost twenty years after his debut, the cover of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”. (My eyes always get misty when I listen to this one, one of my late mother’s absolute favorites.)
The wave of outlaw country was rising, Willie teaming up with the great Waylon Jennings, and soon they were teaming up with Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, making the first platinum album of country music, “Wanted! The Outlaws” in 1976.
“Waylon & Willie” was released in 1978, another classic, lots of great songs compiled, including “Mammas, don´t let your babies grow up to be cowboys”.
Willie Nelson risked his career by releasing the American Song Book album “Stardust”, though he was advised against it. (This album was part of the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Shadows In The Night” and the rest of his American Song Book Trilogy.) Against all odds, “Stardust” also went platinum! To quote the same Dylan: When it comes to music there is no need for border patrol. In 1979 he released the songs of Kristofferson.
One of his most beautiful songs, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” was also written in the late seventies, an instant classic, covered by many, among them Bob Dylan.
Willie Nelson was now unstoppable on hit lists, and during the eighties he also starred in “Honeysuckle Rose” and even made a duet with Julio Iglesias.
Actually, Willie Nelson duetted with everyone. The album “Half Nelson” (1985) included a long string of duets, most notably the one with Ray Charles, “Seven Spanish Angels”, the meeting between the two giants, both known to be tearing down the walls between genres. Duetting wasn’t enough, Willie also contributed in the great choir of “We Are The World”.
A few years earlier, Willie also recorded with another giant of country music, the fabulous Merle Haggard. Together they made the great album “Pancho And Lefty” in 1982, forever made Townes Van Zandt’s beautiful song known for the world, a song Willie also duetted with Bob Dylan a few years later, in Willie’s own Big 6-0-concert in 1993.
In 1982 Willie Nelson released the album “Always on My Mind”, forever making this a Willie Nelson song as much as an Elvis Presley song. Not bad in that company.
At his Live Aid performance in 1985, Dylan mentioned the possibility for giving a little bit of the money to American farmers. The one who picked up the words and invented the know annual festival “Farm Aid” was no one else than Willie Nelson, more and more interested in different worthy causes of charity. Fittingly, Nelson also backed Bob Dylan’s performance the same night, ending with “Maggie’s Farm”.
There was always side projects, too many to mention, but, besides albums with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, the always generous Willie helped many of his favorites and old friends into the spotlight by making duet albums with them, in between the touring and the solo albums. To name a few, here comes: “Old Friends” with Roger Miller (1982), “In The Jailhouse Now” with Webb Pierce, (1982), “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Faron Young (1985) and “Brand On My Heart” with the legendary Hank Snow (1985).
In 1985, Willie also found the time to establish the new Million Dollar Quartet, “Highwaymen”, with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson & Johnny Cash, releasing three albums, “Highwayman” (1985), “Highwayman II” (1990) and “The Road Goes on Forever” (1995). I myself had the great joy of seeing them in Oslo in the nineties, along with several great shows with Willie Nelson through the eighties and nineties.
Willie was everywhere, played with everyone, toured the world many times, and was forever a household name for every lover of music around the the globe.
In 1993 released his great album, “Across The Borderline”, duetting with a string of great artists, from the beautiful version of “Don’t Give Up” with Sinead O’Connor to Bob Dylan with the co-written “Heartland”, even covering Dylan’s “What Was It You Wanted”.
The albums came flowing, and there are few who can recite the whole discography of Willie Nelson and which year they came, some more outstanding than others. The “Teatro” album in 1998 was really special, produced by Daniel Lanois, showing us both the singer, the songwriter and the great guitarist Willie, with songs like “I Never Cared For You”.
I also love his album from 2004, “It Always Will Be”, not least because of the title song.
Willie’s love for western swing is very vell illustrated with “Nothing’s Changed, Nothing”s New” in 1994, from the album “Six Hours at Pedernales”, featuring Curtis Potter. And be sure that it was six hours. To make a record isn’t that hard, not when you’re Willie Nelson.
In 2002, Willie and Johnny Cash appeared in the Storytellers Series, with a charming meeting between to giants of country music.
There has been many live albums through the years, like “Outlaws And Angels” from 2004, with guest artists lined up to play wit Willie, like Holmes Brothers with “Opportunity to cry” and Lucinda Williams with a wonderful version of “Overtime”. Even Bob Dylan showed, this time for a duet of the Hank Williams hit “You Win Again”. Some say we must take care of this Earth in a proper way for then giving it to Keith Richards & Willie Nelson. Well, here they are, agreeing one that they had it all.
In 2007 he released “Last of the Breed” with other lovers of Bob Wills and western swing, Ray Price and Merle Haggard, even giving a whole show to promote the album. Well worth seeing.
In 2008 Willie teamed up with Wynton Marsalis on the live album “Two Men With The Blues”, leaning heavily against the strong New Orleans jazz tradition.
“Django And Jimmie” (2015) was the last co-operation with Merle Haggard, who died the year after the release. Old friends meets up again, a great album that also got great reviews, covering a lot of ground, honoring Django & Jimmie, covering Bob Dylan, tributing Johnny Cash. And of course, just having a good time between friends….
Willie of course knows the American Songbook like his own pocket, and in 2016 he made a whole album of Gershwin songs, after getting the Gershwin Award earlier, the album a return of the gratitude.
In 2019 Willie released “Ride Back Home”, including the beautiful rendition of another Texan’s masterpiece, “My Favorite Picture of You”.
A steady stream of albums still flows, with unbelievable high quality during his eighties. “First Rose of Spring” of 2020 is one of them.
In 2021 Willie released his album of Sinatra Songs, including a beautiful version of “Cottage For Sale”. The album was the second Sinatra-album, “My Way” released in 2018.
The last years Willie has co-operated more and more with his sons, most notably Lukas Nelson, also known from his own band “Promise of the Real”, Neil Young’s backing band from 2015-2019, then also including Willie’s son, Micah.
Last year Willie released another great album, “A Beautiful Time”, with a great cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”, a place where Willie always will have a suite for himself. Cohen’s voice as an instrument might be at his greatest in her later years, when you listen to Willie here, well, his vocals are holding up well, makes the song ring true and heartfelt, as he also does in the fine ballad that ends the album, “Leave You With A Smile”:
“I just wanna leave you with a smile
Even though that hasn’t always been my style
I messed up best intentions, but I’ve loved you all the while
I just wanna leave you with a smile”
The last album, so far, was released this year, a tribute to another great songwriter, Harlan Howard: “I Don’t Know A Thing About Love”.
Ninety years today – here his reflections on turning 90, including some thoughts on how Marijuana saved his life. Still going strong.
This story don’t have an end, as Willie’s contributions to music is endless – about hundred studio albums, more than a dozen live albums, more than fifty compilations, then all his guest appearances and work in film. This post might be a start for someone, a reminder for others, and a trip down memory lane.
What song to end this with, maybe the one he introduced as a new gospel song, “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I’m Dead”?
No, I think I have to choose this one, one of his first hits, a beautiful melancholic ballad with just him and his guitar, the unique voice and phrasing, the virtuoso and highly effective musicianship. It still is “Funny How Time Slips Away”. This is Willie.
2 thoughts on “Happy 90th Birthday, Willie Nelson! (An introduction or just a trip down Memory Lane.)”
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Hei Johnny! Denne likte jeg godt! Skal dere til Borgan i sommer da? Jeg skal en luftetur utover til uka, men planlegger også en sommertur rundt første del/midten av juli. Håper vi sees! Solveig
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