On April 30th 1933, Willie Nelson, who would revolutionise country music, was born in Abbott, Texas. Willie Nelson’s sound and his look made him one of that genre’s most recognisable faces, and if his winning personality weren’t enough reason to like him, then his good-natured struggles with the IRS would be. But before Willie Nelson became a legend or an icon, he was simply one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. He began his musical training at the age of six and wrote his first song at the age of seven.
He was born during the Great Depression to Myrle Marie (née Greenhaw) and Ira Doyle Nelson. Nelson’s ancestors on his father’s side were English and Irish, while his mother’s ancestors were Irish and Cherokee. The Nelson family had moved from Arkansas in 1929, looking for work. Nelson’s grandfather, William, worked as a blacksmith, while his father worked as a mechanic. His mother left soon after he was born, and his father remarried and moved away, leaving the grandparents to bring up Nelson and his sister Bobbie.
Like so many other musicians of his generation, whether black or white, whether country or rock and roll, Willie Nelson started out performing gospel music. The grandmother and grandfather who raised Willie were music teachers, so he and his sister were able to lead their small-town church from a very early age. “We were basically the only musicians in the church,” Nelson recalls. “We played every song every Sunday. Monday nights was choir practice, Wednesday night was prayer meetings, and Thursday night was singing conventions in Hillsboro. So every day was gospel music.”
Nelson attended Abbott High School where, as well as raising pigs for the Future Farmers of America organisation, he was a halfback in the school football team, and also played basketball as a guard, and as a shortstop in baseball. While still at school he sang and played guitar in The Texans, a band formed by his sister’s husband, Bud Fletcher. After leaving school in 1950 he joined the United States Air Force for eight to nine months, then worked as a disc jockey at local radio stations. He had short stints with KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas and later with KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas. In 1952, he married Martha Matthews, and from 1954 to 1956 studied agriculture at Baylor University.
Given this environment, the subject matter of the first song Willie Nelson ever sold makes perfect sense. Nelson had travelled west to Vancouver, Washington, in 1956, following short stints in the Air Force, in college and in various Texas radio stations as a disk jockey. While working as a DJ in Vancouver, he had recorded a Leon Payne song called “Lumberjack” and hawked copies of it over the air. Though this did nothing to further his ambitions of being a performer, he soon returned to Texas and managed to sell a song he’d written himself called “Family Bible.” The country-tinged gospel song became a hit in 1960 for Claude Gray, and while it netted Willie Nelson only $50 in cash, it encouraged him to pursue songwriting rather than performing as a way into a musical career.
Later that year, after one astonishing week in Houston when he wrote the eventual country hits “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life,” as well as the genre-crossing Patsy Cline classic “Crazy,” he moved to Nashville, where he landed a job in a music-publishing company and begin his slow road to stardom.
He was one of the main figures of outlaw country, a subgenre of country music that developed at the end of the 1960s as a reaction to the conservative restrictions of the Nashville sound. Apart from country music, Willie Nelson has acted in over 30 films, co-authored several books, and has been involved in activism for the use of biofuels and the legalisation of marijuana.