That’s right. The Red Headed Stranger turns 88 years old today. Born in Abbott, Texas in 1933, he his career has spanned over six decades, over which time he has become one of the preeminent figures in country music.
After stints as a DJ, vacuum cleaner salesman, and encyclopedia sales manager, Willie moved to Houston in 1958 and began selling his songs and singing in night clubs. During this time he wrote “Night Life” and “Family Bible.” Less than two years later he moved to Nashville where he sold songs to Faron Young, Ray Price, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline. His songs have since become country standards and include “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Pretty Paper,” “Hello Walls,” and, most famously “Crazy,” which went on to become the best selling jukebox single of all time. He also released his own albums in this time, though none of them were commercially successful, and he himself had financial difficulties because the royalties he earned from other artists were used to finance tours that floundered.
So, like any good Texan, Willie moved back to Texas. Though he likely did not view the move as a swing of fate, that is what it turned out to me.
Texas, Outlaw Career, and Stardom
In the early 1970s, Willie had relocated first to Bandera then to Austin, Texas, where he fell in with the Armadillo World Headquarters crowd. Armadillo World Headquarters was the capital of the country hippie scene in Austin, where long haired hippies could wear Wranglers and cowboy boots, and where country folks could expand their horizons with countrified jazz, blues, and and rock music. Willie himself leaned into the hippie nature of Austin’s country music scene by creating the Fourth of July Picnic and recording music that occasionally blurred the lines of different genres.
In 1973, he released Shotgun Willie, widely seen as the first true outlaw country album. Shotgun Willie included the title song with a funky hook, the melancholy “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a cover of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” and a cover of Bob Wills classic “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer).” The album was critically acclaimed and commercially successful enough to bring Willie into the musical zeitgeist.
The rest of the 1970s would see Willie’s biggest progression as an artist. He released several more solo albums, including the massively successful crossover concept album Red Headed Stranger. The Texas sound from Willie and his musical cohorts Waylon Jennings, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely became a successful non-commercial musical movement. However, with the exceptions of Waylon and Willie, almost none of the other outlaw artists were massively financially successful.
Back to Mainstream and Retirement
The 1980s saw a shift in Willie towards more commercial country music. His country-flared cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” marks this shift. In the span of just a few years, Willie wrote “On the Road Again” for the movie Honeysuckle Rose, recorded a duet with Julio Iglesias called “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and entire album of duets with Merle Haggard called Pancho & Lefty. The “Pancho and Lefty” single, itself a cover of Townes Van Zandt, was a huge success and is seen as reviving Merle Haggard’s career.
Willie also became enamored with duets, apparently. Throughout the ’80s he recorded duets with Waylon Jennings, Neil Young, Ray Charles, George Jones, and even the long dead Hank Williams. His sound grew more commercial, more Nashville and less Austin. But he continued to be a huge draw on his tours, at award shows, and at his two festivals, the Fourth of July Picnic and the Family Reunion.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Willie straddled the line between commercial and outlaw country. He seemed to be welcomed back to the arms of executives in Nashville, which resulted in more commercially-minded music. He recorded songs with Toby Keith, Ringo Starr, Kenny Chesney, and even reggae group Toots and the Maytals. He toured less and less, his voice became weaker, and eventually Willie only performed a handful of times a year.
Willie Nelson’s career began in 1956, and he released an album earlier this year, 65 years after he first got into music. He has had legal issues both for his fondness of marijuana and his inability to properly pay his taxes. But he is still widely loved by fans of many different styles of music. He is at least partially responsible for the success of Austin City Limits, the longest running music television show in history, and it’s related music festival. His trademark red hair and pigtails can be found on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and even pieces of real art. So happy birthday to the man and the legend, Willie Nelson.