A man who started life in Texas during the Depression of the Thirties, Willie Nelson came to musical fame relatively late in life, but grabbed it and followed it with a successful film career. He always stayed close to his fans; when the IRS seized his possessions to sell at auction to pay his tax debt (reputedly $16.7 million), many of them bought items and sent them back to him.
Nelson first became known in Nashville for writing hit songs for established country artists such as Patsy Cline. ‘Crazy’, which opens this selection, was Cline’s biggest hit in 1961 although her version is very different from the original. ‘Night Life’, which opens CD2, became a Number 1 country hit in 1963 for Ray Price; Nelson also played bass in Price’s band. In 1961, ‘Hello Walls’ was a Number 1 for Faron Young and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ was a country-chart success for Billy Walker.
The song that set Willie on the road as a writer was ‘No Place For Me’, which he recorded in 1956 using his own money, pressing 500 copies. At the time he was working as a janitor and door-to-door Bible salesman.
Born in 1933, his mother abandoned the family, and after his father died he and sister Bobbie-Lee were raised by gospel-singing grandparents. He worked in the cotton fields, started playing guitar at six and started to write typically downbeat country songs. As a teenager he played at high-school dances and, by graduation, had become a DJ with his own radio show.
Nelson briefly served in the Air Force, but was discharged because of a bad back. In 1952 married Martha, a full-blood Cherokee, with whom he had three children. One (Billy) tragically committed suicide in 1991. In 1958 the Nelsons moved to Houston, Texas, where he worked singing in the Esquire night club. It was then he recorded two singles for D Records: the second, ‘What A Way To Live’/‘Misery Mansion’, is included here.
He moved to Nashville and got a job as a songwriter at Pamper Music, co-owned by Ray Price, in 1960. He signed to Liberty and released his first album, ‘And Then I Wrote…’, which contained tracks (many on CD1) made famous via other artists. ‘Touch Me’, released as a single, reached Number 7 in the charts.
In 1962 he recorded a duet ‘Willingly’/’Chain Of Love’ with country singer Shirley Collie. This also became a hit, reaching Number 10, but still failed to make him a star, although he later made Shirley his second wife. After bearing him a son, Connie Koepke became Nelson’s third wife; the marriage lasted 17 years until the filming of Honeysuckle Rose, when he met fourth wife Ann-Marie D’Angelo.
In 1965, Chet Atkins persuaded Nelson to move to RCA Victor where he cut a promotional single, ‘She’s Not For You’. He had a string of minor hits through the next seven years but, when his career didn’t progress despite joining the Grand Ole Opry, Nelson moved back to Texas and tried his hand at pig-farming, though he continued recording albums.
A number of songs on here come from 1961 recordings which were not released until much later. In 1978 Nelson formed his own record label and released an album, ‘Face Of A Fighter’, which included ‘End Of Understanding’, ‘Will You Remember Mine’, and ‘Is There Something On Your Mind’.
In the early Seventies he changed his image and began appearing in jeans and sporting long hair wrapped in a red bandana. The album ‘Shotgun Willie’, from which ‘So Much To Do’ is taken, helped him gain stature. His 1975 LP ‘Red-Headed Stranger’ would become country music’s best-selling album ever.
Willie then launched a film career, his first role being in The Electric Horseman (1979) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. He played a country-music star in Honeysuckle Rose (1980), a movie which included a number of his songs on the soundtrack. 1986’s Red Headed Stranger was adapted from his 1975 album, and he also played one half of a country duo with Kris Kristofferson in Songwriter. He and Kristofferson went on to form the Highwaymen with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Nelson, who is still happily married to fourth wife Ann-Marie, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. When he turned 80 in mid 2013, four generations of his family played together at New York City’s Hard Rock Café to raise money for his animal rights and biodiesel ventures. His career may have been slow starting, but Willie Nelson’s musical legacy is huge, the tracks here showcase just how good he was back in the long-ago pre-fame days.