Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas. His early interest in music came about through singing in church, and he wrote his first song at age 7. By age 9, he'd begun playing in a local band; after high school, Nelson served briefly in the Air Force and studied at Baylor University. In the mid-'50s, he worked as a disc jockey in Texas and Washington state, played in honky-tonks and continued to write songs.
In 1960, he moved to Nashville, where he was signed to a publishing contract with Pamper Music. His song "Night Life" was a hit for Ray Price, and Nelson had a run of hits for other artists: "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy," one of the greatest country hits of all time for Patsy Cline.
In spite of his songwriting successes, Nelson's own singing career failed to catch fire in Nashville. He released a string of albums with middling chart success in the mid-'60s and early '70s, and had all but retired from music when he relocated to Austin. It was there that his unique take on country mingled with the burgeoning counterculture, and outlaw country was born. The music was characterized by a raw, rock-infused approach, in contrast to the studio polish of the Nashville sound.
Becoming The 'Red-Headed Stranger'
Nelson had a string of his own hits throughout the '70s, sometimes with fellow outlaw Waylon Jennings, also a Texas native and one-time sideman to Buddy Holly. In 1975, Nelson began an unusual association with Columbia Records that granted him total creative control. Columbia's gamble paid off, and Nelson's first album in the partnership, the stripped-down concept album Red-Headed Stranger, yielded the No. 1 single "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." His 1978 album Stardust stayed on the country charts for 10 years. In 1982, Always on My Mind won the Country Music Association's Album of the Year award, and its title song won Single of the Year. He also won five Grammys for his recordings of "Always on My Mind," "On the Road Again," "Georgia on My Mind," "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" (with Jennings) and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Nelson has been nominated for 43 Country Music Association awards and won nine of them, including 1979's prize for Entertainer of the Year.
In 2009, Nelson returned to his Texas roots on Willie and the Wheel, recorded with the band Asleep at the Wheel. The album features a set of traditional country and Western swing tunes, as recorded by bands such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Nelson has been politically active on a national level since 1985, when he co-founded the Farm Aid music festival with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to raise awareness of the financial plight of family farms. He has also been an outspoken voice for the legalization of marijuana.
Nelson's Way To Jazz
Fellow Texan and guitarist Jackie King has backed a number of music legends, including Bill Evans, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Jerry Garcia and Stevie Ray Vaughan. King got together with Nelson in 1984 to record a jazz album, Angel Eyes, and since 1999, King has been a permanent member of Nelson's band, The Family.
On this episode of Piano Jazz, Nelson performs with guitarist King and host Marian McPartland, along with bassist Gary Mazzaroppi. The session includes a set of Nelson's own tunes — "Crazy," "Rainy Day Blues," "The Great Divide" — and some of his favorite standards, including "Stardust," "All of Me" and "There'll Never Be Another You."
"I had never met [Nelson] when he appeared on the program," McPartland says. "But Jackie [King] and he got into such a fine session, when it was over he didn't want to leave. He asked me to perform as his surprise guest that night at Irving Plaza, where we did several duets. The crowd must have been astonished when he introduced me rather than a cowboy."
Originally recorded July 23, 2001. Originally broadcast Feb. 12, 2002.