We don’t cover too much country music here, but you simply can’t ignore an event like the birthday of an American music legend. In case you missed it, Willie Nelson celebrated his 81st birthday by receiving his fifth-degree black belt in the modern Korean martial art GongKwon Yusul. (I hope he makes everyone on his tour bus refer to him as Sensei Nelson from now on.)
I’ve been lucky enough to see Willie Nelson perform three times and have enjoyed hearing “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” — while in various states of intoxication — each of those times. To commemorate Willie’s 81st birthday and overall status as a country music legend, I’ve compiled some factoids to give you some insight into the awesomeness that is the Red-Headed Stranger.
1. Willie’s early years included pig farming, the Air Force and of course, songwriting. Willie was born in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Abbott, Texas, a booming metropolis with a current population of 356 people. Willie and his sister/future bandmate, Bobbi, were raised by their grandparents after his mother left and his father remarried. It was Willie’s grandfather who got him interested in music, buying him his first guitar at age six and teaching him to play “Amazing Grace” shortly after.
Before hitchhiking to Oregon to play in nightclubs, Willie spent some time as a plumber, encyclopedia salesman and pig farmer (something he would do again later during tour breaks while living in Tennessee) before joining the Air Force in 1950.
(Weird bonus fact: Willie’s first performance was reciting a poem at age five. He was so nervous he picked his nose until it bled, earning him the nickname “Booger Red.”)
2. The guy made a record that spent 10 years on the charts. Willie recorded his first single “No Place For Me” in 1956, and while he worked steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, writing hits like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, it wasn’t until his 1975 album, “Red-Headed Stranger” that he entered the level of “country music superstar.”
As big as Red-Head Stranger was, his 1978 album, Stardust crushed it, remaining on the Billboard’s country music chart for 540 weeks — a consecutive 10 years.
3. Willie didn’t always have a close relationship with weed. Next to his music, Willie Nelson is probably most known — at least by High Times readers — for his marijuana advocacy. The guy likes his ganja, but it wasn’t his first vice of choice. Willie had quite a reputation as a drinker in the 1970s and was a heavy smoker, puffing up to almost three packs a day until his lung collapsed in 1981. In a 2005 interview, Willie admitted that his drinking and cigarette habit had to change:
“I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided, ‘Wait a minute! You know, do what you can do.’”
Next to enjoying marijuana as pastime of course, Willie Nelson has advocated the drug’s legalization, even lobbying his home state’s governor, Ricky Perry to reconsider his stance on the issue.
4. Trigger has been with Willie for more than 10,000 shows. This article probably could have been composed of simply facts about Willie’s famed guitar, but that’s another post for guitar gearheads. Named after Roy Roger’s horse, because Willie considers his guitar to to be his steed, Willie bought the guitar in Nashville in 1969 from another guitarist named Shot Jackson. Trigger’s face, made of Sitka spruce from the Pacific Northwest shows the career of Willie with its worn hole from finger picking and the signatures of Kris Kristofferson, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, among dozens of others.
The guitar has been repaired a few times and friends have tried to get Willie to try other guitars, but nothing else sounds the same to him:
“Every guitar has its own feel and sound. The Trigger replicas are nice guitars, but anyone who has played this guitar can tell you immediately that there’s a different feel.”
I couldn’t pin down how much Trigger is worth today, but Willie paid $750 for the Martin N-20 when he bought it and replicas of the famous instrument now go for around $5,500 to give you some perspective of how much the real-deal is probably insured for.
5. The man never stops playing or making music. Willie’s has homes in Hawaii and Texas, when he actually finds the time to visit them though is anyone’s guess. A look at the guy’s tour schedule and you can understand that when he sings “On the Road Again” he means it literally, mostly because he’s never off the road. In 2012, Willie and his band played 138 shows and logged 49,126 miles — not too shabby for a guy in his 80s.
While many musicians start to ease up on recording well before their golden years, Willie Nelson never got that memo. Since 2000, Willie has released a whopping 16 studio albums. Oh, and that’s not including collaborative albums with guys like Merle Haggard and Wynton Marsalis. And they say potheads are lazy…
6. Everybody wants to play with Willie. Spend 60 years in the music business and you’re bound to get around and dip your toe into different genres. (This of course will never apply to AC/DC.) Willie’s probably most famous collaboration has been with the country supergroup, The Highwaymen, but since then he’s played with everyone from Snoop Dogg and Toots Hibbert to Keith Richards and Norah Jones. The graphic below is just a sampling of the musicians who have found themselves on stage or in the recording studio with Willie and Trigger.
(Weird bonus fact: Willie’s hair is a “National Treasure.” A fan submitted a single strand of Willie’s hair to be included in a museum on the premier episode of America’s Lost Treasures.)