(Editor’s Note: Yes, that’s really Willie Nelson on the left.)
When people think of Willie Nelson, who turns 82 today, they likely have a specific image in mind… the hippie of country music, with his long, luxurious hair and well-documented love of marijuana. In fact, Willie Nelson is as synonymous with smoking marijuana as he is with music at this point, as likely to be remembered for appearing in Half Baked as he is for any of his songs.
However, and perhaps not surprising for a man of his age, Nelson had almost an entire career before he found success… and the image that would make him iconic.
In truth, Nelson as we imagine him didn’t really appear until the ’70s. In 1972, he moved to Austin, Texas, which was already beginning the process of “keeping it weird.” By then, Nelson had actually abandoned the music business, having grown fed up with his failure to that point. But he re-found his footing and released Shotgun Willie in 1973, considered by some to be the genesis of the outlaw country subgenre. Then came 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, which sold a ton of copies and turned Nelson into a notable figure in country music. Many years later, he’d appear on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special to sing a song about marijuana, proof of his prominence in pop culture, and his general beloved nature.
Now, how about all that time before Nelson moved to Austin and became the scruffy, dope-smoking outlaw that captured America’s heart? Well, before Nelson more or less created outlaw country, the genre pretty much consisted of the traditional style of country that was coming out of Nashville, the center of the country music business. Nelson, though, began his career back in 1956 in a city as far away from Nashville as you can be while staying in the contiguous United States: Vancouver, Washington. He made his first record, “No Place for Me,” in 1956. He was also a door-to-door salesman to make ends meet.
His family moved down to Houston, where he trudged from club to club and sold songs to other musicians, including “Family Bible,” which became a bit of a hit for Claude Gray. Eventually, Nelson made his way to Nashville, where he continued selling songs to other musicians. You may know that Nelson wrote “Crazy,” which became a huge hit for Patsy Cline. It was proof that Nelson knew his way around a song, even a more traditional style of song, but he still couldn’t quite find his own footing.
Nelson released his first album And Then I Wrote in 1962. It was the first of 15 albums he released prior to Shotgun Willie. Some of them found a bit of success, but nothing really stuck. He did have two top 10 songs on the country charts in 1962, “Touch Me” and “Willingly,” the latter of which he did with his eventual wife Shirley Collie. They would be divorced in 1970, and Nelson’s Tennessee ranch burned down. With those issues, and his albums increasingly struggling to sell, perhaps it isn’t surprising that he walked away from music.
Fortunately for fans of country music, he decided to walk back into it as a changed man. The clean-cut gentleman singing songs at the Grand Ole Opry was gone and is basically unrecognizable now. Willie Nelson had two lives in music. We celebrate the second one, but let’s not forget about the first one. Without it, the Nelson we came to know and love may never have existed.