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Willie Hugh Nelson (born April 30, 1933) is an American country singer-songwriter, author, poet, actor and activist. He reached his greatest fame during the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, and remains iconic, especially in American popular culture.
Now in his 70s, Willie Nelson continues to tour and has performed in concerts and fundraisers with other major musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Dave Matthews. He also continues to record albums prolifically in new genres that embrace reggae, blues, jazz, folk, and popular music
Nelson was born and raised in Abbott, Texas, the son of Myrle Marie (née Greenhaw) and Ira Doyle Nelson, a mechanic and pool hall owner. His mother left six months after his birth; his father, a few years later.
His grandparents William Alfred Nelson and Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, whom he and his sister Bobbie called "Daddy" and "Mama," gave him mail-order music lessons starting at age six. He wrote his first song when he was seven and was playing in a local band at age nine. Willie played the guitar, while his sister Bobbie played the piano. He met Bud Fletcher, a fiddler, and two siblings joined his band, Bohemian Fiddlers, while Nelson was in high school. While he was in high school he took part in the Future Farmers of America organization.
Beginning in high school Nelson worked as a disc jockey (DJ) for local radio stations. He had short DJ stints with KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas, and later with KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas, while singing locally in honky tonk bars.
Nelson graduated from Abbott High School in 1951. He joined the Air Force the same year but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. He then studied agriculture at Baylor University for one year in 1954.
In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career, recording "Lumberjack," which was written by Leon Payne. The single sold fairly well, but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer in Vancouver and sing in clubs. He sold a song called "Family Bible" for $50; the song was a hit for Claude Gray in 1960, has been covered widely and is often considered a gospel music classic.
Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960, but was unable to land a record label contract. He did, however, receive a publishing contract at Pamper Music. After Ray Price recorded Nelson's "Night Life" (reputedly the most covered country song of all time), Nelson joined Price's touring band as a bass player. While playing with Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, many of Nelson's songs became hits for some of country and pop music's biggest stars of the time. These songs include "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker), "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison) and most famously, "Crazy" (Patsy Cline). Willie later did an album with Ray Price in 1980 called San Antonio Rose. Nelson signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and released several singles, including "Willingly" (sung with his soon-to-be second wife, Shirley Collie) and "Touch Me".
He was unable to impress Nashville producers with his singing voice, and Nelson's singing career in Nashville did not take off. Demo recordings from his years as a songwriter for Pamper Music were later discovered and released as Crazy: The Demo Sessions (2003).
Nelson signed with Atlantic Records and released Shotgun Willie (1973), which won excellent reviews but did not sell well. Phases and Stages (1974), a concept album inspired by his divorce, included the hit single "Bloody Mary Morning". Nelson then moved to Columbia Records, where he was given complete creative control over his work. The result was the critically acclaimed, massively popular concept album, Red Headed Stranger (1975). Although Columbia was reluctant to release an album with primarily a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson insisted (with the assistance of Waylon Jennings) and the album was a huge hit, partially because it included a popular cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (written by Fred Rose in 1945). "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" became Nelson's first number one hit as a singer.
Along with Nelson, Waylon Jennings was also achieving success in country music in the early 1970s, and the pair were soon combined into a genre called outlaw country ("outlaw" because it did not conform to Nashville standards). Nelson's outlaw image was cemented with the release of the album Wanted! The Outlaws (1976, with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser), country music's first platinum album. Nelson continued to top the charts with hit songs during the late 1970s, including "Good Hearted Woman" (a duet with Jennings), "Remember Me", "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time", "Uncloudy Day", "I Love You a Thousand Ways", and "Something to Brag About" (a duet with Mary Kay Place).
In 1978, Nelson released two more platinum albums, Waylon and Willie (a collaboration with Jennings that included "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", which was written and originally recorded as a hit single by Ed Bruce a couple of years earlier), and Stardust, an unusual album of popular standards. It was produced by Booker T. Jones. Though most observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it ended up being one of his most successful recordings. Willie also had a notable success with the LP titled Half Nelson, including such great artists as Ray Charles.
The Eighties saw a series of hit singles: "Midnight Rider" (1980; a cover of the Allman Brothers song, which Nelson recorded for The Electric Horseman soundtrack), "On the Road Again" (1982) from the movie Honeysuckle Rose and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (a duet with Julio Iglesias). There were also more popular albums, including Pancho & Lefty (1982, with Merle Haggard), WWII (1982, with Waylon Jennings) and Take it to the Limit (1983, with Waylon Jennings).
In the mid-1980s, Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash formed a group called The Highwaymen. They unexpectedly achieved massive success, including platinum record sales and worldwide touring. Meanwhile, he became more and more involved in charity work, such as singing on the We are the World single in 1984 and establishing the Farm Aid concerts in 1985.
In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized most of his assets, claiming he owed $16.7 million in back taxes. It was later discovered that his accountants had not been paying Nelson's taxes for many years. He released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS. Many of his assets were auctioned and purchased by friends, who gave his possessions back to him or rented them at a nominal fee. He sued accounting firm Price Waterhouse, contending that they put him into tax shelters that were later disallowed. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. His debts were paid by 1993. In 1991, tragedy struck again when his son Billy committed suicide.
In 1996, Willie Nelson was featured on the Beach Boys' now out-of-print album Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 singing a cover of their 1964 song "The Warmth of the Sun" with the Beach Boys themselves providing the harmonies and backing vocals.
He released Across the Borderline in 1993, with guests Bob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Simon.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Nelson has toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews, with the exception of 1998's critically acclaimed Teatro (which was produced by Daniel Lanois—more commonly known for his work with U2—and featured supporting vocals by Emmylou Harris). Later that year, he joined rock band Phish onstage for several songs as part of the annual Farm Aid festival. He also performed a duet concert with fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, recorded for the VH1 Storytellers series.
Nelson received Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. A star-studded television special celebrating his 70th birthday aired in 2003. In 2004, he released Outlaws & Angels, featuring guests Toby Keith, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Al Green, Shelby Lynne, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Ben Harper, Lee Ann Womack, The Holmes Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rickie Lee Jones.
In 2007, Nelson performed with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in a concert at New York City's Lincoln Center, a date commemorated the following year with both a compact disc and DVD.
Also in 2008, Willie Nelson teamed up with World Idol contest winner Kurt Nilsen from Norway and recorded the duet American classic "Lost Highway". The duet reached the top of the charts in Norway, and was performed live for the first time when Nelson made a surprise guest appearance at Nilsen's show in Hamar on 2 May.
In 2009, Willie Nelson dedicated the Patsy Cline Theatre in Winchester Virginia, the sold out gala produced by Schweiger/Dearing Prod. The key to the city was presented by the mayor and the John Handley High School's Hilltop Singers opened the show.
In March 2010, Willie Nelson accompanied Reggae artist, Mishka, in the chorus of the song 'Homegrown' on his March release CD "Talk About".
In June 2010, Willie Nelson played in the United Kingdom at Glastonbury Festival 2010.