Willie Nelson is 80
Photo by Steve Cohen
Willie Nelson neither looks nor seems 80 years old. This is an age reserved for, well, old people. The unhip, those not in-the-know, not totally with it.
And yet, Willie turns 80 today. What's his secret? We doubt it's the weed -- sorry -- but think that it likely has more to do with his totally Zen outlook on life, a go-with-the-flow ideology that manifests in his very style of playing. He's an unconventional poet who chooses whatever cadence strikes him in the moment, and he has a gracious, accepting, and loving attitude toward performing and toward the world. Best of all, Willie always stands up for the underdog. Forget blood pressure meds, a vegan diet, or hours grinding on the treadmill; these qualities are the true fountain of youth.
The ultimate country outlaw, Wilie's dabbled in pop, jazz, and reggae, and wears sneakers, not boots. Or, as we hear his departed friend Roger Miller used to describe him, Willie "flushes to the beat of a different plumber." (Roger always knew the right thing to say.) In total, all this adds up to one bad ass 80-year-old M.F., and to give him his due, we present to you 15 legendary facts about Willie Nelson, paired with 15 of his very good songs.
"My Window Faces the South" (1966)
15. Born Willie Hugh Nelson April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Willie, along with his older sister Bobbie, was left by his young parents to be raised by grandparents Alfred and Nancy Nelson, who studied and introduced the kids to music. Bobbie, two years his elder, still plays piano in his band, giving literal meaning to the name he's given his backing act, the Family.
14. The first song young Willie learned was "Amazing Grace." His first public performance was the recitation of a poem at the age of five, which earned him the nickname "Booger Red" after he got so nervous he picked his nose 'til it bled. Nasal capillaries be damned; he wrote his first song at the age of seven, and at 13, performed with Bob Wills.
"Whiskey River"/"Stay All Night" (1973, and NSFW)
13. Willie moved to Nashville in 1960, but couldn't get a label to sign him. He would hang out and perform at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway, where he was discovered and befriended by the prolific songwriter Hank Cochran. Cochran gambled a raise owed to him by his publishing company, convincing them to instead use that money to sign Willie to the group. Soon after Ray Price recorded Nelson's song "Night Life," Price's bassist (a fellow named Johnny Paycheck) quit his backing band, the Cherokee Cowboys, and Willie was hired to replace him.
"Funny How Time Slips Away" (1962)
12. Willie's life has been a lesson in hard-nosed persistence, from troubles with the law to troubles with the IRS, all dating back to a rural Depression-era childhood and a hard go of it as a young musician. While trying to make it in music, he moved around a lot, picking up DJing gigs when he couldn't find work as a musician, and then washing dishes and selling bibles, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias door-to-door when he couldn't find work as a DJ. When he couldn't get his break as a recording artist, he opted for songwriting. His early songs included hits for Patsy Cline ("Crazy"), Faron Young ("Hello Walls"), and Billy Walker ("Funny How Time Slips Away"), as well as hits for Ray Price ("Night Life") and the gospel classic "Family Bible" (popularized by Claude Gray), which he sold for $150 and $50 respectively.
"What Can You Do to Me Now" (1975)
11. One night during a songwriting session with Hank Cochran in his Ridgetop, Tennessee, home, the two of them would write the song "What Can You Do to Me Now?" The very next day, Willie's house burned down. He ran back in just in time to save Trigger, his holy/holey and beloved Martin acoustic.
"Yesterday's Wine" (1971)
10. Willie is well-known for his collaborations with a number of friends. In 1980 he recorded the album San Antonio Rose with Ray Price, in 1982 the song "Old Friends" with Roger Miller and Ray Price, in 2003 the album Run That By Me One More Time with Ray Price, and in 2007 Last of the Breed with Merle Haggard and Ray Price. Notice Price's name coming up a lot? It's kind of a love/hate thing; it's said the two didn't speak for years because Nelson shot one of Price's roosters, after it pecked to death several of Nelson's best hens. (They've since made up, and you can see Price at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic this summer.)
"Devil In a Sleepin' Bag" (1973)
9. Willie's helmed one of the longest-standing music festivals around, the (usually) annual Fourth of July Picnic. The first was held in Dripping Springs, Texas, and featured Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Doug Sahm, and Tom T. Hall. Its 40th year will be celebrated this July at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth, with Billy Joe Shaver, Dale Watson, Quebe Sisters, David Allan Coe, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ray Price, and Ryan Bingham slated to perform.
"I Gotta Get Drunk" (1975)
8. In the 1980s, Willie performed a concert at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. Pretty tame right? Until you learn that he and First Lady Rosalynn performed a duet of "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" (wow). And that Willie allegedly smoked a joint while taking in the view from the roof (wow, wow).
"Shotgun Willie" (1973)
7. He probably wouldn't*, but it doesn't mean he couldn't kick your ass if he wanted to. Willie studied Kung Fu in the 1980s and has a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Additionally, he played halfback on his high school football team, guard in basketball, and shortstop in baseball. *Unconfirmed legend tells, however, that Willie was highly convincing with a Colt 45 in hand when he had to scare off a 27-year-old Mickey Newbury, who in 1967 was attempting to court Nelson's 14-year-old daughter Lana.
"Bloody Mary Morning" (1974)
6. Willie's won many honors -- induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor, and countless Grammy, CMA, ACM and American Music Awards -- but unique among his accomplishments was his 2011 induction to the National Agricultural Hall of Fame, in recognition of his advocacy related to family farmers.
"Me & Paul" (1985)
5. Willie's first "Farm Aid" concert, organized with the help of Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985, raised over $9 million for family farms. His pay-it-forward attitude got paid back in spades when in the early '90s, family farmers stepped up to advocate for Willie in proceedings related to seizure of most of his assets by the IRS. Friends held property belonging to Nelson that was sold at government auction, and returned it all to him when he was square with the IRS by the end of the decade.
"I Never Cared for You" (1964)
4. Fans as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, Tony Bennett, Jerry Cantrell, Rob Halford, and SpongeBob SquarePants (yeah you heard us right) have sent Willie their birthday wishes on his website.
"Little Old Fashioned Karma" (1983)
3. And amid all that love for Willie, he's still helping ensure that love gets spread around; last week, he announced that proceeds from his April 28 birthday concert at The Backyard will be donated to the West, Texas, Volunteer Fire Department, as they help the community devastated by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion not far from his hometown of Abbott.
"Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" (1982)
2. Lest we forget, a stoned Willie Nelson once challenged Larry King to arrest him.
"Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other" (2006)
1. And finally, thank you Willie, for blowing the lid off this one, because it's most likely true.
Bless you, Willie, and happy birthday!
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