Before his fame, Willie Nelson worked for decades as a songwriter, turning out hit after indelible hit for other performers.
Before his fame, Willie Nelson worked for decades as a songwriter, turning out hit after indelible hit for other performers. Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis
This is the Willie Nelson most of America knows: picking his old Martin guitar, accompanied by his ragtag band, rolling down the highway in a cloud of pot smoke. In other words, outlaw country music in person.
But the Willie Nelson I first became aware of in the early 1970s was someone else entirely — a Nashville songwriter with a unique lyrical and musical gift.
William Hugh Nelson was born in Abbott, Tex., in 1933 to a musically inclined couple: Ira and Myrle Nelson, who already had a 3-year-old daughter, Bobbie. Abbott is cotton country, and there's not much to do there, so Bobbie learned piano and Willie was writing poems by the time he was 4. Mostly they were sad — perhaps because his mother had left when he was 6 months old and his father wasn't around much.
When Bobbie was 16, she married a guy named Bud Fletcher, who had a western swing band. She played piano, and 13-year-old Willie signed on to play guitar — and almost immediately, he had a fan club. He fell into the life of a professional musician, and made his first recordings as a guitar player in 1954 in San Antonio. He had a job as a disc jockey there, and used the studio to record a song of his own: "When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song."
It wasn't much of a song, but the voice is recognizable. The record company he sent it to ignored it for a few decades, and Willie went on to DJ in Fort Worth. From there, he drifted to Portland, Ore., where he did more radio and gigged as a musician.
Somehow, he came to the attention of Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton, who encouraged him to move there, but he ran out of money on the road and wound up back in Fort Worth.
There, he made a record for the Houston-based D Records label, which did well enough that he was allowed a second one. The label decided it wasn't country enough and refused to release it, so Nelson and a friend released it under another name. It was the beginning of Willie Nelson the songwriter.
If anything was going to warn Nashville that this young songwriter wouldn't fit in, "Crazy" was it, but the country-pop crossover made famous by Patsy Cline has proven one of Nelson's most durable songs. After he wrote a song called "Family Bible" and sold it for $100, it became a smash country hit for Claude Gray. Pamper Music offered him a contract, and he finally moved to Nashville.
Hit after hit — for others — followed: "Nightlife," "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away."
Because he was such a valuable hit-writer, record companies wanted him as an artist, because the publishing deal they'd strike with him would mean income for their bigger stars. Finally, in 1964, Nelson signed with Nashville's most prestigious label, RCA, but not much happened. He had put together a band with some of his Texas buddies — Johnny Bush, Jimmy Day on steel guitar, and drummer Paul English — but based on the evidence of "Me and Paul," one of his most famous songs from those years, the road wasn't that much fun, either.
In 1970, Nelson's Nashville house burned down, and he moved to the Hill Country just outside Austin, Tex., more depressed than he'd ever been. A year later, he recorded The Words Don't Fit the Picture, an album so dark that it barely sold, and has never been reissued.
Just when it seemed that Nelson had hit bottom, things turned around. He played a gig at an auto-dealership opening in Austin and noticed hippies in the crowd. When the local psychedelic dance hall, Armadillo World Headquarters, asked him if he'd like to do a show, he agreed. Odd songwriters began approaching him with distinctly Texan songs they'd written and were performing in small local clubs. Willie Nelson had found his people, and in 1973 he celebrated the Fourth of July with a small rock festival where a lot of these folks played.
His RCA contract ran out and he signed with Atlantic Records, where he made a concept album called Phases and Stages — a masterpiece. But the label closed its country division before it could become a hit.
From there, Nelson went to Columbia Records in 1975, and in a week he recorded another concept album: Red Headed Stranger, which contained his first hit, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
Willie Nelson became famous, and the more famous he became, the fewer songs he wrote — which, really, was fine. Those songs had been unutterably sad, and now Willie Nelson was happy.