Country singer Willie Nelson is one of the most famous artists in the genre, mainly thanks to the success of his two ground-breaking albums, Shotgun Willie in 1973 and Red Headed Stranger in 1975.

He helped launch the new subgenre known as “outlaw country” in the late 1960s to combat what he saw as the conservatism of the traditional Nashville sound. He has also been an active environmental campaigner for the use of biofuels and the reduction of harmful gas emissions.

With more than 30 films under his belt, he made his first appearance on the big screen in the famous 1979 film, The Electric Horseman, starring Robert Redford. Nelson played Wendell Hickson and improvised much of his performance, establishing himself as a serious actor as well as a country singer.

He has co-authored several books, including Farm Aid: A Song for America in 2005 and Biodiesel and The Future of the Family Farm in 2007, advocating the use of bio-diesel fuel.

Willie Nelson

 

Early career

Born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933, Nelson first found fame with his debut record, No Place for Me, in 1956, after his grandfather had bought him a guitar at the age of six and taught him some chords.

He had joined the US Air Force after leaving school, but went on to study agriculture at university, before dropping out to pursue his music career. After successfully auditioning for a job as a DJ on KBOP radio, he made demo tapes to send out to record companies.

Although initially he wasn’t a major success, he persevered and made money by writing songs for other artists. These included Pretty Paper for Roy Orbison, Funny How Time Slips Away for Billy Walker and the most famous, Crazy, for Patsy Cline.

Eventually in the early 1960s, he signed for Liberty Records and had his first hit, Willingly, which peaked at number 10 in the US chart. In 1964, he signed a record deal with RCA and enjoyed commercial success. He survived personal problems in December 1970, when his ranch in Ridgetop, Tennessee, burned down.

 

Music industry success

Moving to Austin, Texas, Nelson’s career took off in a massive way. It was Shotgun Willie in 1973 that put him firmly on the country music map. Although it was his 16th album, it represented a change in style and was a mixture of old and new material and cover versions.

It was said that he wrote the title song in his hotel room during the recording of the album, suddenly feeling inspired. He reportedly was nicknamed “Shotgun Willie” after he took direct action to save a family member who had suffered domestic violence.

Now aged 85, he has been one of the country genre’s major recording and live artists for more than 60 years. He has released 25 number one hit singles, 68 studio albums and 12 live albums and has toured continually since the 1990s.

In 2017, his latest album, God’s Problem Child, made the number one spot in the US top country albums chart and reached number ten on the Billboard Hot 200.

 

On the Road Again

One of his most famous singles, On the Road Again, is all about being continually on tour, which is very apt, considering this has been a major part of his life. It became his ninth country and western number one hit.

The song was written for the film which gave Nelson his first leading role, Honeysuckle Rose, when he played a musician who travelled across America on tour at many different venues, making it hard to sustain a relationship with his family.

Nelson was asked to write a song focusing on life on the road to use as the movie’s theme song. It was reported that he thought up the lyrics during a flight and wrote them very quickly – on the aircraft’s sick bag! The track featured a “train beat” type of sound to echo all the travelling.

The song was given the Grammy Award for Best Country Song and Nelson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 53rd Academy Awards. Rolling Stone magazine ranked On the Road Again as number 471 in the 500 greatest songs in history in 2004. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of fame in 2011.

The lyrics described Nelson’s own love of being on tour, as he wrote: “I just can’t wait to get on the road again. The life I love is making music with my friends.”

He spoke of how a life on the road meant “going places that I’ve never been” and “seeing things that I may never see again” – a reflection of his own touring experiences.

The song remains a part of popular culture, almost 40 years after its release. In 2016, it was the backing track for a television commercial for the Volkswagen Passat car – and Nelson even made a cameo appearance in the ad, driving an older VW alongside the new car.

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