Willie Nelson: Hachette Speakers Bureau

Willie Nelson

Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter, Activist, and Poet

Before he was one of the most prolific album makers and recognizable figures in popular music, Willie Nelson was a humble songwriter who wrote hits for country stars like Patsy Cline and Faron Young. Nelson soon made his own name covering pop and C&W standards. His dry, wry voice and plaintive, understated delivery eventually helped him reach wider pop audiences. In the 1970s he spearheaded "outlaw" country — the non-Nashville alliance between "redneck" country musicians and "hippie" rock musicians. His stature grew exponentially throughout the 1980s with classic singles like "On the Road Again" and "Always on my Mind," his participation in the supergroup the Highwaymen (with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings) and the Farm Aid concerts he helped organize to benefit family farmers. Meanwhile, his problems with the Internal Revenue Service and leisure-time marijuana use made Nelson something of an "outlaw" for real — and a counterculture-style hero to many.

Nelson was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. That same year, he recorded the acclaimed Across the Borderline (Number 75, 1993), on which such in-demand rock pros as producer Don Was (who had recently rescued Bonnie Raitt and the B-52's from commercial oblivion) and mixer Bob Clearmountain recorded Nelson duetting with Bonnie Raitt, Sinéad O'Connor, and Bob Dylan, on tunes by Dylan, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett. Nelson followed that with Moonlight Becomes You, a Stardust-style album of old pop standards that began with a "hidden" track in which Nelson told listeners that the album was on independent Justice Records because no major label would gamble on releasing such a record. Be that as it may, Nelson moved to Liberty for his next recording, 1995's Healing Hands of Time, another set of pop standards.

In 1996 he became the first country performer to sign with Island Records and released the self-penned, self-produced Spirit; he followed that with the critically acclaimed Teatro (Number 104, 1998), a collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois. Eclectic as always, Nelson then released a jazzy collection of instrumentals on 1999's Night and Day.

The unpredictable Nelson began the new millennium releasing Milk Cow Blues, on which he revisited some of his older material. Nelson released Me and the Drummer, a collection that came with a scrapbook, the same year. In 2001 he issued a diverse collection of country classics, The Rainbow Connection, and in 2002 he released The Great Divide, a collection of adult pop-oriented covers which, at Number 43, was his highest-charting album since the early Eighties. Crazy: The Demo Sessions, a collection of his publishing demos from the early 1960s, was released on Sugar Hill in 2003, and later that year, Nelson teamed up with Ray Price again on Lost Highway Records for Run That By Me One More Time. He continued to work with Lost Highway records for It Always Will Be (Number 75, 2004), Outlaws and Angels (Number 69, 2004), and Countryman (Number 46, 2005), an attempt to incorporate reggae into his country sound.

Ever the maverick, Nelson turned around and issued Two Men with the Blues, a critically lauded jazz-country fusion collaboration with Wynton Marsalis that topped the jazz chart and reached Number 20 on the pop chart. That year saw the publication of Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski's definitive biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. But that epic life was hardly over, as Nelson returned in 2009 with Willie and the Wheel (Number 90), another collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel, this time on a set of songs made famous by Western swing legend Bob Wills. That same year he also released American Classic, yet another set of pop standards.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.

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