So great is his impact on music, even folks who never bought a country album instantly recognize Willie Nelson: the headband, grizzled beard and long braids; the quavering, nasal voice and off-beat phrasing; the sound of Trigger, his nylon-stringed Martin guitar; the laid-back character out for a good time.
“Bring along your Cadillac, leave my old wreck behind,” Nelson sang. “If you’ve got the money, honey I’ve got the time.”
In a career that spans six decades, Nelson wrote country classics, helped remake the genre through the “outlaw” movement, scored more than 60 top-40 country or pop hits and brought new audiences to country music.
He also became a big star and an unlikely American icon – the long-haired Texan urging mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, the graying singer recalling all the girls he loved before, the celebrity famous enough to portray himself on “The Simpsons” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
On Thursday, the Library of Congress honored Nelson for his enduring impact on music, naming him the recipient of its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Nelson will receive the prize in Washington, D.C., in November. Details about the event – a luncheon and a musical performance are planned – will be announced later.
“Willie Nelson is a musical explorer, redrawing the boundaries of country music throughout his career,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. “A master communicator, the sincerity and universally appealing message of his lyrics place him in a category of his own while still remaining grounded in his country-music roots. His achievements as a songwriter and performer are legendary.
“Like America itself, he has absorbed and assimilated diverse stylistic influences into his stories and songs. He has helped make country music one of the most universally beloved forms of American artistic expression.”
Pushing Musical Boundaries
Nelson continually expanded his musical language – and that of his audience and of country music – by incorporating a wide range of styles and influences: Western swing, jazz, traditional pop, blues, folk, rock and Latin.
He wrote country classics (“Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”), turned pop standards into big country hits (“Blue Skies,” “Mona Lisa”), made country hits with crossover appeal (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again”) and scored big with pure pop tunes (“Always on My Mind,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”).
Nelson’s appealing persona, commercial success and critical appreciation also gave him a place in popular culture that transcended country – he was a big star, even outside the music industry.
Beginning in the late ’70s, he appeared as an actor in more than 40 films and TV shows – from lead roles in “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Red Headed Stranger” to appearances in “Miami Vice” and “Surfer, Dude.”
His music appeared in many more – even “Monday Night Football.”
“Turn out the lights, the party’s over,” commentator Don Meredith, lifting a line from a minor Nelson hit, would croon after a team made a victory-clinching play.
Nelson follows Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King and Billy Joel as recipients of the prize – an honor bestowed on living artists whose lifetime achievements in popular song exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin by promoting song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations.
The librarian of Congress makes the selection in consultation with leading members of the music and entertainment industries and curators from the Music Division, American Folklife Center and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
“It is an honor to be the next recipient of the Gershwin Prize,” Nelson said. “I appreciate it greatly.”
Voice from the Heartland
Nelson was born in 1933 to Ira and Myrle Nelson of Abbott, Texas. His parents had married very young – he was 16, she was 15 – and the union didn’t last long: Myrle left only months after Willie was born, and Ira later remarried and left, too.
So Willie and older sister Bobbie were raised by his blacksmith grandfather Will and grandmother Nancy, who picked cotton and gave music lessons.
Willie played guitar and wrote songs – as early as age 7 – and performed at church revivals and in local dance halls and honky-tonks.
After high school, Nelson joined the Air Force, spent two years at Baylor University and dropped out to pursue music. He lived here and there – San Antonio, Fort Worth, Vancouver, Houston – and sold encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners, worked as a disc jockey, taught Sunday school – all the while writing music and performing.
In 1960, he moved to Nashville, where he eventually found some success. Faron Young recorded his “Hello Walls” in 1961 and scored a No. 1 hit on the country charts. Soon after, Nelson played a demo for the husband of another performer. The singer was Patsy Cline and the song, “Crazy,” became a smash and a country-music standard.
Nelson began recording his own albums – his first contained three classics: “Crazy,” Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – with only modest commercial success.
In the early 1970s, he returned to Texas and became a key figure of the “outlaw” movement – performers who rebelled against the Nashville establishment that dictated which songs artists would sing and who would produce their albums.
The outlaws grew their hair long, wrote their own music and made their own records – a rootsy response to the formulaic, slick Nashville sound.
The albums Nelson released in that period – “Shotgun Willie,” “Red Headed Stranger,” “Stardust” “Wanted! The Outlaws,” “Waylon & Willie” – made him one of the most important figures in country music. “Red Headed Stranger” was inducted into the National Recording Registry at the Library in 2009.
He also established himself as a hitmaker with crossover appeal. Nelson scored more than 60 top-40 country hits across five decades and, beginning in the 1970s, a string of successes on pop charts, too: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
He won seven Grammy Awards for his recordings and, in 1990, the Grammy Living Legend Award. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001.