Excerpt From: Writer’s Almanac
It’s Willie Nelson’s birthday. Born in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas (1933). He was raised by his grandparents and aunts during the Great Depression, and earned his keep by picking cotton. His grandfather gave him his first guitar and music lessons. After high school, he supported himself going door to door selling Bibles, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, and sewing machines.
At night, Nelson wrote songs and performed at honky-tonks with names like the County Dump and the Bloody Bucket, where the performers had to be shielded by chicken wire from flying cans and bottles. In 1959, he wrote “Night Life,” a song that was eventually recorded by more than 70 artists and sold over 30 million copies. He only made a $150 from the song, because he sold the copyright, but he used that money to buy a second-hand Buick, and he drove in that Buick to Nashville, hoping to become a country music star.
He spent the next decade writing songs for other country singers, like the song “Crazy” (1961), recorded by Patsy Cline. He grew increasingly frustrated by the music industry, and by 1971 he had divorced his second wife and lost his investment in a failed pig farm, and his house had burned to the ground. He went back to Texas and started recording his own albums. In 1975, he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his wife and her new lover. At the time, many country singers were backed by orchestras and backup singers, but Nelson recorded the album with just his acoustic guitar and a few other instruments. No one thought it would be a hit, but it sold millions of copies, and inspired a traditional country music revival.
Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life (2015), came out last year. In it, he writes: “[Songs] are mysterious gifts. I know they are born out of experience and genuine grief […] The deepest songs expose vulnerability. They strip me bare and leave me amazed.”