Introduction

Willie Nelson 1933–

American songwriter, musician, and actor.

By combining country, blues, gospel, honky-tonk, Western, and Texas swing music, Nelson bridged the gap between country music and rock and roll. It was several years, however, before his synthesis of musical forms gained a place in the popular music industry. For fifteen years Nelson wrote hits for various Nashville singers. But he was in Nashville at a time when the emphasis was on the singer, not the songwriter, and the Nashville sound was smooth and sweet. Because of his rough, dry baritone, Nelson was discouraged from recording in Nashville. He finally left Nashville and moved to Austin, Texas, where his progressive country sound appealed to both rednecks and hard rockers. In Austin, Nelson became the unofficial leader of the "outlaw" movement. The outlaws are considered renegade country artists for refusing to conform to the prevailing country and western standards in their music. Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others later recorded an album called The Outlaws.

Nelson writes his songs in the traditional country and western storytelling format. He has broadened the concept to produce entire albums that relate stories of loss, pain, and redemption. Religion has had a profound effect on Nelson's music and writing style. In his songs, Nelson attempts to deal with human emotions in terms of an implied spiritual unrest. Yesterday's Wine examines the feelings encountered within man's relationship to God. On Phases and Stages the story of a divorce is told first by the woman and then by the man; in these songs, Nelson captures the despair, loneliness, and pain of the two people. Red Headed Stranger, which won a Grammy award in 1975, tells of lost love, adultery, murder, and finally forgiveness. Bob Allen likened it to "a Greek morality play acted out against the metaphors of the old West and the music of Texas.

Nelson does not always use his albums as a vehicle to showcase his own songwriting. Many of his albums, including Stardust and To Lefty from Willie, pay tribute to other songwriters such as Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Lefty Frizzell, and George Gershwin. This practice has led some critics to conclude that Nelson suffers from a severe writer's block. Nelson admits there are times when he feels he has written his last song, but he continues to have new ideas and to write new songs. Nelson was named to the Hall of Fame by the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1973.