One of America’s iconic country & western singers, Willie Nelson has done little to avoid his endorsement of the blazed lifestyle. Little except make dozens of classic records and try to save the planet from spent fossil fuels. But the pot stuff overshadows Willie Nelson’s legacy. It’s time we remind ourselves about the reigning king of outlaw country.
1 He’s prolific. The 79-year-old has released 66 studio albums. Among the recent ones you overlooked: 2005’s Countryman, a reggae album; 2006’s Songbird with Ryan Adams; and 2009’s Willie and the Wheel with western swingsters Asleep at the Wheel.
2 He’s a pop artist. Despite his association with outlaw country, Nelson’s greatest commercial success came when he paid tribute to the classic American songbook with the 1978 multiplatinum album Stardust, produced by his neighbor at the time, Booker T. Jones. It wasn’t a cynical cash-in. In fact, his label was initially bewildered by the record.
3 He’s a journeyman. On his resume: western swing guitar player, pig farmer, basketball point guard, bass player, disc jockey, Bible salesman, tree trimmer, songwriter.
4 His is a second-act success. Having sold a few songs, he moved to Nashville in 1960. There, he wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and hits for the likes of Faron Young. But his efforts to make it solo as a suit-and-tie-wearing country crooner were all for naught. Country fans didn’t care much for his voice and jazzy phrasing. Nelson didn’t care for playing in the sonic syrup his producers dished out. His house burned down in 1970 and he returned to Austin to reboot, just in time to catch the hippie wave cresting at counterculture center the Armadillo World Headquarters. Shotgun Willie, braids and bandana came next.
5 He’s a nomad. Austin, Texas, claims him, but Nelson, who lives for months on the road year after year, spends most of his time in the sustainable enclave in Maui—where he has been known to jam at Charley’s or play poker with Owen Wilson.
6 He’s a brand of biodiesel fuel. You can drive a vehicle on BioWillie. Nelson is heavily invested in biodiesel production and distribution. Willie and his wife are board members of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance.
7 His sidekick is Trigger. Not a horse, but rather Willie’s guitar, a 1969 Martin N-20 that looks as if it has been used to fend off banditos and federales. It is engraved by hundreds of friends including Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Nelson bought the guitar in 1969 sight unseen for $750.
8 He’s a recalled ice cream. In 2008, Willie’s Ben & Jerry’s flavor, Country Peach Cobbler, had its first edition of 250,000 pull off shelves because it contained undeclared amounts of wheat. That’s wheat, not weed.
9 He’s a golf nut. The Tae Kwon Do black belt also owns a nine-hole course, the Pedernales Country Club, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Cut-N-Putt, adjacent to his recording studio in Spicewood, Texas. Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, claims Willie is addicted to Wii Golf.
Willie Nelson plays Genesee Theatre Thursday 7. His latest, Heroes, is out now on Legacy Recordings.