In 1961, following the bitter end of two marriages, and floundering in his musical career, with one Nashville producer dismissing his style - “That ain’t singin’, that’s talkin’" - Willie Nelson had had enough failure and literally laid down in the street to die.
Willie recalled, “…I got so drunk and discouraged that I laid down in the street in the snow late at night and waited for a car to come along...but eventually I began to feel stupid and went and bought another round of drinks."
That is quintessential Willie.
Whether it’s the IRS seizing his assets in 1990, the tragic suicide of his son Billy in 1991, or being arrested for possession of marijuana four times, no matter what fate hands him, he gets back up off the canvas for another round.
Before Willie Nelson made a name for himself as a solo artist, releasing a string of incredible concept albums in the early seventies, he was a prominent songwriter. It’s further testament to his endurance that Willie went from a traveling vagabond who slept in ditches and fought in bars to writing hits for various Nashville greats in the 60s, including the Patsy Cline favorite “Crazy.”
Willie's solo career eventually took off in 1974 with the release of Phases and Stages, a concept album that takes a brutally honest look at divorce from perspective of both parties. In 1975, he released Red Headed Stranger, a wild west concept album that gave Willie a nickname and established him as a music legend.
The Red Headed Stranger has never slowed down, traveling the world with his family and Trigger, his Martin classical guitar, weathered and rough, with a gaping hole in the body and named after Roy Rogers’ trusty horse: "Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. I figured: "This is my horse!"
Throughout his extensive career, Willie has collaborated with a diverse group of musicians: The Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson), Ringo Starr, Wynton Marsalis, Eddie Vedder and Snoop Dogg.
He’s even done a little acting, performing in Stagecoach and Barbarosa and appearing on King of the Hill. He's even managed to find time to write and collaborate on six books and get a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. At 79, he’s not ready to retire: “My doctor tells me I should start slowing it down - but there are more old drunks than there are old doctors so let's all have another round.”
Willie has been involved politically, lobbying for Farm Aid and the legalization of marijuana, even performing his notorious ballad “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” at the 2012 CMT Awards. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he said, “If we taxed and regulated the drugs the way they do in other parts of the world, we would be far better off.”
He’s been a strong supporter of alternative energies, investing in BioWillie, a diesel fuel composed of vegetable oil and soybeans: “There is really no need going around starting wars over oil. We have it here at home. We have the necessary product, the farmers can grow it….”
Willie's latest album, Heroes, was released on May 15, featuring his son Lukas, Snoop Dogg, and Sheryl Crow, has been met with universal acclaim and described in Neil McCormick’s Telegraph review as Willie’s “Last will and testament.”
From drifter to an American institution, Willie Nelson continually defies expectations and stays the course, coming a long way from the broken man ready to lie down in the ditch to the beloved Red Headed Stranger.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. His articles have appeared in cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)