After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Willie Nelson worked as a radio DJ in Texas and Washington in the mid-1950s. Nelson played in several bands, but began to play music more seriously when he settled in the Houston area. He also began more aggressively market his songs to other artists.
Writing "Crazy" for Patsy Cline:
To further his musical ambitions, Nelson relocated to Nashville in 1960. He began working for Hal Smith's publishing house, Pamper Music, where he found success placing hits with Billy Walker ("Funny How Time Slips Away") and, most enduringly, Patsy Cline ("Crazy").
Struggling Solo Artist:
Willie Nelson was a less than overnight success. In 1962, he signed a recording contract with Liberty Records, but except for a pair of top 10 singles, the young country singer failed to make an impression with listeners. Despite his superlative songs, he was a strange fish compared to his Music City brethren. His halting vocals owed more to supper club crooners than honky-tonk singers, and they took some time to grow on a conservative country audience.
Biding His Time:
In 1970, Nelson returned to Texas creatively chastened and with a broken marriage. In Austin, his increasingly maverick persona and scruffy songs began to gain a following. Given a few years, Nelson signed with Atlantic Records, resulting in the adventurous records Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974); they laid the groundwork for what was to come.
Breaking the Rules, Breaking the Bank:
Everything changed for Nelson in 1975. He released The Red Headed Stranger. It became one of the best-selling albums of Nelson's career, and among of the most influential country albums of its time.
Although his record company (now Columbia) initially wanted it re-recorded, it ended up being released as Nelson intended. The result was more than any A&R rep could have hoped for: over a million copies flew off shelves. It changed the atmosphere in Nashville, and yielded Nelson's first #1 song: "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," written by Fred Rose.
After his 1970s peak, Nelson has continued to be a talent to be reckoned with. He had tax problems with the IRS in 1990, but the country singer settled his hefty tax debt (at one time estimated to be $32 million) by 1993.
That year offered another milestone, when Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
For the remainder of the '90s and into the 2000s, Nelson has continued to have a healthy following and a prolific output of records.
Number One Songs from Willie Nelson:
- "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (1975)
- "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time" (1976)
- "Good Hearted Woman" (1976)
- "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" (1978)
- "Georgia on My Mind" (1978)
- "I Can Get Off On You" (1978)
- "Blue Skies" (1978)
- "Heartbreak Hotel" (1979)
- "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" (1980)
- "On the Road Again" (1980)
- "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" (1981)
- "Always on My Mind" (1982)
- "Just to Satisfy You" (1982)
- "Pancho and Lefty" (1983)
- "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (1984)
- "City of New Orleans" (1984)
- "Seven Spanish Angels" (1985)
- "Forgiving You Was Easy" (1985)
- "Living in the Promiseland" (1986)
- "Nothing I Can Do About It Now" (1989)
- The Red Headed Stranger (1975, Columbia Records)
- Teatro (1998, Island Records)