Willie Nelson defied the music establishment, society and the law, and helped ease America into a new consciousness. Every American should be celebrating his birthday (April 30th) and his eight decades of accomplishments in entertainment, human rights and charity.
After stints as an encyclopedia salesman and pig farmer, the Texas native gained recognition as a songwriter in the early '60s when several singers made his songs country anthems. The biggest was Patsy Cline's cover of "Crazy," which hit number two in 1962 and has been on jukeboxes ever since.
Willie's songs have been recorded by artists in every genre, from Tony Bennett to Snoop Dogg and Rosalynn Carter ("Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother"). Willie defied the Nudie suit-studded Nashville establishment and wore jeans and a t-shirt. With his long red hair and beard, he became the most recognizable and revered performer in the outlaw movement of the '70s. He continued ignoring the Nashville establishment dominated by lush string arrangements by producing the stark, acoustic "Red Headed Stranger. " The haunting, poetic, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" hit number one in 1975.
At a time when country and rock, rednecks and hippies were divided -- at times violently -- Willie's concerts drew both, fusing genres and generations. Also, when country was strictly white, Willie chose a notoriously rough Texas bar to introduce Charley Pride with a kiss on the mouth. Pride was the only black country singer in America at the time.
In 1978 he turned his back on the music industry again, leaving the dirt roads of country to record Stardust with Booker T. Jones. Columbia Records warned him against leaving the lucrative outlaw movement to do an album of early pop standards. Here are the results:
- The album was certified platinum the same year
- Willie won Best Male Vocal Performance for the album's single, "Georgia on My Mind";
- The album charted for 10 years on Top Country Albums;
- By 2002 it was certified quintuple platinum;
- Rolling Stone ranked "Stardust" #260 in the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Willie easily replaced his bandanna and jeans for a tuxedo and introduced a forgotten body of music to a new generation. He created an interest in pop standards that are still being recorded today by the likes of Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney.
In 1985, Willie helped organize the first Farm Aid Concert with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to raise awareness of the plight of small farmers. Willie and Mellencamp brought family farmers before Congress to testify about the state of family farming in America. Congress subsequently passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure. Amazingly, he's retained his redneck status while being an activist for LGBT and clean energy. For decades Willie didn't so much defy the law as just ignore it with his open, casual and continuous use of marijuana.
When he lit a big "Austin Torpedo" in 1980 on Jimmy Carter's White House roof under the eye of the Secret Service, he became America's poster boy for pot. (He's been on the cover of High Times twice.)
In 2010, he gave Larry King a lesson on pot smoking and shocked the host (but not the nation) when he matter-of-factly admitted he'd smoked just before the interview. He smiled, holding out his hands. "You can arrest me."
Willie, over the decades, has become the modern Huck Finn. Instead of a raft, he lives in his bus, traveling the country, stopping long enough to perform, then getting "On The Road Again" (number one, 1980).
Like Huck, he's in America but just a little outside of it. In his travels over the decades, without ever raising his voice, he's contributed greatly to the culture of acceptance from music to race, human rights, family values, and family farms. And, yes, the legal use of pot.
Happy 80th birthday, Willie. You are a true American original. May every liberal-conservative-human rights-farm-advocate-music loving pot smoker light one up in your honor. America's finally catching up with you.