@story JIM MARTIN
@images WILLIE NELSON
Willie Nelson and his band, Family, will take the stage at the Fort Smith Convention Center on December 7. It’s the famous outlaw’s third visit to Fort Smith.
Well known on the national music scene for years, Willie Nelson has become an American Icon. He is known worldwide, has written close to 2,500 songs, released over 300 albums, and has had roles in almost thirty movies. He has also served as the face of numerous social causes such as Farm-Aid, the development of Bio-Diesel, and the legalization of hemp.
Born on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Willie Hugh Nelson made his first public appearance at a community church social when he was only four years old. Willie and sister Bobbie, who were raised by their grandparents, were exposed to music at an early age. Willie began lessons at six, wrote his first song at seven, and was playing in a local band by nine. Later, he began working for local radio stations before joining the Air Force. Discharged with a bad back, he returned to Abbott, taking his first wife, Martha, with whom he fathered three children: Lana, Billy, and Susie.
Hoping to further his music career, his family moved to Vancouver, Washington. He took another job in radio, cutting his first single to give away to listeners. He was talking with Mae Axton, writer of “Heartbreak Hotel,” when he decided to show her his songs. “He played a few,” Mae remembers. “One just as good as the other and they were all great.” She advised him to go to Nashville.
He was on a layover in Texas when Willie sold his first song, “Family Bible,” for $50.00, a fraction of it’s worth. “I’ve never regretted it,” Says Willie. “It put food on my table when I couldn’t.”
Once in Nashville, Hank Cochran got him a job writing songs for Pamper Music. The year was 1960. “I was due a raise,” Hank explains. “I told them to give it to Willie. He started at $25.00 a week.” Willie’s writing career grew, penning hits such as “Night Life,” “Hello Walls,” and the classic “Crazy.” Still, he wanted to perform.
His recording career a failure, he divorced Martha and married Shirley, moving to a pig farm in Ridge Top, Tennessee. Willie was visiting Hank Cochran when he got a call saying his house was on fire. He got there in time to save his favorite guitar and a bag of weed. With no intentions of rebuilding, he went back to Texas.
In Texas, Willie became a different man than the one in Tennessee. He let his hair grow long, grew a beard, and pierced his left earlobe. He put together a band and began playing local venues like the Austin Opera House and the Armadillo Club. Able to transcend genres he was playing as much to the hippie crowd as to the rednecks, something that had never been done.
It was around this time Shirley found out he’d cheated on her when a hospital bill addressed to “Willie and Connie Nelson” for the birth of their child, Paula, came in the mail. Unable to have children of her own, Shirley was devastated. She decided to move on. Connie moved in.
On a trip back from Colorado, the idea for “Red Headed Stranger” came about. Willie signed with Columbia Records, and set about recording the album in his studio with the bare minimum of instrumentation. Once completed, one executive called it a nice demo, which resulted in Waylon Jennings stating that the man may know music, “But you don’t know a damn thing about Willie Nelson. The only thing that record needs is sent out to stores.”
The company eventually agreed to release the album as it was. It became a huge hit, also giving Willie his first number one single, “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” It was official – Willie Nelson had made it.
Just a few years later, he did it again with “Stardust,” an album full of old-time pop standards including “Georgia,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.” Once again, the record company was hesitant, thinking no one would be interested in a collection of songs with origins in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. The album was released in 1978, and is still on the best-selling charts today.
He began his acting career in the early-eighties, starring in Box Office hits, “The Electric Horseman” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Since then, he has gone on to play various roles in a number of movies both on TV and on the silver screen.
Now in his late-seventies, Willie is still on the road playing over 200 dates a year. He released his latest album in 2010, “Country Music,” and remains a vital member of today’s music scene. Having played venues the world over, he and his band, Family, will be at the Fort Smith Convention Center on December 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are now on sale online at www.itickets.com. Prices are set at $65, $45, and $35.