Willie Nelson started writing songs when he was a little boy, in a notebook he labeled “Willie Nelson’s Songs.” And he just kept writing them.
He wanted to be a country singer, so he went to Nashville. Producers there didn’t much like his voice, but they loved his lyrics. So other artists got some big hits recording the songs that Willie wrote.
There was “Night Life” for Ray Price, which may be the most-covered country song of all time. And there was “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker, “Hello Walls” recorded by Faron Young, and “Pretty Paper,” which Roy Orbison made famous.
There was “Crazy,” sung by Patsy Cline. It’s number 85 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Willie was a successful songwriter, but he wanted to perform. He decided that might happen back in Texas.
He thrived in Texas. That’s where Willie Nelson put together the mix of music he loved to play. Some called it “outlaw country” because it was different from the country music coming out of Nashville.
But it was more than that. Willie began to work in different musical styles. He did lots of work with other artists. On the album “Half Nelson,” Willie sings duets with Merle Haggard, Lacy J. Dalton, Neil Young, Mel Tillis, Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Carlos Santana, Leon Russell, and George Jones. There’s also a track where Willie harmonizes with a 1947 Hank Williams recording.
Willie was playing music he loved and writing songs, too. His career took off.
Willie Nelson Rule Nr 1: Look for the mix of things that makes you unique.
Willie Nelson Rule Nr. 2: Find an environment that lets you develop the mix.
No matter how famous he got, Willie was always generous. In 1985, along with John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, he started Farm Aid to help family farmers. That generosity would be repaid when the IRS slapped Nelson with a $16.7 million tax bill and confiscated his property.
The government tried to sell the property at auction, but a funny thing happened. Farmers from all over America showed up and urged people not to bid. Old friends bought up property after property so they could sell it back to Nelson when he’d put the tax troubles behind him.
Sometimes the good guys win.