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Willie Nelson

Photo of Willie Nelson sculpture

Willie Nelson is a country music icon. A unique and versatile artist, his innovative songwriting has resulted in No. 1 hits for dozens of artists – including more than twenty for himself.

Born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, he and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents, who encouraged their avid interest in playing music. He began playing at dance halls and honky tonks at age 13 and was quite successful. To make extra money, he booked other acts at venues close to his home, including some of his musical idols, like Bob Wills.

Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960 after his composition “Family Bible” became a hit for Claude Gray, and he quickly established himself as one of the most talented songwriters in the business. His unique singing style, however – with behind-the-beat phrasing and unadorned vocals – was less appreciated, and Nelson eventually found himself tiring of rejection and longing for a place where he could be himself.

Willie moved back home to Texas in 1972. He let his hair and his beard grow long, wrote and sang the way he wanted, and – after signing with Columbia Records and gaining complete creative control over his records in 1975 – brought his own band into the studio. His debut release for the label, The Red Headed Stranger, was a huge hit, thanks in part to Nelson’s spare cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” His brand of country – by then known as “Outlaw” – had become a sensation. Nelson would follow with LPs that revealed his versatility and wide-ranging interests, including collaborations with artists like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and 1978’s Stardust, a collection of classic pop songs that sold four million copies, garnered him a new audience, and is still considered one of his best works. (From Ken Burns' Country Music.)

The Wittliff Collections has a large collection of Nelson materials, including many unpublished lyrics, most notably a unique handbook songbook a pre-teen Nelson composed and created.