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Willie Nelson

In the 1970s popular country music scene, Willie Nelson developed a dynamic career that proved the genre’s post-rock and roll mainstream potential. Nelson was born during the Depression in Abbott, Texas in 1933: his parents had moved there from Arkansas to find work. His mother left the family soon after his birth and was followed quickly by his father, leaving young Willie and his sister to be raised by their grandparents. They taught Nelson how to sing and, at age six, how to play guitar. By age seven he had written his first song and was in a local band by age nine. His family would pick cotton during the summer, but Nelson preferred making money with music, performing at dances and honky-tonks through his high school years.

He joined the US Air Force in 1950, had returned to Texas by 1952, and attended college at Baylor University. He dropped out to focus on music and by 1955, while employed by the KBOP radio station in Pleasanton, Texas, he made his first recordings on the station’s tape equipment. He moved around and ended up in Vancouver, Washington where he made his first formal recordings, which failed. He returned to Texas after a series of failed ventures and began singing and selling his songs out of a club in Houston. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1960 and installed himself in the city’s songwriting milieu, which resulted in him being signed to Liberty Records in 1961. In 1964 he signed to RCA Victor and by the end of the decade he was having regular hits. By 1972 he was frustrated by the label and decided to retire, only to return in 1973 and become the first country artist signed with Atlantic Records.

Inspired by time spent in Austin, Nelson altered his approach and 1973’s Shotgun Willie became one of the first pieces of “outlaw country” music, which developed him a younger audience. Through the 1980s, Nelson continued to release popular records and collaborate with other country artists whom he had met through the Grand Ole Opry and the outlaw scene. In 1985 he cofounded the Farm Aid concert series to raise awareness of family farms and continued to tour through the 1990s and 2000s and champion the legalization of marijuana. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, the Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2011, and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1998.