As American icon Willie Nelson celebrates his 83rd birthday today, he remains one of the last surviving country music legends who came to prominence in the twentieth century. But the tireless entertainer has not only survived, he continues to thrive, with a recording career that has spanned six decades and a song catalog to rival those of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other composers in the Great American Songbook.
In 1960, the 27-year-old songwriter packed his 1941 Buick and moved from his native Texas, to Nashville, but efforts to secure a record deal were initially unsuccessful, to say the least. At one point, Nelson was so despondent (and intoxicated), that he laid down in the middle of Broadway, Nashville’s main downtown thoroughfare, hoping to be run over by a car. Once songwriter Hank Cochran (co-writer of “I Fall to Pieces” for Patsy Cline) led him to Pamper Music, the company signed Nelson to a writing deal. Holding court at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nelson had access to some of the industry’s top artists at the time as the smoke-filled beer joint became not only a meeting place, but an integral part of the song-gathering process, especially in Nelson’s case. Tootsie’s is where Faron Young heard Nelson sing “Hello Walls,” a song he initially tried to sell to Young for $500. The singer refused and loaned him the money instead, telling him to pay him back when he could. However, when Nelson received his first royalty check – for $20,000 – Young still refused the repayment.
Another of the songs Nelson had with him when he first arrived in Music City was “Funny How Time Slips Away.” A country hit for Billy Walker, it would go on to be recorded dozens of time, by a wide array of artists from Elvis Presley to the Supremes. In 1994, Al Green and Lyle Lovett teamed for a version that was included on the LP, Rhythm, Country and Blues, and Nelson recorded it in 2010 as a duet with Juice Newton. Another genre-defying tune, “Night Life,” written while he was still in Texas, would give Ray Price a 1963 hit and once again prove popular outside country music, with Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, David Lee Roth and Aretha Franklin among those who covered it.
What has become the most enduring of Nelson’s early compositions more than 50 years later is a tune Patsy Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick, heard Nelson perform at Tootsie’s. Although he was convinced Patsy should record it, she was less than enthusiastic. Thankfully, she relented. “Crazy” is now one of the most recorded songs of all time.
On November 28th, 1964, the 39th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry, Nelson performed for the first time as an Opry member. At the time, the Opry filmed a syndicated series in Nashville which featured Opry members and special guests performing their current hits. Nelson, who had recently been hired to co-host another syndicated show originating from the WSM-TV studios, hosted by country superstar Ernest Tubb, was so uncomfortable in the role he was given that he asked to be let go.
In spite of his reluctance on camera, the clean-shaven, sharply dressed singer-songwriter would become more at ease on camera, going on, of course, to star in dozens of feature films, although he has decidedly left the clean-cut image behind for the bearded, bandanna-wearing “outlaw” persona that’s been with him since emerging as one of country’s biggest stars in the Seventies. No matter how he’s dressed, how long or short his hair is or what he’s smoked on the bus before a show, Willie remains one of the country’s – and the world’s – most revered entertainers.
As the saying goes, “it all starts with a song,” and this clip from the Grand Ole Opry series, featuring Nelson singing “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life” and “Crazy,” is early black-and-white evidence of a master craftsman at work, years before he would emerge as one of the most colorful personalities of his time.