Willie Nelson is 80
Willie Nelson neither looks nor seems 80 years old. This is an age reserved for, well, old people. The unhip, those not in-the-know, not totally with it.
Photo by Steve Cohen
And yet, Willie turns 80 today. What's his secret? We doubt it's the weed -- sorry -- but think that it likely has more to do with his totally Zen outlook on life, a go-with-the-flow ideology that manifests in his very style of playing. He's an unconventional poet who chooses whatever cadence strikes him in the moment, and he has a gracious, accepting, and loving attitude toward performing and toward the world. Best of all, Willie always stands up for the underdog. Forget blood pressure meds, a vegan diet, or hours grinding on the treadmill; these qualities are the true fountain of youth.
The ultimate country outlaw, Wilie's dabbled in pop, jazz, and reggae, and wears sneakers, not boots. Or, as we hear his departed friend Roger Miller used to describe him, Willie "flushes to the beat of a different plumber." (Roger always knew the right thing to say.) In total, all this adds up to one bad ass 80-year-old M.F., and to give him his due, we present to you 15 legendary facts about Willie Nelson, paired with 15 of his very good songs.
"My Window Faces the South" (1966)
15. Born Willie Hugh Nelson April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Willie, along with his older sister Bobbie, was left by his young parents to be raised by grandparents Alfred and Nancy Nelson, who studied and introduced the kids to music. Bobbie, two years his elder, still plays piano in his band, giving literal meaning to the name he's given his backing act, the Family.
14. The first song young Willie learned was "Amazing Grace." His first public performance was the recitation of a poem at the age of five, which earned him the nickname "Booger Red" after he got so nervous he picked his nose 'til it bled. Nasal capillaries be damned; he wrote his first song at the age of seven, and at 13, performed with Bob Wills.
"Whiskey River"/"Stay All Night" (1973, and NSFW)
13. Willie moved to Nashville in 1960, but couldn't get a label to sign him. He would hang out and perform at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway, where he was discovered and befriended by the prolific songwriter Hank Cochran. Cochran gambled a raise owed to him by his publishing company, convincing them to instead use that money to sign Willie to the group. Soon after Ray Price recorded Nelson's song "Night Life," Price's bassist (a fellow named Johnny Paycheck) quit his backing band, the Cherokee Cowboys, and Willie was hired to replace him.
"Funny How Time Slips Away" (1962)
12. Willie's life has been a lesson in hard-nosed persistence, from troubles with the law to troubles with the IRS, all dating back to a rural Depression-era childhood and a hard go of it as a young musician. While trying to make it in music, he moved around a lot, picking up DJing gigs when he couldn't find work as a musician, and then washing dishes and selling bibles, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias door-to-door when he couldn't find work as a DJ. When he couldn't get his break as a recording artist, he opted for songwriting. His early songs included hits for Patsy Cline ("Crazy"), Faron Young ("Hello Walls"), and Billy Walker ("Funny How Time Slips Away"), as well as hits for Ray Price ("Night Life") and the gospel classic "Family Bible" (popularized by Claude Gray), which he sold for $150 and $50 respectively.
"What Can You Do to Me Now" (1975)
11. One night during a songwriting session with Hank Cochran in his Ridgetop, Tennessee, home, the two of them would write the song "What Can You Do to Me Now?" The very next day, Willie's house burned down. He ran back in just in time to save Trigger, his holy/holey and beloved Martin acoustic.