What can be said about this man that hasn’t already been debated, cussed and discussed? Not much, given his iconic status in country music and progressive culture, but maybe there is perspective to be gained about the larger than life existence of Willie Hugh Nelson, the favorite son of Abbott, Texas.
First, the voice. An natural instrument so extraordinary that it is instantly recognizable in every corner of the world. In the abstract it might be dismissed as a nasally Texas honk, but to listen is to bear witness to perfection: confident, controlled, welcoming and wise, a portal to other places, places of warmth, comfort and beauty. A voice unparalleled in popular American music, with the possible exception of Sinatra himself.
The guitar work is equally perfect, but understated, punctuating, almost hidden behind the voice. “Trigger”, he calls his instrument. Maybe the only classical guitar in American country music, and when he throws in a little lead the room goes quiet.
Then there is the writing. Willie has been performing for so long, often covering the work of others, that his songwriting prowess is sometimes overlooked. He started off in the fifties as a contract songwriter in Nashville. When the dust settles he will be remembered as a songwriter, having written or co-written over 2500 songs, including masterpieces like “Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Whiskey River”, “Night Life” and “Hello Walls”.
But Willie’s highest purpose is not the writing or the voice or the guitar. It is, rather, his status as an icon of decency and unabashed humanity, a fine soul tossed around by the storms of life. But Willie has always come up smiling, caring more about us than about himself.
He was the engine of the “outlaw” movement of the seventies, and the course of that bloodless revolution tells us much about the strength and character of Mr. Nelson. Certainly the cause, resistance to the commercialization of the American folk idiom by Nashville corporatists, was noble, and the leaders of the movement, Willie and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser and others, were certainly principled and courageous. But for Willie Nelson the movement was a natural and inevitable extension of his very being: a man who has lived his life with strength and conviction, with a personal and unerring sense of right and wrong, without a whit of concern for the opinions of others.
He has lived a generous life based completely on this notion of personal integrity and responsibility, and is universally loved by fans of all political persuasions. He has been an active proponent of LGBT rights, the ethical treatment of animals, the development of bio-fuels, and support for farmers through “Farm Aid”, which he began in 1985 with Neil Young and John Mellencamp.
Willie Nelson, one of the very tallest Texans.
Three more things to know about Willie Nelson: (1) he moved back to Texas in 1970 when his Tennessee home burned down after a long night of songwriting with his friend Hank Cochran, (2) he has appeared on screen over thirty times, including in movies like The Electric Horseman, Songwriter, The Red Headed Stranger, Barbarosa and Honeysuckle Rose, and (3) in 1980, he sang Ray Wylie Hubbard‘s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” at the White House with First Lady Rosalyn Carter.