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Music / Willie Nelson

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The Red-Headed Stranger.

"I think most art comes out of poverty and hard times. It applies to music. Three Chords and the Truth — that's what a country song is."

Known as the Red-Headed Stranger, Willie Hugh Nelson (born April 29, 1933) is one of the most iconic Country Music artists of the 20th century.

Born in Abbott, Texas, he started his career in the 1950s, playing bass guitar for Ray Price and writing songs for others. (Ever heard of "Crazy" by Patsy Cline?) A modest #10 hit in 1962 ("Willingly") first brought him to the charts, but it wasn't until 1975 that he broke through with the massive crossover hit "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain".

Nelson was at the top of his game for most of the 1970s and '80s, charting both as a solo singer and as a duet partner with, well, almost everybody: Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles, among others. He and Jennings are considered two of the original "outlaw country" artists. Although Nelson hasn't touched the Top 40 on his own since 1990, the occasional duet has found its way onto the charts as late as 2003's "Beer for My Horses", with Toby Keith.

One of country music's elder statesmen, and one of the very few artists from the 1960s who is still around, Nelson is incredibly respected as a songwriter and lead guitarist, while his iconic jazzy singing style is instantly recognizable.

Provides examples of:

  • Adam Westing: As noted below, he has an excellent sense of humor about his reputation as an Erudite Stoner, and loves hamming it up.
  • As Himself: In guest appearances on Swing Vote, Broken Bridges, Beerfest, Monk, The Country Bears, The Simpsons (voice), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and King of the Hill (voice).
  • Beer Goggles: "Ten with a Two" is the former Trope Namer. The song is about going to bed with a woman who is perceived to be attractive while the narrator is drunk.
  • Berserk Button: Willie loves meeting and talking with his fans. Any "handler" who attempts to hurry him along or otherwise cut short a conversation he's having with a fan is going to get a Death Glare at the time, and a major talking-to afterwards.
  • Brother–Sister Team: His sister Bobbie was his full-time piano player from 1973 until her death in 2022. Besides being a fixture in his band, they did a few albums together as an official duo.
  • The Cameo: He makes a guest appearance in a couple of Omega Mart web ads. While his inclusion is meant to be a commentary on how untrustworthy deepfakes are, Meow Wolf was still able to get him to record original lines for the adverts.
  • Christmas Songs:
    • He's released two Christmas albums, Pretty Paper (1979) and Hill Country Christmas (1997).
    • The title track from the former (which is also included in a different version on the latter) is one of his best-known compositions, originally written in 1963 and turned into a hit that year by Roy Orbison, even though it's really more of an Anti-Christmas Song.
  • Concept Album:
    • The Red-Headed Stranger, chronicling the life of a man from Blue Rock, Montana.
    • Before that, Yesterday's Wine (about a man's life from birth to death) and Phases and Stages (about the breakup of a marriage). You might also throw Texas in My Soul (songs about Texas) in there too.
  • Cover Album: He's recorded a number of them. Notable examples include To Lefty from Willie (Lefty Frizzell songs), Stardust (traditional pop standards), Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson (Kris Kristofferson songs), That's Life (Frank Sinatra songs).
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: The majority of the songs on Red Headed Stranger are older songs that are used to illustrate the album's story arc.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Is the only person known to have out-smoked Snoop Dogg.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: "The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning"
    Last night you came home late
    And I knew you'd been drinking
    By that old mellow look on your face
    I thought, "It don't matter
    'Cause it's the holiday season
    And you fill such a big empty space."
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • His earliest material is fairly straight classic country (though his sophisticated lyrics were considered cutting edge). When he recorded with RCA Records in the late 60s he had the same problem as his labelmate Waylon Jennings: his style was too eclectic to fit into the usual Nashville formulas, leading to experiments with crooning ballads ("She's Not For You"), pop ("I'm a Memory") and even gospel ("Laying My Burdens Down"). He also sang with a clipped, over-enunciated style that stands in contrast to his later signature jazzy phrasing.
    • He looked completely different, too. Yes, this suit-clad, impeccably groomed, clean-shaven guy is Willie.
  • Empty Chair Memorial: Riderless horse variant; namely, the bay pony that accompanies the Red-Headed Stranger in the eponymous song was his deceased wife's horse. He shoots and kills a woman who tries to steal it, and went free, because "you can't hang a man for killing a woman who's trying to steal his horse."
  • I Call It "Vera": Willie's battered, beloved Martin N-20 classical guitar is named 'Trigger'.
  • Improv: Willie is known for changing things around while he's playing live, changing the tempo or key very slightly, and his bandmates have to be quick and good to keep up with him. His live versions of his songs are often sung quite differently than the version you hear on the album, too.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: With Snoop Dogg. They bonded over their love of pot. It's bit of a running joke (though likely a true one) that Willie is the only man who can go toke-for-toke with Snoop.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Willie's record label was convinced that Stardust, his 1978 album of traditional pop standards, would never sell. It stayed on the charts for ten years.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "Sad Songs and Waltzes" is not only a song about writing a song, but it's both a sad song and a waltz.
  • Listing Cities: "Texas in My Soul" is mostly made up of Shout-Outs to towns in practically every part of the state.
  • Lyrical Shoehorn: In 1971's "I'm a Memory", why does he specify the color in the line "I'm a voice on a green telephone", except that it happens to fill out the meter? For what it's worth, one Nelson biographer suggests that it was his first oblique mention of marijuana in his music.
  • Miniscule Rocking: His first single, "No Place For Me" from 1957, clocks in at a scant 1 minute 18 seconds.
  • New Sound Album: He'd already been moving in that direction for years, but Shotgun Willie in 1973 marked the point where he finally broke away from the Nashville establishment and started playing his own unique brand of music.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarosa, Songwriter, Once Upon a Texas Train. He's had a steady career in front the camera, but those were the films that he headlined. As mentioned above, more recently he's specialized in As Himself appearances.
  • Pants-Free: "Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear..."
  • Quick Draw: The namesake character of "The Redheaded Stranger". He draws iron so fast on the Yellow Haired Lady that she's dead before anyone can even warn her.
  • Real Name as an Alias: When the owner of the small Texas label he recorded for in 1960 rejected the original recording of "Night Life", he released it on another label and decided to credit it to the backing band, with his vocal credit listed under another name, to ward off any legal threats from his primary label. The label credit: Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, featuring Hugh Nelson (which, of course, is his middle name).
  • Rock-Star Song: "On the Road Again" is the country star version, with Willie singing about how "the life I love is makin' music with my friends."
  • Separated by a Common Language: his acoustic album “Naked Willie” was re-titled for distribution in the UK....
  • Sexiness Score: "Ten with a Two" is about a drunk guy who's approached by a woman who he perceives as "a 10" due to Beer Goggles, only realizing after a Bedmate Reveal in the morning that she's actually a "2". When released as a single in 1991, the song gained some notoriety due to criticism from conservatives and womens' groups for what they viewed as demeaning lyrics toward "less than perfect" women—in other words, that the song was really about a man disparaging ugly women as having no social, romantic or other redeeming values.
  • Signature Style: A reedy voice singing just off of the beat, and jazz-flavored guitar lines played on a nylon-string acoustic (instead of a steel-string like virtually all other popular music).
  • The Stoner: If there's anything other than music Willie Nelson is most famous for, it's this!
  • Super Group: The Highwaymen, with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash.
  • 12-Bar Blues: "Shotgun Willie", while unquestionably country, is written with this structure.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: With Waylon Jennings. Willie is pretty easy-going, but Waylon was fairly Hot-Blooded, and they kept getting into disagreements that would leave them apart for a while, then reunite for more music. A perfect example of this can be found in the biography "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life", which details an incident from the "Highwaymen" tour, where Waylon got the idea in his head that Willie was actively angling for higher billing/more money. Fortunately, the crew of the show were able to get him past this by simply pointing out "Waylon, it's Willie. You really think he gives a crap about that kind of thing?". Sadly, they were in the middle of one of these "breaks" when Jennings died of complications from diabetes.
  • What a Piece of Junk: Trigger, his extremely battered Martin N-20 classical guitar, which has a hole worn in the soundboard after 47 years of constant use, and which has been signed by more than a hundred of his friends and acquaintances. He bought it in 1969 for $750, which was a lot of money in those days; a vintage N-20 from the same period will set you back around four thousand dollars today.


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