Willie Nelson facts: Country icon's age, songs, activism, films and family explained

8 July 2024, 13:26

Willie Nelson live in 2022
Willie Nelson live in 2022. Picture: Getty Images

By Mayer Nissim

The life and times of one of the greatest.

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Country music has evolved drastically over the decades, from its Appalachian old-time roots and "hillbilly" beginnings to its golden age in the middle of the 20th century, and then its modern incarnation taking in anyone from Carrie Underwood to Jelly Roll.

But maybe the most vital change came in the 1970s with the outlaw country movement, and at its centre was the legend that is Willie Nelson.

Willie Nelson is a generation-spanning superstar of country.

He's not just written and performed some of the genre's greatest songs, his music has burst out into the wider musical world.

And Willie's life story in and out of music is no less remarkable. Read on for some fast facts about the iconic musician.

When was Willie Nelson born and where did he grow up?

The young Willie Nelson
The young Willie Nelson. Picture: Alamy

Willie Hugh Nelson was born on April 29, 1933 in Abbott, Texas. His dad Ira Doyle Nelson was a mechanic, while his mum Myrle Marie Greenhaw left soon after he was born.

His dad remarried and moved away, and Willie and his sister Bobbie were instead raised by their grandparents. Willie attended Abbott High School.

At the time of writing, Willie Nelson is 91 years old.

How did Willie Nelson get into music?

Country Singer Willie Nelson
Country Singer Willie Nelson. Picture: Getty Images

Willie had a strong musical upbringing, with his grandparents having been singing teachers back in Arkansas where they came from.

His grandad bought him a guitar when he was just six years old and showed him the basics, and Willie and Bobbie performed gospel songs at the local church together.

Willie wrote his first song when he was just seven, and by the time he was nine, he played in a local group called Bohemian Polka.

While the rest of the family picked cotton in the summer, Nelson instead earned money by singing in local taverns and honky tonk bars.

While he had all manner of jobs, from tree trimmer, bouncer and saddlemaker and even a short stint in the US Air Force, he never stopped playing music.

He played and sang in The Texans while at school, and while he studied agriculture at Baylor University from 1954 to 1956, he dropped out to focus on trying to get a career in music.


It was when he was working as a DJ for KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas that he used the station's equipment to record a couple of songs... which were rejected by a local label.

Willie continued to flit from job to job, juggling DJing and playing live music before he joined KVAN in Vancouver, Washington.

It was in 1956 that he made his first record, 'No Place For Me', backed with Leon Payne's 'Lumberjack'. The record flopped but Willie kept on going.

He juggled more jobs, from dishwasher to bible salesman. He kept trying to break through with his own recordings, but also started to sell songs to other singers.

That success earned him a bit of money and recognition, allowing him to move to Nashville, Tennessee. He sold yet more songs to other artists (more on that shortly), while he played bass with the Cherokee Cowboys.

All the hard work finally paid off at the start of the 1960s, when Nelson signed with Liberty Recordings and scored the hits 'Willingly' and 'Touch Me', before the release of his first album ...And Then I Wrote in September 1962.

What songs did Willie Nelson write for other singers?

Patsy Cline - Crazy (Music Video) [HD]

Willie Nelson is best known these days as one of the finest country music performers around, but his earliest successes came as something of a songwriter for hire.

Nelson's first real success in music came when he sold the songs 'Family Bible' and 'Night Life' to Paul Buskirk, a guitar instructor who he worked for.

Not long after, 'Family Bible' became a hit for Claude Gray, who released it in 1960.

And when he was playing at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge near the Grand Ole Opry, Faron Young heard Nelson sing 'Hello Walls' and decided to cover it. Ray Price recorded Nelson's 'Night Life'.

"PRETTY PAPER" - Roy Orbison - from the Roy Orbison Show

Then came a run of absolutely massive hits for other artists written by Willie.

Billy Walker recorded 'Funny How Time Slips Away'. Roy Orbison did the masterful 'Pretty Paper'.

And when Willie Nelson played Patsy Cline's husband Charlie Dick his demo tape of 'Crazy', Charlie decided to play it for Patsy, who jumped at the chance to record it.

Her version became not just a major chart hit, but apparently the biggest jukebox hit of all time.

What are Willie Nelson's biggest songs and albums?

Willie Nelson - Always On My Mind (Official Video)

Willie Nelson has released over ONE HUNDRED studio albums during his remarkable career with various labels.

After his short time with Liberty Records, he had a spell at Monument Records, before signing a major deal with RCA Victor in 1964.

There was a run of hits and misses, before his departure from that label and a brief retirement in 1972, before he moved Austin, Texas and signed with Atlantic Records.

This marked the birth of Outlaw Country, with the genre and Willie's leadership of the scene going up a notch with his move to Columbia Records in 1975.

Touch Me

After that, there were ups and downs and roundabouts, but Willie Nelson has never really gone away.

Willie Nelson's most vital early albums include ...And Then I Wrote (1962), Country Willie – His Own Songs (1965), Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style (1966), Make Way for Willie Nelson and The Party's Over (both 1967).

Among his Outlaw Country classics are the standouts Shotgun Willie (1973), Phases and Stages (1975), Red Headed Stranger (1976), The Sound in Your Mind and The Troublemaker (both 1977).

The live album Willie and Family Live (1978) is one of the all-time classic live records.

Willie Nelson - Always On My Mind (Official Video)

Into the 1980s there was Somewhere Over the Rainbow (1981), Always on My Mind (1982), Without a Song (1983) and City of New Orleans (1984).

More recent must-haves are The Great Divide (2002), Countryman (2006), Country Music (2010), To All the Girls... (2013), Band of Brothers (2014), God's Problem Child (2017) and Ride Me Back Home (2019).

Willie Nelson's biggest songs include:

  • Touch Me
  • One in A Row
  • Bring Me Sunshine
  • Bloody Mary Morning
  • Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
  • Remember Me (When the Candle Lights are Gleaming)
  • If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time
  • Georgia On My Mind
  • Blue Skies
  • All of Me
  • My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
  • Midnight Rider
  • On The Road Again
  • Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
  • Always on My Mind
  • Let It Be Me
  • Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning
  • City of New Orleans
  • Forgiving You Was Easy
  • Living in the Promiseland
  • Nothing I Can Do About It Now

What other artists has Willie Nelson collaborated with?

The Highwaymen - Highwayman

While he's more than capable of doing it all by himself, Willie Nelson has been a serial collaborator throughout his career, with some of his finest work being made alongside his peers.

That started with one of his very first recordings 'Willingly', which was recorded with his then-soon-to-be second wife Shirley Collie.

He has frequently recorded with fellow Outlaw Country legend Waylon Jennings, with the albums Waylon & Willie, WWII, Take It To The Limit and Cleanshirt.

Willie Nelson & Waylon - Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (Live at Farm Aid 1986)

Willie and Leon Russell collaborated on One for The Road. With Ray Price, he recorded San Antonio Rose and Run That by Me One More Time.

Nelson and Merle Haggard joined forces on Pancho & Lefty, Seashores of Old Mexico and Django & Jimmie. Willie and Kris Kristofferson made Music from Songwriter together.

He has recorded other albums with Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Curtis Potter, Don Cherry, Bobbie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and others.

Cyndi Lauper – “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with Willie Nelson

When it comes to one-off single recordings, he's performed with Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Carl Perkins, BB King, U2, Toby Keith, Patsy Cline, Janis Ian, Carly Simon, Sheryl Crow, Mishka, The Doobie Brothers, Lionel Richie, Kinky Friedman, Englebert Humperinck, Eric Clapton, Beyoncé, Cyndi Lauper and Kacey Musgraves and many, many more.

And of course, we have to mention The Highwaymen, the Outlaw Country supergroup made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.

They recorded three studio albums between 1985 and 1995, and their signature song 'Highwayman' was a cover of Jimmy Webb's song, which had previously been covered by Glen Campbell.

What films has Willie Nelson appeared in?

Willie Nelson and Amy Irving in Honeysuckle Rose
Willie Nelson and Amy Irving in Honeysuckle Rose. Picture: Alamy

Willie Nelson has juggled his music career with a sideline in acting, usually as a musician character.

He appeared in The Electric Horseman in 1979, following it up with appearances in Honeysuckle Rose, Thief, Barbarosa, Coming Out of the Ice, Songwriter and Red Headed Stranger, Wag The Dog and Gone Fishin'.

Willie has also popped up on various TV shows, including Miami Vice, The Simpsons, Monk, Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman and King of the Hill.

How many times has Willie Nelson been married, and how many children does he have?

Willie Nelson and wife Annie D'Angelo in 2013
Willie Nelson and wife Annie D'Angelo in 2013. Picture: Getty Images

Willie Nelson has been married four times. He wed Martha Matthews in 1952, and they divorced after a decade of marriage in 1962.

He then married Shirley Collie, with whom he recorded 'Willingly', in 1963. They divorced in 1971, when Shirley discovered that Willie had fathered a child with Connie Koepke.

Willie then married Connie and they stayed together until their divorce in 1988. Willie married his fourth and current wife Annie D'Angelo in 1991.

Nelson has fathered eight children. He had Lana, Susie, and Willie "Billy" Hugh Jr with his first wife Martha Matthews. Willie Jr died by suicide in 1991.

Willie had daughters Paula Carlene and Amy Lee together. He had sons Lukas Autry and Jacob Micah with his fourth wife Annie D'Angelo.

It was only in 2012 that Nelson learned another of his children, Rene Butts, who was born to his friend Mary Haney way back in 1953. They later met, before Rene died in 2017.

What political causes has Willie Nelson supported?

Willie Nelson relaxes at his Texas home
Willie Nelson relaxes at his Texas home. Picture: Getty Images

As well as keeping busy with his music career, his acting roles, and having all those kids, Willie Nelson has also been active in various political and social causes over the years.

His early training in agriculture and farming never left him, and he not only helped found Farm Aid in 1985 but has appeared at every single Farm Aid concert since.

When it comes to party politics, Willie backed Dennis Kucinich's campaign in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries and later backed musician Kinky Friedman to be an independent candidate for the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election. He also gave his support to Democrat Beto O'Rourke for the Texas Senate.

Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other

Nelson has adopted horses and campaigned with the Animal Welfare Institute to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

He's a supporter of LGBT rights and equal marriage and in 2006 released a cover of Ned Sublette's 'Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other'.

Willie has also long been in favour of the legalisation of marijuana, being a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

He owns his own biodiesel brand Willie Nelson Biodiesel, which makes fuel from vegetable oil.

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