Synonomous with the mythic "outlaw" movement in country music is Willie Nelson, without whom there may not have even been such a thing. Born William Hugh Nelson in Texas in 1933, Willie Nelson could have made a career just out of his songwriting, but he's managed to write and perform while making his life something of a soap opera. He and sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents after their mother left home and their father died. He took up the guitar and Bobbie the piano and by age 7 Willie was writing songs that he later said were perhaps ideas taken from the radio soaps he listened to as a child. By 13, Willie actually sang a duet with western-swing legend Bob Wills because Bobbie had married the fiddle player with the band and joined Wills herself. After a short-lived stay in the Air Force (he left due to a bad back), he got married in 1953 and took to playing Texas beer joints and roadhouses. His first record was made in Vancouver, Washington, where he was a country DJ, "Lumberjack," written by Leon Payne, who promoted it on his radio show by selling it for $1 and an autographed photo. His own songs he was selling cheaply, including "Family Bible" for $50 (a hit for Claude Gray) and "Night Life," for $150. That became a Ray Price hit and subsequently was recorded by others in some 70 versions. In 1961, Willie had three of his songs become hits on both country and pop charts: Patsy Cline's big hit "Crazy;" Faron Young's "Hello Walls," and Jimmy Elledge's "Funny How Time Slips Away." Ray Price hired Nelson to play bass, but Willie had never played bass and spent all night before arriving to a gig practicing the bass he went out and bought. A later episode with Price resulted in Price's not playing Nelson music. Seems as though Willie accidentally shot Ray's prize fighting rooster. They eventually made up and recorded an album together. By the mid-'70s, Nelson had made a lot of records at different companies but it was extensive touring that fueled his success, including a gig at a rock venue in Austin, Texas that indicated a new audience was turning toward Willie. At about this time, Waylon Jennings made an album called LADIES LOVE OUTLAWS. The "outlaw" image as far as music was concerned was the alternative to the pop-styled Nashville country and with Nelson's pigtail hairstyle and other nonconventional accoutrements "outlaw" was the ticket to the next level. Meanwhile, he was putting together his classic album, REHEADED STRANGER, an early concept album that is still considered one of, if not the, best he's done. Outlaw country came into focus with RCA's WANTED: THE OUTLAWS, with Nelson, Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter and its sales went crazy, attaining platinum status. This was followed by the first WAYLON AND WILLIE album as the outlaw image continued but not in a total sense. Willie was doing other music with other people. His duets over the years have been something of a country staple. He's worked with an array of artists that includes Merle Haggard, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Neil Young and even Julio Iglesias. On yet another side trip, Nelson took on pop ballads in two albums, STARDUST and the later WITHOUT A SONG, the former a monster hit that stayed on the charts for some ten years. Movies came into his life when Robert Redford asked him to be in "The Electric Horseman." He was the title role in "The Redheaded Stranger" and appeared in "Barbarossa," a remake of "Stagecoach." He also helped organize the still-successful Farm Aid benefits, has been the subject of numerous other country songs by other artists and is as close to being a living legend as possible. Even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is a Willie Nelson fan. Discovering several years ago that he owed some $16 million in back taxes, the IRS made a deal that had him selling albums via mail order, profits going to the tax bill.
Waylon Arnold Jennings’s 1996 autobiography, Waylon (Warner Books), is perhaps as frank a country autobiography as has been written, and it graphically traces Jennings’s career from hardscrabble poverty in West Texas to teenage bassist for Buddy Holly to Nashville rebel to Outlaw star to cocaine addict to redemption. That journey has been a theme of Jennings’s music and life since he escaped what he considered the futureless world of Littlefield, Texas, by working in radio in Lubbock, and by picking up the guitar. His big break came when he was tapped by Holly to play bass in Holly’s new band on a tour through the Midwest in late 1958 and early 1959. In an oft-told tale, Jennings gave up his airplane seat to the Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson, for an ill-fated flight that would claim the lives of Holly, the Bopper, and singer Ritchie Valens. After the plane crashed, Jennings’s musical world crashed around him. Holly had been his mentor, producing his first record (“Jole Blon,” Brunswick, 1958), and Jennings felt responsible, because his last words to Holly had been the joking refrain, “I hope your ole plane crashes” (in response to Holly’s “I hope your damned bus freezes up again”). It took Jennings years to regain some career equilibrium. He first went back to radio in West Texas, then began performing again, ending up at a bar in Phoenix, Arizona, called J. D.’s. Jennings became a local celebrity there, and when Nashville performer Bobby Bare passed through Phoenix and heard Jennings, Bare headed for a pay phone to tell his producer, Chet Atkins at RCA in Nashville, about this raw young talent out in Arizona. Jennings had already cut some songs in a country-folk vein for then fledgling A&M Records in Los Angeles, but A&M demurred to Atkins, who signed Jennings to RCA. The singer’s first session for RCA was held March 16, 1965. Jennings moved to Nashville and, by sheer chance, became roommates with Johnny Cash; their legends as hellraisers soon became cemented. Jennings starred in the 1966 movie Nashville Rebel, scored Top Ten hits with songs such as “The Chokin’ Kind” (#8, 1967) and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (#2, 1968), and his 1969 collaboration with the Kimberlys on “MacArthur Park” won a Grammy award. But Jennings chafed under RCA’s tight rein, and at one point he also took a dramatic stand against the status quo: When Chet Atkins turned him over to staff producer Danny Davis, Jennings pulled out a pistol in the studio to protest Davis’s practice of what Jennings felt was studio bullying. By the early 1970s Jennings was getting frozen out of country’s mainstream. He retaliated by hiring jazz musician Miles Davis’s maverick manager from New York City, who put him into such high profile venues as the rock-retro Max’s Kansas City in New York. Gradually, Jennings began to win his war in the studio. He stayed true to his musical instincts and recorded a gallery of landmark recordings, most notably the 1973 albums Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes. He also staged an alternative show at the 1973 disc jockey convention in Nashville, with Willie Nelson, Sammi Smith, and Troy Seals joining him in an Outlaw program. Jennings was dubbed an Outlaw in Nashville for demanding and eventually getting what rock groups had been used to having for years—namely, the right to record what material he wanted, in what studio he wanted, and with what musicians he wanted to use. (His friend Willie Nelson won his own independence by moving back to Texas and recording there.) It was, as Jennings later said, a simple matter of artistic freedom. Jennings won CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year Award in 1975, but what finally won the battle for Jennings and the Outlaws was the ultimate weapon in corporate wars: sales. Wanted: The Outlaws, an RCA package of songs by Jennings, Nelson, Jennings’s wife Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, was released in January 1976, with only Jennings’s name credited on the album spine (since he was the only one of the four artists still under contract to RCA). The album flew out of record stores and soon became the first album in country music history to be certified platinum. The Jennings-Nelson duet “Good Hearted Woman” became a major crossover hit in 1976, as did Jennings’s “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” the following year. Jennings and Nelson won a 1978 Grammy (Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group) for their hit “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” They (forever linked as “Waylon and Willie”) began selling records in numbers previously associated with rock album sales, and the Nashville system gradually moved away from a producer-dominated order to one in which the artist shares power. Sadly, for the short term at least, Jennings’s excesses also paralleled those of the rock world. He was soon spending $1,500 a day on a cocaine habit that eroded his career. He eventually faced his addiction, beat it, and returned to a career much scaled down through stints on MCA and Epic through the late 1980s and early 1990s. He also became a bit of a role model by going back to earn his GED, or high school equivalency diploma. Jennings had dropped out of school in the tenth grade and felt he owed it to his young son to prove his resolution about the importance of education by finishing high school himself. Jennings stopped touring in 1997 and died in 2002, shortly after his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame the year before.