By Katherine Cole
He’s a poet, an activist, an actor and an author—and now we’re celebrating 80 years of Willie Nelson.
Funny how times slips away, isn’t it?
Not only is that one of my very favorite Willie Nelson songs —but it’s front of mind after seeing all the “Happy 80th Birthday Willie Nelson!” posts on facebook, photo collages on the web, and countless song montages flying around the internet. At a time when most of his compatriots are long retired (or worse!) Willie just keeps plugging along, writing new songs (more than 2500 to date!), recording and releasing multiple albums of new material every year (close to 300 in all), and touring night after night after night after….
I find it hard to believe that Willie is 80. It doesn’t seem right to assign a number to him—the guy is ageless. He doesn’t seem to have aged much from when I first saw him perform almost 30 years ago—he never looked like a young man, even in the close to 50 year old video below. Judging from the clothing , the songs, and the set, this was shot at in the early-to-mid 1960s at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
So many of his songs are now a part of the “great American songbook,” that it’s easy to forget just how many classics Willie Nelson has written. Love songs? Check. Drinking songs? Yup. Heartbreak, road and train songs? Check, check and check. The Willie Nelson songbook includes Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” the Faron Young hit, and so many more that his catalog fills seven pages on the Songwriters Hall of Fame site.
Born in Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson was already writing songs by the time he was seven years old. In an interview ten or so years ago, Willie told me that he grew up listening to all kinds of music. His childhood neighbors were from Mexico and “they played their music day and night. South of the border music. From the Czechs I learned a lot of polkas and waltzes. And working in the fields, I learned a lot of blues. In church, I learned gospel.” No wonder fellow singer Emmylou Harris says “If America could sing with one voice, it would be Willie’s.”
But Emmylou isn’t the only one praising “The Red Headed Stranger.” Youtube is filled with birthday wishes from fellow fans including Barbra Streisand, Ringo, and Steven Tyler. Even Bono had to get into the act!
Willie Nelson’s life story is a great story, filled with twists and turns, far too many for me to squeeze into this little blog. This interview will fill you in, and this five year old piece by Joe Nick Patoski, takes you inside Willie head as he was recording his now-classic “Stardust” collection. If you want to read more, Joe Nick’s book is a great place to start.
How did Willie celebrate his 80th? Just as you’d imagine: on the road again. His birthday show turned into a benefit for West, Texas, the tiny town rocked by an explosion at a fertilizer plant last month.
The Farm Aid folks have put together a site celebrating Willie Nelson’s 80th! The centerpiece is a video with birthday greetings from artists (Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Sting, Kenny Chesney, Norah Jones, etc.), family farmers and anyone who eats, thanking Willie for all he has done to keep family farmers on the land. How did you celebrate Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday???