Personalities | Willie Nelson | Country Rock & The Outlaws | Country
A few days after Christmas, 1969, Willie Nelson (b. 1933) watched his house outside Nashville burn to the ground. Going up in flames were not only his furniture, guitars and only copies of unpublished songs – but also some of his ties to Music Row.
A New Beginning
Nelson had begun the decade as one of the hottest songwriters in town, penning hits for Patsy Cline (‘Crazy’), Ray Price (‘Night Life’) and Faron Young (‘Hello Walls’), but his own career sputtered. He had cut some modestly successful singles for Liberty, including a Top 10 duet (‘Willingly’) with his second wife Shirley Collie, but he never seemed too comfortable in Chet Atkins’ polished production or in the spiffy suits he was made to wear for the publicity photos.
He preferred hanging out at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge in his jeans, trading songs with similarly dissatisfied songwriters such as Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall. He was getting a great reaction from the honky-tonk joints he played in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, but he couldn’t transplant that excitement to Nashville’s recording studios. And when his house burned down, he decided, the hell with it; he was going back to Texas.
Unlike most country acts of the time, Nelson carried his own band, despite the cost, and encouraged them to emphasize the swinging rhythms that had more in common with Bob Wills and early Ray Price than with the records Nelson had been making in Nashville. Over this muscular dance beat, he was singing his new songs about stubbornly independent cowboys in a slippery jazz phrasing that had more to do with Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles than anyone he had left behind on Music Row.
Making Texas Fashionable
It was one of the ironies of the Outlaw movement that the old music became the new music. Audiences hungering for a more physical, more honest country music found it buried in the past of Texas dancehalls. But even as Nelson changed the new audience, the new audience changed Nelson. He let his hair grow out into long braids; he sprouted a beard and took to wearing jeans and kerchiefs. He demanded the same freedom as his rock contemporaries and recorded the stripped-down, personal singer-songwriter album Yesterday’s Wine in 1971, the horn-backed dancehall album Shotgun Willie in 1973 and the song suite about a divorce, Phases & Stages, in 1974.
The next year Nelson followed up that concept album with another, Red Headed Stranger, a collection of interconnected songs about a preacher betrayed by a woman; he saddles a black stallion and wanders across the West in search of redemption. Recorded in Garland, Texas, with Nelson’s road band, the album sounded spare and unfinished to the executives at Nelson’s new label, Columbia. But the first single, a remake of the old Fred Rose song ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ rose to No. 1 and the album soon followed. It made Nelson an overnight success 15 years...
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