The Unbroken Circle: The Willie Nelson Story (Part One)

The Unbroken Circle is usually a feature where I discuss classic country songs, though in this case, it’s the start of a career retrospective on Willie Nelson.

As one of music’s most enduring and versatile talents, it’s difficult – no, impossible – to categorize Willie Nelson or condense his life into one cohesive story. Over three decades, he scored 21 No. 1 hits. Before then, he was a songwriter notching even more hits for artists like Ray Price and Patsy Cline. That’s just in country music, too. Over time, Nelson’s influences have ranged from everything to pop to jazz, reggae, western swing and gospel, and his collaborations with artists of all stripes speak for themselves.

Bobbie and Willie Nelson. From ‘The Austin Chronicle.’

Credit all of that to his musical upbringing, which, joyous as it already sounds, acted as more of a needed respite from a hardscrabble youth over anything else. A child of the Depression era, Nelson was born in April of 1933, in Abbott, Texas, just outside of Waco. His parents were teenagers when they had him, along with his sister, Bobbie, who was two years his senior. Ira Nelson was a rambling musician and Myrle Nelson was a wandering gypsy; they divorced by the time Willie was six months old. He and Bobbie went to live with their grandparents, Alfred and Nancy Nelson. Alfred was the music director at the Abbott Methodist Church, and Nancy was a music teacher. She taught Willie and Bobbie how to play the family pump organ, and at night the radio brought him country music, courtesy of Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Gene Autry, among others. The family was poor, even for Depression standards, but rich in love.

The gift of music came just in time for Willie. In 1939, Alfred Nelson passed away at the age of fifty-six from a bout of pneumonia. The family stayed strong, but only because that’s what Alfred would have wanted. Willie received his first guitar mere months before Alfred’s death and receieved his first lessons from his grandfather. He credits it as the instrument that allowed him to survive afterward without him and endure the further hardships to come. One remained, though. In Willie: An Autobiography, he says, “Our separation from Mother and Daddy seemed worse than a death because they were still out there in the world.” On the other hand, he also says, “As music expressed the pain, it eased the pain,” in his autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life.

Bobbie, Nancy, and Willie Nelson. From ‘The Austin Chronicle.’

Indeed, it did. By age seven, Willie had written his first song, and by age nine, he and Bobbie had performed to live audiences at church revivals. At age ten, he performed in a band that performed polkas and waltzes at local gatherings, earning more in one night than he had picking cotton (which brought in $1.50 a day). Music healed, and it offered a way out. By age 12, Willie had written enough songs to fill his own makeshift songbook. His teenage years were spent on the straight and narrow, to an extent. He was a good, well-rounded student, but he was also fueling a restless spirit by traveling through the dance halls and beer joints of Texas, and it’s that same spirit that would fuel his earliest adult years.

Indeed, trying to cram everything Nelson did in the few years afterward is a tough exercise in its own right. After a brief stint in the United States Air Force, Nelson married his first wife, performed on weekends with various country bands, worked as a bouncer and tree trimmer, sold encyclopedias, Bibles, sewing machines, and vaccum cleaners door-to-door to support his family, and worked as a disc jockey, among other things. Along the way he picked up another musical influence, Django Reinhardt, and spent time in San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Louis. The only element that remained constant was a lack of financial support for Nelson and his family. “I hocked my guitar so many times, the pawnbroker played it better than I did,” Nelson said in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. While in Vancouver, he sold his own “Family Bible,” inspired by his grandmother, to a music instructor  for $50. Claude Gray cut it as a single and took it to No. 7 on the Billboard country chart. The success was modest, but enough for Nelson to decide he needed to move to Nashville. He arrived there in the spring of 1960.

The only problem? Because of the sale, Nelson didn’t receive any of the royalties for his composition, and was left to find someone else to record another. Thankfully, he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who connected him with Hal Smith’s Pamper Music publishing house. Nelson was in business, if only for others. The other problem? Nelson’s writing was poetic and quirky, and didn’t fit the smoother Nashville Sound of the time. He broke through anyway, though the dichotomy was there. Faron Young recorded Nelson’s “Hello Walls,” for instance, a song about a heartbroken narrator who finds solace in talking to the walls within his room, but he also went around poking fun at its meaning. “He [Young] would go around singing, ‘Hello walls, hello commode,’ ” Nelson said in 2020.

Hank Cochran helped Willie Nelson break through in Nashville. From ‘The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.’

A hit was a hit, though. Not only was the song a No. 1 country smash hit, it was a No. 12 pop hit, too. More followed, like “Funny How Time Slips Away,” recorded by Billy Walker, “Night Life,” recorded by Ray Price and countless other artists, and “Mr. Record Man,” also record by Walker and initially a composition that Nelson tried to sell for $10 while he lived in Houston. For context, his first royalty check for “Hello Walls” came in at $14,000.

The biggest hit of Nelson’s ‘60s output, though, came courtesy of Patsy Cline, who turned his own “Crazy” into a standard. It was also one of Nelson’s earliest singles that reflected the dichotomy between his singing style and that of other artists. Nelson had a natural soul that made up for limited technical abilities, because his lyrics helped him emote his pain. Cline had a natural gusto and bravado, and though I explored her take on “Crazy” once before, there are conflicting narratives over how the recording came to be and Cline’s feelings toward Nelson’s style in general, given that he had a tendency to sing ahead of or behind the beat. Some accounts claim she loved the song and simply wanted to make it work for her, with layers of backing vocals and strings to complement her vocals and delivery; others say that she wasn’t won over much by Nelson and didn’t feel his songs would match her huge delivery. Some accounts say she heard of “Crazy” after her husband pitched it to her after meeting Nelson at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and some say Nelson was brought to Cline’s home by her husband to sing the song for her in their living room.

Either way, the iconic recording was done in one take, and was a top five country hit as well as a top ten pop hit. Nelson was in demand as a songwriter, but he wanted more as a solo artist. Ray Price gave him an early opportunity beyond recording “Night Life” by recruiting him to play bass for his backing band, the Cherokee Cowboys, in 1961. He signed with Liberty Records in 1962 as a solo artist and had two top ten country hits that same year – “Touch Me” and “Willingly,” a duet with his second wife, Shirley Collie. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in November 1964. Unfortunately, neither Nashville nor the general public was ready to accept Nelson as a solo artist. His writing caught on, but his singing didn’t. Both of his first few albums failed to make any impressions, and after Liberty Records folded, Nelson signed on with Monument Records … for one single release, “I Never Cared For You.” He left over a disagreement over a full-page print advertisement he was promised by his label. Nelson’s style was catching on with budding talents that respected his offbeat, quirkier stylings, like, say, Kris Kristofferson, who moved to Nashville in 1965, but Nelson had no way of knowing at the time.

Willie Nelson’s Nashville look … and one that wouldn’t stay for much longer. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Instead, it would take one final nail in the coffin for Nelson to realize Nashville wasn’t the place for him. Join me next time, where we’ll discuss the last Nashville straw for Nelson and how he found his personal and artistic rebirth.

READ: The Willie Nelson Story (Part Two)

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