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Q&A: Willie Nelson

Few artists can hope to have a music career as long and as storied as 85-year-old Willie Nelson who's still on the road because it makes him happier than contemplating retirement.

G.K. Hizer
January 28, 2019

If you’re looking to see an icon of country music and pop culture, you need look no further than Willie Nelson, nor travel any farther than The Joint: Tulsa inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa. Nelson returns for a show with his longtime backing band, The Family, for a show that will appeal to not only old-school country fans, but music fans and anyone who appreciates American pop-culture in general.

Nelson, 85, is an undisputed elder statesman of country music, but it’s not a title he’s likely to embrace willingly. If anything, his sound and attitude have always been anti-establishment, turning against the Nashville model and paving his path through the music industry.

For those who care to look back, Nelson began his career as a radio DJ and musician, recording his first single in 1956 (“No Place for Me”). It wasn’t until he signed with Liberty Records and released “Willingly” in 1961 that he had his first top 10 single, but it sparked something that’s still producing a flame in 2019. Over his career, Nelson has bounced through a number of labels including Liberty, Atlantic (as that label’s first country artist), RCA/Victor, and Columbia Records, and even temporarily retired from music in late 1972.

After a move to Austin, Texas, gave him fresh inspiration and reignited his creative flame, he released the iconic album, Shotgun Willie, in 1973 and has been prolific ever since. Not one to follow anyone else’s style or standards, the period in the mid-70s that yielded that album as well as Red Headed Stranger (1975) and Stardust (1978) saw Nelson establish his own distinct voice and style, which incorporated a mix of jazz, pop, blues, and folk elements into his country roots. It also produced signature hits “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (a Fred Rose composition from 1945), “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies,” all of which are staples of his vast catalog.

Perhaps more importantly, Nelson is known as one of the founders of the original outlaw country movement. Along with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, the group turned their backs on Nashville convention and brought an attitude back to country music, along with a healthy taste of Texas and California, as well as doses of rock, blues, and folk influence to the genre. Although most of the young guys may not recognize it, Nelson and his contemporaries kicked down the doors for much of the current crop of pop-country artists, as well as the Red Dirt and Texas country scene.

Formed in 1973, The Family includes founding members Paul English on drums (Nelson’s regular drummer since 1966), Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Bobbie Nelson (Nelson’s sister) on piano, along with Billy English, who joined in 1983, on percussion and Kevin Smith on bass. The group’s relationship with Nelson is the backbone of his ability to not only improvise musically mid-set, but also dive into over 40 years of his back catalog.

Nelson’s career is not only limited to music. His acting life kicked off in the 1979 movie The Electric Horseman. Since then he’s starred in Honeysuckle Rose, Thief, and Barbarosa, as well as acting and making cameo appearances in dozens of movies and television shows.

Outside of entertaining, Nelson has consistently remained busy as an activist and entrepreneur. In 1985, he stood alongside John Mellencamp and Neil Young in founding Farm Aid and is president of the board of Farm Aid. He is also a longtime advocate and co-chair of the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) advisory board, as well as being an advocate for better treatment of horses and livestock with Animal Welfare Institute and Animal Legal Defense Fund. He is also an avid supporter of the LGBT movement.

His environmental interest expanded into his entrepreneurial side in 2004 when his wife purchased a diesel car and used exclusively bio-diesel to fuel it. Impressed by the performance of the fuel and seeing it as a potential alternative to dependence on foreign oil, he and his wife invested in building two bio-diesel plants. Marketed under the name BioWillie, the fuel is made of soybean and vegetable oils and can be burned in modern diesel engines with no modifications.

Even with his fingers in so many endeavors, music still remains the core of Nelson’s career. Lest you think he’s slowed down or not been releasing new material, think again. His 2015 release, Django & Jimmie, was his sixth and final release with Haggard, before Haggard’s passing. The album hit No. 1 on the country charts and received critical praise as a return to form for the pair. He’s since released a couple more albums including Willie’s Stash, Volume 2: Willie and the Boys, a collection of country standards recorded with his sons, Lukas and Micah Nelson.

Willie Nelson
The Joint: Tulsa | Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa
918-384-ROCK (x7625)
Feb. 17: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend