Willie Nelson: An Outlaw Looks at 85

In honor of Shotgun Willie's nearly nine decades, nine things you didn't know about the man.

April 30, 2018 5:00 am
Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson performs onstage during the 44th Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2017 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)
Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson performs onstage during the 44th Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

According to his birth certificate, Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas.

However, Nelson’s sister Bobbie and other family members believe his real birthday is April 29 and the confusion was a result of the future country star being born just before midnight.

Either way, since today is the 30th, it’s now a 100% certainty that Nelson is 85 years young.

“He hasn’t changed since the day I met him,” Mickey Raphael, one of the top harmonica players in country music and a member of Nelson’s band since 1973, told RealClearLife. “He doesn’t follow any trends and has always done things his way without a producer or record company telling him what to do. His music is for himself and for his fans, not for the radio.  A trend follower he is not – maybe a trendsetter.”

Thanks to that attitude, Nelson’s music and personality are the nearly the same at 85 as they were at 45.

“There are no secrets around him and he’s such an open book. Success hasn’t changed him and he’s still the same guy. He’s kind of like a sage.” Raphael said. “He’s very true to the music and expressing himself through music. Our records are still based around his guitar and vocals, my harmonica, his sister Bobbie’s piano and the rhythm section we’ve had. That’s the core. It’s kind of a signature sound – and no one’s playing an acoustic guitar through an amp like Willie does.  He’s very true to the music and expressing himself through music.”

Raphael was introduced to Nelson by University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal at a postgame party for the Longhorns in a Dallas hotel room in ’73. As it turns out, Nelson and Royal, who coached Texas to the school’s first three undisputed national championships, were longtime buddies with a friendship that spanned six decades until the coach’s death in 2012.

Considering that fascinating football factoid, we thought it’d be prudent to dig up another nine nuggets about Nelson you might be surprised to learn in honor of the nine decades he’s lived through in the 85 years since his birth on the last day of April in 1933. Or the second-to-last.

1) Nelson’s first public performance was reciting a poem.
“The first time I got onstage was when I was about 5 years old. It was at a church social, and I had a poem to recite,” Nelson said in 2010. “I had on a little white sailor suit, and my nose started bleeding. I went up to make my speech, and I put one finger there to stop the bleeding and said, ‘If you don’t like the looks of me, you can look some other way.’ I’ve never had stage fright since.”

2) Nelson has worked as a cotton picker, saddle maker, disc jockey, traveling Bible, vacuum cleaner and encyclopedia salesman, and did a stint in the Air Force.
“I was in the Air Force a while and they had what they call ‘policing the area,’” Nelson said of his time in the military. “That’s where you looked around and if there’s anything wrong here, there, anywhere, you took care of your own area. And I think that’s a pretty good thing to go by. If everyone just takes care of their own area then we won’t have any problems. Be here. Be present. Wherever you are, be there. And look around you and see what needs to be changed.”

3) Nelson was busted for marijuana at the same Homeland Security checkpoint on I-10, in Sierra Blanca, Texas, as Snoop Dogg, Fiona Apple and Armie Hammer.
“I sat him down in my office,” Sheriff Arvin West told Texas Monthly in 2013. “There were two other fellows with him -I think they drove the bus. I told them if one of those other guys said the dope was his, then Willie could walk. Willie said nope, it was his. I took a deep breath and let him sit there a minute to think about it. I looked at him real hard, then I asked again whose dope was it. ‘Are you sure it’s yours?’ Willie said yep, it was all his.”

4) Despite loving the Devil’s Lettuce, Nelson used to perform in church on Sundays.
“My sister and I both were raised around gospel music and owned gospel music, literally,” Nelson told Terry Gross in 2010. “Every Sunday we went to Sunday school and church, and we played. We were the -basically the only musicians in the church. I would sing to the same people on Saturday nights in the clubs that I would sing to on Sunday mornings in church. I had to act like I didn’t see them the night before.”

5) The day after writing What Can You Do to Me Now in 1970, his house burned down.
“By the time I got there, it was burning real good, but I had this pound of Colombian grass inside,” Nelson told People in 1980. “I wasn’t being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.”

6) The Country Music Hall of Famer entered the National Agricultural HOF in 2011.
“I am extremely honored and humbled to join the company of the 38 prominent inductees already in the Agricultural Hall of Fame,” Nelson said in 2011. “I have long said that family farmers are the backbone of our country. I never thought Farm Aid would need to be around as long as it has been, but we know our country needs family farmers, and Farm Aid will be here as long as family farmers need us. It’s up to all of us to work together to keep family farmers growing.”

7) To pay off a $16.7 million tax debt, Nelson sold a $19.95 album called “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?” which could be bought by dialing (800) IRS-TAPE.
Mentally it was a breeze,” Nelson told Rolling Stone in 1995. “They didn’t bother me, they didn’t come out and confiscate anything other than that first day, and they didn’t show up at every gig and demand money. I appreciated that. And we teamed up and put out a record.

8) Don’t be surprised to find Nelson using his phone to play dominos on an app.
“It’s not exactly a secret, but Willie loves to play dominos,” Raphael told RCL. “He’ll have a game going for days with Woody Harrelson or Owen Wilson. He also plays on his phone with an app. He has a lot of fun and he’s pretty competitive,  wins a lot. He just loves it and he’s a chess player too.”

9) On the Road Again was written on an airsickness bag while Nelson was on a plane.
“I was traveling on an airplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg and they said they needed a song for the film Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson told The Telegraph. “So I just started singing, ‘I’m on the road again,’ and I told them not to worry, the melody would come later. That was an easy song.”

Catch Nelson, Raphael and the rest of Willie Nelson & Family on their tour with Alison Krauss, Sturgill Simpson and others starting on May 16

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