On a day when fellow musical legend George Jones passed away at 81, it’s ironic that Willie Nelson is about to celebrate his 80th birthday.
Jones, as anyone who even casually follows country music knows, was a unique talent, possessed of one of the most distinctive voices in the business. Yet as a performer, his career was marked as much by criticism for his concert no-shows and cancellations as it was by accolades from the industry and love from his fans.
The “Old Possum’s” battles with alcoholism, which he finally ’fessed up to in a 1996 memoir “I Lived to Tell It All,” cost him a couple marriages—including a romantic and musical partnership with fellow Nashville legend Tammy Wynette—along with chunks of entire decades when he should have been at the top of the charts.
Nelson, on the other hand, despite his infamous run-ins over the use of another “recreational substance,” has followed a far different path.
Along with a whole list of other country stars (Jones, Jimmy Dean, Gene Autry, Roy Orbison, George Strait), he was born into humble circumstances in small-town Texas. In the 1950s, before his musical career took off, he worked as a radio DJ, door-to-door salesman, studio musician and a hardworking but little-known singer. But in the ’60s, he moved to Nashville, hooked up with some legitimate record producers and began cranking out songs, several of which turned into No. 1 mega-hits for some of country music’s biggest stars: “Hello Walls” for Faron Young; “Night Life” for Ray Price; and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline.
Over the next three decades, the list of entertainers that Nelson wrote songs for, performed with and recorded duets with reads like a Who’s Who of the music industry: Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings—his bandmates in the 1980s touring group The Highwaymen—Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, plus plenty of contemporary performers, such as Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsalis, Nora Jones and Sheryl Crow.
His own string of hits was no less impressive: “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” among many others.
Had he decided to ride off into the sunset when he hit 60 or 70, nobody would have faulted him. After a long and lengthy—most critics would label it “legendary”—career, Nelson would have been entitled to kick back on his ranch, show up for the occasional celebrity special or We Are the World-type fundraiser, and enjoy the fruits of his lifetime labors.