Friday, January 4, 2013

FLASHBACK FEATURES - PT 2: Willie Nelson (2004)

Willie Nelson 

I discovered an old file in my
office recently. The folder
contained Xerox copies of
features I had written for
various print publications
nearly a decade ago. This
latest installment of my
new "Flashback" series was
retrieved from that dusty file. 

Make no mistake, today's "New Country" is nothing more than twangy, chicken-chokin', synth-pop. Check out CMT sometime. If you hear a loud THUD, it's the sound of Hank Williams rolling over in his grave. Contemporary auto-tuned chart-busters wearing belly shirts and floppy straw hats who can't write songs now have taken the place of truly iconic artists such as Johnny, Loretta, George, Merle, Waylon and Dottie. Fortunately, Willie Nelson is one of the legends who's still doin' it — old school!

Raised in Abbbott, Texas during the Great Depression, Willie Nelson learned to play music on the guitar given to him by his grandfather. He was a member of several bands during his formative years, however, his service in the U.S. Air Force put his musical career temporarily on hold.

With dreams of the big time, Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960 and by 1962 he had scored a couple of hits with the singles, "Willingly" and "Touch Me." But just as it seemed he was about to achieve stardom, his career fizzled. Fortunately he also had begun establishing himself in Music City as a songwriter. Ray Price's "Night Life," Faron Young's "Hello Walls" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy" were all huge hits written by Nelson during the 1960s.

In the early 1970s he began taking note of a large and quickly growing audience that was embracing both country and  rock music. And when Nelson released the country / rock concept album Red Headed Stranger in 1973, it brought him the breakthrough success he'd been waiting for — ushering in an entire new wave of music and artists. In 1975 Nelson scored a major crossover hit with "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," a single from Red Headed Stranger.

Soon, this modern day cowboy / outlaw became a household name — firing off a decade-long string of iconic classics including "Whiskey River," "If You've Got the Money Honey I've Got the Time," "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "Good Hearted Woman"  as well as his signature hit, "On the Road Again." Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold (and platinum). Even his 1978 album Stardust — a record comprised completely of standards went on to sell more than five million copies.

By the late 70s, Hollywood came knocking and soon Willie Nelson added "movie star" to his impressive resume'. Feature films such as 1979's The Electric Horseman with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, 1980's semi autobiographical Honeysuckle Rose with Dyan Cannon and 1982's Barbarosa with Gary Busey all brought him to the big screen.

Nelson's popularity soared during the early 80s. He reached his career apex in 1982 with the release of Always on My Mind. Featuring the chart-topping title track, the record was a multi platinum-selling smash.

Nelson collaborated successfully with other artists in the 80s. With Latin heartthrob Julio Iglesias, he scored a #1 hit "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" in 1984 and along with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, Nelson was part of the successful supergroup The Highwaymen in 1985. Out of concern for the plight of the American farmer, he staged the first Farm Aid benefit concert also in 1985 — raising millions in relief funds.

In the early 90s, Nelson's record sales wained as country music fans began embracing new artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. Adding to the buzzkill, his long-running battle with the IRS came to a head during the 90s when he received a bill for an astonishing 16 million dollars in back taxes. A deal was cut with the government and after auctioning off most of everything he owned, the debt finally was paid.

However, the last few years have been considerably brighter for the music legend. He has continued touring successfully and occasionally still appears on the big screen, including the 1997 comedy, Gone Fishin' and the 1998 stoner flick Half Baked. And just last year, Willie Nelson returned to the top of the charts with "Beer for My Horses" — the #1 hit with current country poster boy, Toby Keith.

-Christopher Long
(February 2004)



C'MON! -

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