Willie Nelson’s sound and his look revolutionized country music, making him one of that genre’s most recognizable faces, and if his winning personality weren’t enough reason to like him, then his good-natured struggles with the IRS would be. But before Willie Nelson became a legend or an icon, he was simply one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. He began his musical training at the age of six and wrote his first song at the age of seven in Abbott, Texas, where he was born on this day in 1933.
Like so many other musicians of his generation, whether black or white, whether country or rock and roll, Willie Nelson started out performing gospel music. The grandmother and grandfather who raised Willie were music teachers, so he and his sister Bobbie were able to lead their small-town church from a very early age. “We were basically the only musicians in the church,” Nelson recalls. “We played every song every Sunday. Monday nights was choir practice, Wednesday night was prayer meetings, and Thursday night was singing conventions in Hillsboro. So every day was gospel music.”
Given this environment, the subject matter of the first song Willie Nelson ever sold makes perfect sense. Nelson had traveled west to Vancouver, Washington, in 1956, following short stints in the Air Force, in college and in various Texas radio stations as a disk jockey. While working as a DJ in Vancouver, he had recorded a Leon Payne song called “Lumberjack” and hawked copies of it over the air. Though this did nothing to further his ambitions of being a performer, he soon returned to Texas and managed to sell a song he’d written himself called “Family Bible.” The country-tinged gospel song became a hit in 1960 for Claude Gray, and while it netted Willie Nelson only $50 in cash, it encouraged him to pursue songwriting rather than performing as a way into a musical career. Later that year, after one astonishing week in Houston when he wrote the eventual country hits “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life,” as well as the genre-crossing Patsy Cline classic “Crazy,” he moved to Nashville, where he landed a job in a music-publishing company and begin his slow road to stardom.