How Willie Nelson Won the Lone Star State: Illustrated Map
In honor of the Texas hero's 80th Birthday celebration and legendary 4th of July Picnic, we're celebrating Willie Nelson Week here on DC9 at Night. Check back for interviews, retrospectives and more.
Illustration by Kevin Cannon. Click to embiggen.
But for a brief stint in Canada and a few years stirring up Nashville, Willie Nelson has spent his whole life living in Texas. He was raised in a small town here and this state has seen him at his lowest and his highest. But as much as Texas has shaped Willie, he has left a particularly outsized mark on the Lone Star State. As we celebrate his 80th birthday and this week's 40th anniversary of the first 4th of July Picnic, we present Willie Nelson's Texas.
-Willie Nelson's Eight Best Movie Roles
-Willie Nelson Turns 80: A Tribute and Playlist for a Texas Treasure
-The IRS Tapes: How Willie Nelson Taught us To Care About Stuff That Matters, Not Money
Willie Nelson was born close to midnight on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, which was founded 60 years prior as a railroad stop. It's always been a small town -- even today, the population hovers around 350. Willie had a quiet childhood there, raised by his grandparents after his parents split. He played running back for the high school football team and joined a polka band.
For a couple years in the mid-'50s, Willie went to school at Baylor in Waco. He joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, putting him in the company of Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan. But the conventional path to success never would hold much appeal for the grinning guru of outlaw country, and he dropped out after two years.
Willie has always been a couple steps ahead of the record label executives who've tried (and failed) to mold him over the decades. One of the ways he developed his platinum ear for songs was years spent working as a radio DJ. His first of many gigs -- including stints at KVAN in Vancouver and KDNT in Denton -- was at KBOP in Pleasanton. Today, those call letters belong to an AM weather station in the town.
Fort Worth (1)
Despite a lifelong proclivity for music, Willie didn't find much financial success early on. His career might have ended for good in 1957, when a string of frustrations and failures led him to quit the music business entirely. He lived in Fort Worth, selling Bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
He started writing songs commercially in earnest after he moved to Houston in 1958. He found a spark there, playing in clubs and selling future hits for what seems like a pittance in retrospect. The momentum convinced him to head for the country mecca of Nashville, where he would get a shot at joining the country music establishment of the Grand Ole Opry.
It is possible that no musician has embodied the spirit of Texas' unlikely state capital as much as Willie Nelson. He moved to Austin in 1970 and has maintained some kind of residence there ever since, getting high, getting rich and getting politically active. There was no one event or album or show that made Willie Nelson the towering icon he is today; it was through a singularly consistent pursuit of his passions, whether or not they were cool or lucrative (though they often were).