Willie Nelson & Family
Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Friday June 21 at 8:30 p.m.
Willie Hugh Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday on April 29. To mark the occasion, here are seven reasons to love the red-headed stranger, who brings his battered guitar, Trigger, and his longtime band, the Family, to Ottawa on June 21 as part of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001, Nelson has not only written hundreds of songs, but also covered many songs by other writers. Other artists have covered his tunes, too. In all, more than 350 titles are listed in his Hall of Fame entry, including highlights such as the ultimate roadtrip track, On The Road Again, the timeless song of longing, Crazy (made famous by Patsy Cline) and the oft-recorded Funny How Time Slips Away. As for songs that Willie didn’t write but made his own, that list includes definitive interpretations of Always On My Mind, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and Whiskey River.
Willie isn’t shy about standing up for what he believes in, which is often fair treatment for the underdog. He is a co-founder of the Farm Aid benefit concert series, which raises money and awareness for farmers, an advocate for the better treatment of horses and in 2006, recorded a version of Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other to show his support of the GLBT community. A renowned pot smoker, Willie is also a marijuana activist who fights for legalization, and an environmentalist who travels in a bio-diesel tour bus.
Nelson’s journey has not been smooth. He’s been through multiple divorces, been arrested several times, had health scares and lost friends (like Waylon Jennings) and family members (a son committed suicide). But the thing that nearly wiped him out was a battle with the IRS that started in 1984 and dragged on until the early 1990s. He faced a tax bill of $16 million and the IRS seized most of his assets with the intent of selling them at auction. Bitter and demoralized, Nelson’s hopes were lifted when the farmers he had supported banded together and either bought his properties to hold for him, or in at least one case, refused to place a bid. The debacle was settled for $9 million, leaving Willie feeling that he must be doing OK if a guy like him could owe millions in taxes.
Around the time Willie started growing his hair and hanging out with bad-boy Waylon Jennings, the term “outlaw country” was coined to describe scruffy artists like them. They ushered in the 1970s by distancing themselves from clean-cut Nashville, instead taking a musical cue from the Austin, Texas music scene and its melange of country, rock, folk, blues and jazz. In 1975, Willie dreamed up an outlaw-concept album, entitled Red Headed Stranger. about a man on the run after killing his wife and her lover. It was Nelson’s breakthrough album, and was later made into a film.
5. Road warrior
The touring never stops for Nelson, who streamlined the operation in the years after his IRS difficulties, reportedly downsizing from a private jet to a tour bus. He has more than 30 dates across North America on the schedule this summer, playing theatres and casinos to festivals and fairgrounds. One of the highlights is the Fourth of July Picnic. The 40th annual edition takes place in Fort Worth, Texas this summer, and features Willie’s old mates, including Kris Kristoffersen, Leon Russell and David Allen Coe, and his musical offspring, including son Lukas and daughters Paula and Amy.
6. Family man
Born in Abbott, Texas during the Depression, Willie and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents after their parents went off on their own, in separate directions. His unconventional upbringing may have given him a more fluid view of the traditional family unit. Although Nelson has been married four times and fathered seven children, some of his band members have been with him since the early 1970s. Also indicative of his emotional commitment to music is the fact that his backing band is called the Family (it includes his sister on piano).
7. Genre buster/master collaborator
Willie’s first major left turn came in the years following Red Headed Stranger, when he went from outlaw country to the American songbook with the 1978 album, Stardust, covering songs like Georgia on My Mind, Blue Skies and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. It was a hit, which gave him the creative freedom to roam between country, folk, pop and jazz. His newest album, Let’s Face The Music and Dance, is a collection of standards (and one re-recorded Willie original, Is The Better Part Over) that Willie and his sister Bobbie have been playing together for decades. Never one to turn down a collaboration, Nelson has recorded with a long list of artists, including Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few.