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Willie Nelson Remains the Culture's Favorite Counterculture Hero

Willie Nelson is your favorite outlaw grandpa.
Willie Nelson is your favorite outlaw grandpa.
David McClister

Country music legend, activist, author, poet, actor--Willie Nelson fits into any one of these categories. He helped shape outlaw country towards the end of the 1960s, by bringing country artists who felt restricted by the Nashville sound together with "hippie" rock musicians, and his classic, low-key voice, timeless melodies, and ironic delivery branched him out even further to wide pop audiences.

Over the past five decades, he has respectfully bridged several artistic mediums, made even more impressive by the fact that he has also become the epitome of the "outlaw grandfather"--two characteristics that don't exactly go hand-in-hand. The major success of '70s records like Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger, and Stardust made Nelson one of the most well-known country artists around. In the '80s his musical reputation broadened with singles like "Always on my Mind" and "On the Road Again"--songs that roll off the tongue even for those who think they don't know the words.

On the other hand, he's the perfect picture of the proverbial pothead.

Nelson adamantly supports the legalization of marijuana, and has periodically found himself in trouble with the tax collector; he released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? as a double album with all profits earmarked for the federal government.

Put those two sides of his life together, and you can see how Willie Nelson has become a counterculture folk hero who's somehow a culture hero, too. Nelson is even more than just a musician that has bridge many mediums and released more than 100 albums and collaborations. He's pretty much the epitome of a musician's American Dream.

Born during the Great Depression and raised by his grandparents, Nelson was just seven years old when he wrote his first song. At age 10 he joined his first bands, playing guitar in German and Czech polka acts. Then he joined the air force, attended Baylor University, sold Bibles door-to-door, and taught Sunday school in Fort Worth. He also played honky-tonk clubs on the weekends, and when parishioners told him he needed to choose between church and music, well, we all know how that ended up.

 

Nelson turned 80 this year, and is still as hardcore a road warrior as ever. In October 2013, his album To All the Girls entered Billboard's Top Country Albums at number nine, marking his highest position on the chart since the release of 1982's Always on my Mind. It features duets with 18 of his favorite female singers, from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn to Carrie Underwood and Norah Jones.

He's also only increasing his role in activism: most recently, Nelson cancelled his planned performance at SeaWorld in Florida, citing the recent documentary "Blackfish," which raises questions about the effects of captivity on whales, as the reason.

Willie Nelson could never have known back in the '50s, when he was making just $50 a week as a songwriter for hire, that five decades later he would be touring to millions in his own patented Bio-Willie biodiesel-powered bus. It seems that no matter what road he takes, there are plenty of people willing to buy his memories.

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