Willie Nelson has been a country music icon for decades and his status in the industry remains undisputed. As one of the legends of the genre, Nelson has sometimes vehemently defended who can make country music and what it actually sounds like.
Willie Nelson is a legendary country music artist
Willie Nelson started recording music in the 1950s when he was in his twenties. He worked as a radio host and freelance musician, taking every gig he could get. In 1960, he moved to Nashville, the country music capital of the world, but initially struggled to gain recognition.
Nelson released his first album …And then I wrote in 1962 and his profile began to rise in the industry. In 1965, he joined the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where he met another future country superstar, Waylon Jennings.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Nelson had only minor success, and he grew increasingly frustrated with the boxes he had been put in. In the early 1970s, he and Jennings—along with other country artists—began recording what came to be known as “outlaw country” music, which challenged Nashville’s conservative ideals.
Willie Nelson resented pop singers making country music
Nelson’s rise to prominence as part of the Outlaw Country was chronicled in the 2021 Netflix docuseries It’s pop. “By the 1960s, the music coming out of Nashville started to sound less and less like country music. It started to have orchestras and singers without Southern accents,” said journalist Shuja Haider. “In the 70s, you have pop artists like John Denver or Olivia Newton-John putting out country records.”
One person who was annoyed by the influx of pop artists into country music was Nelson himself. “We don’t want a group of big players [and] hustlers from other parts of the world to come here and ruin everything for the rest of the people,” Nelson said honestly in a clip from the 70s.
In 1976 Nelson and Jennings teamed up with Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser to form the band The Outlaws. their album Wanted to! The Outlaws became country music’s first platinum album, selling over one million copies.
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Willie Nelson is protector of country music
While Nelson seemed to resent new country music players, he was protective of a genre of music close to his heart. Becoming a musician was his lifelong dream.
“Since I was a kid, music was what I wanted to do,” Nelson told Parade in 2010. “I thought I could do it on my own. That’s what I wanted to prove.
“A lot of country music is sad,” he continued. “I think most works of art come from poverty and hard times. This applies to music. Three chords and the truth – that’s what a country song is. There’s a lot of heartache in the world.