Five Reasons Willie Nelson Should Be in the Rock Hall of Fame
Dolly Parton wasn't sure she belonged in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Then she was inducted in 2022 and brought down the entire house at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
She showed there was a place for country music in the Hall of Fame, too – in particular for candidates with her canny blend of crossover fame and frisky rebelliousness. Willie Nelson should follow her through the same door.
Nelson was a late bloomer, marking behind-the-scenes successes as a Nashville songwriter for hire before finally reaching superstardom in his 40s. By then, he'd ditched the corporate suit-and-tie look for T-shirts, bandannas, a ponytail, a beat-up guitar nicknamed Trigger and a joint. (Actually, lots of joints – but more on that later.) If not for his whiskey-soaked twang at the mic, Nelson might have passed as a member of your average '70s-era Southern rock outfit.
He approached life like them, too, forever on the road. He couldn't always keep a step ahead of the industry prudes, Uncle Sam and the law, but he never stopped playing. Nelson scheduled more than 100 live shows a year on his ride to fame, and he's never really slowed down. Everything he sang in "On the Road Again" was true. And what could be more rock 'n' roll than all of that? Here are Five Reasons Willie Nelson Should Be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
He More Rock 'n' Roll Than Many Actual Rockers
Willie Nelson's first arrest for marijuana possession was nearly five decades ago. There would be many, many more. Nelson laughed them all off. Finally, the cops just stopped trying: "They don't really bother me anymore for the weed," Nelson told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Because you can bust me now and I'll pay my fine or go to jail, get out and burn one on the way home." It was an open secret that Nelson would slip away to the roof to smoke a joint during frequent visits to the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration, according to Joe Nick Patoski's Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. One prosecutor memorably floated a plea agreement in which Nelson would sing "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" rather than pay the $100 fine, but a judge blocked the motion. When he gets pulled over today, Nelson said it's usually for an autograph.
He's One of the Most Prolific Songwriters in History
Raised in Texas during the Great Depression, Nelson wrote his first song at age 7. And then he wrote another ... and another and another. A handful, including "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Pretty Paper" and "Hello Walls," became standards – often through the interpretation of others. He kept writing. Then Nelson started scoring solo hits, highlighted by four country chart-toppers in the '70s. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" nearly broke the pop Top 20. There were eight more country No. 1 hits in the '80s, including the pop Top 5 smash "Always on My Mind." He kept writing and writing. Nelson has released more than 30 albums since the turn of the century. One report estimated that he'd composed 2,500 songs, and that was years ago. Nelson has no idea how many he's written. Probably no one does.
He Took on the Music Industry – and Won
Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960 and immediately signed a standard publishing contract, but he never really got comfortable in the industry-driven town. By 1972, he'd returned to his native Texas, ready to start writing his way – and growing his hair long. He'd go on to spearhead what became known as the outlaw country genre, along with a few others including Waylon Jennings. He sold millions, appearing onstage with legends of every era – but he never forgot where he came from. One day before a concert, "it was me, Willie, B.B. King, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton,” jazz star Wynton Marsalis told The New York Times in 2022. "And Willie said, 'Well, gentlemen, I think I'm the only one here who actually picked cotton.'" After the laughter died down, Marsalis said it occurred to him that "Willie has had some profound experiences. His music, his knowledge, comes from a long, long way."
He Took on Uncle Sam, Lost and Made It Look Fun
The IRS disallowed deductions Nelson made in the early '80s, as his income soared. He was also struggling through a series of poor investments made on his behalf. By 1990, Uncle Sam said he owed a whopping $32 million, and seized most of Nelson's assets. He reportedly settled for a much lower amount, but only after firing a manager and suing his accounting firm. Most of his stuff was auctioned off, only to be purchased by friends and fans who promptly gave it right back to Nelson. He then did what only an impish hill-country rebel like Willie Nelson would: release a stripped-down double album called The IRS Tapes to pay off the rest of his debt with the proceeds. "I've been broke before and will be again," he joked back then. "Heartbroke? That's serious. Lose a few bucks? That's not."
He Certainly Won't Have Any Trouble Fitting In
Aside from sharing a certain affinity for weed, Nelson has plenty of experience collaborating with rock acts, both in the studio and onstage. He has worked with John Mellencamp and Neil Young on multiple iterations of Farm Aid, while also appearing on "Are There Any More Real Cowboys" from Young's 1981 album Old Ways. He's recorded with Eric Clapton ("Songbird"), the Doobie Brothers ("I Know We Won"), Ringo Starr ("Write One for Me"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Couple More Years"), U2 ("Slow Dancing"), Tom Petty (on both "Goodnight Irene" and "Give Me Back My Job," which also featured Bono) and Carlos Santana ("They All Went to Mexico"), among others. Nelson has also done sessions with two other 2023 first-time nominees, Sheryl Crow ("If I Were a Carpenter") and Cyndi Lauper ("Night Life").