Willie Nelson is one of the legendary artists with career longevity that spans even further than Pollstar’s four decades in the live entertainment industry. By the time we began operation in the early 1980s, he had long cemented his reputation as a songwriter, having penned major hits during the previous 20 years. And, as a recording artist and pioneer of “outlaw country,” he was also well-established with music that had garnered both commercial and critical acclaim.
So, he was already an arena headliner by the time he first had a concert included in Pollstar Boxoffice archives. His first live event on record was a two-night engagement in June 1981 at Selland Arena in Fresno, California, with 13,259 tickets sold.
The next year when he topped the charts with “Always On My Mind,” his sixth No. 1 country single, he averaged 11,193 sold tickets per show at arenas. His best-attended event in 1982, though, was a stadium concert with Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter that drew 32,000 fans to San Jose, California’s Spartan Stadium (now CEFCU Stadium).
Overall, in the past four decades, our box office archives show that $224 million in grosses have been reported at 1,589 of his headlining performances. Since those first reported shows in the summer of 1981, his concerts have moved well over 6 million sold tickets.
Among Nelson’s archived box office highlights, his best-attended show on record is a performance on July 3, 1983 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, with 51,165 in attendance. The gross from the day-long festival event reached $883,648 (now valued at about $2.7 million) with Nelson heading up a lineup that again included Jennings and Colter as well as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and the Stray Cats. The gross from the event is his highest prior to 2000 and his ninth highest overall during The Pollstar Era.
Since 2000, his highest recorded attendance came from shows on Aug. 9-10, 2013 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with a sold-ticket count of 23,187 and a $1.16 million gross, his highest as a solo headliner. The event celebrated the 35th anniversary of his critically acclaimed 1978 album, Stardust, which was performed there for the first time in its entirety.
Nelson’s stint as a member of the supergroup The Highwaymen – along with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson – accounts for 23 concerts recorded in the archives between 1991 and 1995. The top box office numbers during those years came from a headlining performance on Feb. 18, 1992 at the Astrodome as part of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. The group’s concert drew 50,762 fans and registered a $519,803 gross (now about $1.2 million). They had also appeared at the annual Houston event two years earlier.
Another milestone of Nelson’s career was the creation of Farm Aid, the organization that supports American farmers and ultimately led to annual fundraising concerts to benefit family farms. He organized the event along with John Mellencamp and Neil Young in the mid-1980s with the first concert on Sept. 22, 1985 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Media reports at the time listed the concert’s attendance at 80,000.
The first reported Farm Aid event in our archives was the 1987 concert on Sept. 19 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. The show was a sellout with 69,500 attendees and a gross of $1.39 million, now valued at $3.7 million in 2023 dollars. s