Willie Nelson: Music’s ‘Redheaded Stranger’ Carved His Own Path To Become One Of The World’s Most Revered Artists

Willie Nelson In Concert Atlanta
GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Willie Nelson performs live at The Omni Coliseum in Atlanta on Dec. 11, 1981. (Photo by Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Willie Nelson receives a belated 90th birthday present with his induction as a member of the 2023 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. He may be the elder statesman among the seven performers being honored during the 38th annual ceremony, but he’s by far the most active – on the road, in the studio and as an activist, author and entrepreneur.

Though he may be a country music icon, Willie Nelson truly is a rock star.

His bona fides – besides the catalog of songs he’s written and performed dating back to the 1950s – are immense and inarguable. He’s a Gershwin Prize-winning songwriter but also a founder of the vaunted Outlaw country movement that sprang from Texas hippie joints like Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin.

See Willie Nelson: The Nonagenarian Redheaded Stranger Breaks New Ground At 90

Veering from the Countrypolitan sound of Nashville, Nelson leaned more into rock and blues by the 1970s. Over the course of his career, he’s performed an array of styles with artists as diverse as The Highwaymen, fellow Rock Hall inductee Sheryl Crow, Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Bob Dylan and Snoop Dogg. Nelson has taken turns as an actor (“Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Electric Horseman”) and author – his latest, “Energy Follows Thought: The Stories Behind My Songs,” hits bookstores today (Oct. 31).

An activist and entrepreneur, Nelson’s advocated for marijuana law reform, animal rights, veterans’ causes and family farmers as a board member of Farm Aid along with co-founders Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp. He’s marketed “Willie’s Reserve” cannabis products and “BioWillie” biodiesel fuel as an early adopter of carbon reduction. He’s currently backing Live Nation’s “On The Road Again,” a campaign to eliminate merch fees and support small venues.

Most important, of course, is the music. Nelson has released a staggering 151 studio albums, including live albums and compilations, and shows zero signs of slowing down. His most recent full-length LP, Bluegrass, was released Sept. 15.

The Abbott, Texas, native got his first paid songwriting gigs, including “Hello Walls,” recorded by Faron Young in 1961 and followed with hits like “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy,” famously performed by the late Patsy Cline, and “Night Life,” by Ray Price.

With the aid of his trusty guitar Trigger and a unique, jazz-inflected picking style, Nelson isn’t content to be confined to a single style of music. “I just like good music,” he recently told Pollstar. “I grew up playing it all. My sister [Bonnie] and I used to sit on an old piano stool together and just go through the songbooks. We’d play everything from ‘Down Yonder’ to ‘Stardust.’ Just good music.”

And he especially loves playing it live. Since Pollstar began keeping box office records, Nelson has reported more than 6 million tickets sold and $226 million in gross concert receipts, including his two-night, 90th birthday bash at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

“Who’da thought I’d make it?,” he wondered at the time. “I guess you just never know.”