Considering Willie Nelson turns 90 on Saturday — and he’s been involved in the music industry for more than 60 of those years — you hear from a lot of people in the new five-part docuseries about his life.
They all have their own stories and memories. But a large portion of these talking heads —which include Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Kenny Chesney and Wynton Marsalis — say at least one similar thing: Willie Nelson is a creative genius who can’t be replicated.
They say that Nelson’s way of singing, not to mention his tone, is one-of-a-kind. He plays with the beat, at times singing behind it and other times moving ahead of it. Regardless of what he does, you can count on him to make it to the next beat on time. But, as Parton attests, it makes singing a duet with him a bit of a workout. Harris compares it to fly-fishing.
Just about everybody in the docuseries “Willie Nelson & Family,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and does not yet have a release date, applauds Nelson’s distinctive style — with one funny exception. While the music industry at large dubs Nelson a genius, Nelson’s son, Micah Nelson, says the late Waylon Jennings had a substantially different opinion: Nelson simply didn’t have any rhythm.
Watching the adoration — and in some cases, awe — that so many notable music figures have for Nelson play out over roughly 41⁄2 hours, it’s hard to believe there was once a time when Nelson wasn’t sure if he’d even make it in the industry. But now, as Nelson turns 90 — a milestone the singer is celebrating with a two-night, star-studded festival at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend — his career continues to thrive and find new meaning.
Earlier this year, he won the Grammy for best country album with 2022’s “A Beautiful Time.” He released his 73rd studio album, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” in March. He’s a 2023 nominee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and will be inducted in the fall.
In a semi-chronological approach — because nothing about Nelson’s life is linear — “Willie Nelson & Family” puts viewers on a tour bus, traveling the smooth and rocky stretches of the legendary singer-songwriter’s career that still doesn’t have an end in sight.
Willie Nelson’s rise to fame
If your house was on fire, and you could only grab a few things, what would you take?
It’s a dinner party, ice-breaker sort of question, but Nelson found himself in that very predicament in 1970 — and he didn’t have to think twice about his answer.
After getting a call that his ranch outside of Nashville was burning down, he rushed into his home to save two of his most prized possessions: his guitar, Trigger, and two pounds of “primo Colombia pot.”
At this point, Nelson had been working in Nashville for several years, with his success predominantly coming from songwriting — including hits like “Hello, Walls” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
But Nelson wasn’t finding the same success as a recording artist. He wanted to be in front of an audience, performing, but his songs were reaching the middle of the charts, at best. He believed Nashville was too corporate, and felt stifled by the limitations of his label. He was struggling financially and had indulged in self-destructive habits. He questioned his worth and attempted suicide.
For Nelson, the fire served as a wake-up call, and he decided to move back home to Texas. A few years later, he signed with Columbia Records, which gave him a $60,000 recording budget and complete creative control. Nelson used just a small fraction of that money to create “Red Headed Stranger,” a stripped-down concept album that went against the grain of the polished Nashville sound.
It marked Nelson’s 18th studio album and gave him his first No. 1 hit with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
And it would make him a household name.
This is where directors Oren Moverman and Thom Zimny choose to begin “Willie Nelson & Family.” They bring viewers onto Luck Ranch, Nelson’s 500-acre property outside of Austin, Texas. On this sprawling landscape are Western movie sets Nelson imagined for the 1985 film “Red Headed Stranger,” inspired by his critically acclaimed album about a fugitive who has killed his wife and her lover.
The album was Nelson’s love letter to the cowboy movies of his youth — the movie he’d always wanted to make, Roseanne Cash says in the docuseries. The album was cinematic, she said, and Nelson delivered it like a filmmaker. According to the docuseries’ many interviewees, the success of “Red Headed Stranger” stemmed largely from the fact that there was nothing else like it.
“At that time in Nashville, different wasn’t in,” singer Brenda Lee says.
There’s a point in “Willie Nelson & Family” when Nelson’s sister and dear friend, the late Bobbie Nelson — who plays piano on many of his albums, including “Red Headed Stranger” — says that for her brother, the road is endless, and that the need to explore has served as a major motif in his life.
That’s evident in his music. Nelson didn’t just stick to outlaw country music after the success of “Red Headed Stranger.” Three years later — against the wishes of his label — he collaborated with R&B legend Booker T. Jones to create “Stardust,” a reimagining of some of his favorite American standards, including “Georgia on My Mind” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Jones, who produced “Stardust,” appears in the docuseries to succinctly stress the importance of the album: It singlehandedly connected country and soul music.
Based on the wide range of people who make an appearance in “Willie Nelson & Family,” you get the impression that Nelson’s influence has seeped into every generation of the music industry.
As Nelson says in the series, “Good music never goes out of fashion.”
Willie Nelson’s all-encompassing reach
For all of the success of “Red Headed Stranger” and “Stardust,” Nelson’s career didn’t follow a straight, upward trajectory. “Willie Nelson & Family” doesn’t shy away from some of the messier parts of the singer-songwriter’s life, including his many run-ins with the law — most due to marijuana possession — and his battle with the IRS in 1990.
“Dad has been homeless, he’s had his house burned down, he’s been through four marriages, he’s been up and down, he’s been broke, he fought the IRS, he’s lost a child. That’s what makes him inspiring to me — his resilience in the face of adversity.” — Lukas Nelson
Nelson purportedly owed $32 million in taxes, and the IRS shut down his studio and band. His properties were seized and, as he recalls in the docuseries, he became a punchline on “SNL.” Friends and family bought back some of Nelson’s possessions, and the singer-songwriter released his 39th studio album, “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?” to help cover the settlement.
“Dad has been homeless, he’s had his house burned down, he’s been through four marriages, he’s been up and down, he’s been broke, he fought the IRS, he’s lost a child,” Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, says in the film. “That’s what makes him inspiring to me — his resilience in the face of adversity.”
One of the most moving parts of “Willie Nelson & Family” shows Nelson on stage during a concert celebrating his 70th birthday — roughly a decade after the IRS battle. Two of his friends, Leon Russell and Ray Charles, sit by his side for a performance of Russell’s “A Song For You.” As Charles plays the piano and passionately sings his part, Nelson’s affection for Charles is palpable, and he becomes visibly emotional. Charles, whose health was beginning to fail, would die a year later.
Through archival footage — including performances with Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — “Willie Nelson & Family” illustrates Nelson’s all-encompassing reach. As his son, Micah Nelson, says at one point, there’s a uniting quality to Nelson’s music.
“Willie Nelson & Family” provides fans with an up-close view of Nelson’s evolution — both musically and physically — and it’s fascinating to watch.
The continuing evolution of Willie Nelson
Nelson’s long, braided pigtails have become such a strong part of his identity that it’s hard to picture him any other way. One of the best parts of “Willie Nelson & Family” is the reminder that he hasn’t always had that look. He was once a short-haired member of the Air Force. For a time, he was a suit-wearing crooner.
Raised by his grandparents — who Nelson said gave him the two lifesaving gifts of love and music — Nelson received his first guitar at the age of 6. He recalls an instant connection with the instrument: “I knew by holding it against my chest it would hear my heart.”
A natural songwriter, he created a Willie Nelson songbook by the age of 10. Inspired by a variety of musical styles — Nelson cites jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt as his biggest influence — the singer-songwriter infuses his own music with country, gospel, soul, jazz, pop, rock and reggae.
And remarkably, after more than six decades in the music industry, he’s still creating. As Micah Nelson puts it, his father cannot stop writing and singing and strumming his guitar.
And Nelson doesn’t believe it all has to end with his death, either.
“I don’t think it’s anything I’m supposed to be afraid of,” he says matter-of-factly in the docuseries, noting that there are things worse than death. He states his belief that human energy can’t be destroyed — it just manifests itself elsewhere (as he sings in his 2012 hit “Roll Me Up”: “I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’/So don’t sit around and cry/Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”)
Considering his multigenre, multigenerational reach, it’s safe to say that Nelson’s energy will continue to be felt long past his death, whenever that time comes.
But for the time being, Nelson’s going to continue doing what makes him happiest — traveling the road and making music with his friends.