A country music icon we all know and love? Willie Nelson! In celebration of the release of the acclaimed singer-songwriter's 71st solo studio album, "That's Life" — his second Frank Sinatra tribute album — on Feb. 26, 2021, Wonderwall.com is taking a look back at Willie's life and career in photos. Keep reading for more…
Willie Nelson was born toward the tail end of the Great Depression on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. He and sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents, and when Willie was 6, his grandfather bought him his first guitar. He penned his first song a year later. Willie also played guitar for Bohemian Polka, a local band. He's seen here early in his career, circa 1967.
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In 1950 when he was 17, Willie Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force, but he was medically discharged soon after due to back problems. Throughout the '50s, Willie attempted to take a more traditional route — he married his first wife, Martha Matthews, in 1952, and they welcomed three kids before divorcing in 1962. He attended Baylor University from 1954 to 1956 before ultimately dropping out to pursue music full time. The same year he left college, Willie was hired at KVAN, a radio station in Vancouver, Washington, and he went on to record his first single, "No Place for Me," which, unfortunately, failed to find success. Willie, who over the next few years kept moving — to Missouri and back to Texas — is seen here in a recording studio in 1965.
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The '60s was another busy decade for Willie Nelson. After moving to Nashville, he struggled to find a record label that would sign him. He eventually inked a deal in 1961 with Liberty Records, through which he released the first two successful singles of his career: "Willingly" and "Touch Me." Things started to go well and in 1965, he joined the Grand Ole Opry the year after he signed a $10,000-a-year deal with RCA Records (pictured).
Willie Nelson is seen here performing the track "Willingly" in 1961 with his second wife, country music and rockabilly singer-songwriter Shirley Collie. They were married from 1963 to 1971. She divorced him after finding a bill from a hospital maternity ward revealing he'd fathered a child with the woman who would become his third wife.
In 1971, Willie Nelson took his third trip down the aisle — this time with Connie Koepke! The duo, who share two daughters, are seen here in New York City in 1970.
In 1972, Willie Nelson — who'd relocated to Austin, Texas, by then — founded the Fourth of July Picnic, his annual concert inspired by the Dripping Springs Reunion festival. He's seen here on stage with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson — together, the four of them were known as perform as the Highwaymen — in 1985.
In 1973, Willie Nelson signed with Atlantic Records and a year later, he recorded his 16th studio album, "Shotgun Willie." 1975 was another major year for Willie (who's seen here performing that same year): In addition to transferring to Columbia Records, he earned his first Grammy Award! Willie won for best male country vocal performance for his track "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain."
Willie Nelson appeared as a musical guest on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" in December 1977.
In 1978, Willie Nelson released two albums that both went platinum: "Waylon & Willie," a collaboration with Waylon Jennings, and "Stardust." He's seen here playing his guitar the same year.
The acclaimed singer-songwriter tried his hand at being a movie star in 1979. Willie Nelson made his acting debut in the comedy Western "The Electric Horseman" alongside Robert Redford.
Willie Nelson went on to appear in several more films including "Thief," "Barbarosa," "Coming Out of the Ice" and "Red Headed Stranger." He's seen here in the 1980 romantic drama "Honeysuckle Rose."
Adorable! Willie Nelson — who's fathered eight children in his lifetime — is pictured here with daughters Paula Carlene and Amy Lee in 1980. That same year, he won the coveted entertainer of the year prize at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
In 1983, Willie Nelson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The honoree is seen here with his wife at the time, Connie Koepke, whom he divorced in 1988.
Coming together for a good cause! 1985 marked the year in which Willie Nelson, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, launched Farm Aid, an annual benefit that raises funds for the families of American farmers. The three founders are seen here on stage during the inaugural festival.
The music and film industries aren't Willie Nelson's only areas of interest. In 1988, he released the memoir "Willie: An Autobiography." He's seen here at Irving Berlin's 100th birthday party that same year.
Throughout the '90s and '00s, Willie Nelson spent a significant amount of time touring. During this time, he also released numerous albums including 1998's "Teatro," 1999's "Night and Day" and 2002's "The Great Divide." Willie is seen here promoting his work with a performance at England's famed Glastonbury Festival in 2000.
In 2004, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith won the prize for video of the year for "Beer for My Horses" at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. Willie's left hand was in a cast following carpal tunnel surgery.
Wedding bells! In 1991, Willie Nelson married his fourth (and current!) wife, Annie D'Angelo. The couple, who are pictured here at the 2000 Grammy Awards, share musician sons Lukas Autry and Jacob Micah.
2001 was a major year for the country music singer-songwriter. Willie Nelson, along with Paul Williams and Dolly Parton, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. A year prior, Willie received a lifetime achievement award Grammy.
Another area Willie Nelson has never shied away from? Politics. The country music star, who publicly denounced the Trump administration in 2018, showed his support for Dennis Kucinich's campaign during the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.
Another role in a major motion picture! In 2005, Willie Nelson played Uncle Jesse in the based-on-the-hit-TV-show comedy film "The Dukes of Hazzard" alongside first-time actress Jessica Simpson.
Willie Nelson, pictured here alongside fellow Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp at the event's 20th anniversary in 2005, has long been an advocate for causes he believes in. He's served as co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board, which in 2005 raised money with a golf tournament Willie hosted on his private course in Spicewood, Texas. The same year, he also headlined a tsunami relief benefit concert that raised $75,000 for UNICEF.
In 2007, Willie Nelson took the stage with acclaimed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center in New York City. The duo's live album, "Two Men with the Blues," was released in 2008 and reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard's top jazz albums chart.
Willie Nelson, a longtime advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana, is seen here in a November 2010 mug shot following a marijuana possession arrest in Texas. He was brought in after Border Patrol agents discovered six ounces of the drug on his tour bus. It's not his only arrest on drug charges: The music legend pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a $1,024 fine and six months of probation after one-and-a-half pounds of marijuana and three ounces of hallucinogenic mushrooms were found on his bus in Louisiana in 2006. And in 1995, he was arrested in Waco, Texas, after police officers said they saw a joint in his car's ashtray.
In 2010, Willie Nelson — who's pictured here performing at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series that year — founded Luck Films, a company that focuses on the production of concerts, documentaries and movies. This wasn't his only creative endeavor: In 2011, Willie also created the "Willie's Roadhouse" show, which features music from the '60s, '70s and '80s, for SiriusXM radio.
Willie Nelson was joined by sons Micah and Lukas — who, like their dad, are musicians — at the 11th Annual John Varvatos Stuart House Benefit in West Hollywood in April 2014. (Father and sons recorded and released an album together, "Willie Nelson and the Boys (Willie's Stash, Vol. 2)," in 2017.) In 2012, Willie revealed in his book "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road" that he'd discovered he had another child — an adult daughter named Renee — he'd recently learned about. His family welcomed her with open arms. "I have an old, dear friend, Mary Haney, who I'd lost touch with but recently met again after decades. Turns out Mary and I had a child together called Renee. It also turns out Renee has a daughter, Noelle, who has a daughter, Jordan, who I am happy to now call my great-granddaughter," Willie wrote.
A night to remember! In November 2014, Willie Nelson performed during PBS's "A Salute to the Troops: In Performance at the White House." The country hitmaker opened the special with "We Don't Run" and ended with "On the Road Again" with help from none other than President Barack Obama. "We've got a little bit of rock 'n' roll, we've got a little bit of country, a little bit of everything in between," the POTUS said at the event, as reported by HeraldNet. "And that's good, because here in America, no matter where you are from, no matter what music you listen to, we're all united out of respect and admiration for the brave men and women who wear our country's uniform."
In 2015, Willie Nelson released another autobiography, "It's a Long Story: My Life." The book was also co-written by author David Ritz. Willie's seen here at a book signing at Barnes & Noble in New York City following its publication.
2017 marked yet another major career year for the outlaw country singer-songwriter. As well as earning the Poet's Award at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Willie also released "God's Problem Child," his 66th solo studio album. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard top country albums chart and at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart. Willie is pictured here performing in concert that same year.
In February 2019, Willie Nelson was honored by the Grammys' producers and engineers wing at their 12th annual awards event. He's pictured here alongside Neil Portnow, who was at the time the president of the Recording Academy and MusiCares, during the 2019 Grammys Week event.
Willie Nelson, who's pictured here performing at the 53rd Annual Country Music Association Awards in 2019, is also a supporter of LGBTQ rights. "It's about human rights," Willie told Texas Monthly in 2013 of same-sex marriage. "As humanity, we've come through so many problems from the beginning to here. I guess it finally had to come around to this. This is just another situation, another problem. We'll work it out and move on."
Willie Nelson was as busy as ever in 2020. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, he organized livestream benefit concerts that raised money to aid in relief efforts, including the partially marijuana-themed variety show "Come and Take It." Willie is seen here during a virtual interview with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" in September 2020.