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91 facts about Willie Nelson for his 91st birthday

Celebrate the Red Headed Stranger’s birthday with a brief history of his life.

A close-up of Willie Nelson performing

Cosmic Cowboy Willie Nelson has been inspiring Austinites for just shy of a century.

Photo by ATXtoday

A very special Austinite will celebrate his 91st birthday on Monday, so please join us in congratulating the one and only Willie Hugh Nelson.

Austin has been proud to be one of Willie’s homes for so many years, so we’re sharing 91 facts about the legend: one for each year of his life.

  1. Willie Nelson has two birthdays — he celebrates on April 29 and 30 due to a clerical error on his birth certificate.
  2. However, Willie didn’t start celebrating both days until he turned 18.
  3. Willie was born in 1933 in the town of Abbott, Texas, which only had a population of about 326 people at the time.
  4. Willie’s cousin Mildred chose his name.
    The Willie Nelson statue in downtown Austin.

    This Willie Nelson statue was unveiled outside of Austin City Limits in 2012. | Photo via ATXtoday team.

  5. Willie was raised by his grandparents, Alfred and Nancy Nelson, who both studied music.

  6. A lifelong performer, Willie got onstage for the first time when he was five years old to recite a poem.
  7. He was so nervous to recite it, that he picked his nose until it bled and earned the nickname “Booger Red.”
  8. Willie was gifted his first guitar when he was 6 years old.
  9. Willie first learned to play “Amazing Grace” and wrote his first song when he was 7.
  10. Alongside his older sister, Bobbie, Willie grew up singing in his church choir.
  11. Willie joined his first band, Bohemian Polka, as a guitar player when he was 9.
  12. Willie went to Abbott High School and played as a halfback on the football team.
  13. Willie raised pigs for Future Farmers of America while in school.
  14. At 13, Willie had already played with Bob Wills, the “King of Western Swing.”

  15. Willie graduated high school in 1950 and joined the U.S. Air Force.
  16. He was later discharged due to back problems.
  17. Willie was first married in 1952, to Martha Matthews.
  18. Willie attended Baylor University but dropped out after two years due to his musical success.
  19. While at Baylor, Willie joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

    Willie Nelson was 24 in this photo.

    Photo by @traces_of_texas

  20. Willie once moved to San Diego to get a job but was unable to find one, so he hitchhiked to Portland, Oregon, where his mother lived.

  21. No one picked him up, so he slept in a ditch to wait for a freight train.
  22. Throughout the 1950s, Willie worked as a disc jockey while also performing as a singer-songwriter.
  23. Willie has held a lot of odd jobs, including saddle maker, vacuum cleaner, plus encyclopedia and Bible salesman.
  24. His first album, “...And Then I Wrote,” was released in 1962.
  25. The contract allowed him to join Ray Price’s band as a bassist.
  26. Willie moved to Nashville in 1960 and signed a contract with Pamper Music.
  27. Willie married his second wife, Shirley Collie, in 1962.
  28. Willie signed with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964.
  29. Tired of the corporate music scene in Nashville, Willie moved to Austin in the early 1970s.
  30. Willie didn’t feel his brand of “outlaw country” fit in Nashville’s scene.

  31. Austin’s hippie scene was burgeoning at the time and Willie became a staple at the now-closed Armadillo World Headquarters.
  32. He tried to retire shortly after moving, paying $14,000 to end his contract, but it didn’t last.
  33. Willie began to grow out his hair and beard after moving to Austin.
  34. Willie held his first annual Fourth of July Picnic in Austin in 1973.
  35. Willie signed with Atlantic Records as the label’s first country artist in 1973.
  36. He formed his band, The Family, the same year.
  37. Willie didn’t try marijuana until he was 21 years old and even then, he refused it the first time.

  38. Willie starred in “The Electric Horseman” alongside Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in 1979.
  39. The next year, he starred in the film “Honeysuckle Rose.”
  40. Willie has done crazy things for weed, including running into his burning house to save his stash.
  41. It wasn’t just for the love of weed — Willie wanted to avoid the stash being found by police.
  42. After all, Willie has been arrested multiple times for possession of marijuana.
  43. Willie once smoked a joint on the roof of the White House with Jimmy Carter’s son, Chip.
  44. While there, he performed a duet with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
  45. He once tried to smoke a joint on the roof of the Governor’s Mansion, but was caught.

  46. Willie has famously out-smoked Snoop Dogg and maintains a firm friendship with the rapper.
  47. The pair wrote the songs “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “My Medicine” together.
  48. Willie has his own brand of marijuana, called Willie’s Reserve.
  49. Willie is a huge advocate for marijuana legalization and sits as co-chair on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
  50. Willie’s smoking days largely ended in 2019 due to health issues.
  51. Willie’s house fire, which happened in 1980, destroyed his Nashville home.

  52. The one other object he was able to save was his beloved guitar, Trigger.
  53. Willie bought Trigger in Nashville from a man named Shot Jackson in 1969.
  54. Trigger has been used in more than 10,000 shows across more than 50 years.
  55. Trigger got its name from Roy Roger’s horse.
  56. Trigger is decorated with celebrity signatures, the first of which was Leon Russell.
    A striped background behind a blue Willie Nelson.

    STAG owners say the mural is self-explanatory.

  57. More than a hundred yet-to-be-recorded songs were lost in the fire.

  58. Willie moved to Columbia Records in 1975.
  59. Willie’s smash-hit album, “Red Headed Stranger,” was released in 1975.
  60. In the summer of 1977, Willie discovered his manager, Neil Reshen, had been filing tax extensions and not paying the IRS.
  61. Both of Willie’s 1978 albums went platinum.
  62. They were “Waylon & Willie” and “Stardust.”
  63. “Stardust” spent two years on the Billboard 200 list.
  64. “Stardust” also spent 540 weeks on various country music lists.
  65. Willie’s 1980 hit, “On the Road Again,” was written on the back of a barf bag while on an airplane.

  66. Willie continued to top the charts with “Pancho & Lefty” in 1982, which he released with Merle Haggard and Chips Moman.
  67. The album won three Grammys and went quadruple platinum.
  68. Willie’s first book, “Willie: An Autobiography,” was released in 1988.
  69. In 1990, the IRS raided Willie’s house to seize assets.

  70. When the IRS raided, Willie mailed Trigger to his daughter in Hawaii for safekeeping.
  71. Willie originally owed $32 million; after the seizure, the IRS charged him $16.7 million.
  72. In order to pay his debt, Willie released two-disc acoustic album “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?
  73. The situation with the IRS was settled in 1993.
  74. His bill was one of the largest in IRS history.
  75. Willie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
  76. Willie’s next book, “The Facts of Life: And Other Dirty Jokes,” was released in 2002.
  77. Willie appeared on Ringo Starr’s 2003 album, “Ringo Rama.”
    Willie Nelson playing guitar in front of a neon sign reading "Luck."

    The annual Lucktoberfest features three days of live music at Willie Nelson’s property.

    Photo by @luckreunion

  78. In Willie’s opinion, Django Reinhardt is the greatest guitar player of all time.

  79. Over the years, Willie has been featured on shows including “Miami Vice,” “The Simpsons,” “Monk,” and “King of the Hill.”
  80. Willie has acted in more than 30 films.
  81. Willie’s second book, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road,” was published in 2012.
  82. He’s had three more books published since then — “It’s a Long Story: My Life” and “Pretty Paper,” both with David Ritz, and novel “A Tale Out of Luck” with Mike Blakely.
  83. Willie at one point had a biodiesel brand, BioWillie, made from vegetable oil.
  84. Willie is honorary chairman of the advisory board of the Texas Music Project, the official Texas music charity.
  85. Willie has a ranch where he lets horses run free in Hawaii, where he spends most of his time.

  86. Willie hosts two annual festivals — Luck Reunion and Lucktoberfest — at his Luck, Texas ranch.
  87. With the album, “Late Night Willie Nelson,” Willie now has 103 albums in his discography.
  88. Willie performed at the Moody Center’s grand opening with George Strait on both of his birthdays.
  89. In the summer of 2021 during a concert at the Texas Capitol, Willie winked at City Editor Laura Figi.
  90. In February 2023, Willie was nominated to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
  91. On Beyoncé's hotly anticipated “Cowboy Carter” album, Willie Nelson is featured on an aptly-named interlude called “SMOKE HOUR ★ WILLIE NELSON.”