Nelson and his sister, Bobbie, were raised by their grandparents after their father died and their mother ran away. Willie played the guitar, while Bobbie played the piano. She met Bud Fletcher[?], a fiddler, and both siblings joined his band while Willie was in high school.
After graduation, Nelson joined the Air Force, but left due to back problems. Eventually, he became a DJ at a country station in Fort Worth, Texas, while singing locally in honky tonk bars. In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington to begin a musical career by recording "Lumberjack" by Leon Payne[?]. The single song respectably but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to DJ and sing in clubs, and sold a song called "Family Bible" for fifty dollars; the song was a hit for Claude Gray[?] in 1960.
Nelson moved to Nashville, Tennessee but was unable to land a music contract. He did, however, receive a publishing contract at Pamper Music[?]. After Ray Price[?] recorded his "Night Life", Nelson joined Price's touring band as a bassist. While playing with Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys, Nelson's songs became hits. "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Billy Walker[?]), "Hello Walls" (Faron Young[?]), "Pretty Paper" (Roy Orbison) and, most famously, "Crazy" (Patsy Cline) became popular songs in the 1960s. Nelson signed with Liberty Records[?] in 1961 and releasing several singles, including the hits "Willingly" (with his wife, Shirley Collie) and "Touch Me". He was unable to keep his momentum going, though, and Nelson's career ground to a halt.
In 1965, Nelson moved to RCA Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry, followed by a series of minor hits. Frustrated with the music business which tried to force him into a mold, Nelson retired and moved to Austin, Texas. While in Austin, Nelson decided to play country music with a heavy rock and roll and folk influence.
Signing with Atlantic Records, Nelson released Shotgun Willie[?] (1973), which won excellent reviews but did not sell well. Phases and Stages[?] (1974), a concept album, included two hit singles, "Bloody Mary Morning" and "After the Fire is Gone". Nelson then moved to Columbia Records where to assumed complete creative control over his work; the result was the critically acclaimed, massively popular concept album, The Red Headed Stranger[?]. Though Columbia was reluctant to release an album with only a guitar and piano for accompaniment, Nelson insisted and the album was a huge hit, partially because it included a popular cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (Roy Acuff[?]).
Along with Nelson, Waylon Jennings was also achieving massive success in country music, and the pair were soon combined into a genre called outlaw country[?] ("outlaw" because it did not conform to Nashville standards). Nelson continued to top the charts with hit songs during the late 1970s, including "Good Hearted Woman" (a duet with Jennings), "Remember Me", "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time", "Uncloudy Day", "I Love You a Thousand Ways" and "Something to Brag About" (a duet with the Mary Kay Place[?]). In 1978, Nelson released two huge albums, Waylon and Willie[?] (a duet with Jennings that included one of Nelson's most well-known songs, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys") and Stardust[?], an unusual, string-based album of pop songs produced by Booker T. Jones[?]. Though most observers predicted that Stardust would ruin his career, it ended up being one of the most successful LPs of his career. Nelson began acting, appearing in The Electric Horsmen[?] (1979) and Honeysuckle Rose[?] (1980; included the Nelson hit "On the Road Again"). The eighties saw a series of hit singles (including "Always on my Mind", an Elvis Presley cover; and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before", a duet with Julio Iglesias) and releasing albums like Poncho and Lefty[?] (1983, with Merle Haggard), WWII[?] (1982, with Waylon Jennings) and Take it to the Limit[?] (1983, with Waylon Jennings).
In the mid 1980s, Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash formed a group called The Highwaymen[?]. In spite of this, Nelson's popularity began to fall dramatically as he became more and more involved in charity work, such as establishing the Farm Aid[?] concerts in 1985.
In 1990, the IRS gave Nelson a bill for 16.7 million in backtaxes and took away most of his assets to help pay the charges. He released The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories[?] as a double album, with all profits going straight to the IRS. His debts were paid by 1993. He released Across the Borderline[?] that year, with guests Bob Dylan, Sinead O'Connor, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Simon. During the 1990s, Nelson toured continuously and released albums that generally received mixed reviews, with the exception of 1998's critically acclaimed Teatro[?].
Nelson plays acoustic guitar; the constant strumming has over the decades worn a large sweeping hole into the guitar's body near the sound hole.