SOUNDS LIKE: Outlaw. Plain and simple.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Willie turns 80 today, and the late, great George Jones put it - “There’ll never be another red-headed stranger.”
“You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say” – Willie Nelson, “Shotgun Willie”
Country music can be broken down into five or six different and distinct generations. The actual country elements of country – that is, the Western/cowboy sound that founded the genre to begin with, were mostly phased out by the mid-60s. In the early 70s a new breed of country music was born, frequently labeled “outlaw country.” Born as a reaction to the “Nashville sound,” which many new country artists perceived as the selling-out of country music (Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would famously shake the loose change in his pocket and say “it’s the sound of money”), outlaw country sought a return to independence and the grungy, dirty origins of the music. It didn’t hurt that several of its best known practitioners, such as David Allen Coe, were at least rumored to have frequent run-ins with the law.
Outlaw country’s best known faces quickly became two Texans, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Jennings’ album Ladies Love Outlaws – which featured a picture of Jennings dressed as a Western Sherriff on the cover – jumpstarted the genre’s popularity. It was Nelson, however, that became its enduring star.
Nelson had already been immensely popular in country music circles for some time. Faron Young had turned Nelson’s “Hello Walls” into a number one hit in 1961, and Nelson became even more of a songwriting commodity when Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy,” still one of the biggest country hits of all time, in 1962. Nelson began recording and releasing his own material not long after, but it was a slow rise to success, and Nelson grew unhappy. 1970 was particularly unpleasant as Nelson got divorced and his Tennessee ranch burned to the ground. By 1972, Nelson would even begin to claim he was retiring.
In early 1973, however, at the age of 39, he formed the group (the Family) that would become his musical backbone to this day. With a new band and fresh outlook he began recording Shotgun Willie, the first foray into his career as an outlaw country star, and the album that defined his image. Before Shotgun Willie, Nelson was one of many moderately successful country singer/songwriters. After Shotgun Willie (and its follow-ups, Phases and Stages, and Red Headed Stranger, his Columbia debut which included Nelson’s version of the 1945 Fred Rose song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”) Willie Nelson became the poster child of outlaw country. His long hair and beard, songs about drinking and the devil, and of course that honeyed voice, brought him a whole new audience.
The most successful song on the album was “Whiskey River,” but its most fun is the title track. “Shotgun Willie” was Nelson’s nickname at the time; how he got the name is a quintessential Nelson story. Nelson’s daughter Lana was being physically abused by her husband Steve Warren. Nelson finally threated to kill Warren if he continued to hurt his daughter. Not long after the altercation, Warren and some friends arrived at Nelson’s house and began open firing with .22 caliber rifles. Nelson and his drummer Paul English returned fire with even larger rifles, and eventually Warren sped away.
While the song doesn’t deal with that incident directly, there’s another great story behind it (so to speak): Nelson reportedly wrote the lyrics on an empty tampon wrapper while sitting on the toilet.
Happy 80th birthday, Shotgun Willie.