On Wednesday, November 18, 2015, Willie Nelson became the first country music artist to receive the prestigious Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The award honors a living performer and/or composer whose contributions to popular music exemplifies the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin. Previous recipients includes Paul Simon (2007), Stevie Wonder (2009), Paul McCartney (2010), Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David (2012), Carole King (2013) and Billy Joel (2014).
According to the Library of Congress website, when selecting a recipient of the Gershwin Prize, Librarian of Congress James Billington (who held the position from 1987 until Sept. 2015,) consulted leading members of the music and entertainment communities, as well as curators from the Library’s Music Division, American Folklife Center and the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Willie Nelson’s legendary career was celebrated Wednesday at Washington, D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall with a collection of iconic artists, including Paul Simon, Neil Young, Alison Krauss, Raul Malo of The Mavericks, Jamey Johnson, Rosanne Cash, Edie Brickell, Leon Bridges, Ana Gabriel, Promise of the Real and Buckwheat Zydeco. The concert was taped and is scheduled to air on PBS-Public Broadcasting Service on Jan. 15, 2016.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Michael McCall says, “Willie Nelson has shown people that you don’t always have to follow the formula in order to be successful. Willie’s been a pioneer, followed his own muse, and had success at that, which encourages other people to do so.” Continuing, McCall explains, “One thing that people don’t always realize is how much of a hustler he was. If you look at his early life, he did every kind of work there is before he moved to Nashville. He was a bouncer, made saddles, sold auto parts, and worked in the oil fields…he always went after things. He found his way outside of the system and eventually made the system work for him.”
In Nashville, Nelson found success as a songwriter when Faron Young recorded Nelson’s “Hello Walls” which topped the charts in 1961. Soon after, Patsy Cline recorded her heartbreaking rendition of Willie’s song, “Crazy.”
Willie Nelson moved back to Texas in the early 1970s and formed his backing band, the Family. In Nashville, his own recordings had not done so well. However, in Texas, Willie’s songs meshed well with the career as a performer began to skyrocket. Meshing the classic country sounds of Lefty Frizzell and Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz, Willie’s music appealed to the Texas demographics of cowboys and hippies.
Willie would go on to record music his way. “Shotgun Willie,” his 1973 Atlantic Records debut, established him as one of the icons of outlaw country. “Shotgun Willie” was followed by multiple treasures, including the sparse concept album, “Red Headed Stranger;” the tribute record “To Lefty, From Willie,” and “Stardust,” a collection of treasured standards.
At 82, Nelson has been in the music business for six decades, winning nearly every award a songwriter and performer can win and written some of the most timeless songs of the 20th century. He is a music legend and cultural icon, crossing the boundaries of genres and touching multiple generations. While touring relentlessly and recording with everyone from Waylon Jennings, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg to Ray Charles, Willie has written best-selling books, starred in movies, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and championed various social causes such as Farm Aid and more.
This year, Willie and Merle Haggard released a chart-topping album called “Django and Jimmie” and his annual Farm Aid benefit concert celebrated its 30th anniversary; he’s also played approximately 100 dates this year, including performances at the Ryman Auditorium and Pilgrimage Festival. Next year (2016) he’ll reportedly release at least one new album and perform two nights at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Part of Willie Nelson’s appeal lies in his universally relative lyrics such as “Everybody knows that the night life ain’t no good life, everybody knows that love can make you crazy, and everybody wants to go on the road again.” Most artists at Willie’s age, would retire, however fans won’t hear of it and, anyway, Willie still would be doing the same thing if he didn’t have the major success that he’s had, because he truly loves to play. Fans know that Willie will do it as long as there’s somebody to listen. With hundreds of thousands of Willie Nelson fans, we will always be listening.