A Guide to the Willie Nelson Collection, 1975-1994
Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933. After his parents separated, he and his older sister Bobbie were raised by their musically inclined grandparents in Abbott, Texas. The children were started early on instruments--Bobbie on piano and Willie on guitar. By age 10, Nelson was playing in Central Texas communities with a polka band. After high school and many odd jobs, Nelson sold his songs "Family Bible" and "Night Life" and made his way to Nashville in order to establish himself in the cradle of Country Music. Nelson's talents were quickly recognized by other Nashville artists. They recorded his songs and helped him to get jobs. But Nelson's own recordings received little notice by the public. When promoter Crash Stewart told him his lyrics were ahead of his time he answered that "he wished the world would hurry and catch up with him as he needed the money" (Family Album). After a little more than 10 years struggling in Nashville, Nelson's ranch house burned to the ground and he decided to return to his home state.
In 1971, back in Central Texas, Nelson found himself suddenly in the right place at the right time. Nelson's eclectic style and warm stage presence found a receptive audience in a music scene that came to be labeled progressive country. At a time when a suit, a tie, and a clean-shaven face were the signature look of the country and western singer, Nelson adopted the more informal style of the younger members of his audience--long hair, beard, jeans, and a bandanna. A Nashville colleague told him "No one ever heard of you till you got ugly."
In 1973, Nelson held his first annual 4th of July picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas and the sweltering Independence Day celebrations became a huge event into the 1980s. During these years, Nelson became a nationally successful country and western singer who secured his status as a popular mainstream artist with the 1975 release of the concept album, The Redheaded Stranger.
Established as a major star in the music world, Nelson then branched into acting beginning with a small part in The Electric Horseman (1979). He starred in his next film, Honeysuckle Rose (1980), which was co-written by fellow Texan Bill Wittliff. The two collaborated again in Barbarosa (1982) and in the dramatization of Nelson's album Red Headed Stranger (1986).
In 1985, Nelson's concern for failing family farms led him to organize Farm Aid concerts in which he and other entertainers raised money to help small farmers keep their land. The effort provided welcome relief to thousands but did not stem the tide of disappearing family farms. By 1995, with seven Farm Aid concerts behind him, Nelson commented "all the money we raise these days is going to farmers who are already out of business. The [agribusiness] corporations are the only guys making money" (Parade, August 20, 1995, 14).
Nelson found himself owing the Internal Revenue Service millions in back taxes for the years from 1975 through 1981 due to what he avowed was bad advice and bad investments. In 1990, much of Nelson's property was seized and auctioned off. Nelson's friends and fans helped him by taking up collections and buying up his property so that he would be able to eventually buy it back. Nelson committed himself to paying off the monumental debt of taxes, interest, and penalties. He worked hard, doing a full schedule of road shows and selling an album, Who'll buy My Memories: The I.R.S. Tapes, through an 800 number. By mid-1994, Nelson had settled his obligation.
Nelson has recorded a prodigious body of work including the best selling albums Shotgun Willie (Atlantic, 1973), Phases and Stages (Atlantic, 1974), Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975), The Outlaws (RCA, 1976), Stardust (Columbia 1978), Waylon and Willie (RCA, 1978), Honeysuckle Rose (Columbia, 1980), The Highwaymen (Columbia, 1985) and Across the Borderline (Columbia, 1991). He has received many honors and numerous awards throughout his career. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 1973. In 1975, he received his first Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." In 1978, he received the same award for "Georgia on My Mind." In 1976, the Country Music Association named Wanted: The Outlaws the album of the year and "Good Hearted Woman" the single of the year. The CMA awarded him the coveted Entertainer of the Year award in 1979. He received a Grammy for the Best Country Song for "On the Road Again" in 1981 and the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1989. He was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame in 1993. Now in his sixties, a recognized living legend, the singer/songwriter continues to perform, write songs, and record. "All I do is make music and play golf and I wouldn't want to give up either one" (Contemporary Musicians 173).
The collection contains song lyrics, screenplays, letters, concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, articles, clippings, personal effects, promotional items, souvenirs, and financial records. There are examples of Nelson's talent as a songwriter, material reflecting his success as a concert artist, and memorabilia. The collection contains documentation on how the funds collected through Farm Aid were used and on Nelson's troubles with the IRS. Most of the material was collected by Bill Wittliff, a friend of Willie Nelson's who wrote or co-wrote three of the films in which Willie Nelson starred: Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Barbarosa (1982), and Red Headed Stranger (1986).
Series I: Works and Performance, 1977-1994, n.d. Boxes 1-3
This series is composed of material relating to Nelson's career as a singer, songwriter and performer. It contains Nelson's own song compositions, scripts for possible movie projects, letters to Nelson suggesting songs and other projects, and Nelson's tour itineraries. Of interest are Nelson's handwritten lyrics, some scribbled on paper scraps, napkins, and hotel stationery.
Series II: Publicity, 1975-1992, n.d. Boxes 3-4
This series contains posters, programs, flyers, product tie-ins, photos, film pressbooks, articles, clippings, T-shirts, and jackets. The material provides a general picture of the marketing done for Nelson and his band. The product tie-ins with such brands as Wrangler jeans and Country Time lemonade make use of Nelson's popularity and country image.
Series III: Awards, 1986 Box 4
One file holds a program of the Music Industry Division of the United Jewish Appeal Federation 21st Anniversary dinner honoring Willie Nelson with invitation to Bill Wittliff.
Series IV: Personal, n.d. Box 4
This series is made up of personal effects--running shoes, bandannas, sunglasses, and t-shirts. Some of objects are souvenirs or promotions for concerts and Nelson's benefit project, Farm Aid.
Series V: Farm Aid, 1985-1991, n.d. Boxes 4-8
In 1985, Nelson, alarmed by reports of failing family farms, decided, with the help of other performers, to stage concert benefits. The proceeds were to be channeled to provide assistance to needy agricultural families. Bill Wittliff served as an adviser to the project. His wife, Sally Wittliff, recommended the Massachusetts social activist, Carolyn Mugar, to administer the project. The first Farm Aid concert was held September 25, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. By 1995, Nelson had done seven Farm Aid concerts the proceeds of which provided much appreciated help to thousands of farmers in the form of food pantries, seminars, scholarship programs and grants. The files of this series belonged to Bill Wittliff and contain material on the concerts and the administration of the funds by the Farm Aid organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Included are clippings, correspondence, annual reports, newsletters from grassroots farm organizations, publications from various state departments of agriculture, concert memorabilia, grant proposals, and applications for funding.
Series VI: IRS Penalties, 1984, 1990-1991 Box 8
This series contains a statement of financial condition dated December 31, 1984 and documents for the auction of Willie Nelson's holdings by the IRS in 1991. The documents provide the rules of sale and an inventory of the items for auction. Clippings provide news accounts of Nelson's problems with the IRS and the efforts of Nelson's friends and fans to help him.
Open for Research. Some restrictions may apply.
Willie Nelson Collection, Southwestern Writers Collection/Texas State University-San Marcos.
Donated by Willie Nelson, Bill and Sally Wittliff, and Jody Fischer from 1988 through 1995.
Processed by Gwyneth Cannan, February 1995; Inventory revised by Brandy Harris, 2005.
See also: the Bill Wittliff Archive for photographs of Willie Nelson and for the film archives on Barbarosa and Red Headed Stranger, and the Bud Shrake Papers for materials used in Willie Nelson's autobiography.
Detailed Description of the Collection