A man who needs no last name, Willie is to Country what Neil is to rock: the Buddha, bestowing laid-back grace on all those who bask in his benevolent THC-tinged glow. Born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Nelson begins writing songs at age seven. After serving briefly in the Air Force during the Korean War and studying agriculture at Baylor University, Nelson moves through a series of luckless, low-paying career changes–disc jockey; door-to-door vacuum and encyclopedia salesman. By 1958, in dire financial straits and married with children, Nelson is forced to sell his songs for cheap (“Night Life,” later a hit for Ray Price, went for the princely sum of $150). By 1961, he’s inked a proper publishing deal, which results in Patsy Cline turning Nelson’s “Crazy” into a Country gold mine. In 1975, he releases Red Headed Stranger, pioneering the “Outlaw Country” movement–along with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash–with stripped-down honky-tonkisms and the most soulful nasal twang since Hank the First. Red Headed Stranger is a landmark of American beauty. After all the highs (lending a helping hand to the American farmer and smoking a joint on the roof of the White House) and the lows (that duet with Julio Iglesias; the 16 million-dollar raft of shit from the IRS, and, as a result, his shilling for Taco Bell), he has become the embodiment of everything that is good and right about the American experience. – JONATHAN VALANIA
Originally broadcast on July 16, 1996 and May 25, 2006.