Everyone knows Willie Nelson. I know this because the other day I saw a billboard advertisement that featured Nelson modeling an upscale line of menswear. Here’s the thing: the only type on the ad was the name of the clothing company. Obviously the advertisers assumed that you’d recognize Willie without any help from them. And why shouldn’t they?
In his 80 years on this planet, Nelson has written something like 1,000 songs, recorded more than 100 albums, and won 10 Grammys. “Crazy” was rated the No. 1 jukebox song of all time, according to NPR. Performing professionally since he was a teenager growing up in little Abbott, Texas, he has, he estimates, spent at least half of every year since then either recording or touring, playing nightclubs, honky-tonks, outdoor arenas, concert halls, and every other venue imaginable. Somewhere in there he found the time to appear in more than 20 movies and a handful of television shows. He co-founded Farm Aid, which has raised $43 million to help America’s small farmers hang on to their land, and he sits on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He has also written seven books, including an autobiography and a novel, played at the White House, and sung at the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates (his fee: $1 million). Last year the city of Austin erected a statue in his honor—larger than life, naturally.
Somewhere along the line, he ceased being famous as a singer or a songwriter or an activist and simply became famous. You may not care for his songs. You may not give a damn about farmers or marijuana. But the chances that you live in this country and don’t know Willie Nelson are somewhere between slim and none. Like Louis Armstrong—and almost no one else, really—he is a musician whose appeal transcends genre, race, age, or fashion, a stranger to no one, and if you had to put a face on American music, that face would be Willie Nelson’s.