As a songwriter and a performer, Willie Nelson played a vital role in post-rock & roll country music. Although he didn’t become a star until the mid-’70s, Nelson spent the ’60s writing songs that became hits for stars like Ray Price (“Night Life”), Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), and Billy Walker (“Funny How Time Slips Away”) as well as releasing a series of records on Liberty and RCA that earned him a small but devoted cult following. During the early ’70s, Willie aligned himself with Waylon Jennings and the burgeoning outlaw country movement that made him into a star in 1975. Following the crossover success of that year’s Red Headed Stranger and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Nelson was a genuine star, as recognizable in pop circles as he was to the country audience; in addition to recording, he also launched an acting career in the early ’80s. Even when he was a star, Willie never played it safe musically. Instead, he borrowed from a wide variety of styles, including traditional pop, Western swing, jazz, traditional country, cowboy songs, honky tonk, rock & roll, folk, and the blues, creating a distinctive, elastic hybrid.
Nelson kept to a rigorous touring schedule despite the fact that he turned 80 in 2013. Though he’d been recording mostly covers for well over a decade, Nelson re-engaged as a songwriter while traveling. Band of Brothers, issued in June of 2014, featured nine originals (co-written with producer Buddy Cannon) among its 14 new songs. Six months later, Nelson launched a projected series of albums with the collective name “Willie’s Stash,” devoted to music especially close to his heart, with December Day, a low-key collaboration with his sister Bobbie Nelson, in which they performed a set of old standards and lesser-known tunes from Willie‘s songbook. In 2015, Willie teamed up with his old friend Merle Haggard for Django and Jimmie, their first collaboration in 20 years. Preceded by the single “It’s All Going to Pot,” the album debuted at number one on the Billboard country chart upon its June 2015 release. Early in 2016, Nelson released Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin and later that year he saluted his early inspiration with For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. Nelson returned to original songs in 2017 with the album God’s Problem Child, which was once again co-produced by Buddy Cannon.