Willie Nelson Turns 87: Songs to Celebrate the Legend

Happy birthday to one of Country’s greatest songwriters and performers

 By Hannah J. Phillips
willie_21publicityphoto2_w-photo-by-danny-clinch
Photo by Danny Clinch

If anyone can provide comfort during this time, it’s Willie Nelson. From streaming virtual concerts for coronavirus relief efforts to auctioning signed face masks for charity, the country music legend has generously leveraged his talent, platform and connections to raise funds for those affected by the global pandemic – especially musicians and farmers. 

As Nathaniel Rateliff sings in his newest single, released today in honor of the icon’s birthday: “It’s Willie’s birthday, wipe away all of your tears / Well, the world’s gone crazy, but we still got Willie and all the good things he’s done for us here.”

To commemorate Willie’s 87th birthday, we’ve compiled a playlist that’s perfect to put on while we wait out this pandemic. Like the legend’s impressive oeuvre (his upcoming First of Rose of Spring will be his 70th studio album), there’s something here for everyone. Whether hoping to brush up your Nelson knowledge or searching for the perfect mood booster to ease the social isolation blues, here are our top tracks to celebrate the Red Headed Stranger. Listen below:

Willie Nelson 101: Seven Classic Tunes

For the Nelson newbie or recent Texan transplant, here are seven iconic songs to get you started – in no particular ranking:

“On the Road Again” – Easily one of the most popular traveling songs, no road trip is complete without this song. I confess I recently played it on a quick errand for essential supplies just to feel like I was headed on an adventure. 

“Highwayman” – Probably the most iconic product of the “outlaw country” supergroup, which consisted of Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.

“Always on My Mind” – Perhaps more than any other song, Nelson’s tune from the album of the same name showcases his iconic voice and songwriting. 

“Red Headed Stranger” – The title of this narrative ballad became one of Nelson’s many nicknames, though “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is the more popular single from this 1975 album. 

“Pancho & Lefty” – Another narrative classic, this duet with Merle Haggard showcases his ability to weave a vivid story with his lyrics. 

“Roll Me Up & Smoke Me” – No Willie Nelson introduction would be complete without a reference to his favorite pastime, and this Snoop Dogg duet is equal parts surprising and appropriate.

“Still Not Dead” – Given Willie’s long life and his non-stop touring schedule through the decades, he’s faced fairly constant rumors of impending death. This song pokes fun at the gossip with lighthearted lyrics and a rolling melody.

Willie Nelson
Photo by David McClister

7 Underrated Willie Nelson Songs

Once you’ve got the classics under your belt, here are 7 songs to help you dive deeper into Nelson’s catalogue. Ranging from soulful ballads to classic covers, each track is guaranteed to lift your mood during quarantine.

“Everywhere I Go” – Teatro quickly became my new favorite Nelson album – as much as an album from 1998 can be considered “new.” It’s hard to pick just one track, but the Spanish-inspired instrumentals and backing vocals from Emmylou Harris barely beat my runner-up, “The Maker,” for favorite. 

“The Maker” – Unable to resist a second track from this record, this one will get you grooving and calm your nerves at the same time. And there’s just the right amount of hope in the lyrics: “I could not see for the fog in my eyes / I could not feel for the fear in my life. And across the great divide, in the distance I saw the light…”

“Just Breathe” (feat. Lukas Nelson) – I’d rank Nelson’s 2012, Heroes as my second favorite quarantine discovery, thanks to special guest appearances by everyone from Ray Price to Sheryl Crow. Most tracks feature one or both of his sons, and this Pearl Jam cover is a timely reminder to do exactly as the chorus prescribes – “just breathe.”

“Come on Back Jesus” – From the same album, this tongue-in-cheek appeal to Jesus and John Wayne might become the quarantine anthem you didn’t know you needed.

“Rainbow Connection” – This song recently resurfaced at last year’s Country Music Awards, thanks to a duet performance with Kacey Musgraves. Originally written for the 1979 Muppets Movie, Nelson gives this hopeful tune his own unique spin. 

“I Gotta Get Drunk” – If the previous tracks haven’t quite resonated with your quarantine mood, this one is perfect for when it feels like five o’clock somewhere while you’re sitting in your sweatpants … at noon. 

“Bring Me Sunshine” – I dare you not to snap along to this classic cover with its joyful piano solos and Sinatra-like crescendo. 

Luck Reunion
Photo by James Joiner

Bonus Tracks: Willie Nelson Covers

Speaking of Sinatra, Nelson’s nearly bottomless body of work includes more covers than I care to count. Some are so famous you might not have realized they aren’t Nelson’s own songs. Others are deep cut B-tracks I dug up during early quarantine when I had a bit too much time on my hands. 

“Blue Skies” – Like “On the Road Again,” this one regularly features on my road trip playlist and remains a good reminder that we’re headed toward better days. 

“Georgia on My Mind” – While Willie’s cover competes with Ray Charles for most iconic performance, neither artist actually wrote this 1930s ballad. For an added bonus, check out his son’s reimagined version, “Forget about Georgia.”

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” – I never imagined anyone could compete with Paul Simon’s vocals on the original Simon & Garfunkel version, but like “Rainbow Connection,” Willie gives this classic his own beautiful spin.

“The Scientist” – This one blew my mind – not because it’s one of Willie’s best, but because my Coldplay-obsessed 17-year-old self never, ever saw a Willie Nelson/Chris Martin combination coming. Ever. 

“Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (feat Paula Nelson) – Willie and his daughter create a slower take on a Creedence Clearwater Revival classic, managing to inject even more soul into this rock ballad.

“Midnight Rider” – This song so incredibly showcases Willie’s vocals, guitar picking and harmonica that I initially had a hard time remembering the original artist. I’m still struggling to believe the Allman Brothers didn’t write it with him in mind. 

“Texas in My Soul” – Digging way back into the archives, Willie’s seventh studio album paid tribute to Texas honky-tonk legend Ernest Tubb, and this bouncing lyrical tour of the Lone Star State is perfect for your post-quarantine road trip playlist.


Read More From the Style Issue | April 2020


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