10 Crazy Facts About Willie Nelson

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Willie Nelson is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians—and not just in the country music world. Nelson’s talents transcend genre, and go far beyond music. Here are 10 things you might not know about the legendary outlaw country singer, who turns 85 years old today.

1. HE WROTE HIS FIRST SONG AT THE AGE OF SEVEN.

While other kids were still struggling to keep inside the lines of their coloring books, Nelson was composing music. He recalled the experience of his songwriting debut to Rolling Stone in 2004: “Back when we used to take music lessons from our grandmother, we'd go through lessons, and if we'd get the lesson right that day she'd take a gold star—a little star, about the size of your finger, with glue on one side—and she'd stick it on the sheet of music, which meant you'd done well. So I wrote this song with the line ‘They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago.’ I'd never been left by anybody, so it was kind of funny.”

2. HE USED TO BE A BIBLE SALESMAN.

Before he became a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Nelson worked as a cotton picker (a gig he began as a child, working alongside his grandmother), disc jockey, and a Bible salesman.

3. HE RAN INTO A BURNING HOUSE (TO SAVE HIS POT).

While living in Nashville, Nelson arrived home one evening to discover that his house was burning to the ground. “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” he told People in 1980. “But I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn't being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.” One-hundred tapes of yet-to-be-recorded songs weren't as lucky as Nelson's stash; they were lost in the fire.

4. HE RETIRED IN 1972.

In 1972, Nelson paid $14,000 to buy out his contract so that he could retire to Austin, Texas. But his withdrawal from the music business didn’t last long. Especially considering how vibrant the music scene was happening all around him in Austin. Within a year, he was back on the charts with the album Shotgun Willie. By the mid-1970s he scored some of his biggest hits with a trio of albums: Red Headed Stranger, The Sound in Your Mind, and The Troublemaker.

5. HE HAS BEEN PLAYING THE SAME GUITAR FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS.

Nelson has been playing Trigger, his beloved guitar (which he named after Roy Rogers’ horse), since 1969. “I’ve got to take good care of Trigger,” Nelson told Uncut Magazine in 2014. “He’s had a couple of problems. We’ve had to go in and do some work on the inside, build up the woodwork in there a little bit over the years. But Trigger’s holding up pretty good.”

6. HE RECORDED THE IRS TAPES TO PAY OFF HIS TAX DEBT.

In 1990, the IRS raided Nelson’s house and seized his assets (everything except Trigger) for non-payment of taxes. The $32 million bill, one of the largest in IRS history, was eventually negotiated down and settled in a creative way: Nelson would record a new album with the IRS receiving at least 15 cents of every dollar made. The result was the limited-edition The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories, which sold for $19.95 on cassette or CD and was purchased by dialing 1-800-IRS-TAPE.

7. HE WROTE “ON THE ROAD AGAIN” ON A BARF BAG.

Nelson’s 1980 hit, “On The Road Again,” was written aboard an airplane—on a barf bag. “I was on an aeroplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg, who was the director of the movie Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson told Uncut in 2014. “They were looking for songs for the movie and they started asking me if I had any ideas. I said, ‘I don’t know, what do you want the song to say?’ I think Sydney said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’ It just started to click in my head. I said, ‘You mean like, ‘On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?’ They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’”

8. HE PERFORMED "UP AGAINST THE WALL, REDNECK MOTHER” WITH ROSALYNN CARTER.

Former President Jimmy Carter has never made a secret of his admiration of Willie Nelson. And the two have shared a long friendship. On September 13, 1980, Nelson performed for Carter and guests at the White House—which included a duet of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (On various occasions, Nelson has recounted how he later made his way onto the roof of the White House and smoked a joint.) In 2012, the former President got his own chance to share the stage with the legendary musician when the two performed “Amazing Grace” together in Atlanta.

9. HE OWNS A BIODIESEL FIRM.

Nelson is much more than a musician—he’s a noted activist and entrepreneur, too. In 2004 he launched his own biodiesel firm, BioWillie Biodiesel.

10. HE’S A POT-REPRENEUR.

Nelson has hardly made a secret of regular marijuana use, or his support for its legalization. (His rap sheet of pot-related arrests certainly backs up those claims.) As more and more states are legalizing the once-outlawed weed, Nelson has put his expertise on the topic to good use, and launched his very own brand of pot: Willie’s Reserve.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

13 Things You Didn't Know About Sam Goody

Joe Wolf, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Joe Wolf, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Sam Goody dominated the music marketplace for decades, but after several buyouts and mergers, the once-ubiquitous retailer dwindled to a few storefronts before finally fading into mall history.

1. SAM GOODY WAS A REAL GUY.

The man who founded the ubiquitous mall chain was born Samuel Gutowitz on February 25, 1904. Friends and family dubbed him “Goody” when he was just a child; according to the The New York Times, Gutowitz eventually made the moniker his legal name.

2. INSPIRATION STRUCK AFTER GOODY ACQUIRED RECORDS FOR A CUSTOMER.

Though Goody had entrepreneurial ambitions from a young age, he wasn’t always in the music business. One of his first ventures was a toy and novelty store in lower Manhattan. In 1938, a customer stopped into his shop looking for old records of Enrico Caruso, Alma Gluck, and Paul Reimers. Goody was perplexed—“I thought [records] went out with the dodo birds,” he said—but promised to deliver for his customer. Goody recalled a stack of old 78-rpm disks in the basement of his apartment building in Washington Heights, so he went home and offered his landlord a can of beer in exchange for the pile of junk. (Over the years, Goody also said the exchange cost him three cigars.) After cleaning the records, Goody resold them for a whopping $25—and realized he was in the wrong business.

3. IN THE EARLY YEARS, SAM GOODY RAN PLENTY OF OFFBEAT PROMOTIONS.

When long-play records first hit the market, Goody courted customers by giving complementary turntables to anyone who spent more than $25. He ended up giving away 40,000 of the new-fangled devices—but in spite of the incredible cost to his company, Goody considered the promotion a success. “That meant 40,000 new customers,” he said.

Not all of his promotions were music-related. Goody once purchased 400,000 silver dollars and gave them to customers who spent $15. When the promotion proved successful, he repeated it with half-dollars, buying 400,000 JFK 50-cent pieces to give to customers spending $10. Though the gimmick worked, Goody later had some regrets about the promo. “I should have kept the silver dollars and given away the business,” he said. “When the silver price jumped like never before, I could have gotten $10 million for my $500,000 purchase.”

4. HIS FLAGSHIP STORE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR 7 PERCENT OF U.S. RECORD SALES.

The unique promotions clearly worked. Goody’s flagship store on West 49th Street was constantly deluged with customers—up to 4000 a day. In 1955, business was booming to the point that the flagship location sold 7 percent of the 33 1/3-rpm disks in the entire nation, with a gross income of close to $4 million.

5. SAM GOODY PRICES WERE SO LOW THAT THEY “ROCKED” THE COMPETITION.

Not all of Goody’s promotions were gimmicks. He also managed to undercut his competition: One 1962 advertisement offered three LPs for $7.99 compared to a $13 price tag, or $4.49 per record, at Goody's competitors (in today's money, that would be a savings of $45 dollars, or $15 per LP). When Goody took an ad out in the Western edition of The New York Times advertising Bob Newhart albums for $1.89, his competitors were angry. “What does Goody pay for this product to be able to sell it for less than I can buy it?” one competitor complained to Billboard Music Week in 1962.

6. SAM GOODY SALESPEOPLE WERE INCREDIBLY KNOWLEDGEABLE.

To have a job at the Sam Goody flagship store, employees had to prove they possessed a vast knowledge of music. Being well-versed in top 40 hits wouldn’t cut it; Goody employees had encyclopedic knowledge of all things music, from opera to punk. And he paid them well to do it—according to one employee who worked there, even part-timers received medical insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, and retirement benefits.

7. GOODY SOLD OUT TO THE AMERICAN CAN COMPANY.

In 1978, Goody sold all of his stores to the American Can Company, which owned another mall-centric music store that was one of Goody’s biggest competitors: Musicland. It was under American Can leadership that Goody became a staple in shopping malls across the U.S., with store numbers ballooning to 250 nationally. Goody stayed on as a consultant with American Can for five years, earning an annual salary of just $35,000.

8. HE SOLD THE BUSINESS TO SAVE HIS FAMILY.

Sam Goody’s 26-store empire had a stellar reputation: Low prices, vast inventory, knowledgeable salespeople, $60 million in sales. So why did he cut the whole thing loose for just $5.5 million in 1978? According to Goody, he gave the company away “cheap” because of his sons, Howard and Barry. "They loved each other then and they still do," he later said. "But they competed with each other on everything and soon even the help was taking sides. I could only see them breaking it all apart. So I sold the company."

9. THE COMPANY FACED AN EARLY ANTI-PIRACY SUIT.

Music piracy wasn’t invented with Napster—illegal tapes flooded the market long before the internet made music sharing commonplace. In 1981, Sam Goody Inc. faced a lawsuit for dealing counterfeit cassette and eight-track tapes. The suit alleged that more than 100,000 illegal tapes had been sold at Sam Goody stores, resulting in lost revenue of more than $1 million for artists like Olivia Newton-John, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon. In a plea agreement, the company pled no contest and was fined $10,000 for transporting counterfeit Grease soundtracks from Queens to Minnesota.

10. BEFORE AMERICAN IDOL, THERE WAS SAM GOODY’S “BANDEMONIUM” CONTEST.

Long before celebrity judges listened to local talent for reality TV purposes, Sam Goody tapped the unsigned band market for promotional purposes. For several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sam Goody held their "Bandemonium" contest, pitting acts against each other in a battle-of-the-bands-style competition. Winners included Bobby Llama and Darwin's Waiting Room.

11. IN 2000, SAM GOODY GOT SOLD AGAIN.

The American Can Company sold Musicland and Sam Goody to Best Buy for a cool $425 million in 2000. But the relationship didn’t last long. By 2006, the stores were sold to another competitor, Trans World Entertainment. Trans World eventually converted all of the Sam Goody locations into f.y.e. stores—except for one.

12. THE LAST SAM GOODY STORE CLOSED ON OCTOBER 31, 2012.

The last Sam Goody holdout, located in San Diego, shuttered its windows on Halloween 2012. According to a company exec, the single store remained partly because the giant neon signs bearing the company logo were simply not economical to replace in that particular location.

13. A "ROUGH TRADE" RECORD STORE WAS REBRANDED AS SAM GOODY IN 2015 FOR AN HBO PROJECT.

Your eyes didn't deceive you if you think you spotted a retro-looking Sam Goody store in Brooklyn in 2015. A British-based record store called Rough Trade agreed to allow a temporary redesign in order to accommodate the production of Vinyl, an HBO drama executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.

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