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.

The Massive Elvis Festival That Rocks One Tiny Australian Town Every January

Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

For one weekend each the year, Elvis Presley is alive and well in Parkes, Australia. The tiny town hosts the Parkes Elvis Festival during the second weekend of every January to mark the music legend's birthday on January 8. In 2019, the event attracted a record 27,000 guests to the showground—more than twice Parkes's usual population of 11,400, Smithsonian reports.

Elvis fans Bob and Anne Steel held the first-ever festival in 1993 at their restaurant, Gracelands. On top of being an excuse to throw a birthday party for their favorite celebrity, they set up the festival to draw tourists to Parkes during the region's brutally hot off-season. (During a record heat wave in January 2017, Parkes experienced a high temperature of 114.6°F.)

While the first festival lasted one night and had an attendance of just a few hundred people, it has since grown into a five-day affair with an international reputation. Visitors come from around the world to celebrate the music, fashion, and dance moves of The King. It's a large enough event that festival-goers have the option to travel to Parkes from Sydney via special trains dubbed the Blue Suede Express and the Elvis Express. On board, they're treated to the company of Elvis impersonators and performances by Elvis tribute artists for the six-hour journey.

Guests who made it to this year's Elvis Festival from January 9 to 13 took part in ukulele lessons, Elvis-themed bingo, "Elvis the Pelvis" dance sessions, and a Q&A with Elvis impersonators. This year's Northparkes Mines Street Parade, one of the festival's main events, included more than 180 floats, vintage vehicles, bands, and walking processions paying homage to the icon.

Competitions are usually a big part of the festival, with both Elvis Presley and Miss Priscilla look-alikes facing off on stage. This year, the "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist' crown went to 22-year-old Brody Finlay, the youngest winner in the event's history.

Each year, the Elvis Presley festival returns to Parkes with a new theme, giving Elvis fans an incentive to keep coming back. This year, the theme "All Shook Up" celebrated the 1950s era. In 2020, festival organizers are preparing to celebrate the 1966 Elvis comedy Frankie and Johnny.

Can't make it to Australia? Grab a bite of Elvis at one of these American eateries inspired by The King.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Carol Channing

Carol Channing circa 1970.
Carol Channing circa 1970.
John Downing/Express/Getty Images

Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing died January 15, 2019, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her long, storied career includes her hit Broadway shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, and her lovably wacky roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Alice in Wonderland. Her 70+ year entertainment presence has garnered a Tony (plus two honorary ones), a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.

1. AS A YOUNG GIRL IN SAN FRANCISCO, CHANNING FELL IN LOVE WITH THE THEATER.

Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Monti Spry/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in Seattle on January 31, 1921, Channing moved with her family to San Francisco shortly after birth. Her father worked as editor-in-chief of several Christian Science newspapers, and as a young child, she accompanied her mother to the Curran Theatre to help distribute these newspapers backstage. Channing recalled a powerful feeling that overcame her as she felt the theater was a sacred place. "I stood there and realized—I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly—that this is a temple," she told The Austin Chronicle in 2005. "This is a cathedral. … This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards." She used her weekly allowance of 50 cents to buy tickets to see live theater in San Francisco.

2. HER FIRST BIG STARRING BROADWAY ROLE WAS IN GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.

In 1949, Channing landed her first lead role in a Broadway musical, playing Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Bye Bye Baby" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" became the most well-known songs from the show, though Channing often performed another of her character's big numbers, "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," throughout the years. The part made her a star. In the 1953 film adaptation, Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee, a role that also cemented her celebrity status.

3. SHE PERFORMED HELLO, DOLLY! MORE THAN 5000 TIMES.

In January 1964, Channing originated the role of matchmaker and general busybody Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! The show was a huge success, and Channing later starred in Broadway revivals and in touring productions, performing the musical more than 5000 times. Even if she was sick, she almost always chose to go on stage, feeling healed by the audience’s positive energy.

4. CHANNING WAS INCREDIBLY BITTER WHEN BARBRA STREISAND WAS CAST AS DOLLY IN THE FILM VERSION.

Streisand's performance on Broadway as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is legendary, but one musical swept the 1964 Tony Awards, and that was Hello, Dolly! Channing's musical won 10 Tonys (out of 11 nominations), including a statuette for Channing's Dolly over Streisand's Fanny. A few years later, however, when casting for the movie version, the screenwriter felt Channing's outsized personality (as evidenced in her performance in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie) wouldn't play well for an entire movie. Streisand, who was only 25 at the time, was cast as the middle-aged matchmaker. "I felt suicidal; I felt like jumping out a window," Channing told a newspaper years later. "I felt like someone had kidnapped my part." In her 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess, Channing admitted that even though she views Streisand as a great creative force and that she admires her, the bitterness remains. "Her movie of Dolly was the biggest financial flop Twentieth Century-Fox ever had," Channing wrote. "There! I said it."

5. HER SUCCESS IN HELLO, DOLLY! ALLOWED HER TO BEFRIEND PRESIDENTIAL FAMILIES.

A year after JFK's assassination, Jackie Kennedy and her two kids saw Hello, Dolly! and met Channing backstage. In the summer, Channing would visit the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port every other weekend on her days off. After Channing sang an adapted version of "Hello, Dolly" for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 election campaign, she became friends with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, later visiting the Johnsons' family ranch.

6. SHE PARTNERED WITH DESI ARNAZ FOR HER OWN TV SHOW.

In 1966, Channing filmed a pilot episode for The Carol Channing Show with Desilu, Lucille Ball’s production company that she had originally founded with ex-husband Desi Arnaz. Directed and produced by Arnaz, the episode never turned into a series, which Channing attributes to the mismatch between her comedic style and the I Love Lucy writers who wrote the episode.

7. CHANNING APPEARED ON TV SHOWS RANGING FROM THE LOVE BOAT TO SESAME STREET TO THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

Channing guest-starred on TV shows like Sesame Street, singing a "Hello, Dolly" variation called "Hello, Sammy," as well as The Red Skelton Show, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and The Drew Carey Show. She also appeared on classic TV game shows What's My Line? and Hollywood Squares, and voiced characters on The Addams Family and The Magic School Bus.

8. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS PART AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOR MOST OF HER LIFE.

In Just Lucky I Guess, Channing revealed that before she went to college, her mother told her that her father was born in the south and that his mother was African-American. Channing hadn’t revealed that she was part black until 2002, but eight years later she backtracked on Wendy Williams's talk show. She explained that she doesn’t know for certain if she’s part black or not because when her mother claimed her father was half black, she was angry at him and may have wanted to get back at him for something. Plus, the census records from 1890, which should hold the key to her father's parentage, were destroyed in a fire, so that portion of Channing's heritage may always remain a mystery.

9. SHE RELEASED A GOSPEL ALBUM IN MEMORY OF HER FATHER.

Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2009, Channing released a gospel album, For Heaven's Sake, in memory of her father, who sang gospel songs to her when she was growing up. Channing included spirituals like "Joshua Fit' the Battle of Jericho" and classic Americana songs that her father had taught her. "I can hear my father's voice harmonizing with me every time I sing them although he's long gone," she said in 2010.

10. AT 82 YEARS OLD, CHANNING MARRIED HER CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART.

Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2003, at 82 years old, Channing married her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian. The couple had met in middle school but lost touch over the decades. In her autobiography, Channing devoted a passage to describing her "first love" experience with Kullijian, whom she "went steady" with for two years. "I was so in love with Harry I couldn’t stop hugging him," she wrote. He heard about the passage in the book and contacted her, and they got engaged two weeks after their reunion. They remained together until his death in 2011.

11. SHE FOUNDED A NON-PROFIT TO SUPPORT ARTS EDUCATION.

Carol Channing in 2004.
Carol Channing in 2004.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2004, Channing received an honorary doctorate from California State University, Stanislaus. Inspired to support arts programs in schools, she founded the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts with her husband. Now called the American Foundation for Arts Education, the non-profit works to make arts part of schools' core curriculums. Channing herself visited schools and taught master classes.

12. JOHNNY DEPP’S DREAM ROLE IS TO PLAY CHANNING.

Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Johnny Depp has mentioned a couple of times that he'd love to play Channing in a biopic; in 2009 he called it a "dream role," and in 2013 he reiterated that point. "I mean it. She's fantastic," he told reporters. Depp's appreciation runs deep: he also revealed that he used to dress up as her as a kid. Channing, for her part, loves the idea. "Men have been imitating me for as long as I can remember," she quipped. "In fact, most of the impersonations I have seen have had a five o'clock shadow."

This story first ran in 2016.

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