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Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson!

It’s Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday today!

Guest Blogger: Randy Poe, author of Stalking the Red Headed Stranger.

Randy Poe and Willie Nelson

Randy Poe and Willie Nelson

Unless you were listening to country radio in 1962, you probably aren’t aware that Willie Nelson had two Top Ten singles on Liberty Records that year. “Willingly” – a duet with Shirley Collie – entered the charts in March, followed two months later by “Touch Me,” Willie’s first solo venture to reach the Top Ten.

It would be thirteen years before Nelson would have another hit single. In 1975, his recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” went to number one on the country charts, number twenty-one on the pop charts, and number twelve on the adult contemporary charts. Before long, Willie Nelson was on his way to becoming a household name via records, concerts, movie roles, television appearances, and – well – just being Willie Nelson.

While I was researching Willie’s life story for my book Stalking the Red Headed Stranger, the main trait I personally found to be most admirable about the man was his indomitable determination.

When he scored that first Top Ten hit in 1962, Willie was twenty-nine years old. When he followed it up with another Top Ten hit a couple of months later, major stardom must have seemed just around the corner. However, his next few singles didn’t make the kind of noise those first two had, and by 1965, Liberty Records had closed it Nashville offices, leaving Willie without a label.

Despite that dry spell during his last couple of years on Liberty, Willie was soon signed to the all-powerful RCA Records – home of Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, and a host of other country giants.

Chet Atkins – RCA’s head honcho in Nashville – was so confident he’d signed a winner that he assigned himself the task of producing Nelson’s records. With the combination of RCA and Chet Atkins on his side, Willie’s next hit single was virtually a fait accompli. But it quickly became apparent that Chet’s “Nashville Sound” production methods (lots of background singers, lots of strings) just didn’t work in Willie’s world. Year after year, single after single, album after album, Nelson’s career remained in neutral, if not reverse.

After seven years of failure, Willie’s days at RCA mercifully came to an end. Atlantic Records was next. By then, Willie was forty years old. Most country singers have had their last number one hit long before they hit forty. Willie was yet to have his first. Two years, two albums, and six singles later, Atlantic Records – just as Liberty had done in the mid-’60s – got out of the country music business, leaving Nashville and Willie behind.

Despite the fact that Nelson had now gone over a dozen years without anything close to a hit, Columbia Records was waiting in the wings – not only ready and willing to sign the singer, but to also give him complete creative control over his recordings for the label.

The end result was Red Headed Stranger, a concept album that broke the mold in country music with its dark story line, its stark instrumentation, and its number one single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

After that – as the deejays say – the hits just kept on comin’.

* * * * *

Willie Nelson turns eighty today. His musical talents have been known throughout the world for decades. But what if he’d given up after that first year on RCA with no hits, or that second year, or that sixth or seventh year? Anyone could understand why he might call it quits after none of his albums or singles on Atlantic made much noise either.

Just like millions of others, I’m a huge fan of Willie’s music. I also admire his work with Farm Aid, Habitat for Horses, and the other important causes he has championed over the years. But it’s pretty safe to say that without his incredible, indomitable determination – at least as far as his recording career is concerned – Willie Nelson might very well be remembered today as just another singer who had a couple of Top Ten hits in the early 1960s.

Happy birthday, Willie. Thanks for all of your contributions to the world of music – and for reminding us that talent is an asset, but determination is invaluable.

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is a guide to the art and history of professional song plugging. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill history book/instruction manual. It is an in-depth, up-close look into the real music business by industry insider and Grammy Award nominee Randy Poe, who has represented literally hundreds of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, including “Stand By Me,” “Happy Together,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hound Dog,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Chapel of Love,” “Summer in the City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Kansas City.”

But wait! There’s so much more! Interwoven throughout this entertaining and enlightening book is the hysterical saga of the author as he chases American icon Willie Nelson across Canada – via plane, taxi, rental car, and even ferryboat – in an attempt to pitch a single song to the Red Headed Stranger. And what happens on Willie’s bus doesn’t stay on Willie’s bus.

Willie Nelson’s Birthday: Celebration of a Legend

Below is an excerpt from Randy Poe’s book, Stalking the Red Headed Stranger.

Red Headed Stranger also went to No. 1 on the country album charts and reached the Top 30 on the pop album charts. For the first time in his thirteen-year recording career, Willie Nelson had finally made an album his way. And lo and behold—after all those years of being forced make records the way other people wanted him to—it turned out that all the experts were wrong and the first-time record producer was right. After Red Headed Stranger, there was no looking back.

Over the next decade, seven more Willie Nelson albums would reach the top of the country charts. During that same time span, Willie scored seventeen more No. 1 singles, including “Always On My Mind,” which also made it to No. 5 on the pop charts. The Stardust album alone spawned three hit singles. And then the movies began. Willie appeared first in the Robert Redford/Jane Fonda film Electric Horse- man—with a soundtrack that included the No. 1 hit “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” His first starring role was in Honeysuckle Rose, a movie that included two more No. 1 hits: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and the song that has become the theme of Willie’s life, “On the Road Again.” And of course there were the duet hits—with Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, Julio Iglesias, his old friends Roger Miller and Ray Price, Leon Russell, Toby Keith, and others. As if that weren’t enough, he also had hit singles and albums with his country supergroup, the Highwaymen (Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash). There have been some serious hiccups along the way—problems with the IRS and more than one arrest on drug charges—but through it all, Willie Nelson has never stopped making music.

He has received Grammy Awards, CMA Awards, ACM Awards, American Music Awards, and others. He’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s been a Kennedy Center Honoree and the guest of several presidents. (He even smoked pot on the roof of the White House during the Carter administration.)
Like Bob Dylan (another of his duet partners), Willie Nelson changed the musi- cal landscape. The term “outlaw country” was created for the kind of music he and pals such as Waylon Jennings began to make in the 1970s. Willie unsuccessfully tried to play the Nashville game for over a decade before he finally realized that the only way to beat the system was to break virtu- ally all of the rules Nashville had ever written. A line from his song “Me and Paul,” captured all of those misspent years in a single phrase: “Nashville
was the roughest.”

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is a guide to the art and history of professional song plugging. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill history book/instruction manual. It is an in-depth, up-close look into the real music business by industry insider and Grammy Award nominee Randy Poe, who has represented literally hundreds of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, including “Stand By Me,” “Happy Together,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hound Dog,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Chapel of Love,” “Summer in the City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Kansas City.”

Q & A with Randy Poe

This week, Jo Maeder interviews Randy Poe on jomaeder.com. Here’s a taste to whet your appetite, but do click on over to the site to read the rest! Randy Poe is the author of Stalking the Red Headed Stranger.

Jo: You arrived in New York City in 1980 from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with $275 tucked in a wallet made of duct tape. You knew no one in the music business. You started by memorizing every name and face you needed to know in Billboard magazine and crashing black-tie events wearing a $5 thrift store tuxedo jacket and pants you had “dressed up” with black electrical tape down the side. No one ever noticed?

Randy: The beauty of events like that is that they’re always badly lit. It’s the ambiance . . .and they say sinful things never happen in the daylight. See, nobody paid attention to me. I was in a room full of people who knew each other. My job was to get in, recognize, say hello, introduce myself and get out before the dinner bell rang. I wrote this book because so many people complain they can’t get a break in the music business. There are ways to create your own luck.

Jo: You do seem inordinately lucky. You also have bulletproof confidence and know how to walk the thin line between being impressed by a celebrity but not intimidated – and make yourself interesting but not draw attention away from the star. Where did that come from? Was your father or mother an entrepreneur?

Randy: My father was a Baptist minister! I guess he had to have complete confidence in what he was selling and face a lot of rejection, too. And he took me into some pretty shady places where people had moonshine stills and, well, imagine the movie Deliverance. I was just a kid. It probably had something to do with my fearlessness. But ever since I was five years-old – and I never lived in a city of more than 40,000 until I moved to New York – my nickname was “city slicker.” I don’t know why. There was just something about me that people picked up on.

Continue reading on JoMaeder.com.

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger

Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is a guide to the art and history of professional song plugging. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill history book/instruction manual. It is an in-depth, up-close look into the real music business by industry insider and Grammy Award nominee Randy Poe, who has represented literally hundreds of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, including “Stand By Me,” “Happy Together,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hound Dog,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Chapel of Love,” “Summer in the City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Kansas City.”