Some big things happened in the year 1933. Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began. Major League Baseball hosted its first All-Star game. King Kong premiered. Prohibition was repealed.
And on April 29, in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, a boy named Willie Nelson was born. To mark Nelson’s 85th birthday, we’ve compiled his 85 most-played tracks on Pandora, plus a new song, “Ready to Roar,” from his brand-new album Last Man Standing.
Raised with his sister Bobbie by their grandparents, Nelson would grow up to become a real American treasure. With his braids and bandanas and his trusty old battered guitar, Trigger, Nelson is a bridge between cultures: country and pop, North and South, hippie and straight. Like those first-year all-stars, he’s one of the all-time greats. A tireless advocate of the “live and let live” life philosophy, his legacy looms higher than the Empire State Building.
He’s a musical category virtually unto himself. There’s traditional country and outlaw country, and then there’s Willie Nelson country. He played in bands with Johnny Bush and Ray Price and wrote big hits for Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison before breaking out on his own. Beginning with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” from his career-defining 1975 album Red Headed Stranger, Nelson has logged at least two dozen No. 1 country hits, including songs with Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Toby Keith. He’s released well over 100 albums, received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress in 2015.
To honor a true lifetime of achievement in country music, here are a few selected highlights from his most popular songs:
Nelson celebrates his own birthday with a big new candle in the middle of the cake — the first single from his latest album, aptly titled Last Man Standing. “Ready to Roar,” a familiar weekend’s-here party song with a twist, is a sprightly Texas swing number in the Bob Wills tradition, with Nelson nodding to his gypsy-jazz guitar hero, Django Reinhardt.
Fitting, perhaps, that this song in its various versions is Nelson’s most-played of all time on Pandora. Written by Ed and Patsy Bruce, it’s a gentle warning against getting tangled up in the life of a good-for-nothing rancher and picker, like Nelson himself. Nelson recorded it with his old buddy Jennings, the other twin tower of outlaw country, and Nelson’s own version was featured in the 1979 Robert Redford film The Electric Horseman.
Like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Whiskey River,” which he adopted as his signature song, some of Nelson’s greatest songs have been written by others. On the other hand, he’s given away some of his own best songs, such as this one, which became one of country’s biggest all-time crossover hits in the hands of the great Patsy Cline.
A decade after the late Townes Van Zandt first recorded his classic story-song, Nelson and Haggard scored a No. 1 country hit with it. Willie sang it for his televised 60th birthday special in 1993 with help from Bob Dylan.
Nelson sang this classic duet from the Great American Songbook with Norah Jones. Over the years, he’s collaborated with a list of unlikely admirers as long as his braids, from Julio Iglesias and Sinead O’Connor to Jon Bon Jovi.
Released in 1980, this is the instantly recognizable rambling song that really sold Nelson to mainstream America.
From the same 2012 album as “Just Breathe,” this tune shows off one of Nelson’s most endearing traits: his utter lack of self-importance. The special guests would make one hell of a dinner party: old friend Kris Kristofferson, next-generation torchbearer Jamey Johnson and the tokin’ black guy, Snoop Dogg.
Funny how “Funny How Time Slips Away” was actually one of the earliest successful singles Nelson ever wrote, when he was still in his twenties. It’s been covered many times over the years by a wide range of singers, from Elvis and Perry Como to the Supremes and Al Green.
For some fans, Nelson’s best album isn’t really country music at all: it’s his 1978 masterpiece Stardust, on which he covered 10 pop standards (including this one, by Irving Berlin), produced by the great soul organist Booker T. Jones. “Blue skies smiling at me,” Nelson sings softly, and you can picture him humming it every day since.