These life stories may contain descriptions of childhood trauma and abuse, as well as images, voices and names of people now deceased. If you need help, you can find contact details for some relevant support services on our support page.

American singer-songwriter, Willie Nelson (b. 1933), was in kinship care as a child. 

Willie Hugh Nelson was born during the Great Depression in a small town in Texas called Abbott. When Willie was six months old, his mother, Myrle Marie, left town to work as a dancer, waitress and card-dealer. Soon after, his father, Ira Doyle Nelson, remarried and also left. 

Nelson and his older sister, Bobbie, were taken in by their paternal grandparents. His grandfather, Alfred, was a blacksmith, and his grandmother, Nancy, was a piano teacher.  

Both grandparents were musical. They encouraged their grandchildren to play and sing. Alfred introduced Willie to the guitar. The whole family studied music via correspondence courses from the Chicago Music Institute. Willie and Bobbie, who was a pianist, sang gospel music in the Baptist Church 

Willie was six years old when his grandfather died. His grandmother gained custody of the two children. It was a poor household but full of love. Willie reflects on the loss of family members in his 1988 autobiography. 

I hadn’t even had time to grieve for the loss of a mother and daddy, much less my grandfather. Our separation from Mother and Daddy seemed worse than a death because they were still out there in the world (Doyle). 

Willie wrote his first song at age seven. Three years later he was playing guitar in night clubs, which bothered his “hardcore, church-going Christian” grandmother.  

She had warned me about all the sinful things that go on in beer joints and when she heard I was going to play in a place six miles away, she said, ‘You promised me you would never go on the road.’ Six miles down the highway was on the road to her (Heller). 

In high school, Willie earned money by playing with local German and Czech polka bands at dance halls and honky tonks. He also played sports as a football halfback, a basketball guard, and a baseball shortstop. 

Willie served in the US Air Force for nine months during the Korean war. After he returned home, he continued writing songs and performing in public. He also worked as a disc jockey, door-to-door salesman of vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias, and as a plumbing assistant. 

In 1960 Willie moved to Nashville, Tennesse, where he worked as a staff writer for Pamper Music. He soon became a successful songwriter. Some of his credits include “Crazy” (Patsy Cline) and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Billy Walker). During this time Willie also played bass in Ray Price’s rhythm-and-blues band.   

Willie moved back to Texas in 1972. He changed his musical style and appearance by letting his hair and beard grow long. On-stage, Willie stopped wearing a suit and tie in favour of bandanas. 

I felt like I was outdressing my audience, so I decided to make it easier on me and dress the way they dressed. It was the way I had dressed all my life, anyway – T-shirts and blue jeans – so it was an easy change to make (Hellor). 

Alongside Waylon Jennings, Willie started a movement called “outlaw music”, a blend of folk, rock, and honky tonk. His music gained popularity and he signed with Columbia Records 

Willie was nineteen years old when he married for the first time. His wife, Martha, was sixteen. In the 1950s, the couple had three children, Lana, Susie, and Willie Nelson Jr. The marriage was an unhappy one and ended in 1962. 

In 1963, Willie married Shirley, a successful rockabilly singer, yodeler, guitarist, and songwriter. Willie and Shirley divorced shortly after she learned that Willie had a child with another woman. Willie then married Connie Koepke, mother of Paula Carlene and Amy. The marriage lasted sixteen years.  

Willie met his fourth wife while working on the film Stagecoach in 1986. Ann Marie D’Angelo was a make-up artist. Willie explains in his memoir, “Never had met a woman like her before” (Zellor). The couple have been married for over thirty years. Willie reflects on this relationship in an interview with Parade magazine.   

There was friction with my other wives. But it seems like Annie and I did okay with each other. It takes a special person to live with me (Zellor). 

Willie Nelson is considered an American icon and one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. He has recorded over three hundred and fifty albums which have sold over forty million copies. Now in his eighties, Nelson is still on the road for almost half of the year, and still recording music. 

Willie Nelson has also appeared in several films and has co-authored multiple books. These include Willie: An Autobiography (1988), Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road (2012), It’s a Long Story: My Life (2015), Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band (2020) and Willie Nelson’s Letters to America (2021). 

Willie Nelson’s accolades include eleven Country Music Awards, twelve Grammys, and six Academy of Country Music Awards. He was admitted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1998, and the Library of Congress Gerswin Prize for Popular Song in 2015.  


Doyle, Patrick. “All Roads Lead to Willie.” Rolling Stone, 28 August 2014, Issue 1216, 38-48. 

Heller, Zoe. “Interview – Willie Nelson: ‘I’ve bought a lot of pot, and now I’m selling some back.” The Guardian, 16 May 2015. 

Tikkanen, Amy. “Willie Nelson. American Musician.” Britannica. 

“Willie Nelson biography.” PBS Country Music. 

Zeller, Terry. “Willie Nelson’s Wives: Learn About The 4 Women He Married.” Hollywood Life, 18 Dec 2021. 

Image available here.