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Willie Nelson Collection

Identifier: SWWC-021

Scope and Contents

The collection contains song lyrics, screenplays, letters, concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, articles, clippings, personal effects, promotional items, souvenirs, and financial records.  There are examples of Nelson's talent as a songwriter, material reflecting his success as a concert artist, and memorabilia.  The collection contains documentation on how the funds collected through Farm Aid were used and on Nelson's troubles with the IRS.  Most of the material was collected by Bill Wittliff, a friend of Willie Nelson's who wrote or co-wrote three of the films in which Willie Nelson starred: Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Barbarosa (1982), and Red Headed Stranger (1986).


  • 1975-1994


Conditions Governing Access

Open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Materials from the Wittliff Collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. The user assumes responsibility for determining copyright status, obtaining permission to publish, and abiding by U.S. copyright laws.

Biographical Notes

Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933.  After his parents separated, he and his older sister Bobbie were raised by their musically inclined grandparents in Abbott, Texas.  The children were started early on instruments--Bobbie on piano and Willie on guitar.  By age 10, Nelson was playing in Central Texas communities with a polka band.  After high school and many odd jobs, Nelson sold his songs "Family Bible" and "Night Life" and made his way to Nashville in order to establish himself in the cradle of country music.  Nelson's talents were quickly recognized by other Nashville artists.  They recorded his songs and helped him to get jobs.  But Nelson's own recordings received little notice by the public.  When promoter Crash Stewart told him his lyrics were ahead of his time he answered that "he wished the world would hurry and catch up with him as he needed the money" (Family Album).  After a little more than 10 years struggling in Nashville, Nelson's ranch house burned to the ground and he decided to return to his home state.

In 1971, back in Central Texas, Nelson found himself suddenly in the right place at the right time.  Nelson's eclectic style and warm stage presence found a receptive audience in a music scene that came to be labeled progressive country.  At a time when a suit, a tie, and a clean-shaven face were the signature look of the country and western singer, Nelson adopted the more informal style of the younger members of his audience--long hair, beard, jeans, and a bandanna.  A Nashville colleague told him "No one ever heard of you till you got ugly." In 1973, Nelson held his first annual 4th of July picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas and the sweltering Independence Day celebrations became a huge event into the 1980s.  During these years, Nelson became a nationally successful country and western singer who secured his status as a popular mainstream artist with the 1975 release of the concept album, The Redheaded Stranger.

Established as a major star in the music world, Nelson then branched into acting beginning with a small part in The Electric Horseman (1979).  He starred in his next film, Honeysuckle Rose (1980), which was co-written by fellow Texan Bill Wittliff.  The two collaborated again in Barbarosa (1982) and in the dramatization of Nelson's album Red Headed Stranger (1986).

In 1985, Nelson's concern for failing family farms led him to organize Farm Aid concerts in which he and other entertainers raised money to help small farmers keep their land.  The effort provided welcome relief to thousands but did not stem the tide of disappearing family farms.  By 1995, with seven Farm Aid concerts behind him, Nelson commented "all the money we raise these days is going to farmers who are already out of business.  The [agribusiness] corporations are the only guys making money" (Parade, August 20, 1995, 14).

Nelson found himself owing the Internal Revenue Service millions in back taxes for the years from 1975 through 1981 due to what he avowed was bad advice and bad investments.  In 1990, much of Nelson's property was seized and auctioned off.  Nelson's friends and fans helped him by taking up collections and buying up his property so that he would be able to eventually buy it back.  Nelson committed himself to paying off the monumental debt of taxes, interest, and penalties.  He worked hard, doing a full schedule of road shows and selling an album, Who'll buy My Memories:  The I.R.S. Tapes, through an 800 number.  By mid-1994, Nelson had settled his obligation.

Nelson has recorded a prodigious body of work including the best selling albums Shotgun Willie (Atlantic, 1973), Phases and Stages (Atlantic, 1974), Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975), The Outlaws (RCA, 1976), Stardust (Columbia 1978), Waylon and Willie (RCA, 1978), Honeysuckle Rose (Columbia, 1980), The Highwaymen (Columbia, 1985) and Across the Borderline (Columbia, 1991).  He has received many honors and numerous awards throughout his career.  He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 1973.  In 1975, he received his first Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."  In 1978, he received the same award for "Georgia on My Mind."  In 1976, the Country Music Association named Wanted: The Outlaws the album of the year and "Good Hearted Woman" the single of the year.  The CMA awarded him the coveted Entertainer of the Year award in 1979.  He received a Grammy for the Best Country Song for "On the Road Again" in 1981 and the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1989.  He was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame in 1993.  Now in his sixties, a recognized living legend, the singer/songwriter continues to perform, write songs, and record.  "All I do is make music and play golf and I wouldn't want to give up either one" (Contemporary Musicians 173).


4 Linear Feet

8 boxes (Plus oversize material.)

Language of Materials


Metadata Rights Declarations

  • The descriptive data created for this finding aid is licensed under the CC0 Creative Commons license and is free for use without restriction.


This collection documents Willie Nelson's career in music, especially as a lyricist and a performing artist. The early years of Farm Aid are also well-documented.

Physical Location

Materials may be stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use:

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Willie Nelson, Bill & Sally Wittliff, and Jody Fischer from 1988 through 1995

Related Materials

See also: the Bill Wittliff Papers for photographs of Willie Nelson and for the film archives on Barbarosa and Red Headed Stranger, and the Bud Shrake Papers for materials used in Willie Nelson's autobiography.

Guide to the Willie Nelson Collection
Gwynedd Cannan
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • 2005: Inventory revised by Brandy Harris
  • 2021: Revised for ArchivesSpace by Susannah Broyles

Repository Details

Part of the The Wittliff Collections Repository

601 University Drive
San Marcos Texas 78666 USA