Today he is infamous across many musical genres, but one night in his early career he found himself intoxicated (again), lying in the middle of Broadway in Downtown Nashville. He was hoping to be struck by a car and die. He’d come to GuitarTown to make it big, but after fleeting success from penning "Crazy", his hope had wavered and fallen through. No one could say he hadn’t given the music business a good try, either. He had cut 13 unsuccessful albums. He had even worked with some of the industry’s top producers. He had carefully followed their advice and done things their way, yet still he was here - depressed and dejected and ready to throw in the towel on his dreams and on his life.
His friends eventually picked him up out of the middle of the street and pulled him to safety. He went home and cut a few more songs over the following months. They all flopped miserably. Then his house burned to the ground. Escaping through the flames, he had only enough time to grab a few items, one being a certain, now-iconic guitar.
This was the moment he knew it was time for him to go back home. His efforts to become a well-known performer had been woefully unfruitful doing things the Nashville way. And now he’d lost almost everything he’d ever had. He could only hope things would be better back home in Texas.
And things were better in Texas, as Luck would have it. “Luck”, of course, being the name of his infamous ranch and concert venue. Because today this man is known worldwide as the man who wrote and sang cross-genre musical masterpieces like On The Road Again, Whiskey River, Seven Spanish Angels, and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. Willie's breakthrough moment seems to have come with his album "Redheaded Stranger", recorded - his way - in Garland, Texas. But if Willie Nelson would have given up that night in the middle of Broadway, we’d have forgotten his name by now. Likewise, if he had allowed his massive talents to be squashed and pigeonholed into the crushing boxes of Nashville’s narrow definitions of "country music", then he would have never created some of the most creative songs in ALL of modern music.
Willie would later pass along his best advice to other up and coming artists: “Stay away from Nashville.” He also would join forces with other misfits who no longer fit the changing Nashville scene to create their own musical genre, Outlaw Country, with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, and more. I think it’s a safe argument that they paved the way for modern artists like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson and others. At 89 years young, Willie still tours with many of these same names, including a recent trip to Atlanta's Ameris Bank Amphitheater in September 2022. I was fortunate enough to catch this show myself.
Personally, I don’t know how a man cuts 13 unrecognized, under-appreciated albums, loses his house, and still keeps going. That’s true resilience. Somehow his artistic side kicked in and pushed him through. Creativity in that season for him must have taken the form of reinvention of himself into something he truly believed in. He’d tried doing things Nashville’s way. Now it was time to do it Willie’s way. Full speed ahead. Damn the torpedoes.
Almost all of us have heard of the famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow. We know him for his “hierarchy of needs” theory, which examines the necessary components of “self actualization”, or the full realization of one’s potential and talents and abilities. Willie’s years of struggle on Music Row were painful but also the perfect incubator for his later success. He would go on to self-actualize quite nicely, raising $70 million through FarmAid alone, plus much more for many more charities.
While I have no way of knowing what supposed mental health diagnoses Willie qualifies for (with the exception of a couple related cannabis, of course), I can write about him here as the creative genius that he is. I like to imagine him as a fellow ADHD’er, but I don’t know. What I do know is that he is massively creative, refuses to be contained or stifled, idealistic but a team player, good-humored, and self-medicates with marijuana, I also know that creative people are usually driven by our creative *spark*. We honor and protect it. We feed it and let it create our way like Willie has done.
So, write and record that song you've been working on. Paint that canvas. Write that prose. Labor over the poem. Build the shelf. Design the room. But do it. Let yourself actually do it. Because, in doing so, you’ll find a little piece of yourself again - a piece that you like - and you’ll reconnect with what you have to offer the world. You will likely even connect briefly with God along the way as you create. So do it. It’s probably a really important way to cope with whatever may be afflicting you.
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As always, I suggest working with a psychiatrist and a counselor to best manage ADHD. You absolutely can take back control and become an effective goal-setter who is even pretty good at follow through. If you’d like to set up an appointment to see me and work on this sort of thing, use the link on my website here: www.altmancounseling.com and click “Book Now”. Or, call 770 615 6300. Georgia residents only.
[Historical information for this blog post comes from Ken Burns’ Country Music, Episode 6.]
[Image: Portrait of Willie Nelson by artist Ty Manning, Georgia,]