Willie Nelson–Young, Clean-Shaven & Wearing a Suit–Sings Early Hits at the Grand Ole Opry (1962)

On an ordi­nary after­noon, a group of friends sit around lis­ten­ing to records. Some­one puts on a Willie Nel­son album, and there is a knock at the door. It’s an old­er man, mak­ing a deliv­ery. He paus­es behind his clip­board, hear­ing the music from inside the house. “Is that Red Head­ed Stranger,” he asks? Yes. He asks if he can come in and lis­ten. And for the next thir­ty min­utes, no one says a word as the album tells its mourn­ful tale of betray­al and bloody revenge, a sto­ry, writes All­mu­sic “about a preach­er on the run after mur­der­ing his depart­ed wife and her new lover.” It’s an album that remains—with its “brief song-poems and utter­ly min­i­mal backing”—perhaps “the strangest block­buster coun­try pro­duced.”

That 1975 album of tear-jerk­ers and mur­der bal­lads, which estab­lished Nel­son as a “super­star record­ing artist,” is so “old-fash­ioned” it sounds “like a tale told around a cow­boy camp­fire.” And it is for that rea­son mil­lions of fans can’t tear them­selves away from its com­pelling nar­ra­tive and aching­ly sad, home­spun laments—including myself, a few friends, and a stranger on a sched­ule who came to the door. And if Red Head­ed Stranger is an unlike­ly block­buster, Nel­son is an unlike­ly super­star, full of con­tra­dic­tions. He’s a gen­tle out­law; an old-fash­ioned coun­try trou­ba­dour who has remained on the pro­gres­sive activist edge; and an unas­sum­ing, tra­di­tion­al artist who hap­pens to be loved across the spec­trum of gen­er­a­tions, polit­i­cal per­sua­sions, and musi­cal styles.

But before Nel­son became an inter­na­tion­al super­star he appeared on the coun­try music cir­cuit clean-shaven, short-haired, and in the nat­ty suit and tie you see him wear in the clip above from a tele­vised 1962 Grand Ole Opry per­for­mance. Close your eyes and you’ll hear that it’s undoubt­ed­ly Nelson’s famil­iar warble—though not so weath­ered with age as we’ve grown used to. But when you look, it’s hard to see the griz­zled tax-evad­ing, pot-smok­ing out­law hip­pie hero we know and love in this fresh-faced gent. Nel­son had only just moved to Nashville two years pri­or, and he strug­gled to make an impres­sion at first. But when coun­try singer Faron Young heard him sing his “Hel­lo Walls” at a bar next to the Opry, his for­tunes changed. Young sent the song into the top 40, and Nel­son became, as the host above calls him, “the Mick­ey Man­tle of coun­try music,” writ­ing hit after hit.

By ’62, he had record­ed his first LP, And Then I Wrote, singing many songs he’d giv­en to oth­er artists. He opens above with “Hel­lo Walls,” and he clos­es with his oth­er mas­sive hit from the peri­od, “Crazy,” Pat­sy Cline’s sig­na­ture tune. In-between, Nel­son sings anoth­er song from his debut album, Bil­ly Walker’s “Fun­ny How Time Slips Away,” and works in “Night Life,” a blues song he wrote for Ray Price. Only eight years after this TV appear­ance, Nel­son decid­ed to retire from music and pack it in, feel­ing like his career had run its course. It wasn’t until a cou­ple years later—after he’d become part of Austin’s eclec­tic music scene and re-invent­ed him­self musi­cal­ly with 1973’s Shot­gun Willie—that the out­law bal­ladeer we know and love was born.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Willie Nel­son Audi­tions for The Hob­bit Film Sequel, Turns 80 Today

John­ny Cash: Singer, Out­law, and, Briefly, Tele­vi­sion Host

The 1969 Bob Dylan-John­ny Cash Ses­sions: 12 Rare Record­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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