Willie Nelson Compares His Greatest Influences, from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams

by Clayton Edwards
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Willie Nelson isn’t your average country star. It isn’t just his status as an outlaw icon or his love of the devil’s lettuce that sets him apart. For instance, if you listen to Willie play, you’ll notice that he incorporates elements of jazz into his guitar work. Not many in the genre do that. He takes influences from unfamiliar places. The Red-Headed Stranger really thinks outside the box on many things. He stands out in the crowd because of his varied influences and his way of looking at the world. He remains popular today because he brings fresh ideas to a familiar art form.

Willie Nelson does what he wants musically. One of his biggest albums, “Stardust” was made up of pop standards. That album was on the Billboard 200 for an entire decade. Currently, he’s preparing to release his second Frank Sinatra tribute album. This goes to show what happens when you take influences from a variety of sources. He dips into wells that many of his contemporaries never venture near. He also draws from familiar places. Willie spoke about his influences in a recent interview with “Parade.”

Willie Nelson’s Influences

The interviewer asked Willie Nelson if Frank Sinatra was his biggest influence. They followed that by asking if, since Willie is a country guy, maybe his biggest influence came from someone like Hank Williams.

Willie said that of course, Hank Williams was a big influence on him. However, there were others who helped shape him as well. He cites greats like Ray Price and George Jones. He went on to explain that he and Ray Price were friends. In fact, Willie Nelson played bass in Ray Price’s band for years. To this day, Willie doesn’t know how to play bass. He says that Price just took him on because they were friends.

Willie got his start in Nashville by writing for Ray Price’s publishing company, Pamper Music. They worked together and built a friendship. This allowed Price to personally influence Willie Nelson.

As far as the influences of Hank Williams and George Jones, it would be tough to be a country singer in Willie Nelson’s early era without being influenced by those men. They were the cream of the country music crop. George Jones was a radio star. On the other hand, Hank Williams was a poet who spilled his soul into the songs he wrote. They’ve probably influenced more people, directly or indirectly, than any other artists in country music.

Frank Sinatra was a big influence on Willie Nelson, though. He once said that he learned to sing by listening to Sinatra’s records. This is a part of why he is doing the upcoming tribute album.

Willie’s Early Influences

Willie Nelson started dreaming about a music career early in his life. So, long before he was influenced by the writing of Hank and the vocal stylings of George Jones and Sinatra, he was taking cues from some classic cowboys.

When asked about what made him want to try acting, Willie Nelson said that he grew up wanting to be Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They were the original singing cowboys. Rogers and Autry did it all. They cut records, did TV shows, and acted in films. To a young Willie, they were the pinnacle of what he wanted to be when he grew up. He went on to say that Rogers and Autry were at the top of his list of influences.

Willie Nelson has influenced countless artists over the years. He, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and a few other pioneered outlaw country music. WIllie’s influences live on not only through his work but through those he has personally influenced.