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Summary Article: Nelson, Willie
from Green Culture: An A-to-Z Guide

Willie Hugh Nelson is an American singer, songwriter, actor, author, and social activist. Much of his advocacy work involves green initiatives, particularly with his ventures in biodiesel and agricultural reform.

Willie Nelson was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, to Ira Nelson and Myrle Greenhaw (née) after his parents left the isolation of north central Arkansas in 1929. Soon after his birth, Myrle returned to her family and Ira left Willie and his sister Bobbie Lee to the care his parents, Alfred and Nancy Nelson. Willie's childhood was set against a backdrop of poverty, and he worked from an early age, like most other Abbott children, picking cotton to supplement the family income. Music was central to the Nelson family's life and spirituality. Alfred and Nancy had been influential music teachers in Arkansas, and the family often ended a day of hard labor by playing and singing together. Nelson credits much of his subsequent political advocacy to his childhood experiences.

Music

Though active musically since the 1950s, Nelson is most recognized for his contributions to country music's “Outlaw Movement” during the late 1960s and 1970s. In reaction to the formulaic “Nashville sound,” self-professed “Outlaws” including Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings left Nashville for Texas and revived country's popularity. Increasingly disillusioned with the inauthenticity of corporate country, Outlaws encouraged creative control over material and production. Cementing Outlaws' popularity was the critically acclaimed Red Headed Stranger (1975), an album in which Nelson defied the conventions of the Nashville sound by writing a sparsely produced concept album.

Activism: Biofuels

Much of Nelson's environmental advocacy work is tied to the biodiesel industry, using biofuel based on vegetable oil to power his fleet of tour vehicles. His first experience with renewable fuels occurred during his sponsorship of Gatewood Galbraith's run in the Democratic primary of Kentucky's 1991 gubernatorial election. Both vocal advocates of the legalization of cannabis, Nelson and Galbraith toured Kentucky in a Mercedes fueled by hemp oil.

It wasn't until his fourth and current wife, Ann-Marie “Annie” D'Angelo, returned to their Maui home in a Volkswagen Jetta a decade later with a diesel engine converted to run on recycled cooking oil that Nelson's commercial interest in biofuels was sparked. In 2004, Willie and Annie partnered with Robert and Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel, Inc., (PacBio) to build two biodiesel plants in Salem, Oregon, and Carl's Corner, Texas. Originally conceived in 1995 in response to environmental and health concerns around the volume of cooking grease ending up at the Central Maui Landfill, Pacific Biodiesel got its start when King built a plant to recycle the restaurant waste. Pacific Biodiesel currently operates 10 plants in the United States and diverts a combined 1,298 tons of waste per month at its Maui and Oahu plants.

In 2005, Nelson lent his name to “BioWillie” (Willie Nelson Biodiesel) in association with Peter J. Bell, chief executive officer of biofuel distributor Distribution Drive, to market the fuel to truck stops. BioWillie was exclusively licensed to Dallas's Earth Biofuels, Inc., the publicly traded parent of Distribution Drive active in the production, distribution, and sale of renewable fuels. Though creditors filed for involuntary bankruptcy of Earth Biofuels in 2007 after it amassed significant corporate debt, the company has since reorganized as Evolution Fuels with plans to build a chain of renewable fuel stations and convenience stores in the southern United States modeled after the Willie's Place Truck Stop at Carl's Corner, Texas.

In 2006, Nelson backed Richard S. “Kinky” Friedman's Texas gubernatorial campaign in endorsement of Friedman's support of alternative energy production and decriminalization of marijuana.

Activism: Farm Aid, Agricultural Reform

Tied to Nelson's biodiesel projects are his concerns about the plight of the American family farmer, particularly through the work he has done with Farm Aid. Nelson, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, organized the first Farm Aid concert on September 22, 1985, after Bob Dylan asked to reserve some of the proceeds of the Live Aid concert earlier that year to assist farmers in financial crisis. Dave Matthews subsequently joined the board of directors in 2001. In 2007, Nelson partnered with Ben & Jerry's to release “Willie Nelson's Country Peach Cobbler” ice cream, with the proceeds of sales donated to Farm Aid.

Initially intended to prevent foreclosures and provide disaster/emergency relief by funding farm and rural service organizations, Farm Aid has expanded to fight corporate agribusiness factory farms and plummeting crop prices. Outreach efforts through the Good Food Movement encourage Americans to buy local and family farmed food. Campaigns for long-term policy initiatives challenge Congress to enact farm bills supporting family farm interests rather than those of industrial agriculture. Nelson advocates a wide view of the farm bill by framing it around issues of nutrition, environmental stewardship, and renewable energy. Defending both family farms and biodiesel, Nelson encourages family farm production of biofuels, expanding markets for farmers while driving sales of clean-burning fuels. As a proponent of domestic energy independence, Nelson envisions the combination of biodiesel farming as a means to reduce America's reliance on Big Oil and foreign non-renewable energy while stimulating the national economy.

Nelson's support of biodiesel and local agrarianism has been invaluable in raising public awareness of the issues. Nelson also works with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for the legalization of marijuana and has recently become involved with animal welfare campaigns, working with Habitat for Horses and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to campaign for the humane treatment of horses and improve the living conditions of animals within the dairy industry.

See Also:

“Agri-Culture”, Hybrid Cars, Music, Musicians, Popular Green Culture, Social Action, National and Local

Further Readings
  • Associated Press. “Willie Nelson Bets on Biodiesel.” Wired (January 14, 2005). http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2005/01/66288 (Accessed May 2010).
  • “Corporate Report: Earth Biofuels, Inc.” Herald Tribune (July 13, 2007). http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20070713/BUSINESS/707130592/1007?p=1&tc=pg (Accessed May 2010).
  • Cusick, Richard. “The Pope of Austin, Texas.” High Times ( (January 2008). http://hightimes.com/lounge/rick/6419?utm_source=rss_home (Accessed May 2010).
  • Essex, Andrew. “Farm Aid at Fifteen: Willie Nelson Keeps Up the Fight.” Rolling Stone (October 26, 2000).
  • Hakim, Danny. “His Car Smelling Like French Fries, Willie Nelson Sells Biodiesel.” New York Times ( (December 30, 2005). http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/30/business/30biowillie.html (Accessed May 2010).
  • Nelson, Willie. “Take Action: Support a Better Farm Bill.” Mother Earth News (June/July 2007). http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/2007-06-01/Take-Action-Support-a-Better-Farm-Bill.aspx (Accessed May 2010).
  • Nelson, Willie and Drake, Bud. Willie: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  • Nelson, Willie and Pipkin, Turk. The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.
  • Patoski, Joe Nick. Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.
  • Weger, Krista
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