Willie Nelson is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians—and not just in the country music world. Nelson’s talents transcend genre, and go far beyond music. Here are 10 things you might not know about the legendary outlaw country singer, who turns 86 years old today.
1. He wrote his first song at the age of seven.
While other kids were still struggling to keep inside the lines of their coloring books, Nelson was composing music. He recalled the experience of his songwriting debut to Rolling Stone in 2004: “Back when we used to take music lessons from our grandmother, we'd go through lessons, and if we'd get the lesson right that day she'd take a gold star—a little star, about the size of your finger, with glue on one side—and she'd stick it on the sheet of music, which meant you'd done well. So I wrote this song with the line ‘They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago.’ I'd never been left by anybody, so it was kind of funny.”
2. He used to be a Bible salesman.
Before he became a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Nelson worked as a cotton picker (a gig he began as a child, working alongside his grandmother), disc jockey, and aBible salesman.
3. He ran into a burning house (to save his pot).
While living in Nashville, Nelson arrived home one evening to discover that his house was burning to the ground. “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” he toldPeople in 1980. “But I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn't being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.” One-hundred tapes of yet-to-be-recorded songs weren't as lucky as Nelson's stash; they were lost in the fire.
4. He retired in 1972. (Spoiler: It didn't last.)
In 1972, Nelson paid $14,000 to buy out his contract so that he could retire to Austin, Texas. But his withdrawal from the music business didn’t last long. Especially considering how vibrant the music scene was happening all around him in Austin. Within a year, he was back on the charts with the album Shotgun Willie. By the mid-1970s he scored some of his biggest hits with a trio of albums: Red Headed Stranger, The Sound in Your Mind, and The Troublemaker.
5. He has been playing the same guitar for 50 years.
Nelson has been playing Trigger, his beloved guitar (which he named after Roy Rogers’ horse), since 1969. “I’ve got to take good care of Trigger,” Nelson toldUncut Magazine in 2014. “He’s had a couple of problems. We’ve had to go in and do some work on the inside, build up the woodwork in there a little bit over the years. But Trigger’s holding up pretty good.”
6. He recorded The IRS Tapes to pay off his tax debt.
In 1990, the IRS raided Nelson’s house and seized his assets (everything except Trigger) for non-payment of taxes. The $32 million bill, one of the largest in IRS history, was eventually negotiated down and settled in a creative way: Nelson would record a new album with the IRS receiving at least 15 cents of every dollar made. The result was the limited-edition The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories, which sold for $19.95 on cassette or CD and was purchased by dialing 1-800-IRS-TAPE.
7. He wrote "On the Road Again" on a barf bag.
Nelson’s 1980 hit, “On The Road Again,” was written aboard an airplane—on a barf bag. “I was on an aeroplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg, who was the director of the movie Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson toldUncutin 2014. “They were looking for songs for the movie and they started asking me if I had any ideas. I said, ‘I don’t know, what do you want the song to say?’ I think Sydney said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’ It just started to click in my head. I said, ‘You mean like, ‘On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?’ They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’”
8. He performed "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" with Rosalynn Carter.
Former President Jimmy Carter has never made a secret of his admiration of Willie Nelson. And the two have shared a long friendship. On September 13, 1980, Nelson performed for Carter and guests at the White House—which included a duet of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (On various occasions, Nelson has recounted how he later made his way onto the roof of the White House and smoked a joint.) In 2012, the former President got his own chance to share the stage with the legendary musician when the two performed “Amazing Grace” together in Atlanta.
9. His album Stardust spent years on the country music charts.
The 1978 album Stardust, which features Nelson-ized renditions of pop standards like "Georgia on My Mind" and "Unchained Melody" spent two years on the Billboard 200, and a total of 540 weeks (a total of more than 10 years) on various country music charts.
10. He's a pot-repreneur.
Nelson has hardly made a secret of regular marijuana use, or his support for its legalization. (His rap sheet of pot-related arrests certainly backs up those claims.) As more and more states are legalizing the once-outlawed weed, Nelson has put his expertise on the topic to good use, and launched his very own brand of pot: Willie’s Reserve.
James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward star in Tom Hooper's Cats (2019).
Regardless of whether you were impressed, confused, or downright frightened by the trailer for Tom Hooper’s upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Cats, it’s safe to say that the star-studded cast and “digital fur technology” generated strong reactions all around. And, if you didn’t grow up listening to the soundtrack or watching performers in the 1998 film version purr and prance in furry, feline bodysuits, your shock is completely understandable.
Cats is light on plot, heavy on characters, and sprinkled with words that T.S. Eliot made up for his 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the basis for the musical. To familiarize yourself with all the eccentrically named cats—and find out who’s portraying them in the film—here’s a comprehensive list of every "romantical, pedantical, critical, parasitical, allegorical, metaphorical, statistical, and mystical" cat you’ll meet.
Admetus is a ginger and white chorus cat with no spoken lines, but plenty of strong dancing sequences—perfect for former Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood. Though some musical productions have renamed Admetus as Plato (both names are mentioned in “The Naming of Cats”), the film will feature them as two separate characters.
Alonzo is another chorus cat, identifiable by the black patches of fur on his face and the black-and-white stripes on his head. Apart from his ensemble appearances, he has intermittent solo lines and also assists Munkustrap during the fight against Macavity. Since singer/songwriter Bluey Robinson will portray him in the film, it’s possible that Alonzo will dance less than he has in stage productions.
Asparagus, the Theatre Cat
Played by: Sir Ian McKellen
Nicknamed “Gus,” this elderly, trembling tabby has an impressive acting history, which he recounts at length during his song (along with a few disparaging comments about how the theater isn’t what it once was, and kittens these days aren’t properly trained). Who better to play one of the Jellicles’ most well-respected thespians than one of the humans' most well-respected thespians, Sir Ian McKellen?
Played by: Taylor Swift
Though Bombalurina is only mentioned by name once (in “The Naming of Cats”), she’s pretty hard to miss: the slinky, red-coated cat helps introduce Jennyanydots, the Rum Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Bustopher Jones, and Macavity. She most often sings with Demeter, her duet partner for “Macavity the Mystery Cat.”
Played by: James Corden
Known as “the Brummell of cats,” this black-and-white, epicurean dandy frequents gentlemen’s clubs, wears white spats, and weighs a whopping 25 pounds. Jones’s genial manner endears him to just about everyone—not unlike James Corden.
With her sleek brown coat and her regal, mysterious manner, Cassandra seems like she might’ve been worshipped by ancient Egyptians in a past life. You might recognize Mette Towley, a member of Pharrell’s dance group, The Baes, from her appearances in 2019’s Hustlers and Rihanna’s “Lemon” music video—and you can be sure that she’ll uphold Cassandra’s legacy as one of the most eye-catching chorus cats.
These striped twin tabby cats always move in unison and boast psychic abilities. Though the roles are sometimes cut from theatrical productions, we’ll get to see them in the film, played by hip hop dancer Jaih Betote and Zizi Strallen, best known for her work as Mary Poppins in the recent West End revival.
This multicolored, slightly skittish cat usually duets with Bombalurina, and together they perform “Macavity the Mystery Cat” in full. It’s often implied that Demeter has a complicated romantic past with Macavity, who tries to abduct her during his attack. British ballet dancer Daniela Norman will star opposite Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina in the film, and you can also see her in Netflix’s upcoming ballet drama seriesTiny Pretty Things.
Grizabella, the Glamour Cat
Played by: Jennifer Hudson
This aging starlet is now decrepit, depressed, and shamefully rejected by the rest of the Jellicles—think Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with more self-awareness and very raggedy fur. Even if the Cats original cast recording wasn’t the soundtrack for your childhood road trips, you might have heard Grizabella’s song “Memory;” it’s been covered by Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Glee’s Chris Colfer, and more. American Idol alum (and general ballad-belting powerhouse) Jennifer Hudson will bring her Academy Award-winning talents to the role of Grizabella in the film.
Growltiger, a rough-riding sea captain cat, and Griddlebone, his fluffy white lover, appear during “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” during which Gus reminisces about having played the part of Growltiger in a stage production long ago. The characters have been left out of some productions, including the 1998 film, but Hooper’s version will feature them, where they'll be played by British actor Ray Winstone and Australian performer Melissa Madden Gray (whose stage name, fittingly, is Meow Meow).
Played by: Freya Rowley
Named after T.S. Eliot’s own cat, Jellylorum is a maternal calico who cares for Gus and also helps introduce Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. Though sometimes portrayed as older and more mature than some of the other cats, Freya Rowley (who performed as Tantomile on the UK tour of Cats) will likely bring a younger energy to the character.
Jennyanydots, the Old Gumbie Cat
Played by: Rebel Wilson
Jennyanydots is a goofy old tabby cat who lazes around all day and spends her nights teaching the basement vermin various household skills, etiquette, and performing arts. Under her tutelage, the mice learn to crochet, the cockroaches become helpful boy scouts, and the beetles form a tap-dancing troupe. Rebel Wilson is a perfect match for such a multifaceted, eccentric, and amusing gumbie cat (whatever gumbie is).
Macavity, the Mystery Cat
Played by: Idris Elba
The show’s main antagonist is a tall, thin criminal cat with sunken eyes and dusty ginger fur. While the Jellicles are plainly terrified of this “monster of depravity,” they also seem eerily impressed by his ability to elude capture and conviction. Historically, Macavity hasn’t done any speaking, singing, or dancing—he only shows up briefly to kidnap Old Deuteronomy during a rousing cat fight—but here’s hoping that Hooper has broadened the role for the film so we get to hear at least a good growl or two from Idris Elba.
Laurie Davidson, who played Shakespeare in TNT’s Will, will take on the role of Mr. Mistoffelees, an affable tuxedo cat who peppers his magic tricks with plenty of high leaps and pizzazz. He’s generally beloved by the rest of the cats, and he also saves the day by conjuring Old Deuteronomy from wherever Macavity had hidden him.
These two roguish calicos describe themselves as “knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tightrope walkers, and acrobats.” They’re also partners in petty crime, notorious for smashing vases, stealing pearls, and generally wreaking havoc upon their posh family in Victoria Grove. British dancer Danny Collins will join Naoimh Morgan—who actually played Rumpleteazer in the Cats international tour—to bring the spirited rascals to life in the film.
Played by: Robert Fairchild
Without Munkustrap, viewers would have little hope of understanding what’s actually happening in this vaguely plotted musical. Though there’s no song to introduce him, the striking, silver cat is still arguably the most important character: He describes the function of the Jellicle Ball, narrates the action as it unfolds, and leads the charge against Macavity’s attack. It takes a certified musical theater machine to play such an integral part, and Hooper has surely found that in Robert Fairchild, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Tony Award nominee for An American in Paris.
Played by: Dame Judi Dench
In the gender-swapped role of our dreams, Dame Judi Dench will play Old Deuteronomy, the revered (usually male) town elder who chooses one lucky kitty at the annual Jellicle Ball to ascend to cat heaven, the Heaviside Layer, and be born again. It isn’t Dench’s first time in the junkyard: She was preparing to appear as both Jennyanydots and Grizabella in the original 1981 West End production of Cats when she snapped her Achilles tendon and had to pull out.
Though Plato is a chorus cat mentioned in “The Naming of Cats” and included in some stage productions, Socrates was created specifically for Hooper’s film to make room for both halves of Les Twins, also known as Larry and Laurent Bourgeois. The French hip hop duo gained mainstream recognition after Beyoncé featured them in her 2018 Coachella set and subsequent Netflix concert film Homecoming.
Rum Tum Tugger
Played by: Jason Derulo
The Rum Tum Tugger is a perpetually fickle feline with a lot of rock-n’-roll flair and a pair of hips that he seems to have stolen from Mick Jagger himself. In addition to his own song, Tugger also sings “Mr. Mistoffelees” and features in a few other numbers. With Jason Derulo taking on the role for the film, there’s a good chance we’ll see a modernized, moonwalking version of this swoon-worthy cat.
Skimbleshanks is a charming Scottish cat who looks like a friendly tiger and ensures that all is in order on the night trains, which includes everything from patrolling for mice to reminding the guard to ask passengers how they like their tea. With his flaming red hair and graceful precision, Royal Ballet principal dancer Steven McRae definitely has a couple things in common with his character.
This kitten’s name varies from production to production, but she’s usually characterized by her playful, innocent manner and her willingness to accept Grizabella when the other Jellicles try to shun her. Jonadette Carpio, Philippines native and member of the all-female Krump crew Buckness Personified, will bring her street dance background to the role in the film.
Though lithe, light-footed Victoria doesn’t sing any lines of her own in the original musical, her gleaming white coat and balletic dance solos still make her a standout—so it’s only fitting that Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward will bring her to life in the film, where the role has been expanded into a main character. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift even collaborated on a new song called “Beautiful Ghosts” that Hayward will sing in the movie.
Miscellaneous Chorus Cats
Because theater companies vary in size and scope, certain chorus cats are sometimes omitted from productions—or members of the ensemble just aren’t assigned specific characters. At this point, Bill Bailey, Carbucketty, Electra, Etcetera, Peter, Pouncival, Quaxo, Rumpus Cat, Tumblebrutus, and Victor are all chorus cat names that haven’t been given to anybody in the film, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see extra cats in the shadows. According to Dance Spirit, Corey John Snide and Kolton Krause, who played Coricopat and Tumblebrutus on Broadway, respectively, have both been cast as ensemble members in Hooper’s film.