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Now streaming on Paramount+, the new four-part docuseries Willie Nelson & Family chronicles the life of country music icon, Willie Nelson. Now 90 years old, Willie has lived a colorful life of love, loss, success, and sorrow.
The series also highlights Willie’s family and loved ones, such as his children and his late sister, Bobbie. Their voices and contributions add depth to the stories and give viewers a fuller understanding of the artist and person that is Willie Nelson. Other musicians, producers, lawyers, managers, and significant figures in Willie’s life also make appearances.
Below is a list of the most unexpected and unknown stories revealed in Willie Nelson & Family.
Willie Nelson married his first wife Martha Jewel Matthews in 1952 when he was only 19 and she was only 16. In their 10 years of marriage, the couple had three children: Lana, Susie, and Billy.
Lana compares her young parent’s relationship to “Bonnie and Clyde — going through America on their own, not worrying about money, but having to worry about money at the same time.”
Willie says that he and Martha “had a lot of fun together” but also fought frequently. He recalls:
“One morning we got in this argument, and she picked up this fork and threw it across the table and it stuck in my side. It sounded like a tuning fork.”
In 1962, Willie recorded a duet with singer Shirley Collie called “Willingly.” He was estranged from his wife Martha at the time. Martha recalls:
“From the very beginning there was something about [Shirley] that was after Willie. I could see it.”
Willie remembers feeling a “sexual vibe” with Shirley in the studio. They wed in 1963 after he divorced Martha.
While married to Willie, Shirley got a big surprise when she received a hospital bill for “Mrs. Connie Nelson” for the birth of a baby girl. The baby was named Paula Carlene. Willie shared:
“Shirley wanted to know who in the hell was Connie Nelson. The truth is Connie [Koepke] had been my girlfriend for several years before becoming pregnant.”
Willie’s daughter Lana recalls the scandal, saying that Shirley “had no idea there was a Connie.” She adds:
“She had no idea there was a baby until she got the hospital bill. That’s how she found out about Connie. That’s how I found out about Connie.”
Willie would go on to marry Connie Koepke in 1971.
In December of 1970, Willie and his family were living in Ridgetop, Tennessee when their house caught fire. Willie’s son Billy smelled the smoke and ran to save baby Paula from her crib in the back bedroom. Willie reportedly ran back into the burning house and rescued his beloved guitar Trigger and “a bag of primo Colombian pot.”
Also while the family was living in Ridgetop, Willie’s daughter Lana was married to a man who struggled with managing his rage. Willie recalls:
“It really pissed me off when he beat her up, so I went over there and slapped him around a little bit. I told him not to ever do that again. Then he come back, taking shots at the house.”
Willie grabbed his late bandmate Paul English, and the two began shooting back at Lana’s ex’s car. Martha, Shirley, and other family members were present for the terrifying encounter.
Miraculously, no one was hurt in the altercation. According to Lana, it was a “series of near misses.”
In 1986, Willie was on set for the film Stagecoach when he met hair and makeup artist Annie D’Angelo. The pair connected over Willie’s unwillingness to cut his hair for the role of Doc Holliday as requested by the producers. Willie recalls:
“I never had met a woman like her before. She was whip-smart with a keen appreciation for all forms of art. She was pretty and radiated enough energy to light up any room she entered. I fell head over heels in love with Anne Marie D’Angelo.”
Willie divorced Connie in 1988 and married Annie in 1991. Willie says he does not believe that there is “such thing as a former wife.” He adds:
“Once in your life a wife never leaves. I regret the pain I caused Connie, and Martha and Shirley before her. I have no excuses. I’d be hard-pressed to define love. I know God’s love is pure, but worldly love is flawed love, and lots of times confused love. When it came to romance, I had a gift for complicating things, but marrying Annie wasn’t complicated at all. It’s about the smartest thing I ever did.”
Willie experienced severe IRS struggles from roughly 1976 to 1990. Willie’s then-business manager Neil Reshen had been filing continuous tax extensions without ever paying anything down. Willie fired Reshen and took matters into his own hands.
He received some poor counsel in the 1980s and followed a trend of investing in movies and cattle feeding as write-offs. When the write-offs were revealed as a sham, Willie received the shocking news that he owed $32 million in taxes to the IRS.
Surprisingly, Willie never filed for bankruptcy. Willie says he “never intended and never will do a bankruptcy where the people I owe get screwed out of their money.”
Cleverly, Willie put out a studio album in 1991 called The IRS Tapes and paid $1 back to the IRS for every copy sold.
In 1991, the Nelson family was rocked by the passing of Willie’s son Billy, who died by suicide at the age of 33. Lana says her brother suffered from depression. Paula adds:
“He really was a wonderful guy, but it’s hard to be in Texas when your dad’s Willie Nelson. You can’t get away from it … When Billy passed, it was terribly hard on him — on all of us. It was really hard for him because that was his first son.”
Reflecting on his father’s life, Lukas says:
“Dad has been homeless, he’s had his house burnt down, he’s been through four marriages, he’s been up and down, he’s been broke, he’s [fought] the IRS, he’s lost a child … that’s what makes him inspiring to me: His resilience in the face of adversity.”
See the trailer for Willie Nelson & Family below and stream it now on Paramount+.