Nelson was born and raised in Abbott, Texas, the son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, who was a mechanic and pool hall owner. His grandparents William Alfred Nelson and Nancy Elizabeth Smothers gave him mail-order music lessons starting at age six. He wrote his first song when he was seven and was playing in a local band at age nine. Willie played the guitar, while his sister Bobbie played the piano. He met Bud Fletcher, a fiddler, and two siblings joined his band, Bohemian Fiddlers, while Nelson was in high school. While he was in high school he took part in the National FFA Organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America).
Beginning in high school Nelson worked as a disc jockey for local radio stations. Nelson had short DJ stints with KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas, and later with KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas, while singing locally in honky tonk bars.
Nelson graduated from Abbott High School in 1951. He joined the Air Force the same year but was discharged after nine months due to back problems. He then studied agriculture at Baylor University for one year in 1954.
In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career, recording "Lumberjack," which was written by Leon Payne. The single sold fairly well, but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer in Vancouver and sing in clubs. He sold a song called "Family Bible" for $50; the song was a hit for Claude Gray in 1960, has been covered widely and is often considered a gospel music classic.
1. On the road again
2. If you've got the money i've got the time
3. Blue eyes crying in the rain
4. Angel flying too close to the ground
5. The pilgrim: chapter 33
6. I'm movin ' on with hank snow
7. Big river with waylon jennings johnny cash and kris
8. Georgia on my mind
9. If you can touch her at all with waylon jennings
10. Something to brag about with mary kay place
11. Live fast, love hard, die young with faron young
12. Last thing i needed the first thing this morning
13. Always on my mind
14. Sweet memories