New docuseries reveals tragic events in the life of country music legend Willie Nelson

 December 22, 2023

Given his status as a country music icon, one might presume that legendary singer/songwriter and guitarist Willie Nelson, 90, has led a charmed life -- but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Instead, the highest achievements in Nelson's nine decades of life have been tempered and shaped by a series of tragedies and losses involving his family, finances, and freedom, according to the New York Post.

All of that and more is covered in the new Paramount+ four-part docuseries "Willie Nelson & Family" that was produced by Taylor Sheridan, the acclaimed creator of the network's popular "Yellowstone" series.

Death and suicide

Per the Post, the thrice-divorced Nelson has had four wives -- Martha Matthews, 1952-1962; Shirlie Collie, 1963-1971; Connie Koepke, 1971-1988; and Annie D'Angelo, 1991-present -- and fathered eight children with three of those wives and one mistress.

That includes daughters Lana and Susie and late son Billy with Matthews; late daughter Renee with friend Mary Haney; daughters Paula and Amy with Koepke, and sons Lukas and Micah with D'Angelo.

Tragically, son Billy committed suicide in 1991 at age 33, according to People magazine, as he reportedly suffered from depression that was possibly caused or worsened by his mother Matthews' death from liver failure just two years earlier in 1989, per the Post. Nelson himself had contemplated and even attempted suicide at multiple points but always stopped short of doing so.

Affairs and loves lost

Though Nelson has long proclaimed his deep love for each of his four wives, he nonetheless frequently engaged in extramarital affairs, and the Post reported that one of those affairs was uncovered by his second wife Collie, resulting in their 1971 divorce, when she received a hospital bill for the birth of his daughter Paula with Koepke -- mistakenly naming her as "Mrs. Connie Nelson" -- whom he married shortly thereafter that same year.

"Shirley wanted to know who in the hell was Connie Nelson," Nelson recalled in the documentary. "The truth is Connie had been my girlfriend for several years before becoming pregnant."

Eldest daughter Lana said of stepmother Collie, "She had no idea there was a Connie. 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."

Speaking of his several wives, Nelson explained, "I’ve always said there’s no such thing as a former wife. 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."

Shootouts, house fires, and IRS debt

Nelson and several members of his family, including both his first and third wives, narrowly escaped a potential tragedy when he and a bandmate got into a shootout with daughter Lana's abusive ex-husband after Nelson confronted him about the abuse and the ex-son-in-law then shot up Nelson's home with everybody in it while Nelson and his bandmate returned fire toward the other man's car.

He also lost nearly everything, including some of his children, in a house fire in the 1970s, but son Billy was able to rescue infant sister Paula, and Nelson himself recalled rushing into the flaming home to save his famed guitar Trigger and "a bag of primo Colombian pot," and joked in the documentary, "I wasn’t about to lose a couple of pounds of good pot."

The superstar country singer also narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the 1990s when the IRS seized most of his property over $32 million in unpaid taxes dating back to the mid-1970s, though he managed to recoup some of that property through the kindness of friends and ultimately paid off that debt through album sales.

According to Texas Monthly, son Lukas summed up his famous father's life and said, "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," but added, "That’s what makes him inspiring to me: His resilience in the face of adversity."

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