Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson donated his collection of more than 600 photographs, letters and other personal items to the University’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in May.
The collection spans over 40 years of Nelson’s career and will be displayed as biannual installations reflecting important themes and chapters of his life, according to Erin Purdy, associate director for publications and curation. Purdy said the items reveal the intimate relationships Nelson developed with musicians, politicians and his fans. The collection includes correspondence with Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as well as political figures such as former President Bill Clinton and former Gov. Ann Richards. It also includes one military medal — a Purple Heart, given to Nelson by one of his fans.
“The exhibit’s showing not just what he has accomplished, but how much people love him and how much they esteem his work and what he has done to make an impact in their lives,” Purdy said.
A native Texan, Nelson moved to Austin in 1972 and performed at the first Austin City Limits Live show. Purdy said Nelson’s impact on the musical community in Austin made the Briscoe Center, a U.S. and Texas cultural preservation center, a natural resting place for his collection.
According to assistant professor of musicology Charles Carson, Nelson represented the counterculture spirit of Austin in the 1970s that is still seen today.
“Austin in the 1970s attracted people who were marginalized and didn’t feel like they could fit in anywhere else. The two main groups were cowboys and hippies,” Carson said. “Because musicians like Willie were bringing together folk rock and country, both sides of that coin latched onto his music as the voice of that generation.”
Since the announcement of Willie Nelson’s donation, Purdy said the Briscoe Center has received positive responses from the Austin community. She attributed this popularity to Nelson's involvement in the community.
“He’s an activist on behalf of any number of causes and generous with his time,” Purdy said. “He has touched so many lives, and what has been striking to me is how broad the responses have been from all walks of life.”
Anthropology senior Alan Garcia said he grew up in Austin listening to Nelson after his parents introduced him to his music. He said he appreciates Nelson’s musical creativity and his support for farmers’ rights and social issues.
“Willie’s rebellious, and he takes a stance,” Garcia said. “A lot of people today are afraid of doing that in country.”
Garcia said he is interested in seeing photographs and letters from Nelson’s collection that illustrate Austin’s music scene in the 1970s.
“Archives like this can bring you back to the past, a creative scene, that can still be revived,” Garcia said.