By 1976, Willie Nelson was already an icon. However, he arguably had yet to truly discover himself as an artist capable of crafting a legacy. Nineteen albums into his career, he’d finally found success at Columbia Records by merging his Austin, Texas-honed outlaw ways with a songwriting pen that just fifteen years prior had written Patsy Cline’s timeless country ballad “Crazy.” Finally, however, an unexpected cover tune that reached the top of Billboard’s Hit Country charts in September 1976 allowed Nelson the ability to begin the process of ascending to his legendary status.
Following up Red Headed Stranger — his debut concept album about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover — would be no easy task. His breakout hit on the album was a cover of Roy Acuff’s 1947 classic “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” which spurred the album on to Billboard Top Country Album chart-topping, and eventually, double-platinum selling success a decade later. However, pop-country — the lane wherein Nelson now resided due to his success — was, in that era, a mish-mash of discofied countrypolitan sounds, hard-rocking and whiskey-drenched soulful rock, plus ballads featuring soaring vocal performances that erred in the direction of seemingly unrepentant sorrow and heavenly joy. For a veteran, unexpected country star whose appeal laid far outside of mainstream expectations, discovering the best way through seems an impossible task.
Related to Nelson’s success, Lefty Frizzell was a honky-tonk era country crooner from the radio and barnstorming show tour era. His smooth tenor over raucous blues keyed country as a genre, expanding into a national phenomenon. “If You’ve Got The Money” was recorded in 1950, at the initial height of Frizzell’s career. It’s a rollicking jam of a track with lyrical content that mirrors but pre-dates country’s outlaw era. The song’s narrator is a ne’er do well mate who claims that he won’t have time for his lover if his lover runs out of money to spend on him. Yes, it’s an upbeat jam. However, if it were released in the modern era, it’d be deemed intensely problematic.
However, 1950 was not 2020. The single stayed at number one for three weeks on the chart of Most Played Country and Western Jukebox Records, peaked at number two on the list of Best Selling Country and Western recordings, plus overall, spent 22 weeks on the country charts.
Ready to double-down on his finally achieved significant success with the album The Sound In Your Mind, Nelson set upon creating a bluesy/bluegrass hybrid that underpinned his restrained, soulful, and yet still wholly countrified vibe. Aside from covering Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time,” he covered Frankie Laine’s 1949 hit “That Lucky Old Sun,” which in 1953 became a pop smash for Ray Charles.” However, in regards to “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time,” in 1976, Nelson’s version followed “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” to number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Impressively, his success with Lefty Frizzell’s songs and style keyed what ultimately became his legacy. One year later, in 1977, Nelson’s fourth release for Columbia Records was Willie Nelson: To Lefty from Willie. Legendary rock critic Robert Christgau offered the following as a review of his takes on Frizzell’s works:
“Although Nelson earned his legend as a songwriter, he’s turning into a singer now that profit-taking time has come…On this heartfelt, if opportune farewell to Lefty Frizzell, his cracks and creaks and precisely conversational timing hold their own against the more conventionally exquisite singing of Merle Haggard or Frizzell himself.”
For album number five, 1978’s Stardust, Nelson’s love of Ray Charles — that preceded from the “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time” album The Sound In Your Mind’s cover of “That Lucky Old Sun” proved instrumental. It yielded the then fast-developing icon’s cover of Charles’ 1960 version of Hoagy Carmichael’s 1930-released American standard “Georgia On My Mind.” One year after its release and chart-topping success, “Georgia On My Mind” became Georgia’s official state song on April 24, 1979, when Gov. George Busbee signed it into law.
If wanting to understand Willie Nelson’s appeal as a country superstar, the precise point at which to best regard his career is to study the impact of his cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time.” Being an unexpected blending point for his then past and present wholly inspired his — and in many ways, country music’s — future.