The faint smell of marijuana smoke wafted through a crowd of about 2,000 people as Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell accepted on the privately funded statue as a gift from a private arts group. Organizers said they didn’t intentionally choose April 20 for the event, but once they found out, they scheduled the unveiling at 4:20 p.m. as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Nelson’s openness about his marijuana use and advocacy for its legalization.
The statute stands in front of the Moody Theater, where the Austin City Limits Studio is now located. Nelson, a 10-time Grammy Award winner who has sold more than 40 million copies of his 150 albums, appeared on the first episode of the public television show in 1974.
“He is the man who more than other made Austin the live music capital of the world,” Leffingwell said.
Nelson was born in Abbott, a tiny town about 120 miles north of Austin, but he has lived in Texas’ capital city since 1971.
Longtime friend and fellow singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson congratulated Nelson, saying he couldn’t have imagined the city honoring Nelson during the early days of what became known as the Cosmic Cowboy movement in music.
Nelson, who wore black jeans, a black T-shirt and a black cowboy hat, is notoriously shy about such honors. Before he began performing, with his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, he thanked the organizers and joked with the crowd that had gathered to watch the ceremony.
“What time is it?” he joked as the clock approach 4:20 p.m. “I feel it’s getting close to something.”
Nelson’s career was built on not conforming to country music norms. He fused country music with jazz and rock in the early 1970s to create the “outlaw country” movement in Austin and helped give the city a reputation as a music city. His first major hit came when Patsy Cline recorded his song “Crazy” in 1961.
The monument shows Nelson in a relaxed, standing pose and holding his guitar to the side as if in conversation. Philadelphia sculptor Clete Shields said the leaning pose and heroic scale are intended to show Nelson’s openness and whimsical side while honoring his tremendous influence on music and the city.
“We wanted to get a timeless Willie, an ageless Willie,” Shields said.
Nelson was also a founder of the Farm Aid movement to help family farmers and has appeared in 37 films and television shows, ranging from a starring role in the 1982 western “Barbarosa” to making a cameo in the 1998 Dave Chappelle stoner comedy “Half Baked.”
The unveiling was fitting on April 20 – or 4/20, which is slang for smoking marijuana – a day pro-marijuana legalization forces have used for annual gatherings to demonstrate in support of the cause. Nelson is a well-known advocate of legalizing marijuana and has been arrested several times for possessing it.
The Willie Monument is the third statue put up by Capital Area Statues Inc., a group of prominent Texas writers, film producers and musicians. One of the others honors three Texas writers and is located at Barton Springs and the other honors the woman who fired a cannon to prevent the removal of the state archives from Austin. Capital Area Statues was formed to add more statues in Austin’s public places and raises money for them by selling scale models of the work.
Lawrence Wright, one of the group’s founders, said April 20 was chosen because Nelson was scheduled to perform at a tribute to Johnny Cash in Austin that night, not because of the counterculture significance.
“We didn’t know anything about it; it seems everyone else knew the story on this,” Wright said, laughing. He said he didn’t think Nelson was doing it intentionally either, but said the group decided to embrace the city’s unofficial motto of “Keep Austin Weird” by scheduling the unveiling at 4:20 p.m.