Willie Nelson memorabilia collector says he's been to about 225 concerts

Sep 28, 2012

Just a small part of the Willie Nelson collection in Chris Nelsen's home.
Credit Karen VandenBos

Kalamazoo resident Chris Nelsen is one of singer/songwriter Willie Nelson’s biggest fans. After following him and his music for over 30 years, the local man has an extensive collection of Willie Nelson memorabilia and stories of the times they’ve met. 

“You know I love Willie Nelson, there’s no doubt about it,” he says.

Of course, Chris Nelsen is not alone. On the occasion of Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday, almost ten years ago, the accolades rolled in. Bluesman B.B. King said “Willie Nelson should be a pope” because he’s got “one of the biggest hearts” and “he believes in helping people.” As the Texas musician approaches his 80th birthday, in April 2013, he is revered by even more people. Songwriter Bruce Robison borrows the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” for the title of his current song “What Would Willie Do?”

Chris Nelsen has three rooms in the basement of his Kalamazoo home full of posters, music, personal photographs, autographs, backstage passes and guitar picks collected since 1979. Chris says he used to see up to 14 Willie Nelson concerts a year and was in the audience so often that the singer recognized him by sight and would sometimes call out to Chris from the stage. Nelsen figures he’s been to 225 Willie Nelson shows over the years and remembers exactly when they first met.

“Chris Nelsen meets Willie Nelson, April 16, 1979. That’s the first time right here,” he says pointing to an autographed placemat. “On this placemat here, every ten years there’s a Willie Nelson autograph. That’s been through thirty-four years of saving it and taking it to Willie every ten years or so. There’s a ‘79, an ’89, here’s 2011, there’s ’99.”

Lorraine Caron: Do you have a favorite Willie Nelson song?

Chris Nelsen: I think it’s Funny How Time Slips Away, especially the older I get.

“Here’s Willie playing at Miller Auditorium,” Nelsen continues. “He has a Luck, Texas hat on. Luck is his western town that he made for the Red Headed Stranger movie. He takes in horses now, that are about to be slaughtered. Willie will buy ‘em, so they don’t have to be slaughtered and he has a corral there for them. I’ve been there. Willie says you’re either in Luck or out of luck and I’ve been in Luck once for about an hour.”

“These are the backstage passes, back in the late seventies there.” Nelsen reads, “To Chris, my pal, love Willie Nelson.”

Chris has thousands of items in his collection, and over the years he’s been invited onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus and backstage many times, including one holiday weekend.

“It was Labor Day, so it was hot. He came off stage,” he recalls, “and we handed him a can of Natural Light and this is the picture we took of him chugging the beer. And, he said thanks, Chris, you’re a real pal, and I said that’s a fact, Willie. So, here’s the picture of him drinking this and then here’s the actual can, with his autograph on it. So, everything I could grab and keep a hold of I’ve done.”

Why is Chris Nelsen a self-proclaimed Willie Nelson freak? It’s because of the music, yes, but, there’s more to it. Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver says “Willie is everybody’s brother.” Chris Nelsen puts it this way:

“He understands that people love him, but he gives that love back, as well.”

You can contact Chris Nelsen at CNNELSEN@charter.net.