Country music icon Willie Nelson has always been ahead of his time. Born during the Great Depression, he grew up to become one of the main figures in the outlaw country genre, then became an early proponent of using biofuels and other environmentally-friendly policies. It says a lot about his musicianship that his eccentric persona doesn’t even begin to overshadow his extensive catalog of songs.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best Sad Willie Nelson Funeral Songs
- Best Upbeat Willie Nelson Funeral Songs
- Best Old-Time Willie Nelson Funeral Songs
- Best Contemporary Willie Nelson Funeral Songs
Songs about death are not what Nelson is known for but many of his tracks could make great funeral songs for his fans. It’s a matter of personal taste and tone. The music played at a funeral will differ fairly widely from the music played at a celebration of life. Check out these picks for all occasions.
COVID-19 tip: If you're hosting a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, ask your online guests to request songs them remind you of your deceased loved one, then play them during the virtual reception. Make a digital playlist of the requested songs and send the playlist's link out with your funeral thank you cards.
Country music is an emotional genre — there are always sad country songs to choose from for more traditional funerals. These Nelson tunes are real heartbreakers:
1. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” from “Honeysuckle Rose”
Reviews about the film this song was featured in were mixed, but no one can argue that the songs in it aren’t incredibly powerful. This ode to unselfish love is sure to make even the most stoic cowboy shed a tear. It’s a beautiful metaphor for our short time on Earth.
2. “Hello Walls” from “And Then I Wrote”
This song was a hit for Faron Young, but Nelson was the one who penned the tune about a man so lonely he resorts to speaking to the windows, walls, and ceiling — is the afterlife similarly lonesome?
3. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” from “Red Headed Stranger”
Many artists in the mid-1970s were taking a “more is more” approach to production. Nelson’s simple, stripped-down arrangement of this song turned it into an instant classic.
4. “Night Life” from “Country Willie: His Own Songs”
Many country songs celebrate the fun of partying. Nelson sings about the emptiness of nightlife and how depressing it can be in this song.
5. “Georgia on my Mind” from “Stardust”
Ray Charles’ version of this song is more famous, but Nelson brings a surprising emotional heft to his take on it.
Not all end-of-life events call for sad songs and funeral dirges. More and more people plan for a celebration of life for when they pass. Jaunty tunes like these would fit right in on the soundtrack.
6. “Pick Up the Tempo” from “Honeysuckle Rose”
Nelson responds to people’s criticisms that he’s living too fast by going even faster in this duet with longtime collaborator Waylon Jennings.
7. “Nothing I Can Do About It Now” from “Red Headed Stranger”
In this song, Nelson talks about the importance of being able to forgive yourself and move forward.
8. “Me and Paul” from “Me & Paul”
Life is better lived when you have a partner in crime to share in life’s adventures and hijinks. Nelson dedicated this song (and the album it’s on) to drummer Paul English.
9. “On the Road Again” from “Honeysuckle Rose”
Many artists have written songs about the hardships of being on the road. The road is home for Nelson and he can’t think of anything better than reuniting with his friends, seeing the country, and making music.
10. “Bloody Mary Morning” from “Honeysuckle Rose”
There have been many country songs about drinking to forget about a woman who has done you wrong. Play this at a Celebration of Life service, and be sure to serve a round of Bloody Marys to go with it.
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Some Willie Nelson songs are classics that have been around for years. If you’re planning a service for your grandparents or other older people, these tracks may resonate with the mourners.
11. “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from “The Electric Horseman”
Children tend to look up to cowboys, this song strips away that romanticized notion and looks at cowboys from an adult perspective.
12. “Pancho and Lefty” from “Pancho & Lefty”
Townes Van Zandt originally wrote and recorded “Pancho and Lefty,” but when Nelson and Merle Haggard reimagined it as a duet it became a number one hit.
13. “Crazy” from “… And Then I Wrote”
Few people realize that Nelson wrote songs for other artists, not just himself. His ballad “Crazy” was an iconic hit record for Patsy Cline, and though his own recording of it isn’t as well known, it deserves a place in Nelson’s own personal hall of fame.
14. “Always on My Mind” from “Always on My Mind”
Nelson wrote plenty of songs for other people and he also recorded tracks he didn’t write. Always on My Mind was written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James, and Wayne Carson and covered by luminaries including Elvis Presley. Nelson’s may be the most well-known: His version took home three Grammys.
15. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” from “Waylon & Willie”
This duet is a jaded, less-idealized perspective on the lonesome cowboy lifestyle.
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As Nelson has aged, his songwriting has matured, too. A lot of his songs have become more introspective. Music this meaningful is well-suited to a memorial service — it’s less overtly sad than funeral music, but not as cheerful as music played at a celebration of life service.
16. “Heartland” from “Across the Borderline”
This 1993 track, co-written with Bob Dylan, is eerily prescient about the state of the world today. Holes in the ozone, poisoned water, bankers taking houses and farmland from hard-working Americans — this is an unconventional but spot-on song for a memorial service for an environmentalist.
17. “Still is Still Moving to Me” from “Across the Borderline”
This is one of Nelson’s more philosophical songs, but the lyrics also double as words of hope for mourners. The refrain “Still is still moving” can mean that even when your body stops moving, a part of you lives on.
18. “The Warmth of the Sun” from “The Beach Boys Stars & Stripes Vol.1”
The Beach Boys collaborated with several country artists in 1996 to revisit some of their best songs. They enlisted Nelson to sing on “The Warmth of the Sun” and their crystal-clear harmonies blended surprisingly well with Nelson’s mellow, honeyed tones. It was one of those cases where the unexpected worked well together.
19. “The Great Divide” from “The Great Divide”
While the lyrics on their surface sound like a sad love song, they could also be interpreted as two lovers being separated by the final great divide of death.
20. “The Harder They Come” from “Willie Nelson & Friends — Stars & Guitars”
You wouldn’t think that reggae and country music would meld together so nicely, but Nelson’s take on this classic Jimmy Cliff song is special. At their hearts, both genres are about struggle. In the context of a memorial service, you could say that the struggle is over and the deceased can rejoice in the afterlife.
Finding the Best Willie Nelson Funeral Songs
Willie Nelson has been in the country music industry for decades and has made songs people can relate to in every phase and every stage of his career. For many, they’ve been part of the soundtrack of their lives. If you really connect with them, you may find certain songs that are appropriate for your funeral playlist, too.