“Our Fights Were Brutal” — Willie Nelson Recalls His Ex-Wife Biting His Finger Down To The Bone

Willie Nelson country music
Paramount Plus/Willie Nelson

The Willie Nelson we all know and love today has lived what seems like a thousand lives.

Growing up dirt poor in Abbott, Texas and raised by his grandparents, he’s obviously become a music icon, but his early days were far from glamorous. Willie struggled for decades trying to make it as a songwriter in Texas and Nashville, in addition to being a radio DJ in places like Portland, drifting through the country while (somehow) never giving up on his dreams.

And just like his career, he struggled quite a bit in his earlier marriages too, possibly most famously during his marriage to his first wife, Martha Matthews. In his 2015 memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life, Willie detailed some of their most outrageous fights, which included Martha throwing a fork so hard that it got stuck in Willie’s side.

But before we get into one that is even crazier, we need a little backstory on how they met.

Willie Meets Martha Matthews In Fort Worth, Texas

After being medically discharged from the Air Force in 1951, Willie started working as a radio DJ and enjoyed doing so, as he could play whatever music he wanted. He noted that he felt like he was on the cutting edge of a new movement, especially with the rising popularity of rock and roll, and he had a renewed sense of hope in the future of music.

In 1952, during his time as a DJ, Willie pulled up to a burger place, where a car hop in “a halter top and cut off jeans” took his order. As he recalls it:

“She was a dark-haired beauty, a full-blooded Cherokee. Her eyes set my soul on fire, and her name was Martha Jewel.”

They became fast friends, and after dating for a little while, they ran off and got married in October of 1952. Martha explained that her parents didn’t know anything about it (she was 16 and Willie was 19), because her mother didn’t want her to get married so young.

They kind of drifted around America as newlyweds, which was fun, but they were both drinking a lot and fought quite a bit too, Willie explained:

“We had a lot of fun together but we fought, and we both were drinking a lot in those days.”

Eventually, they found themselves with three young children living in Nashville, Tennessee, as Willie was trying to get his writing career going after trying out several cities in Texas and even on the west coast.

Willie Moves His Family To Nashville To Start His Songwriting Career

In the aforementioned book, Willie detailed how, at 27-years old in 1960, he was “broke as the Ten Commandments” and there was a strain on his marriage for obvious reasons. He started a job as an encyclopedia salesmen to try to make ends meet, in addition to continuing his writing and pursuing his passions.

After Martha and his children arrived in Music City, Willie moved them into a “nasty little trailer” that was $25 to rent per week:

“My heart was warmed by the arrival of my wife Martha and the kids, who had been staying with her folks in Waco. But the warmth didn’t last for long. All we could afford was a nasty little trailer that sat between a used-car lot and a cemetery.

Rent was $25 a week. My salesman’s commissions weren’t nearly that much. Martha got a waitress job and kept us afloat. I was grateful for this hardworking woman, but I was also humiliated.”

He started hanging around Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in an attempt to meet the local musicians and writers, in addition to trying to drown some of his sorrows, I assume. And as Willie has noted many times before, drinking made him mean, and he started to get jealous of the thoughts of his wife with another man… whether he had real reason to worry or not.

And one time, they got into it so bad, Martha bit his finger so hard she got down “to the bone”:

“The more I drank, the further I fell into the depths of despair and jealousy. Even though I might go off with a willing woman, I couldn’t stand the idea of Martha with another man.

To her credit, she didn’t put up with my hypocrisy, but our fights were brutal: one time, she bit my index finger to the bone. I worried about what that would do to my guitar picking.”

He didn’t elaborate on what led to that fight, but I’d pay a lot of money to find out, though I have to imagine, based on everything in his book, it was probably something really stupid.

Luckily, it didn’t seem to hurt his guitar playing skills one little bit, but I have to imagine it hurt like hell, and I’d really love to hear Martha’s side of the story, though she passed away many years ago in December of 1989.

Willie And Martha Get Divorced After 10 Years Of Marriage

Martha and Willie were clearly very off-and-on, and after they’d have one of their knockdown, drag-out battles, Willie says she would run off with their kids and he wouldn’t hear from her for a couple days. He admitted he’d do the same thing.

Needless to say, they wound up getting divorced after 10 years together, and Willie was married three other times. In the end, though, it did work out for Willie when he married his current wife Annie in 1991. The pair has been together ever since, and have two musician children of their own together, Lukas and Micah.

Willie says marrying Annie is the best decision he ever made:

“Love is love. And in the mid-eighties I fell head over heels in love with Ann Marie D’Angelo, called Annie. Never had met a woman like her before.

Marrying Annie wasn’t complicated at all. It’s about the smartest thing I ever did. I can say that because, 34 years after we first met, we’re still together and going strong.”

All’s well that ends well, with all of your fingers intact… or something like that.

And if you’re more into documentary’s and TV than reading, there’s a new Taylor Sheridan-produced docuseries called Willie Nelson & Family currently streaming on Paramount + that is full of stories like this and tales of his outlaw life.

I highly recommend checking it out, and you can watch the trailer below.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock