Willie Nelson. Damn Right.
By David McGee
Experts at assembling compelling box sets, the folks at Columbia/Legacy have raised the bar to a daunting standard with the latest Willie Nelson retrospective, an awesome four-CD box set appropriately titled One Hell Of a Ride. Bookended by two versions of one of Willie’s earliest original tunes, "When I've Sang My Last Hillbilly Song"—the first being Willie's original, austere (vocal-guitar), tinny recording executed at radio station KBOP in Pleasanton, TX, in 1954, and the last a full band rendition from 2007 featuring rich, ambient sound, Mickey Raphael's mournful harmonica moans, sister Bobbie Nelson's church piano, Willie's own stinging, gut-string guitar solos and understated, bluesy vocal, and, not insignificantly, a less resigned attitude than the 1954 version—One Hell Of a Ride does what a good box set should: cover the basic curriculum and then some, and inspire casual and the most ardent fans alike to explore the catalogue with new ears for deeper hues of heretofore unnoticed musical and emotional complexity.
Those new to the arc of this American original's transcendent musical journey—surely there are some—will also wind up compelled by the tart taste of various tracks to search out the albums that spawned them and begin their own investigation into the red-headed stranger's uncompromising art. Many truths reveal themselves over the course of these four discs, none particularly startling or revelatory to anyone who has followed Willie's career, but nonetheless worth emphasizing because so few have succeeded in carving out so distinctive and eclectic a career while remaining relevant more than 50 years on. When he hasn't been serving up some beautiful, self-penned poetry in song, as he does predominately on the first three discs of this set, he makes bold, impeccable choices in cover material, which he promptly brands with an indelible stamp, even when it's a song presumed to be owned by another artist: consider his dramatic, string-enhanced, Chips Moman-produced rendition of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," and the brisk, country shuffle he employs to bring a fresh, celebratory feel to Paul Simon's "Graceland," one of many startling moments on his Don Was-produced gem, Across the Borderline. As well, the duet tracks reveal an artist both confident of his place in the universe—to the point where he can stand toe-to-toe with Ray Charles on the beautiful, Billy Sherrill-produced lament, "Seven Spanish Angels"—and always ready to make a larger point, as he does in a rousing 1984 rendition of Hank Snow's classic "I'm Moving On" with none other than Hank Snow pitching in a couple of smoking hot verses of his own, vital and striking every time he enters; at a time when the industry Snow helped build had almost forgotten him, Willie made sure others didn't. This selfless quality marks Willie's career, willing as he's been to strike out for uncharted territory, to accept or generate left-field ideas and make them memorable, and always tip his hat in the direction of other masters who have made their mark on him (exemplified by the inclusion of cuts from tribute albums dedicated to the songs of Lefty Frizzell and Kris Kristofferson, and samples from his two wonderful collections of pop songs from the giants of the Great American Songbook, Stardust and Somewhere Over the Rainbow).
ONE HELL OF A RIDE
In the big, beating heart of his body of work highlighted on the latter part of disc one and the entirety of disc two, he does this over and over again on selections culled from the monumental '70s albums for RCA, Atlantic and Columbia, beginning with Yesterday's Wine and embracing Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, Red Headed Stranger, and The Sound In Your Mind, culminating in the staggering, unpredictable breakthrough of the classic pop renderings comprising 1978's mega-hit Stardust, an album that stayed on the country charts for nearly 10 years and remained in the pop 200 for more than two years. Equally startling, arguably, is the development charted in disc one's first half, which begins in the aforementioned Texas radio station in 1954, with Willie in serious vocal debt to Lefty Frizzell. In the ensuing numbers we hear him systematically crafting a signature sound vocally and instrumentally (and let it be noted that however much he has scorned the mainstream country business, Willie, of his own volition and at the behest of producers, has supported or supplanted his own band at times with strictly A team Nashville and Memphis sidemen whose resumes are broad, deep and daunting), and demonstrating remarkable growth as a writer, with the watershed moment of his early, struggling years being the 1961 tsunami of "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy," all cut during a two-album tenure with Liberty before Chet Atkins and RCA came calling. All of the usual suspects are accounted for along the way—Waylon, the Highwaymen, Hag, Emmylou, Lee Ann Womack, even Julio Iglesias—as well as the looming monuments of the Willie canon. In the end, what to do but tip your hat and stand in awe? It has indeed been a hell of a ride, for the ageless Willie and for those fans and fellow musicians who have followed his iconoclastic odyssey. Onward.
Fundamental Early Willie
Willie Nelson’s recording history has been amply documented over the years, but two collections in particular provide an exhilarating, enlightening window into his early development as a singer and songwriter. Both feature many familiar songs, but even these have rarely been heard in the utilitarian arrangements offered on 2003’s Crazy: The Demo Sessions and the 2006 three-CD collection, 54 Songs: Songwriter Sessions.
Lightly strummed chords on an acoustic guitar and a voice unadorned by anything save life lived close to the bone propel "Opportunity to Cry," the harrowing internal monologue of a heartbroken man pondering suicide and homicide all at once. So begins Crazy: The Demo Sessions, an object lesson in how dedicated craftsmanship fuses with soulful expression to produce timeless, provocative music. Recorded in the '60s for Pamper Music (a Nashville publishing company co-founded by Ray Price), the 18 digitally restored and re-mastered demos in this collection are tunes Nelson intended to pitch to other artists or hoped would be released under his own name. Indeed, many of the songs are familiar in cover versions (including the same small combo take on "Crazy" that Patsy Cline first heard) and several others have shown up on Willie's own albums over the years, most recently on 1998's Teatro. But few have ever heard them performed as they are here, especially the first eight mesmerizing tracks featuring Willie with little more than an acoustic guitar and his voice (Hank Cochran pitches in as co-writer and harmony vocals on the beautiful Louvin Brothers-like "What Do You Think Of Her Now"); the remaining cuts feature a honky tonkin' band, bopping out on "Things to Remember" and 1970's "I Gotta Get Drunk" (still a staple of Willie's live shows), getting bluer than blue on the tortured ballad, "Something To Think About," and proffering a brisk shuffle to enliven a familiar tale of persistent, masochistic love on the previously-unreleased-anywhere "I'm Still Here." Three unlisted "ghost tracks" round out the tunestack, and the enhanced CD also includes an interview with Hank Cochran, who recalls his and Willie's scuffling days in Nashville. But the song's the thing, and these 18 comprise one of the essential albums in a great artist's distinguished catalogue.
Released a week prior to his 2006 Ryan Adams-produced studio album, Songbird, the three-disc 54 Songs: Songwriter Sessions further fills a gap addressed by Crazy: The Demo Sessions. Spanning a time from the late '50s into the early '70s, the intimacy of Willie's performances here is haunting—he's close miked, and supported by minimal backing, for the most part, on a batch of tunes advancing more than a fair share of heartbreak, heartache and misfortune. Disc one is the rawest of the three—so raw, in fact, that there's an audible tape wobble on some cuts—but it's also the bleakest and most heart-rending, with devastating, low-key shuffles such as "I Don't Understand," and self-lacerating laments on the order of the turgid "I Let My Mind Wander," one of the more fuller productions with a moaning pedal steel, brush drums, sotto voce electric guitar and a Floyd Cramer-style blues piano. Discs two and three are a smidgen more fully realized as productions—Willie's heavily echoed voice on the early version of "Face of a Fighter" is full and rich, and his small combo backing, though out of step with the countrypolitan sound of mainstream '60s recordings, is polished and subtly nuanced. That said, it also seems evident Willie was purposely writing his way around country's uptown bent and staying close to a stripped down honky tonk sound that best illuminated his literate observations on love and loss. When he picks up the pace and broadens out the soundscape, as on the ebullient shuffle of his now familiar "Things to Remember," he foreshadows the serio-comic persona he would adopt in years ahead as he turned his own romantic fiascos into Chaplinesque melodramas. Disc by disc the character memorialized on the groundbreaking Red Headed Stranger album begins to come into focus; in that sense, 54 Songs sounds like the inner workings of a near-three-decade journey to self-definition that reached fruition on his stunning '70s concept albums. What a dress rehearsal it was, too.—David McGee