Country music has created its fair share of superstars, icons and tragic figures, from Brooks & Dunn to Hank Williams to Patsy Cline; charlatans and chanteuses; white-hatted good guys like George Strait and black-clad firebrands like Johnny Cash. But it’s also the lone American musical genre to also produce a sage among its ranks: Willie Nelson. He’s that rare caliber of artist who can be signified by one name. His book The Tao of Willie might not quite be a spiritual tome, but it’s not quite a put-on, either. And even as he nears octogenarian status, he’s as liable to record with young bucks like Kid Rock, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg and Ryan Adams as he is to pay a half-century’s worth of respect to his forebearers: Ray Price, Faron Young, Hank Snow. Add his political stances, arguing for clean bio-fuel, marijuana reform, and founding Farm Aid and his activism, generosity of spirit and unabated songwriting stand out at an age when many of his peers might turn reclusive.
That half of his career was spent as a moderately successful songwriter along Nashville’s Music Row throughout the 1960s and a non-charting non-entity as a singer on his own does not necessarily lend itself to the stuff of legend. In fact, Willie hit his midlife crisis with little to show for it. Ostracized from the conservative braintrust of Nashville, with his home and compound in Ridgetop, Tennessee, burned to the ground, when the 1970s rang in, Willie had retired from the music industry and was holed up deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Born in hard-scrabble farming community Abbott, Texas, Nelson was the son of two guitar-picking parents and raised by grandparents who taught shape-note singing in mass. Nelson himself began writing poetry and songs at the age of four. So a return to Texas was a return to his roots. And in Willie, there was a mingling of country music’s honky-tonk, hillbilly, hokum, polka and western swing roots with rock’s counterculture mindfulness for Kahlil Gibran, the Tao te Ching, and the mind-opening effects of marijuana. Even as he embraced his role as an outlaw straight out of the Old West, Willie also began to transcend the confines of country music. His catalog covers the many strands of 20th century American music: pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, rock, country, soul, etc. all get braided together into one in Willie. Both sacred and profane, Willie continues to stand as music’s most sage of icons.
The Beginning (Country Willie)
Shoe shiner, member of a polka band, guitarist in his brother-in-law's western swing band, disc jockey in both San Antonio, Texas, and Portland, Oregon — Willie Nelson was many things before he got $100 for the rights to his song "Family Bible," making him a bona fide paid songwriter. But he'd been writing songs since the age of four, so when he relocated to Nashville in the early '60s, he wrote three hit singles in a matter of a few weeks: "Hello Walls" for Faron Young, "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Ray Price. But he was cutting many more songs than that and this box set documents the man's proficiency. His wit is evident on numbers like "Mr. Record Man," "One in a Row" and "Half a Man" and his own peculiar way of delivering a song vocally is already evident. Seemingly flat as if talking rather than singing, Nelson's dragging behind on the beat showed him as much a jazz singer as a country singer.
The Country Outlier
"Do you know why you're here?" With that question begins one of history's strangest country records, especially when Willie's answer comes: "There's great confusion on earthâ€¦and the voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest and I have been selected as the most likely candidate." Buyers were confused by Yesterday's Wine as well, a mystical record on birth and mortality cloaked in a roughneck country sleeve. Yes, Willie's voice is imperfect on his first concept album, and more mystical than the others that followed, Phases & Stages or Redheaded Stranger. But some of his gentlest songs come to the fore here, be they the lilting waltz medley of "These Are Difficult Times/Remember the Good Times" or the melancholic "December Day." Even the celebratory title cut feels repentant while "Me and Paul" is one of his finest odes to friendship.
One glance at this gaudy cover photo of Willie Nelson and you'd think he'd already rebelled against the strictures of Nashville: leather jacket, bug-eyed goggles, bellbottoms, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Yes, this oft-overlooked RCA album was released between Willie's retirement from Music Row, his relocation to the more mellow climes of Austin, Texas, and his revival as a long-haired hippie outlaw. Depicted as a rock star, this album is instead a composed, carefully gradated album of mostly acoustic country-folk numbers, from future hit "Good Hearted Woman" to the mellow travelogue of "London." The title track is a hidden gem of the man's hefty songbook though, a plain sung break-up number where the pain looms larger than the explanation.
The Country Outlaw
Music critics are a notoriously lazy bunch. Take the critical shorthand that accompanies Willie Nelson's stark and trailblazing Red Headed Stranger. Often referred to as both the first "Outlaw Country" album and the first conceptual country album, in reality, it's neither. For the former claim, Willie's riding partner Waylon Jennings beat him to the punch with 1973's Honky Tonk Heroes. As for the latter, hell, it's not even Willie's first concept album (see the he said/she said of 1974's Phases and Stages, 1971's cosmic-tinged Yesterday's Wine, or even the gimmicky country fair fare of 1968's Texas in My Soul).
Even shorn of such hyperbole, Red Headed Stranger remains a classic, not just for country music but singer-songwriters the world over who always seek to strip things to essentials. His first album recorded for Columbia (after two classic and genre-expanding albums Shotgun Willie and Phases for Atlantic — not to mention an early career toiling in the country-politan salt mines of RCA and Liberty), Willie made a risky gambit right out of the gate. Rather than embellish his already polished songcraft or put down more of the fine soulful country songs he had steadily been releasing throughout the decade, Willie took his crack touring band (consisting of sister Bobbie Nelson, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, bassist Bee Spears and others) to an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas and stripped everything to the bone. Entwining a skeletal tale about a murderous preacher around a minor song from the Acuff-Rose songbook ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"), Willie then juxtaposed it with gentle instrumental waltzes like "Bandera" and "Just As I Am" to make a haunting and subtle song cycle that remains a touchstone to this day.
The moment Willie Nelson was dropped from RCA's roster, Atlantic Records' sharp-eared Jerry Wexler went a-courting down in Texas. While Nashville producers like Felton Jarvis and Chet Atkins knew only to cloak everything that went through their hit factories with countrypolitan sheen, Wexler knew Willie Nelson wouldn't take to such studio polish. He signed him to Atlantic Records' short-lived country division and brought him up to New York City to record. Most crucially, he let Willie handpick his players. The result is Shotgun Willie, the funkiest of country records. The title track, about a speed freak "biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair" gets delivered with a horn-punched slink. Elsewhere, brewhaus polka, roadhouse funk, and Django's jazz emerge from the grooves. With this album, the true Willie began to emerge from country music's chrysalis and crest.
The Bash Brothers of '88, the murderous 1927 tandem of Ruth and Gehrig — those are the true peers for Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings by the mid '70s. Even the most casual of swings was a hit, every hit froze-roped to the top of the charts and stayed there. (See Wanted: The Outlaws, a compilation album cobbled together from previously-released studio scrapple that became the first country album to go platinum). From Redheaded Stranger on through casually tossed-off affairs such as this 1978 album, Willie and Waylon are just having fun. There's the instant classic "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," meticulous ballads like "It's Not Supposed to be That Way" and crude yet charming fare like "I Can Get Off On You." Almost all of Willie's collaborations would feel as laissez-faire but not all of them are as fun a ride as this.
The Great Interpreter
By late 1977, the outlaw movement, headed up by Willie and Waylon, had not only roared into Nashville shooting up the place, but also shot to the top of the country charts, with Wanted! The Outlaws being the first country album to sell a million copies. But once outlaws are hailed as heroes, setting up as the new establishment, what's left to rebel against? In the case of Willie, he rebelled against his own rough-hewn persona with Stardust, an endearing and sterling set culled from the pages of the Great American Songbook. Tin Pan Alley chestnuts, jazz standards and frothy pop were all channeled through Willie's voice to great effect, even if record executives thought it was a terrible idea certain to scotch the Outlaws' sales momentum. With a delivery that once sounded odd and erratic — but now seems preternatural in hindsight — it established Nelson as his generation's great song interpreter and Stardust rose to be a stratospheric success, going platinum some 18 times over.
Recorded at Atlantic Recording Studios in 1973 in between the country-funk of Shotgun Willie and the more conceptual boot-scoot of Phases & Stages, but not released until after the success of Redheaded Stranger, The Troublemaker marks Willie's first foray into tackling a songbook, presaging efforts like To Lefty From Willie and Stardust. For this, he dusts off the old family hymnal for an album's worth of gospel. But don't think that Willie is gonna adhere to a certain perspective though, as the title track makes clear. Foregrounded is the jazzy interplay of his band rather than the solemn message of the Lord. Be it James Clayton Day's steel guitar licks on "Uncloudy Day," the quick shuffle of "There is a Fountain" and the harmonizing of Sammi Smith and Doug Sahm on "Where the Soul Never Dies" not to mention the man's own licks on the freewheeling "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," Willie and Family come first on this album.
The Road Warrior
"Willie & Family" is always an umbrella: true kin, close friends, bandmates, musicians in town, drinkin' and golfin' buddies. And it was on the strength of the muscular live shows that Willie & Family would throw every Fourth of July and at the Armadillo World Headquarters that convinced a record label like Columbia to sign him. Live, Willie's band was a variant of the Allman Brothers Band, with two bassists, two drummers, dueling guitars that could rock enough for the rednecks yet jam into the stratosphere enough for the longhairs. Yet Willie's studio albums never could quite harness that live horsepower, so this double-album set (recorded at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe in 1978) is the best document out there. They shift into overdrive on "If You've Got the Money," take sharp hairpin musical turns (see the "Red Headed Stranger Medley"), then downshift into "If You Can Touch Her at All" and some solemn gospel numbers. Guests like Johnny Paycheck and Emmylou Harris join in and this remains one of the more rewarding double live albums in an era full of them.
"To live outside the law you must be honest," the Dylan lyric goes, and Willie Nelson, outlaw that he is, has always been honest with his loves, musical or medicinal. Musically, he loved standards and gospel, so that he did the unthinkable at the height of "Outlaw"-mania in cutting albums of that genre rather than boot-scuffing honky-tonk. And in case you've been in a cave since Willie burned one on the White House roof during the Carter Administration, Willie likes the weed. So much that he finally tackled the lone musical form he had never previously imbibed, reggae. It's not great by a long shot, but Countryman does have its moments. There's the mix of pedal steel and chicken-scratch guitar on "How Long is Forever," the dubbed-out spaces of "Sittin' Here in Limbo" and a fine read of "The Harder They Come." In a career of detours, this is one of the most unexpected.
Willie Nelson's chart run nearly coincided with his much publicized IRS problems. But after the Feds were paid, of more concern was that much of his '80s and '90s studio output didn't quite equal the caliber of his previous work. Signed to Island near the end of the '90s, he released the somber and sparse (and highly recommended Spirit) and then convened in an abandoned movie theater in Oxnard, California, with his sister and longtime bandmate Bobbie, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, singer Emmylou Harris and famed U2/ Peter Gabriel producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois, a master of atmosphere, surrounds Willie with plenty of new textures: spaghetti western dust clouds, nourish guitar lines, Latin as well as Afro-Cuban rhythms. The percussion gives many of these Nelson standards an invigorating lilt: there's a two-step for "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," a tango for "My Own Peculiar Way," rolling snares on "I Never Cared for You." Some 40 decades into his recording career, it showed could still embrace change while remaining unchanged himself.