Of Willie’s numerous forays into hybrids of country and pop in the late 1960s and early 70s, My Own Peculiar Way is probably the most consistent. The backing arrangements are all reasonably suited to the music, unlike the jarring discontinuities of Willie Nelson & Family or the revolting and overbearing schlock of Laying My Burdens Down. That isn’t to say this is a great album. It is unambitious. But it is also pleasant enough.
The Hungry Years — not to be confused with a budget-priced compilation album from the early 1980s by the same name — is one of the most obscure albums in Willie Nelson’s vast catalog. The original sessions were in 1976 at Studio in the Country, located in between Bogalusa and Varnado, Louisiana. There were overdubs in 1978, then the tapes were shelved. They were found in a deteriorated state in the late 1980s, restored, and then further overdubs were added in 1989 and 1991. Amidst Willie’s troubles with the IRS, he negotiated the release of The I.R.S. Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, of which a significant portion of the sales were committed to his tax debt (which was mostly accumulated interest and penalties, actually). The I.R.S. Tapes needed to go multi-platinum in order to cover the tax debt, which was overly optimistic. It was sold by mail via 1-800 telephone numbers, supported by TV ads. Starting around June of 1991, The Hungry Years was offered to callers as an add-on. It is not clear that The Hungry Years was ever advertised aside from being mentioned to people calling the 1-800 numbers seeking the I.R.S. Tapes album. But The Television Group, the Austin, Texas company running the telemarketing, went into bankruptcy, and by February of 1992 the 1-800 numbers were shut down. While The I.R.S. Tapes was eventually made available in regular stores, it does not appear that The Hungry Years was ever sold through conventional channels like brick-and-mortar music stores. So that means this album was only ever commercially available for less than a year, and even then only through an obscure call-in mail-order program. Some discographies neglect to even mention that it exists.
The sound of the album falls somewhere between Sings Kristofferson and To Lefty From Willie. The songs draw from the likes of Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka. These were respected songwriters at the time, and even Elvis covered Anka’s “Solitaire” around this time. Their songs have not aged all that well, though, because they fit too comfortably into the mold of being laments of the white patriarch dealing with having to be an “individual” after second-wave feminism and the decline of trade unionism. Overall, there are also a few too many little curlicues and other ornate features added to the music here. It might be the overdub sessions — not one, not two, but three — spread out over 15 years that contribute to that, but Willie’s own contributions are partly to blame as well. His vocals are a little overwrought sometimes, with too much vibrato and too often forced into the upper register of his vocal range. Though even guest Emmylou Harris does the same on one song (“When I Stop Dreaming“). He does add some interesting guitar solos on Trigger. His sister Bobbie gets a good amount of time in the spotlight, which is nice.
There are all sorts of good bits on this album. The biggest problem is that those good bits don’t ever come together in any unified and coherent way. They just float around among more dubious elements and arrangements that are a bit off. For instance, the 1989 overdubs add a horn section — one of the only times one of Willie’s albums tried to recreate the style of Shotgun Willie. But Shotgun Willie had horn arrangements in a classic soul style. These are merely passable approximations. The most sympathetic performance is probably the last song, “Carefree Moments.” But the song itself is not particularly well-written, and a good performance can’t remedy that problem. So this album always threatens to be really good, but seems to consistently fall short.
This rare album is no lost classic. Yet considering the sorry state of so many of Willie’s albums from the 1980s and early 90s, this was certainly better by comparison.
Willie ups the folk-rock influence on this one. There are a few very decent performances here, like “Crazy Arms” and “Pins and Needles (In My Heart).” Although many of Willie’s early recordings that looked toward pop/rock music fizzled, the “folk” aspect of this means that there are no cheesy backing strings or horns, and very minimal backing vocals (on “Pins and Needles” the backing vocals recall certain Johnny Cash recordings an anticipate Neko Case‘s entire solo career). “Everybody’s Talkin'” is a big swing and miss though. Nothing here is especially memorable, but, overall, this is slightly better than Willie’s next couple RCA albums, which doesn’t exactly say a whole lot. As another reviewer astutely put it, “All in all, Both Sides Now is a lackluster effort that does hint at his future direction, though it does so rather obliquely.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Willie Nelson’s album displayed a clear interest in what was happening in rock/pop music. He had a few years of national touring under his belt, and had been exposed to the wider world somewhat. His records still adhered to the dictates of the Nashville system, but tried to combine Nashville country with pop/rock. The thing was, these were somewhat timid attempts. Willie latched on to only the most conservative pop of the day. He also still clung to an old-fashioned way of singing for the most part. It was as if he took a correspondence course on how to be a successful singer and he dutifully followed a list of instructions that included “Enunciate clearly.” In a way, he still sang like a louder, southern Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. After his Nashville home burned, and he and his band briefly relocated to Texas under communal conditions, he finally did summon the courage to try bolder things with his music. That eventually led him to Atlantic Records in New York, where he made a string of classic albums and achieved stardom.
Laying My Burdens Down displays clear attempts to look beyond country music. The results aren’t as awkward as on the following year’s Willie Nelson & Family, but they are cheesier. The backing vocals retain a little of the classic Nashville feel, though they make overt attempts to combine pentecostal gospel chorus and 5th Dimension-style pop affectations. The horn arrangements lean heavily on the style of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. Willie does play his acoustic guitar Trigger some, but also an overbearing electric guitar much of the time. In general, his guitar playing is aimless and confused. The guitar ranges from being overbearing to indistinctly cluttered. The strings are fine, if a little cheesy. Willie’s vocals show signs of moving beyond the old crooning style, but only tentatively. It would be a few more years before his vocals settled into the style that helped make him a superstar. This album isn’t terrible. It still is a lesser Nelson effort. Some of the backing vocals and other orchestration was stripped away on a few songs for Naked Willie, released almost four decades later, which provides a somewhat contrasting perspective. It is curious to think about how Willie’s interests in rock and the counterculture were problematic because he was a southern outsider, not able (if willing) to step into that milieu directly, but also having no one at his Nashville-based record label able (if willing) to help him connect with the predominantly northern rock music world. Willie was kind of stuck between two incompatible worlds — a bit like the film Electra Glide in Blue from a few years later. So this remains a transitional effort that pales in comparison to what hindsight shows was just around the corner. Yet this does retain some kitsch value.
A common opinion is that Willie Nelson’s second full-length album Here’s Willie Nelson was a step back from his debut …And Then I Wrote. Those people often say that this is “Nashville cliché”, referring to the “countrypolitan” style it evinces. But a response to all that should be, “And?” Yes, Here’s Willie Nelson fits in the mold of the weepy drama of the “Nashville Sound” — a close comparison would be Skeeter Davis‘ “End of the World.” But it really represents the best possible execution of the Nashville Sound.
There are a couple of things that boost this album. First is producer Tommy Allsup. He was a touring member of The Crickets and once lost a coin flip to Ritchie Valens such that he lost a seat and was not on the plane that crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959 that killed Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Allsup brings out the best in the instrumental performances, accentuating the spark and energy of all the performers and balancing Willie’s vocals with the orchestration. He eschews the prominent focus on Nelson’s vocals evident on his debut. Surprisingly, pushing the vocals down a little in the mix works well.
Another key factor in the album’s success is the arranging work of Ernie Freeman and Jimmy Day. The orchestral treatments by Freeman are really quite excellent and much better than the formulaic leftovers that characterized Willie’s albums later in the decade for the RCA Victor label. Each song gets its own distinct character, matched to the tone of each song. Just check the calmly sizzling trills and glissandos from the strings on the bluesy closer “Home Motel,” and contrast the pastoral elegance and more complex harmonic blocking of “Half of Man” or the busy energy of the strings on “Take My Word,” or the juxtaposition of pedal steel guitar with sweeping string orchestration and indistinct backing vocal chorus of “Second Fiddle” where the orchestra briefly trades off with a solitary country fiddle solo and closes with a country/Euro-classical solo fiddle flourish. “The Way You See Me” displays masterful balancing of traded instrumental backing behind Willie’s insistent singing and a gently and slowly walking bass — alternating the more prominent voicing between fiddle, piano and pedal steel guitar in a way that reflects the song’s protagonist’s attempt to put up a dignified and happy facade to conceal his heartbroken loneliness. The vocal choruses combine both male and female voices, which adds a rich textural/timbral dimension. “Lonely Little Mansion” use sustained vocal backing to add a kind of protestant church aesthetic of serene, austere, atmospherics, somewhat like what Johnny Cash used on songs like the B-side “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” But then “The Last Letter” uses the vocal chorus’ expanding vibrato to emphasize a slight polyrhythm against the song’s core waltz rhythm. The orchestration is never overly complex or abstract. Yet there is still clearly much more effort put into it than on so many other Nashville sound recordings of the day.
After releasing his debut, Willie lamented that he wasted too many good songs on it. In other words, he felt the album was too good and should have been watered down! Unfortunately, that sort of thinking would prevail all too often over his long career. But it is also kind of a self-important statement, because it implies that his own songwriting was inherently better than that of cover songs he might record. Here’s Willie Nelson features a mix of original songs and covers. The covers are quite good though! There is absolutely nothing wrong with something like “Feed It a Memory” or a chestnut like “Roly Poly.” The stately elegance of a song like “Things I Might Have Been” captures the frustrated aspirations that perfectly fits the “countrypolitan” style. He may choose some covers rather than all originals here, but nothing is watered down.
Willie’s singing here is much looser and relaxed than on his recordings from later in the 1960s. He also tempers the “jazzy” affectations of his debut somewhat. Though those tendencies are still here. He still sings with a vibrato-less tone way behind the beat. On the opener, the western swing staple “Roly Poly,” he gets so far behind the beat that he barely finishes the verse he’s on before the band has moved on to another part of the song! In these various ways he finds a balance that suits the “countrypolitan” style better than on any of his other recordings in that style. His singing, honestly, isn’t always particularly great on the second side of the album. But it is never bad. But for the most part Willie singing on record became less welcoming for many years, until he passed through a sort of existential personal crisis in the early 1970s.
“Take My Word” is a weaker offering (but is also the shortest song here), as is “Let Me Talk to You,” with Willie limping along with jazzily dissonant phrasing. And, no, nothing here quite matches the heights of the best songs on the debut …And Then I Wrote. But this album still avoids the more jarring discontinuities between Willie’s singing and the studio band’s performances that appeared on his debut, and it manages to be more consistent on the whole. Frankly, Willie wouldn’t make a record this uniformly rewarding until 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine.
Even if Good Times isn’t Willie’s best early (pre-fame) album, an argument can be made that it is his most important. All his prior albums on the RCA Victor label in the 1960s looked back to styles that had already been established by other artists. Willie just dropped in his own songs and vocals. Texas in My Soul — amazingly, also released in 1968 — is a Nashville take on western swing and honky tonk that was more popular a decade or two earlier, with really stiff vocals and feigned gravitas. Willie appeared on these early album covers wearing a suit, or dressed as a country bumpkin. He was acceding to industry demands and fitting himself into the mold of what the Nashville music machine deemed salable. Suddenly, though, Willie sounded more relaxed and…modern. This album’s cover features a photo of Nelson in casual attire on a golf course green (he actually really liked golf) with his arms wrapped around some young woman helping her putt, a goofy grin on his face. The photo makes a number of allusions. For one, the presence of the woman and Willie’s grin suggest sexism and patriarchy. Willie’s clothes and association with golf suggest middle class economic security. And his grin and the title lettering stating “Good Times” suggest a shift away from they way he was previously marketed as either a “serious” songwriter or an “authentic” country hick — or both, as kind of an anthropological cultural translator or “cross-over” envoy — instead hinting at a kind of sarcastic and ironic distance. Many of these things seem to stand in conflict with one another. But most importantly there were now multiple plausible meanings and messages. These presented a sort of challenge. How would these conflicts be resolved?
This is an early appearance of the style that would develop into the likes of The Words Don’t Fit the Picture. As another reviewer put it, “Nothing here screams chart topping hit and it must have been nightmare for recording company who wanted to sell this, on the other hand music actually stands the test of time quite nicely and for once it doesn’t sound dated at all but actually timeless. ” His original songs, some co-written with his then-wife Shirley, make extensive use of irony. He had used irony before (“Hello Walls,” “Undo the Right”), but now this was a more melancholy and existential irony. On the title track, “Good Times,” he is describing sarcastically the suburban, middle-class “American Dream” (and the Viet Nam War) alongside innocent childhood activities. This was the sort of stuff much more prevalent in “rock” and rock-influenced pop music of the day. “December Day” even deploys jazzy chords that use dissonance that was (and still is) quite unusual for country music. These descriptions only fit side one of the album though. On side two, Willie is back within the confines of the “Nashville Sound,” with plenty of string orchestration, a little pedal steel guitar, coy backing vocal choruses, and the other usual Nashville trappings. Now, the “typical Nashville” stuff on side two is not bad, and actually is better than many of Willie’s other forays into that territory. But there is a sense of retreat. It is very hard to listen to this now and not lament how much better this album would have been if the whole thing was done in the pared-back acoustic style of side one.
When Willie really hit it big in the mid-1970s, he had a reputation for bringing together rock and country audiences. The fact that he was interested in the music of each of those disparate demographics first made an appearance on Good Times. He hadn’t quite figured out how to balance his appeal to both of those frequently antagonistic listening audiences yet, but this was kind of a trial run. He would continue to tinker and experiment in this direction in to the early 1970s, though as he remained within the Nashville system there was really no way to advance Willie’s line of thinking far enough. It was when he went to New York and teamed up with rock/soul/R&B people that everything finally fell into place on record.
Here’s a rather forgotten early Willie Nelson LP that is actually among his better early albums, relatively speaking. Recorded in Nashville, this teamed Willie with producer Felton Jarvis after RCA Records’ main producer Chet Atkins was too busy to handle the recording sessions. This proves to be a boon for the recordings, by sparing them from Atkins’ unsympathetic production style and its usual cloying bourgeois and petite-bourgeois aspirations evident on the same year’s The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs), for instance. This is an album recorded much the same way as Country Willie — His Own Songs (1965), another decent early Willie Nelson album. There is only one of Nelson’s own compositions here. These are mostly cover songs. This album can still be described as having the Nashville sound, but it retains a honky tonk influence. Nelson would return to honky tonk on and off again for his entire career. The opening “Make Way for a Better Man” is good, with understated backing orchestration. Other songs like “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” are decent too, even though the guitar and vocals sometimes sink into a leaden rhythm. There are signs that there was perhaps insufficient rehearsal, and some of these recordings might be first takes. But even if the recordings seem relatively raw at times, that actually suits Willie’s style of singing — actually being crucial to the success of later albums like Yesterday’s Wine and Phases and Stages. There are some odd song choices here, like the 1960s pop staple “What Now My Love [“Et maintenant”]” (even The Temptations released a version of the song in ’67). Willie’s own “One in a Row” is also one of his lesser compositions — recorded here in the same ornate style as “What Now My Love.” On the whole, this holds up well enough all the way through. It isn’t a great album, and it certainly doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from other country albums of the day, but it has a sort of charm in its predictability and familiar approach. As for this album being mostly forgotten, at this writing, the album is not even listed in the Musicbrainz database and there is no track listing in the RateYourMusic database; there is also no review on AllMusic or on RateYourMusic. It was, however, one of his more commercially successful albums at the time, peaking higher on the country music “charts” than any of his other pre-Red Headed Stranger albums.
Willie Nelson – The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs) RCA LSP-3858 (1967)
One of the biggest problem’s with Willie’s singing on his RCA albums in the 1960s was his tendency to over-enunciate. This really put him in a rhythmic straitjacket, and limited his options for vocal phrasing. Aside from the inherent timbre of his voice, one of his greatest strengths as a vocalist was his idiosyncratic, non-conformist rhythmic phrasing — already evident to some degree on his debut album …And Then I Wrote but generally scaled back over the following decade. The sort of ragged, welcoming, down-home glory that characterized his most successful recordings from the mid-1970s on finds no room in a typical Nashville “countrypolitan” production style. But that was kind of the point of middlebrow countrypolitan music, which epitomized the (still racist and patriarchal) “golden age” of post-WWII American prosperity in which ordinary, uneducated workers saw rising living standards and could see themselves as part of a newly emerging middle class with its own self-styled sophistication — something that might be described as attempting to project an aura of sophistication beyond class boundaries via ideas about “proper” diction and enunciation cribbed from upper classes and merged with lower-class folk/country musical forms. Looked at another way, the temporary willingness of elite classes to permit rising working and middle classes was fostered by inculcating country music listeners with upper-class values and the speech patterns and more urban culture that went along with those values (when elites withdrew their permissive and benevolent attitude starting in the 1970s, the countrypolitan style faded almost in lockstep and is now commonly derided as low-class and unsophisticated). When it came to Willie Nelson’s career, the thing was, no matter how many great songs he wrote — and he was writing many — he just wasn’t cut out to follow in the footsteps of someone like Patsy Cline, at least not for long. In the end, Willie was better suited to being a pot-smoking, feel-good layabout with an endearing but weird way of singing that was largely incompatible with the implicit “countrypolitan” agenda of ascending (and reinforcing) a social hierarchy to find a comfortable place in it. Willie was, in a way, proud of his humble roots — post-fame, he often payed tribute to his childhood musical influences, who were always working-class heroes. There was room for all sorts of things in Willie best music, but not on The Party’s Over.
The title track here is a keeper, and a “A Moment Isn’t Very Long” clings to enough of a honky tonk feel to be interesting for the first half. But there isn’t much else here to particularly recommend. This isn’t a bad record by any means, but Willie is choosing to play by a strange set of rules. The lachrymose strings on “To Make a Long Story Short (She’s Gone)” epitomize the bland melodrama that swallows most of this. Excepting Good Times, Willie’s albums got somewhat less interesting in the late 60s, before picking up again in the 70s and then running away with the hearts and minds of listeners by the middle of that decade.
Here is an album that sort of epitomizes the problems with Willie’s early recordings for RCA. While it is common to hear that Willie’s recordings while part of the Nashville music machine are weighed down by the production, that is somewhat misleading. Certainly there were some recordings for RCA that were bloated with orchestration and effects that didn’t work — usually due to poor arrangements more than anything. But most of Willie’s RCA recordings in the mid-1960s had fairly minimal accompaniment. The biggest problem was that he sounded stiff, forcing himself into a “commercial” sound like a square peg in a round hole, coupled with an unfortunately willingness to pander to commercial gimmicks. Texas in My Soul is a prime example of Willie’s vocals sounding stiff, as he tries to feign gravitas by singing in a crooner’s style where he holds notes in a resonant way. In the early 70s he would start to move away from this style of singing, and would shed the last vestiges before his rise to fame in the mid-70s. The last part of the album gives way to western swing, which would remain a kind of self-indulgent interest throughout Willie’s career. The title track is a western swing number and is the best thing here. But, all in all, this is a lesser album.
Most musical artists still recording past the age of 70 tend to slow down and mellow out. There are exceptions of course (Yoko Ono, Elza Soares, Tom Zé, Scott Walker). But they tend to just prove the rule. In the twilight of his life and career, Willie Nelson has certainly not slowed down, still cranking out albums and touring incessantly, but he has mellowed some. In particular, he has indulged his fondness for western swing more and more often. There is some of that here. Though mostly God’s Problem Child emphasizes the slick contemporary country style of many of producer Buddy Cannon‘s collaborations with Willie. The best thing here is probably the novelty song “Not Dead Yet,” reminiscent of Tom T. Hall or Johnny Cash. It is an age-appropriate song for the 84-year-old Nelson. On the whole, this is just another of those decent but unremarkable albums of which Willie has so many.