Willie Nelson – To Lefty From Willie Columbia KC 34695 (1977)
For those who don’t know the story, Willie Nelson got his first big break in Nashville in the early 1960s as a songwriter, penning big hits for Patsy Cline, Faron Young, etc. He also maintained a career as a solo performer, but with less commercial success. Labels like RCA signed him more to gain access to his songwriting than for his performing abilities. After some period of years, he developed associations with New York based record labels, relocated to the Austin, Texas area, and brought together the conservative, redneck country music crowd with the liberal, hippie rock crowd. He struck gold with The Red Headed Stranger, his first album for Columbia records, in 1975. The rest, as they say, is history.
Willie’s idea for a follow-up to the smash success of The Red Headed Stranger was to record a tribute album to honky-tonk legend of the early 1950s Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty From Willie. The record executives in New York City didn’t agree with the choice, and shelved the album. Willie went back to the studio and recorded the excellent — if under-appreciated — The Sound in Your Mind, which was released in 1976 as the proper follow-up to The Red Headed Stranger. Columbia also released a gospel album in late 1976 recorded way back in 1973 for Atlantic Records, The Troublemaker. After editing out a squeaky drum pedal from the recordings, Columbia eventually released To Lefty From Willie in 1977. Willie sings alright, if not at his best, and his sister Bobbie provides some excellent honky-tonk piano, but it’s hard not to see that the New York executives had a point in balking at the album. It’s a fairly low energy outing, held back by unambitious performances by the backing band, especially the persistently cartoonish bass of Bee Spears. This was recorded with Willie’s touring band, who sometimes lacked both musical muscle and finesse. It’s a fine enough album, in the end, but hardly the best Willie could do at this point in his career. Choice track: “Railroad Lady.”
Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger Columbia KC 33482 (1975)
After garnering his first taste of real success as a recording artist by switching to Atlantic Records in the early 1970s, Atlantic promptly closed up its fledgling country division. This left Willie to find a new label. He landed at none other than Columbia, home of Johnny Cash. As Columbia pondered what to do with Nelson, he showed up with a complete album he recorded off on his own, Red Headed Stranger. His third wife Connie had suggested he record a song he sung to his children and that he had often performed when he worked as a radio DJ prior to any success in the music business. From that beginning, he crafted a loose concept album around the story of an Old West preacher who kills his wife and a romantic rival. Willie had garnered his recent success by fusing elements of rock and soul music, and elaborate suites of music. Red Headed Stranger was something else entirely. Stripped down to just the barest accompaniment, this was music that reached back more than looked forward. Most of the music dwells in the same rural, time-worn songwriting of The Carter Family, that has the feel of being written, sung, rewritten, sung again, and lived in for years. These are songs about dealing with the vagarities of life and its inevitable tribulations. There are touches of western swing added at times. Sometimes this reaches even further back, as with “O’er the Waves” (“Sobre las Olas”) the famous Mexican composition from the 19th Century. There are some slower, romanticized passages too, that give this a modern sheen. For the most part, though, this album could well have been recorded in the early 1930s. This is hard country. But it’s also the best kind of country music: plain and from the heart. This is the album that made Willie a superstar and a household name.
Graeme Thomson – Willie Nelson: The Outlaw (Virgin Books 2006)
A good biography on Willie Nelson from Thomson. It seems well-researched, and avoids the rank hagiography so prevalent in these sorts of music bios. The author doesn’t shy from questioning Nelson’s motivations and worst behavior. He also does an excellent job articulating the crazy fine line Nelson walked between positive-thinking new age guru and lazy bum coasting on a reputation without continued hard work as a songwriter and performer. Yet, at the same time, the book doesn’t dwell on tabloid gossip. As for the book’s weaknesses, Thomson falls prey to a few misplaced British anachronisms, like comments about a “football pitch” when he means to say “(American) football field” — there is no way that Nelson was playing soccer in his youth deep in the heart of Texas! Then, too, Thomson stumbles are a pure music critic. He often criticizes some of Nelson’s best work (like The Sound in Your Mind) and praises marginal efforts (particularly early stuff and Nelson’s biggest commercial successes of the 80s). He certainly doesn’t seem to go back and revive some of Nelson most overlooked material (like The Words Don’t Fit the Picture) or necessarily place Nelson in a broader continuum. But, those flaws are fairly easily ignored in a generally fine book.
Willie Nelson – The Words Don’t Fit the Picture RCA Victor LSP-4653 (1972)
Willie Nelson languished in near obscurity as a solo artist through the 1960s and early 1970s, despite recognition penning a number of hits for others. In his early days he conformed to the whims of his producers, with a typical “Nashville” sound. As time went on, he — like a lot of Motown stars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — sought to assert himself more in the recording process. His vocals changed. Rather than holding notes for a long time and adding a lot of vibrato like a pop crooner, he sang ahead of the beat more forcefully and sang with more clipped, staccato phrasing. The backing vocals, string backing, and other Nashville trappings fell by the wayside too, and Willie’s accomplished guitar playing featured more prominently — characterized by his trademark pauses interrupted by staccato runs on his iconic converted classical acoustic guitar.
The Words Don’t Fit the Picture is something of a forgotten item in the Nelson catalog — AMG gives it only a one-sentence review, RYM has no reviews and only a few ratings and it’s not even mentioned in Graeme Thomson’s biography Willie Nelson: The Outlaw. It was released around the time Nelson moved to the Austin, Texas area and hired a new cutthroat manager from the rock world, before his big break with Shotgun Willie. It has elements of the Nashville sound, but also plenty of moments that foreshadow the ways Nelson would breakthrough to superstardom in a few years. He wrote or co-wrote everything here. Though it would be hard to call any of these standouts, there’s not a bad tune to be found. And this set is nothing if not eclectic. Nelson’s wide interests in jazz, western swing, traditional pop, soul, etc. subtly make their presence felt. In essence, Willie takes the Nashville sound as far out as it can go, right to its furthest boundaries. Take “London,” for instance, which sounds like a countrified version of a beatnik monologue off a Tom Waits album.
This may be a transitional effort, but it wonderfully captures a lot of strengths of the different elements at play. It also shows that Nelson was certainly a professional, delivering crisp songs in an assured manner, even when they have “typical Nashville” written all over them. Listeners who can forget about where this stands in relation to other things Nelson has done may find that this is simply a damn fine country album.
Willie Nelson – The Sound in Your Mind Columbia PC-34092 (1976)
Willie’s proper follow-up to his smash success Red Headed Stranger is another winner. He sounds perfectly at ease with himself, ready to let this album unfold slowly. Martin Scorsese once recounted his career in the 1970s and 80s by noting that no one had time for a personal cinema in the 80s. What was true for film also held true for music. The intimate and frequently sad, downer themes of a lot of 70s music largely disappeared in the 80s. That’s one reason The Sound in Your Mind stands out, because this sort of album wasn’t being made anymore a few years later. That’s a damn shame too. Because Willie does a lot of intimate songs here that touch on many poignant, lonely sentiments in a warm and comfortable way that found no space in public consciousness in the coming Thatcher-Reagan era.
One of Willie Nelson’s best qualities was the eclectic musical interest he had, and the ways he could bring his varied interests to bear on his records with a light and never overbearing touch. This collection of old standards and new performances of some of his own best-known (but old) songwriting is presented with spare and unobtrusive accompaniment. There is a late-night aura over everything. A small but rich assortment of pedal steel, piano and prominent bass give help keep this from settling into too much of a same-y sounding rut (what The Troublemaker threatened to succumb to).
If any one thing stands out most about The Sound in Your Mind it has to be Nelson’s vocals. His vocal delivery evolved over time. By the mid-70s he reached his peak. It might be fair to say this album was his very peak as a vocalist. That voice, with its natural Texas twang and ahead of the beat—and sometimes behind—attack, is an irrevocable force, as immediately recognizable as that of any singer of the 20th century. By this point he used vibrato much more willingly than a decade prior. This album is loaded with great songs and performances, like “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day),” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time),” and “The Healing Hands of Time.” This is another great one from a stretch where it seemed like Willie couldn’t go wrong.
Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages Atlantic SD 7291 (1974)
If a thing is really worth doing, it may take fits and starts and many failed attempts to finally get it done in spite of the tremendous inertia that resists changes of direction in life. That describes both the process of making Phases and Stages and its thematic subject matter. Willie Nelson worked on this album for a number of years before its release. Many of the songs had been written long ago, and he had recorded early versions for RCA that weren’t released. When he went to Atlantic Records, he had to obtain clearance from RCA before he could re-record the songs for this album. While Willie liked to record with his touring band, the plain fact is that most of those musicians were of fairly modest abilities. Producer Jerry Wexler brought Willie to Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, home of many great soul recordings, to create the album. Rather than the touring band, Nelson is supported by crack session men. It’s the finely-honed abilities of the supporting musicians that brings life to Willie’s music here. He put them on the spot, perhaps forgetting he was the only one who had lived with these tunes for years. But preventing anyone from settling into the familiar is a perfect match for the tone of the material. Phases and Stage is about the dissolution of a marriage, with side one taking the woman’s perspective and side two the man’s. This is Nelson’s second concept album, the first being Yesterday’s Wine. Johnny Cash had pioneered the use of concept albums in country music. With precedent behind him, Willie makes this one work. What gives this album its strength is its ability to tap into the mundane aspects of a romantic breakup with poetic grace. The proper songs are broken up by a 20-30 second recurring theme, “Phases and Stages.” It’s hard to point to any faults on this one, save perhaps some people’s desire to skip the recurring theme. Phases and Stages is one of Nelson’s most durable albums, among his very finest — maybe even his very finest.
Willie Nelson – Shotgun Willie Atlantic SD 7262 (1973)
After relocating to the Austin, Texas area and taking up residence at the Armadillo World HQ bar, Willie Nelson dropped Shotgun Willie on the world, his first album for the new country division of New York’s Atlantic Records. Nelson had been around for a long time in the music business, but this record was different. At the Armadillo, he had brought together conservative (redneck) country audiences and liberal (hippie) audiences. A more telling description though is that he tried to drag rock fans into the country fold without alienating his base of country music fans. He tried and succeeded. He also adopted a new look inspired by Leon Russell, with long hair, an earring and a short, slightly unkempt beard. His first offering for Atlantic, as the label’s biggest country act, broke from anything he had done before. For what it’s worth, he never tried to repeat it, either. This was a record infused with rock sensibilities, bolstered by an occasional horn section. It was his first recorded in New York City. Actually, the first tracks recorded ended up populating his later-released gospel album The Troublemaker, with the Shotgun Willie material recorded toward the end of the studio sessions. His regular touring “Family Band” is present, but augmented by Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet) and his band, Johnny Gimble, and both Waylon Jennings and his wife Jessi Colter. His sister Bobbie joins the band for the first time on piano, and she proved an invaluable asset through the years. Even troubled soul/R&B visionary Donny Hathaway gets an arranging credit. Willie by this point had completely shed the crooning style of his earliest recordings. Though it’s worth noting that Willie’s vocals would continue to evolve, as would his guitar playing. “She’s Not For You” ends up being the most telling performance in terms of they way Nelson would refine his distinctive clipped, start/stop singing and guitar style. There are some great tunes here, like “Whiskey River,” which Nelson would almost religiously use as a concert opener for, well, forever. It’s the prominent drum beat (much heavier on the bass kick drum than usual), electric guitar (sans a lot of slide or twang), and horns (in true Atlantic R&B style) that allow this album to completely break from the mold of Nashville-styled country music. It also has an upbeat tone that contrasts to the typical collection of sad sack country weepers that would have been more typical of the day. No need for a tear in your beer to enjoy it. This album garnered Nelson his first real taste of success, his best-selling to date. He was also getting recognized as a peer by the biggest acts in music, and not just those in country music. His days of being considered a second (or third) class performer were now over. Willie had some more good things in store, with a number of great albums delivered in the coming years. But his road to superstardom took its biggest turn right here. The take-home lesson is that the folks in New York knew how to record better music than those in Nashville. Willie, and his new manager Neil Reshen, worked hard to get the opportunity to be the guy who crossed over first.