Gosh, what a terrific 2-CD set this is, and how amazing to think that the half CENTURY of some of Willie Nelson's finest contributions to country music included on it don't even cover the past decade-plus! The set does a really nice job of following his career chronologically, beginning with a 1961 single, "Night Life", right along through to the previously unreleased 2003 mix of a 1987 duet recording with Steven Tyler/Aerosmith, "One Time Too Many".
I didn't discover country music until mid-life, and though my interest started out slowly with the country pop/rock sound that seems to get the most air time on the large country stations, my scope steadily widened to include a broader spectrum of the genre, quickly developing an appreciation of its history, and an affinity for Willie's jazzy/bluesy/folkish style, with some outlaw/pop/rock thrown in for good measure. Seems he's covered it all with both his writing and singing, and has the ability to run that entire gamut without a hitch. It's no wonder his music is so respected and admired! While looking this past Christmas to expand the country section of a CD collection I'd begun building for my husband many moons ago, it was almost as intimidating for me to attempt to select a "best of"-type Willie CD (from the MANY compilations available) as it was trying to figure out where in the world to begin describing everything this CD includes in a "review" that would do it justice, but I'll try.
I love the story behind track 1 of the first C.D., "Night Life". Apparently, after the owner of his label rejected it as not being "country", he sold it in 1960 for $150 to Paul Buskirk (while he was working as a guitar instructor at his school.) They took it to another studio and - to avoid being sued - recorded it as "NITE Life" using the name "Paul Buskirk and the Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson" (Willie's full name is Willie Hugh Nelson!) So it seems ol' Willie's been bucking the system since Day 1, proving that where there's a will(IE), there's a way! The song later became a hit for Ray Price. and has been covered by SO many other people (Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, B.J. Thomas, Dottie West, Rusty Draper, David Lee Roth, Aretha Franklin)... so that just goes to show you what a gem it is! In fact, he'd also written other gems that became hits for others ("Hello Walls" for Faron Young, "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker) prior to finally getting the chance with Liberty Records to record his debut album (I think it's hilarious that he titled the album "...And Then I Wrote" and included his own recording of those songs!) Those songs are tracks 2, 3 & 4 of the first CD. (Do wish Willie's recording of the hit he wrote for Claude Gray, "Family Bible", was also included on this CD, but it's not.)
Track 5, "I Never Cared for You", is the only single ever released during Willie's brief stint with Monument Records (it never charted, so I think it was included on this set simply to reflect that point in his career.) He apparently did re-record it several times for various of his other albums. Tracks 6, 7 & 8 ("The Party's Over", "Good Times" & "Me and Paul") represent his years with RCA (though he had singles that charted higher during that time, i.e. "Bring Me Sunshine", "One in a Row", "Blackjack County Chain", "Little Things", so it'd be interesting to know why these particular songs were chosen.) Tracks 9 & 10 are a song each from his two Atlantic Record albums - "Shotgun Willie" from the album of the same name, and "Bloody Mary Morning" from the "Phases & Stages" album.
Then we listen to his career explode! From Track 11 on the first CD all the way through Track 14 on the second CD (during his Columbia years), with only a couple of exceptions, each of the songs is either one of his own or a collaborative #1 hit single, or else comes from one of his own or a collaborative #1 album (i.e. "Uncloudy Day" was a #4 hit from "The Troublemaker", "All of Me" was a #3 hit from "Stardust", both "Whiskey River", which reached #12, and "Stay a Little Longer" are from "Willie & Family Live", and "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" was a #2 hit from "Always on My Mind".) The couple of exceptions are certainly nothing to sneeze at ... Willie's cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was a #4 hit (with the "Sings Kristofferson" album making it to #5), and his "Faded Love" duet with Ray Price climbed to #3 (the most popular recording of that often-recorded song), as did the collaborative album it came from ("San Antonio Rose").
Willie's only #1 hit that didn't make it onto this set was his "I Can Get Off on You" duet with Waylon Jennings (and it's a shame the #1 singles he was considered a "guest" on weren't included... "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" on Jenning's "Ol' Waylon" album, "Just to Satisfy You" on Jenning's "Black on Black" album, "Mind Your Own Business" on Hank Williams Jr.'s "Montana Cafe" album, or "Beer for My Horses" on Toby Keith's "Unleashed" album... there might be legal reasons for that.) The only two #1 albums not represented are 1981's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (covering pop standards from the 1940's), and 2004's "Band of Brothers" which was released after this compilation.
We enjoyed seeing the interesting way the second CD ends almost as much as how the first one begins! Track 15, "Graceland", is Willie's 1993 cover of the original Paul Simon song from his final Columbia album. Track 16, "Everywhere I Go" is a duet with Emmylou Harris from his 1998 "Teatro" album. Track 17, "Slow Dancing" is a 1997 "B-side" single recording collaboration with U2. Track 18, "Mendocino County Line" is the 2003 Grammy-winning duet with Lee Ann Womack from his 2002 "The Great Divide" album. And the final track, "One Time Too Many", is apparently one that was recorded with Steven Tyler/Aerosmith in Vancouver back in 1987, lost, found, mixed in NYC in 2003 and released for the first time with this "Essential" set!
Willie Nelson will turn 82 this year, and what a very full life and career he has to reflect upon! Not only is this man a singer and songwriter, musician and guitarist, but so many other things - a poet and author, an actor and liberal activist. He helped found Farm Aid, with the original concert raising $9 million for American farmers, and is involved with so many other causes and charities as well. I don't think his wry sense of humor was ever more apparent than when his accountants didn't pay his taxes for years, he ended up owing the IRS $32 million, and cleared his debt with not only an auction of his assets, but also with the profits of a double album entitled, "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?" Whether or not you agree with his "politics" and activism with regards to the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana, there can't be ANY disagreement that Mr. Nelson is a well-deserved icon of country music, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable CD set!
on October 14, 2013
When Willie Nelson was the biggest thing in country music, I wasn't really interested. I was into other music at the time and tended to look askance at any act getting the superhype treatment. I knew people with his albums and heard him at their houses, but I deferred giving him an extended hearing. But I cycle through phases in my musical interests and lately returned to country, and it seemed right to give Willie my attention at long last.
I'm glad I chose this album for my introduction. It's a very extensive selection that spans his entire career. I've noted some reviews that gripe about the quality of his singing. Bob Dylan's voice is hardly operatic, but he managed to record some of the most compelling ballads ever heard, and one could go on to make a long list of singers from Billie Holiday to Howlin' Wolf to Johnny Cash to Atahualpa Yupanqui whose place in the musical pantheon has little to do with the condition of their adenoids and everything to do with artistic depth and authenticity. Willie is, in fact, a better singer than I realized, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of the artistry that comes across in his interpretations of the material. I won't compose a novella here, telling you things you don't need to hear from me. What you need to hear (if you want to get acquainted with Willie Nelson) is on the album, and your reaction to that is what will matter. By the way, the album also includes some collaborations with other artists (Waylon, of course, had to be included), some of which came as a surprise; but the surprises added to the collection rather than detracting, for the most part.
I have only one criticism, and it's hardly a complaint because it has the benefit of adding unintended humor to the collection, and I like a good laugh. It's about the duet with Julio Iglesias, "To All The Girls I've Loved Before." If it weren't so funny, it would be excruciating. This cut is a classic specimen of '80s schlock, complete with the overwrought synthesizers typical of the period. I suppose the massive success it enjoyed at the time and the money it brought in will spare Willie any embarrassment at rehearing this spectacular turkey; but its inclusion on the album is only justified by its place on the charts -- if one is going to present a complete record of his hits, this one has to be included. And of course I realize that some readers will love this saccharine bomb and be offended that I'm making fun of it. Don't mind me. Again, I don't write my reviews to pontificate on matters of taste. My doctrine in that regard is very simple. Everyone's reaction to a work of art is as valid as anybody else's; and people who don't realize that and who try to promote their own reactions as the "correct" ones only betray their ignorance of what art is. It's okay to say "I hate this" or "I love this"; it's not okay to demand: "You should love/hate this, too."
The Essential Willie Nelson -- great album if you don't already have all the songs.