YOU can't make a record if you ain't got
nothin' to say."
Heck, if Willie Nelson was annoyed
enough with the Nashville setup back in the
early 1970s to pen that line, one can only
imagine what he must think of contemporary country music. Then again, how seriously should one take a so-called outlaw
who recorded a cheesy duet with Julio
But perhaps there isn't a right (or wrong)
answer when it comes to Nelson. After all,
for every To All the Girls I've Loved Before,
he's recorded at least five tunes in the vein
of Time of the Preacher. Furthermore, there
isn't a senior musician around who annoys
the good people of America quite as often as
Nelson. Earlier this year, he released the iTunes single Cowboys are Frequently Secretly
(Fond of Each Other) and watched in devilish
delight as the "real" men of the earth began
to question their sexual orientations.
The Complete Atlantic Sessions boxed set
suggests that it wasn't any easier assessing
just where Nelson fit in, three decades earlier.
He may have possessed a hippie-ish exterior but the three records contained on
Atlantic Sessions prove that Nelson understood both the creative and commercial
aspects of country music like few others in
Shotgun Willie (1973) is often regarded as
the first great outlaw country record.
However, while it showcases the rebel-rousing title track and Whiskey River, it also
includes tear-jerkers Sad Songs and Waltzes
and Leon Russell's A Song for You.
Unfortunately at the time, listeners weren't
quite ready for Nelson's brand of country.
Nelson's next project, an ambitious conept album about divorce, didn't fare any
better. In fact, Phases and Stages (1974) cost
him his job.
Despite the brilliant songs on offer
(among them No Love Around, I'm Falling in
Love Again and Pretend I Never Happened),
Atlantic, so the unofficial story goes, felt that
the man's music was no longer a viable
commercial proposition. Naturally, the official story glosses over the details, but really,
who cares about truth?
The bottom line is that Willie Nelson
recorded a pair of excellent albums that
failed to rake in the kind of dough his
employers had hoped for and so someone
else (in this case, Columbia Records) ended
up reaping the commercial harvest that
came in the wake of Nelson's next album --
1975's Red Headed Stranger.
Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages aside
Atlantic Sessions is also special for the third
disc -- Live at the Texas Opry House -- which documents Nelson and his
band at their rowdiest. Interesting cuts here include an electric version of
Bloody Mary Morning, Good Hearted Woman and two distinct medleys of
hits penned for other stars during Nelson's tenure as a Nashville hack -- Funny
How Time Slips Away (Billy Walker), Crazy
(Patsy Cline) and Night Life (Ray Price).
Make no mistake. This is outlaw country at its finest!