The Complete Atlantic Sessions



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 Iglesias?

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 the game.

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!



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