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Willie Nelson

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One of the few remaining living legends of country music (as of autumn 2019), WILLIE NELSON is still going strong even as his contemporaries pass away with what feels like increasing regularity. Universally respected for his songwriting talent, independent mindset and refusal to be pigeonholed, Willie initially rose to fame as the driving force – alongside drinking buddies WAYLON JENNINGS and KRIS KRISTOFFERSON – in the late 60s/early 70s “outlaw” movement, taking country away from the Nashville tastemakers and back to its roots. Prior to this, he’d been one of Music Row’s most in-demand songwriters, famously penning `Crazy’ for PATSY CLINE, and furnishing a raft of other artists with classic material. Hundreds duly sung his songs but only WILLIE NELSON could play Willie Nelson.
Born Willie Hugh Nelson, April 29, 1933, Abbott, Texas, the young lad was raised with his sister Bobbie by his grandparents after his mother left the family home in Arkansas and his mechanic father re-married but died; the great depression had a lot to answer for. Learning simple guitar chords, at the age of 7, from his encouraging grandpappy (who purchased his guitar), Willie would subsequently spend long days picking cotton and his nights either writing songs or performing for beer money in local honky tonks. Stints as a tree trimmer, a phone operator and a pawn shop attendant preceded a nine-month spell in the US Air Force, but after marrying Martha Jewel Matthews and taking up jobs such as a nightclub bouncer, his first middling break came in 1956 when he moved nearer to work at the KBOP radio station in Pleasanton, Texas; he’d previously landed a job as a C&W DJ at Fort Worth’s KCNC.
By late 1956, WILLIE NELSON was ready to cut his first disc, `No Place For Me’. Dispatched on his own eponymous label based in Vancouver, Washington, the following February, airplay was predominantly given over to his B-side cover of Leon Payne’s `Lumberjack’. Sales figures for this independent record was respectable, but Willie continued as a DJ, singing in clubs and penning the odd tune; one of them, `Family Bible’, he sold to a guitar instructor for $50 and had to watch, as his own marriage broke down, the song become a breakthrough C&W hit for Claude Gray in 1960.
NELSON’s follow-up singles for D Records, `Man With The Blues’ and `What A Way To Live’, did nothing outstanding and only encouraged the artist to try his hand in the burgeoning Nashville scene. Gleaning a publishing contract at Pamper Music through HANK COCHRAN, this led to RAY PRICE recording `Night Life’ and him playing bass for The Cherokee Cowboys.
1961 was certainly the turning point for NELSON’s songwriting career, when FARON YOUNG took `Hello Walls’ and the aforementioned PATSY CLINE took `Crazy’ into the higher echelons of the pop charts; BILLY WALKER, too, lifted `Funny How Time Slips Away’ into the C&W equivalent. Subsequently inking a solo deal at Liberty Records, NELSON could not make the crossover himself, although one song in particular; his `Willingly’ duet in 1962 with second wife-to-be, Shirley Collie, earned the pair another country chart conquest.
NELSON’s time with the label was abruptly cut short in 1964 when it shut down its country command post, leaving behind a Top 20 spin for ROY ORBISON and `Pretty Paper’, and only a brace of charming LPs from the clean-cut songwriter himself: …AND THEN I WROTE (1962) {*7} – featuring his erstwhile contributions – and half-covers recording, HERE’S WILLIE NELSON (1963) {*5}.
Give or take a few independent hiccups, RCA Victor took over his mantle almost immediately, and set about building on the songwriter’s successes up to now by re-recording a few golden nuggets (`Funny How Time Slips Away’ and `Hello Walls’) alongside fresh tracks and a cover of KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `One Day At A Time’ for his third set, COUNTRY WILLIE: HIS OWN SONGS (1965) {*7}.
As the 60s drew to a close, the Grand Ole Opry inductee NELSON was still hovering around the fringes, even after several LPs were critically acclaimed by connoisseurs of C&W; they comprised COUNTRY FAVORITES – WILLIE NELSON STYLE (1966) {*6}, the live COUNTRY MUSIC CONCERT (1966) {*6}, MAKE WAY FOR WILLIE NELSON (1967) {*5}, THE PARTY’S OVER AND OTHER GREAT WILLIE NELSON SONGS (1967) {*7}, TEXAS IN MY SOUL (1968) {*6}, GOOD TIMES (1968) {*5} and MY OWN PECULIAR WAY (1969) {*6}.
The first half of the 70s, too, were a wash-out for Willie’s kind of country; not only was the genre dogged by psychedelic off-shoots such as prog-rock, hard-rock, glam etc., its descendant country-rock cousins such as POCO, The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS and EAGLES, were stealing most of the elixir limelight. No matter how appreciated the singer/songwriter was within the confines of post-C&W music, he couldn’t match the clout that fellow “outlaw” KRIS KRISTOFFERSON could attain. In essence, a raft of 45s and God, love and peace albums such as BOTH SIDES NOW (1970) {*6}, LAYING MY BURDENS DOWN (1970) {*5}, WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY (1971) {*5}, YESTERDAY’S WINE (1971) {*8}, THE WORDS DON’T FIT THE PICTURE (1972) {*5} and THE WILLIE WAY (1972) {*6} did nothing but file him next to JOHNNY CASH.
After briefly retiring from Nashville and taking up pig farming in Austin, Texas (with third wife Connie Koepke), 40 year-old NELSON discovered that there could still be a place for him within the country-rock movement. All it needed was a few songs to fit in. His move to Atlantic Records in early ’73 prompted a change of image – he sported a beard, donned a Stetson and bandana and turned troubadour.
A golden age of WILLIE NELSON ensued with LPs such as SHOTGUN WILLIE (1973) {*9} and PHASES AND STAGES (1974) {*9} – re-discovered by fans in summer ’76 – and carried on into his breakthrough Top 30 set for Columbia Records: RED HEADED STRANGER (1975) {*9} – featuring hit `Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ – and THE SOUND IN YOUR MIND (1976) {*6}. Sandwiched between the latter pair of sets, NELSON teamed up with WAYLON JENNINGS on the Top 30 entry, `Good Hearted Woman’. Early in 1976, Willie and Waylon (plus JESSI COLTER & TOMPALL GLASER) gatecrashed the Top 10 with the RCA Victor-endorsed set, THE OUTLAWS {*7}.
As Atlantic Records passed over the rights to Columbia, a few shelved sets from 1973 and 1975 respectively (THE TROUBLEMAKER (1976) {*8} and TO LEFTY FROM WILLIE (1977) {*6} – a tribute to LEFTY FRIZZELL), made moderate moves in the Top 100. Other exploitation sets were available, but none had the impact of the freshly cut near-Top 10 stint of the “Waylon & Willie” set that featured classic crossover hit, `Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.
Yet it wasn’t until the massive success of his Top 30 pop standards album, STARDUST (1978) {*8}, that WILLIE NELSON truly achieved superstar status; albeit in a different style. From his tripping the light fantastic interpretations of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Gershwin and Duke Ellington numbers, his reading of JOHNNY NASH’s `I Can See Clearly Now’ seemed a little out of place. However, the holiday-targeted WILLIE AND FAMILY LIVE (1978) {*6} – recorded at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe that spring – pushed the whole enchilada a bit too far. His new-found status was also raised to the point where his presence was requested at the White House – Rhinestone cowboys everywhere rejoiced.
In 1979, the popular country star unfettered no less than four bona fide chart LPs for fans to mull over: the nostalgia-addled double-set ONE FOR THE ROAD {*6} twinned him with fellow songsmith LEON RUSSELL; SINGS KRISTOFFERSON {*7} benefitted his old boozing buddy’s bank balance; PRETTY PAPER {*6} provided Xmas cheer for lovers of schmaltz and sentimentality; and THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979) {*6}, for which he made his acting debut alongside Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. NELSON also performed the soundtrack.
A case of saddle up and gird your loins, the newly superstar-spangled, genre-busting country icon took a role in this suitably offbeat, free spirit-vs.-the-man cowboy film. The spin-off album wasn’t exactly a bona fide country record, more a production of two halves, featuring his own songs and that of DAVE GRUSIN’s orchestral fare; he of “The Graduate” fame. Neither `Hands On The Wheel’ nor `My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’ were short on strings; or the kind of baroque embellishments they could’ve done without, yet NELSON still transformed them. `So You Think You’re A Cowboy’ got off lighter, with a dusting of electric piano, and the ageless `Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’ came rough ‘n’ ready from his aforementioned “outlaw” collaboration with Waylon. But if the album was worth hearing, it was the rambunctious, harmonica-strafed cover of The ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND’s `Midnight Rider’, which opened the whole hootenanny. Sporting the sweatiest trademark bandana in country music, and chewing over his words like a particularly flavoursome T-Bone, the man was simply the icon’s icon in a genre where y’all long dried up.
On the back of yet another collaborative chart album, SAN ANTONIO ROSE (1980) {*5}; that saw him paired with fading aforementioned country star RAY PRICE, Hollywood furnished him with a starring role in HONEYSUCKLE ROSE (1980) {*7}, a vaguely neo-autobiographical tale of a Texan country singer struggling to hit the big time. Again, Willie handled the soundtrack, for which he penned, ad hoc, one of his most enduring and talismanic songs: the Oscar-nominated Top 20 hit `On The Road Again’. It was basically an extended live set with “Willie Nelson & Family” indulging in his fine love of playing music with his friends. All roses need pruned, though, and dispensing with some of the bit players it might’ve made it easier to plough through. `Pick Up The Tempo’ remains one of NELSON’s most emblematic titles: an ironically mellow plea for bottom and balls (musically speaking) from a dude who treated tempo as just another technical quirk to be toyed with. Guitarist Jody Payne stayed faithful to the outlaw ethic even as it’d already run its course, shredding the near ‘Skynyrd-strength `Whisky River’, and bruising through MERLE HAGGARD’s `Working Man Blues’, while Willie himself showboated with dazzling, Latin-influenced flair on divorce-concept classic, `It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way’. NELSON’s duets with his female leads were pleasant diversions from the main event (and `Uncloudy Day’ made for a barnstorming closer). But it’s when the real angel, EMMYLOU HARRIS, flew too close to the bone that a high voltage charge ripped through the audience; her quartz-pure soprano ringing off NELSON’s mahogany, and invoking memories of those otherworldly duets with GRAM PARSONS.
Further screen appearances in such high-calibre movies as Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1981) and Fred Schepisi’s “Barbarosa” (1982), confirmed NELSON as an actor of some merit. Sandwiched and topped up either side of these, Columbia continued their quest to tame the man on standards collection, SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW (1981) {*5} and its Top 3 potpourri set of originals, covers and the kitchen sink a la ALWAYS ON MY MIND (1982) {*4}; hardly competitors to Waylon & Willie’s `WWII’, or the KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, WILLIE NELSON, DOLLY PARTON and BRENDA LEE double-set showcase, `The Winning Hand’ (1982), or indeed for that matter, MERLE HAGGARD and WILLIE NELSON’s joint effort, `Pancho & Lefty’ (1983).
Prolific was an understated term for a man who kept churning out album after album; and bypassing the odd and obligatory exploitation set (of which there were many), TOUGHER THAN LEATHER (1983) {*5}, TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT (1983) {*4} – with WAYLON JENNINGS, WITHOUT A SONG (1983) {*5}, ANGEL EYES (1984) {*4} and CITY OF NEW ORLEANS (1984) {*5}, all had some merit, and by and large maintained his chart status while a duet single, `To All The Girls I’ve Loved’ (with Latin pop star JULIO IGLESIAS), climbed the charts all over the globe.
Alan Rudolph’s “Songwriter” movie again cast NELSON in the familiar mould of time-served country troubadour; this time alongside KRISTOFFERSON with whom he also co-authored the soundtrack. Independent thinkers and natural talents with a story to tell, the pair were kindred spirits who’d worked together frequently since the early 80s. For the spin-off Music From SONGWRITER (1984) {*6}, they joined forces on two unremarkable duets; dividing the rest of the album between them.
NELSON fares the best, turning out five excellent fresh songs: songs rich with a voice that managed to be both raw and intimate, beautifully measured small group arrangements with his time-served band, and his own utterly-distinctive spiky interpolations on acoustic guitar. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song Score, the collection was ironically pipped to the post by PRINCE’s “Purple Rain” OST.
From then on in, Willie’s music career took a downturn as ME & PAUL (1985) {*4} and the duets set, HALF NELSON (1985) {*4}, couldn’t stir up enough support to reach anything near the Top 100. This was not a problem for the “outlaw” collaborative HIGHWAYMAN (1985) {*6} set – also featuring JOHNNY CASH, WAYLON JENNINGS and KRIS KRISTOFFERSON – or indeed its belated follow-up set, HIGHWAYMAN 2 (1990) {*6}.
For a few years, Willie’s movie career clicked back into gear through an unlikely appearance in lurid fantasy flick, “Amazons” (1986), a starring role as a vengeful preacher in “The Red Headed Stranger” (1987), a bit part in rural Texas rape drama, “Trespasses” (1987), and ruminations on reincarnated cowboys in quirky Canadian film, “Walking After Midnight” (1988). These weren’t quite so high profile as his divorce from Connie in 1988 and his subsequent run-ins with the IRS.
His money problems were possibly caused by the complete commercial collapse of a raft of high-profile joint single flops and solo albums such as THE PROMISELAND (1986) {*4}, PARTNERS (1986) {*4}, ISLAND IN THE SEA (1987) {*5}, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD (1988) {*5}, A HORSE CALLED MUSIC (1989) {*6} and BORN FOR TROUBLE (1990) {*5}. There was also time in ’91 to marry his fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, whom he’s stayed with ever since.
There was something a bright light at the end of the tunnel via a Waylon and Willie set, `Clean Shirt’ and the Top 75, ACROSS THE BORDERLINE (1993) {*6}; that featured duets with PAUL SIMON (`American Tune’), BONNIE RAITT (`Getting Over You’) and BOB DYLAN (`Heartland’), but these austere times did nothing to restore his musical mojo.
NELSON was now free from Columbia to explore other avenues of music by way of the light jazz/nostalgia set, MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU (1994) {*5}, and others such as the part self-scribed SIX HOURS AT PEDERNALES (1995) {*6} – with special guest Curtis Potter, HEALING HANDS OF TIME (1994) {*4}, JUST ONE LOVE (1996) {*5}, and an album with DON CHERRY: AUGUSTA (1995) {*5}.
Willie’s first of a string of albums for Island Records, SPIRIT (1996) {*8}, went almost unnoticed in some circles, but with augmentation from his sister Bobbie on piano; and stalwarts Jody Payne (guitar) and Johnny Gimble (fiddle), a baker’s dozen of classy songs guaranteed him critical favour; Willie would help out his said sister on a few religious albums.
By this mid-90s time-frame, Willie had somehow paid off his tax bill by way of numerous TV movies and celebrity appearances, and began to get his career back on track. While subsequent roles in celluloid duds such as “Starlight” (1996) and “Gone Fishin’” (1997) didn’t help his cause, he secured his best role in years as a songwriter in Barry Levinson’s acclaimed political satire, “Wag The Dog” (1997).
The singer-songwriter’s position as one of the few trad country singers it was okay to admit to liking was underlined with his appearance (alongside the likes of John Waters, CHUCK D and the late Hunter S. Thompson) as interview fodder in road-trip documentary, “Anthem” (1997), and an appearance alongside SNOOP DOGG and Tommy Chong (of CHEECH & CHONG) in stoner comedy, “Half Baked” (1998),
Several years after scattering magic-dust on U2’s `The Joshua Tree’ album, DANIEL LANOIS had overhauled and charged up EMMYLOU HARRIS’ career with 1994’s `Wrecking Ball’. But the producer’s transmogrification of WILLIE NELSON’s TEATRO (1998) {*7} soundtrack under Wim Wenders’ gaze looked more like a minor detour in the elder statesman’s prodigious career. The noise was identikit LANOIS: a moody, reverberating soundscape with rich clattering drums and vocals that emerge from behind the dark-shaded mix rather than standing clear of it. Emmylou’s emotive alto was there too, quavering at the end of the echoing hallway on a handful of NELSON’s new songs (including widescreen `The Maker’), as well as some vintage standards like `Three Days’ and `I Never Cared For You’. These Latin-tinged interpretations may not have outclassed earlier versions, but the Texan had already secured his status as one of the giants of popular music as he emerged from the LANOIS treatment – recorded as it was in the producer’s old Californian theatre – with voice unbowed by the quirky acoustics.
Just as in the previous four decades, NELSON offered up a wide selection of albums for fans of country and otherwise to respond to, though only MILK COW BLUES (2000) {*7} hit the mark in any commercial sense; others such as 1999’s instrumental NIGHT AND DAY {*6}, an umpteenth collaboration alongside KRISTOFFERSON, JENNINGS and BILLY JOE SHAVER, HONKY TONK HEROES (2000) {*6} and ME AND THE DRUMMER (2000) {*6}, fell just short of necessary Billboard 200 sales figures, as well as kids’ album, RAINBOW CONNECTION (2001) {*5}.
In the meantime, NELSON was the unlikely subject of a documentary on notoriously highbrow UK TV arts institution, The South Bank Show, although he continued with parts in films as varied as “Journeyman” (2001), “The Country Bears” (2002), “The Big Bounce” (2003) and – as his hip self once more – in cannabis comedy, “High Times’ Potluck” (2003); NELSON also worked with Jessica Simpson on “The Dukes Of Hazzard” movie in 2005 and the its made-for-TV sequel.
For 2002’s Lost Highway-endorsed set, THE GREAT DIVIDE {*6}, it seemed like everybody and their dog wanted to sing alongside the bandana man: namely LEE ANN WOMACK, KID ROCK, SHERLY CROW, BRIAN McKNIGHT and BONNIE RAITT. Later in the year, most of these stars stuck around for the duets showcase by WILLIE NELSON & friends, STARS & GUITARS {*6}, that added BON JOVI, MATCHBOX TWENTY, NORAH JONES, AARON NEVILLE, EMMYLOU HARRIS, VINCE GILL, RYAN ADAMS, RAY PRICE et al; the latter star subsequently uniting with Willie on 2003’s RUN THAT BY ME ONE MORE TIME {*6}.
There was just no letting up for NELSON & friends, who were only too happy to celebrate the man’s 70 years on Planet Earth with a LIVE & KICKIN’ (2003) {*6} set; a night that the likes of ERIC CLAPTON, SHANIA TWAIN, PAUL SIMON, TOBY KEITH, DIANA KRALL & ELVIS COSTELLO, WYCLEF JEAN, NORAH JONES, ZZ TOP, SHELBY LYNNE, LEON RUSSELL & RAY CHARLES, JOHN MELLENCAMP, KENNY CHESNEY, STEVEN TYLER and RAY PRICE, all lined up to sing his praises. It would almost make back-to-back “solo” sets NACOGDOCHES {*5}, LIVE AT BILLY BOB’S TEXAS {*5} and the remarkable IT ALWAYS WILL BE (also 2004) {*7} seem ordinary by comparison.
Another WILLIE NELSON & Friends set to mount an assault on the Top 75, OUTLAWS AND ANGELS (2004) – live at The Wiltern LG on May 5, 2004 – kept up his duets manifesto to the max by roping in TOBY KEITH, JOE WALSH, MERLE HAGGARD, AL GREEN, TOOTS HIBBERT, CAROLE KING, KID ROCK, RICKIE LEE JONES, BEN HARPER, LUCINDA WILLIAMS, LEE ANN WOMACK, KEITH RICHARDS (who appeared on the previous live set), SHELBY LYNNE, KID ROCK and a few others.
On the back of a worthy cause collaboration, AUSTIN TO SOUTH ASIA – SONGS FOR TSUNAMI RELIEF (2005) {*6} – an album shared with PATTY GRIFFIN, JOE ELY, SPOON and others – Willie even tried his hand at reggae fusion on a Top 50 COUNTRYMAN (2005) {*5} set.
2006 saw a back to basics country roots album in YOU DON’T KNOW ME: THE SONGS OF CINDY WALKER {*6}, whilst the RYAN ADAMS-produced SONGBIRD {*6} that maintained his work-a-prolific schedule.
One wondered if NELSON spent time outside his studio, as once again he gathered together a couple of his old buddies, MERLE HAGGARD & RAY PRICE, to put together chart album LAST OF THE BREED (2007) {*6}. Whilst Lost Highway Records was behind 2008’s MOMENT OF FOREVER {*6}, there was time in hand for a Blue Note-endorsed WYNTON MARSALIS joint effort, TWO MEN WITH THE BLUES (2008) {*6}; recorded live at The Allen Room in NY on January 12-13, 2007. In fact NELSON swapped his country ties for jazz/standards sets at the drop of his Stetson; WILLIE AND THE WHEEL (2009) {*6} – alongside ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL – was put to out to pasture when Blue Note’s AMERICAN CLASSIC (2009) {*5} popped into the Top 50.
Whilst Willie’s celluloid stardom was limited to TV series and celebrity cameos, the man kept up his conveyor-belt of album rolling along. Produced by T-BONE BURNETT, COUNTRY MUSIC (2010) {*5} was exactly what it said on the tin, so to speak, while the opposite end of the spectrum brought fans of aforesaid jazz trumpeter WYNTON MARSALIS (and guest NORAH JONES) for the hit or miss HERE WE GO AGAIN: CELEBRATING THE GENIUS OF RAY CHARLES (2011) {*4} – ironically recorded in concert back in early ‘09.
This pattern progressed unabated with semi-classic honky tonk set, REMEMBER ME, VOL.1 (2011) {*8} and the all-encompassing covers album, HEROES (2012) {*6}, that featured his sons Lukas & Micah Nelson.
Yet another batch of sets surfaced in quick succession during 2013; though his “family” record, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE {*5} and stellar-cast duets set, TO ALL THE GIRLS {*5}, were pretty much bog-standard compared to limited-edition 80th birthday bash LP, LIVE AT THIRD MAN RECORDS (2013) {*7}, that embraced the likes of JACK WHITE, NORAH JONES, NEIL YOUNG, SHERYL CROW, LEON RUSSELL and ASHLEY MONROE.
A man with a waistcoat of many colours (but mainly black), WILLIE NELSON surpassed any expectations when both BAND OF BROTHERS (2014) {*6} – co-authored with producer Buddy Cannon – and DJANGO & JIMMIE (2015) {*6} gate-crashed the Top 10. The latter album was another collaborative project with country outlaw MERLE HAGGARD, who was to pass away the following spring after the dispatch of one of Willie’s many patchy standards sets, SUMMERTIME: WILLIE NELSON SINGS GERSHWIN (2016) {*5}.
Another of his long-time cohorts, RAY PRICE had passed away in December 2013, so it was only fitting to send his buddy off in style with FOR THE GOOD TIMES: A TRIBUTE TO RAY PRICE (2016) {*6}. At the age of 84, NELSON was by far the oldest country crooner to reach the Top 10, as 2017’s Buddy Cannon-produced GOD’S PROBLEM CHILD {*7} and LAST MAN STANDING (2018) {*8} attested.
Said to be his 68th solo album in all (but who was counting), 2018’s MY WAY {*5} was another set to keep the wolf from the proverbial door, but mainly for other octagenarians who could recall the day Sinatra sang Paul Anka’s Great American Songbook title back in the day. And on the other side of the spectrum, in 2019, the outstanding country legend was back in the Top 20 with RIDE ME BACK HOME {*6}, an album that contained several of his own songs (penned with Buddy Cannon) and covers of tunes by GUY CLARK (`My Favourite Picture Of You’ and `Immigrant Eyes’), BILLY JOEL (`Just The Way You Are’) and MAC DAVIS (`It’s Hard To Be Humble’), the latter a poignant duet with sons Lukas and Micah.
© MC Strong 2008/LCS-BG/ND // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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