Willie Nelson. What more can I add to the biography of this country outlaw? As we all know Willie fits along with Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson; also lumped into this group is the legendary Johnny Cash, who became “too country now, for country” to quote Dale Watson, a personal favorite of mine. On these three Atlantic albums you can further see where and how this outlaw tag was placed upon Mr. Nelson. Although Willie will be the first one to have you call him just plain ol’ Willie.
The three CDs are remastered and expanded versions of Nelson classics: Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages and Live At The Texas Opry House; the set itself is a nice-looking package. The outer box looks like it’s made of wood, the perfect place for hiding little treasures such as these CDs, while the booklet that comes with it is very informative and easy to read. Each CD is a reproduction of the original album cover, which is something that I have always found very cool and have always been drawn to.
Disk one is the masterful Shotgun Willie, which on the cover shows a smiling Willie’s face in both barrels of a shotgun – wonderful, a great in-your-face contradiction. The title track opens the disk and is a fun romp with sarcastic, witty lyrics about Shotgun Willie and other characters. “Biting on a bullet/ and pulling out all of his hair” if you listen you can catch the plucking sound of the dobro being played in the background, along with that last line. I particularly dig the horn section on this tune, very much in the Atlantic soul tradition; honky tonk-soul, I guess it could be called.
This is followed by what is now a Nelson staple, “Whisky River”, which by the way, ghoulies, is not a Nelson-penned tune; sorry to burst anyone’s bubble here, but it is a song by the great and underrated Johnny Bush. The sound of the entire song is a tribute to songwriting and arrangement; you get the feel of a lazy river with ripples brushing up on the shore and a great drifting sensation. This piano-driven, honky-tonk, hardwood-floor number is an excellent choice for Willie’s vocals; he holds nothing back here. Add some bass dripping with funk and some exceptional guitar-picking, and there you have it: a classic is born and delivered to the world.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and “Local Memory” showcase Willie’s songwriting skills. “Sad Songs” is about the state of the country music industry with lyrics that pack sting and wit. “Local Memory” gives you a sense of locals headed back to the corner bar every night, to drink and think, or not think.
“Stay All Night” and “Bubbles In My Beer” are jump tunes written by those legends of western swing, Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan. These two solid senders are wild and will get you toe-tapping and longing to play in a jug band, while you clap along with the band. Seriously, y’all, nothing but a good time here. Shoot some rotgut whisky and you’re on your way to redneck heaven. That’s what I did, so join the fun.
The rest of the original album is rounded out by such wonderful tunes as “She’s Not For You,” “So Much To Do” and “A Song For You.” This one is truly a masterpiece and sets the stage and the concept for his next album.
Phases and Stages is a concept album about a couple’s separation and their re-emergence as individuals. Willie draws attention to key moments in the story by repeating the Phases and Stages theme throughout. The first five songs are from the woman’s perspective, slow and contemplative. “Walking” and “(How Will I Know) I ‘m Falling In Love Again” are the two tracks that stand out most for me. The lyrics are strong and on “Walking” they made the women seem that way. While “How Will I Know” has her taking a solemn look at that sometimes sad question.
On the other side of the coin is the man’s point of view, and here one will notice that the songs are a bit more up-tempo as we see a man trying to keep moving on and deal with what he has gone done in his life. “Bloody Mary Morning” is a great country jump number with Willie’s laid-back vocals in full effect. This tune is a stomper cut from the mold of the good old-fashioned country shuffle beat. The rolling barrelhouse piano with aid from the banjo has that “flying down the highway” sound to it; a perfect compliment to the song’s lyrics. “I Still Can’t Believe You're Gone” and “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” has our womanizing yahoo pondering the mistakes he has made, like why “you’re supposed to know that even with women on the side I love only you” doesn’t work.
On the second half, the intros are delivered with more force and power. As a whole, this is also one of Willie’s best and from these two Atlantic studio albums one can see the path that he was on and the direction he would take once he moved to Columbia records and released Red Headed Stranger.
The third disk in the set is a romping, stomping live recording that has Willie and the band jamming though songs from his two previous albums – songs that would become staples of his live shows for years to come, such as “Whiskey River”. The live versions of some of the songs from Phases and Stages are stronger and have more of a drive live. A true treat is a medley of classics penned by Willie, including “Crazy”, and others, George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care.” Some bonus tracks include versions of “Shotgun Willie” and “Bloody Mary Morning” done with an electric guitar.
Each disk contain a certain amount of bonus materials, which are good to have and nice to listen and compare to the alternate versions of songs; Shotgun Willie and Live have the most interesting of this bonus material. Shotgun has outtakes of songs that did not make it to the original album, but that are still strong, such as the rocking “I Gotta Have Something I Ain’t Got” and the slow ballad “I’m So Ashamed.” While the bonus material for Phases and Stages consists of all alternate versions of songs from the album, which is all right, some only have slight differences. When this is done on expanded CDs, it’s a good idea but does go over better with the more hardcore fans of the artist. Don’t get me wrong here, because faced with the choice I’m buying the one with as much extras as possible; I’m just a nut like that.
Overall, this three-disk set is worth a good solid listen and is something that I do look forward to hearing over again a few times. Shotgun Willie and Live At the Opry are the two disks I dig the most here and would be more enjoyable to hear more than once in their entirety. This box is a must for Nelson fans and very interesting for those who want to get an example of how Willie became the outlaw he is respected as today.
Written by Fantasma el Rey