The Willie Nelson Special, an hour-long live concert from 1985, features a genre-bending performance that combines country, soul, and jazz. Willie Nelson, as the title would suggest, is the main attraction. Strong supporting roles are contributed by a pair of superb artists. Ray Charles, billed prominently as a special guest, provides ample star power. Charles joins Nelson for six numbers, including an instrumental jam led by Charles at his keyboard. Less well known, but adding greatly to the high musical quality, is guitarist Jackie King. He turns in a number of mind-bogglingly fluid and fast solos.
The program's intro is pure '80s cheese, with a "zany" montage of Nelson goofing around while "On the Road Again" plays. A voiceover, in the squarest of inflections, even announces the name of the program and its guests. Cutting to the stage, "On the Road Again" continues but now at least we are able to see Nelson and his band playing. The atmosphere is rather intimate, with the musicians facing a small audience seated at tables. After a sterling rendition of "Always On My Mind," the crowd is extremely appreciative as Nelson introduces Ray Charles. The series of duets that follows is arguably the strongest portion of the special. "Seven Spanish Angels" was a smash for them at the time, topping Billboard's Country Singles chart in 1985. The live version featured here is arguably better than their studio duet from Charles' album Friendship. "Georgia On My Mind" has an apparently impromptu extended ending that clearly tickles both Nelson and Charles. The camaraderie between these two is palpable, making their interactions all the more fun.
The second half of the show nearly feels like an anti-climax with the absence of Ray Charles, but that's unfair to Nelson and the other musicians. The old standard "There Will Never Be Another You" is lifted to greatness, despite a somewhat mediocre vocal from Nelson, by the guitar virtuosity of Jackie King. "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," which I've always viewed as a cornball piece of kitsch, is an easy crowd-pleaser. Powerful versions of "Without a Song" and "Who'll Buy My Memories" ramp the show back up to a level of excellence, concluding with a rave-up run through of "Whiskey River." It may not quite add up to an indispensable hour of music, but fans will be more than entertained.
Late in the show, there is a segment featuring the townspeople of Abbott, Texas. Abbott is a tiny town famous for being the birthplace of Willie Nelson. Providing a nice break from the concert, we hear from regular folks that knew Nelson when he was growing up. It's a quaint bit of filler that was probably meant to be more touching than it actually comes across.
In terms of visual quality, The Willie Nelson Special shows its age. That's not to say the footage looks poor. In fact the picture seems as good as can be expected for old analog videotape. The image is pillarboxed to preserve the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. More satisfying, appropriately so for a music release, is the DTS audio mix. The sound is surprisingly robust for nearly quarter-century old source tapes. A Dolby 5.1 mix is presented as another option, along with standard 2.0 stereo. The DVD is lacking any extra features. For a budget priced release featuring artists of this caliber, that's easy to forgive. For the pleasure of watching and listening to two of the most distinctive musical artists in popular music, The Willie Nelson Special is a keeper.