Willie Nelson is a national treasure. But the guy is also so prolific that it can sometimes be a little hard to keep up with all the music that comes out bearing his name.
This has been particularly true in the past year as the icon's 75th birthday spawned numerous retrospectives and compilations, including the 30th Anniversary Legacy edition of Stardust and the four-disc career retrospective One Hell Of A Ride.
Naked Willie is yet another of these compilations, but this one has a unique twist. In much the same manner that the "naked" version of the Beatles Let It Be deconstructed Phil Spector's over-production of that album, Naked Willie strips away the more overdone aspects of some of the best songs from Nelson's years in the sixties and early seventies on the RCA label.
The result is an album where Nelson's often overlooked work during those years is able to be viewed in a new, far more refreshing light. Whereas the results of the Beatles Let It Be…Naked experiment are somewhat debatable — a judgment no doubt influenced by decades of growing up with those songs as we already knew and loved them — there is no such room for debate with Naked Willie. Nelson and longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael have simply done one hell of a job "de-producing" these songs.
And by "de-producing," we mean stripping away all of the strings, horns, and generally overproduced nonsense that constituted what was then known as the "Nashville Sound."
Country music in the sixties was too often characterized by these types of recordings. The producers would crank out the records with all of the efficiency — but none of the soul — of a hit-making Tin Pan Alley style machine. From Johnny Cash on down, virtually no country artist was immune to the Nashville treatment. At least not if they wanted to enjoy a successful career.
The main problem, particularly in the case of a great songwriter like Willie Nelson, was that the resulting records were often virtually indistinguishable from one another. Not only did the song itself often get hopelessly lost in all those layers of orchestration — it would also often lose its own sense of meaning or identity.
The first thing you notice on Naked Willie is how much clearer and cleaner these new versions sound. On the original "Following Me Around," for example, the Mexican mariachi-sounding horn was pleasant sounding enough, even if it was in a corny sort of way. But when it's removed from the equation on Naked Willie everything else sounds so much fuller. Willie's voice takes on a much deeper timbre, and the guitar and piano are also that much crisper sounding.
"The Ghost" likewise becomes something completely new here. Where the original finds Willie's voice drenched in reverb and strings, it becomes much more pronounced here when moved to the forefront of the mix. You can actually make out the words, for one thing. "Happiness Lives Next Door" also becomes a more satisfying listening experience with the strings removed, and Willie's voice and guitar mixed upfront. The song takes on a new warmth as cozy as a crackling fire here.
On "The Party's Over," the tempo even seems to pick up a notch without the orchestration. The backup vocals and strings are also not missed on "I Let My Mind Wander," where its kind of nice to actually hear the gently strummed guitar for a change.
You might likewise think a gospel standard like "Laying My Burdens Down" was tailor-made for its original arrangement with the churchy sounding backing vocals. Yet when they are removed, you start to hear the soul in Willie's voice for the very first time. The simple, stripped-down arrangement with piano, bass, and jazzy drum brushes just makes more sense.
Even a classic like "Sunday Morning Coming Down" benefits from the de-production. Minus the strings, you can feel the lyrics about the morning after a rough night of beer, cigarettes, and song a lot better than on the original. The lyrics become clearer too, since the elevator strings never exactly evoked the song lyrics' visions of a roughneck bar.
Naked Willie is that rarest case where an artist reimagining his work actually does — work that is. In un-producing the original recordings, it also reveals that Willie Nelson was writing world-class songs long before Red Headed Stranger, even if it didn't always show up in the way that those records were made.
Naked Willie will be in stores this Tuesday March 17.