Naked Willie is a new collection of old Willie Nelson songs, stripped of their extraneous production to reveal the basic essence of each performance. These seventeen tracks date from the late-1960s to early-'70s. In the days before his Red Headed Stranger, Nelson didn't have full control over the sound of his recordings. Orchestration and backing vocals were sometimes thickly applied, often resulting in overly busy arrangements. Those decisions made commercial sense at the time, but Nelson and his longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael wanted to 'un-produce' the songs. On Naked Willie, the listener is allowed to hear the songs as originally recorded.
The results are often quite striking. The starkness of these stripped down recordings allows for a greater emotional connection with the music. Take "Following Me Around" for example, which originally had a tacked-on trumpet commentary running throughout. Now the song's haunting beauty comes through loud and clear in this simpler presentation. "Laying My Burdens Down" loses the backing vocals that seemed so unnecessary on the original production. Speaking of backing vocals, "Where Do You Stand?" is yet another song that improves when Nelson's is the only voice we hear.
These are mostly terrific songs in their original form, but they become more emotionally direct when they are pared down to just the essential instrumentation. Nelson's vocals are front and center, with the backing tracks sounding almost like demos. He'd go on to release much greater work as his career progressed and matured, but this stuff is unquestionably worth having.
Naked Willie is not only a fascinating bit of revisionist history for Willie Nelson die-hards, but also serves an ideal starting point for new fans. It isn't artist-defining work by any means, but the majority of it sparkles with that unique greatness Nelson brings to his best material. While most of the songs are originals, his classic rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" is also included. That one, like a lot of these tracks, sounded fine even with the extra layers of production. Still, without any strings, brass, or additional voices, the skeletal arrangements heard on this release are a pleasure to listen to.