That is certainly an apt description for the life of Willie Hugh Nelson, a country music icon of the last half of the twentieth century.
Born in Fort Worth, he eventually made his way to Nashville. He initially got signed as a songwriter, creating hits for artists like Ray Price (“Night Life”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), and Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), all of which are included on this album sung by Willie. His success helped earn him a recording contract in 1962. He eventually landed at RCA Records and worked with Chet Atkins who produced him.
On Disc One, the early Willie is on display. It opens with a rarity and one of the first songs he ever recorded. “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song” was laid to tape one night in late 1954/early ‘55 at a radio station Willie worked at. The rest of the songs are good and brought Willie moderate success, including “The Party’s Over,” which years later Don Meredith made the unofficial goodnight theme on ABC’s Monday Night Football. The ones that did chart averaged in the twenties on the Billboard Hot Country Singles; however, Atkins’ Nashville Sound made them generic. Willie sounded like everyone else at the time, and this confinement frustrated him.
When his home burned down in 1970, he took the opportunity to head back to Texas. In 1971 he chose to live in Austin where the music scene was progressive. Country and rock, cowboys and hippies were all coming together, specifically at the Armadillo World Headquarters. This invigorated Willie and in 1973 there was a noticeable change. The album cover for Shotgun Willie shows Willie with his hair grown out and sporting a moustache and beard. The title track has a honky-tonk sound. It was the beginnings of the Willie Nelson we’ve all come to know. He then released two concept albums, Phases And Stages and Red Headed Stranger, the latter of which was his first #1 Country album.
Willie along with friend Waylon Jennings became the faces of Outlaw Country, musicians that rejected the sound and look of Nashville. No studio polish or rhinestones on these fellows, yet they still crossed over into the pop charts with their duets “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Remaining true to himself and the outlaw spirit, Willie continued to follow his own path when everyone expected more of the same. He gave them an album of Lefty Frizzell songs as well as Stardust, a collaboration with Booker T. Jones that had Willie covering popular standards that remains his best-selling album, going platinum five times.
Disc Two showcases the rise of Willie but for some reason the disc isn’t organized chronologically, which is too bad. It opens with a mix of his work with Waylon and his Nashville days. Sure, it all sounds good, but the contrast is stark and the listener doesn’t get to hear Willie’s progression as an artist. The remainder of tracks showcases hits like “Bloody Mary Morning,” his first #1 Country single “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and his rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.”
Into the 1980s, Willie’s crossed over into the mainstream. He appeared in movies like Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose, and scored big on the pop charts with his only top-ten hits, “Always on My Mind” and his duet with Julio Iglesias “To All the Girls I've Loved Before.” Success didn’t go to Willie’s head. He remembered his roots and continued to work with friends, mentors and idols.
Disc Three opens with three tracks from Willie and Family Live. You can hear the electric energy of his band in their prime. Willie performs with Ray Price, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, and Faron Young. He and Leon Russell cover “Heartbreak Hotel” and later joins Webb Pierce for Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now.”
Willie continued with successful collaborations. He had a #1 hit with Ray Charles, “Seven Spanish Angels,” and as a member of the country supergroup The Highwaymen. But like all artists, he could only remain in the spotlight for so long. He continued to put out albums, but went over a decade before returning to the Country charts in 2002 with “Mendocino County Line,” a duet with Lee Ann Womack.
Disc Four reveals what Willie had been up to the last two decades. Working with producer Don Was he delivers two great covers from Across The Borderline, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and a fantastic rendition, more so because of the evocative music, of Bob Dylan’s “What Was It Wanted.” Daniel Lanois is another producer who knew how to maximize Willie. The two entries from Teatro don’t have a sound you would necessarily associate with Willie’s voice, but they work well. Willie’s version of “The Rainbow Connection” at the request of his daughter is a perfect combination of voice and song.
Some selections didn’t need to be included. Willie’s versions of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and the standard “What A Wonderful World” are forgettable. The disc closes where it began with Willie 50 years later singing “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song.”
One Hell of Ride presents 100 tracks over four CDs in a career that most artists could only imagine. Although there’s not much new material, it’s a great set for those who want a crash course on an American music legend.