Willie Nelson

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***1/2The Best of Willie Nelson (EMI Manhattan, 1973)
***1/2Shotgun Willie (1973; Atlantic, 1987)
****Phases and Stages (1974; Atlantic, 1991)
****Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975)
***The Sound in Your Mind (Columbia, 1976)
****To Lefty From Willie (Columbia, 1977)
****Stardust (Columbia, 1978)
***Willie Sings Kris Kristofferson (Columbia, 1979)
**1/2The Electric Horseman (Columbia, 1979)
***Honeysuckle Rose (Columbia, 1980)
***Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Columbia, 1981)
****Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) (Columbia, 1981)
***Always on My Mind (Columbia, 1982)
**1/2Tougher Than Leather (Columbia, 1983)
**Without a Song (Columbia, 1983)
**City of New Orleans (Columbia, 1984)
**Angel Eyes (Columbia, 1984)
**Music From Songwriter (Columbia, 1984)
***Half Nelson (Columbia, 1985)
****Me and Paul (Columbia, 1985)
**Partners (Columbia, 1986)
**The Promiseland (Columbia, 1986)
**Island in the Sea (Columbia, 1987)
**What a Wonderful World (Columbia, 1988)
***All-Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (RCA, 1988)
***A Horse Called Music (Columbia, 1989)
****Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks 1959-71 (Rhino, 1990)
**1/2Born for Trouble (Columbia, 1990)
****Who Will Buy My Memories? (Sony Music Special Products, 1991)
***One for the Road (Columbia, 1978)
****San Antonio Rose (Columbia, 1980)
****In the Jailhouse Now (Columbia, 1982)
***Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1984)
****Brand on My Heart (Columbia, 1985)

This native Texan earned a solid behind-the-scenes reputation as a hot Nashville composer in the '60s. Willie Nelson wrote the hits "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, "Hello Walls" for Faron Young and "Night Life" for Ray Price -- just to mention the acknowledged standards. His own versions didn't quite fit the conventional notion of country singing, at first. With time, Nelson's somewhat talky delivery grew more musical; between his bluesy phrasing and cadenced drawl, Nelson puts across his deceptively simple melodies better than anybody. Before leading the outlaw movement away from Music Row in the '70s, Nelson tried recording within the Nashville system in the '60s. The strength of the material, as well as the growing confidence in Nelson's mellow growl, overcomes the occasional intrusions by string sections and the Anita Kerr Singers. Rhino's The Best of Willie Nelson 1959-71 offers a generous and superior selection from this period; sweet but far shorter, the EMI Best of gets the job done at a budget price.

Nelson escaped the grind by moving to Austin, Texas, in the early '70s; he checked out the hippie scene, let his hair grow out and expanded his musical consciousness in various, far-ranging directions. His last album for RCA, the deleted Yesterday's Wine, from 1971, is the first of his bold, conceptual departures from country's hits-plus-filler norm. Rather than tack rock guitar riffs onto modern honky-tonk sagas, Nelson absorbed the innovations of Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters into his own distinct style. Even if the narrative concepts don't always hold together, Willie hangs his most ambitious albums on some of his catchiest tunes. "Me and Paul," a highlight from Yesterday's Wine, rounds out the Rhino collection. Produced by Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, Shotgun Willie blends Memphis horns and western swing with mixed results -- it alternately sounds too loose and somewhat forced. On Phases and Stages, Nelson gets to do his own thing. Progressive country, or the Outlaw sound, begins here. The haunting and spare "Phases and Stages" theme -- just Willie and his Mexican-flavored guitar picking -- unites the seemingly unrelated songs into an ultimately cohesive whole. The breakup of an itinerent musician's marriage is documented from both the man and woman's points of view, the fiddle and steel guitars echoing the overall tone of dirty realism. Ending with the gracefully whacked-out anthem "Pick Up the Tempo," Phases and Stages is just about perfect.

Moving to Columbia Records, Nelson followed up with another narrative concept album. Red Headed Stranger is pared down even further in terms of accompaniment, while the storyline is considerably more ambiguous than the last album's. A cowboy catches his lover with the aformentioned stranger; "wild in his sorrow," he shoots them both and then hits the road, taking listeners along for the ride. Nelson wanders out toward the cosmos near the end of Stranger, but it's easy enough to drift along with his flow. And the beautiful hit single "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" would make sense in any context.

Compared to those records, The Sound in Your Mind comes off as slapdash -- even a bit lazy. Tellingly, a Nelson oldie ("Healing Hands of Time") and a gem by Austin songwriter Steve Fromholz ("I'd Have to Be Crazy") are the only real standouts. To Lefty From Willie sparks an extended period of roots exploration for Nelson. This tribute to hardluck crooner Lefty Frizzell digs deep into the melancholy essence of '50s honky-tonk, though Willie's cover versions retrieve some of Lefty's devil-may-care high spirits too. Reaching all the way back to Tin Pan Alley and beyond, Nelson achieves another effortless peak on Stardust. With Booker T. Jones producing Nelson's roughhewn road band, these familiar chesnuts swing in a gentle rhythmic breeze: from "On the Sunny Side of the Street" to "September Song," from "All of Me" to "Georgia on My Mind." Stardust made Willie Nelson a superstar, and he's certainly a prolific one. His subsequent work remains eclectic -- but nowhere near so artistically risky or groundbreaking as those '70s albums. Unless you consider a duet with Julio Iglesias ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before," from 1984) to be some sort of subversive experiment.

Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) does a better-than-acceptable job of summing up Nelson's ascent, building up to the jauntily definitive "On the Road Again" (from the Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack, from 1980). Willie hit a slack patch after Somewhere Over the Rainbow (a less-than brillant Stardust redux) and the easy-listening smash Always on My Mind. His best work of the '80s lies on the duet albums he cut with a distinguished quartet of country veterans. San Antonio Rose (1980) places super-smooth Ray Price in frisky western swing setting. Gutsy honky-tonker Webb Pierce provides staunch company on In the Jailhouse Now (1982). Funny How Time Slips Away (1985) echoes the Ray Price album, though '60s crooner Faron Young isn't quite as distinct a singer. Brand on My Heart proves that the opposite is true of Hank Snow; the "Yodeling Ranger" still sounds like nobody else. Nelson puts each of these legends at ease and manages to get his two cents in without hogging the spotlight. A nice reminder that, apart from everything else, Nelson is a great country singer.

And after listening to Half Nelson -- a package of Willie's pop duets, including his superstudly showdown with Julio -- you may need such a reminder. After shuffling along blandly for several years, Nelson show signs of renewed interest on A Horse Called Music. Aside from a couple of orchestrated misfires, "Nothing I Can Do About It Now" is the best shoulder-shrugging hook he's come up with in years. Unfortunately, it took the Internal Revenue Service to really inspire Willie Nelson. The 1991 clearance-sale album Who Will Buy My Memories (available only through mail-order TV ads) is his most striking and satisfying release in years. Outtakes and demos, some well-worn tunes and some unknown grabbers, just Willie and that beat-up guitar: Perhaps this scaled-back approach can re-iginite his songwriting flame. -- M.C.