To make any sense at all out of Willie Nelson's discography, you first have to realize that he has reinvented himself at least four times. In the '60s he was Country Willie, the Nashville songwriter, who wrote hit songs for the likes of Ray Price, Faron Young, and Patsy Cline, but who couldn't buy a hit for himself. Then in the '70s he became Outlaw Willie, the Austin alternative to Nashville pablum, and that gave him his first big hits. But as he eased up on the songwriting, Nelson emerged as an astonishing Interpretive Singer, his voice instantly recognizable, his songbook ranging far beyond country turf. Finally, there is Willie the Superstar, the good natured chum of celebrities everywhere. Each of these Willies dominates a decade, but they also overlap and mix, and ultimately there's just one man who binds them all together.
Nelson grew up in Texas, raised by grandparents along with his sister/pianist Bobbie. He wrote a few songs, and in 1960 moved to Nashville. When his house burned down in 1970, he took that was a sign to leave Nashville, so he headed back to Austin, a booming confluence of longhairs and/or rednecks, not to mention old-fashioned Texas liberals. While in Nashville, Nelson recorded two albums for Liberty, and a dozen for RCA -- few of which are still in print, but RCA has started to make amends: Essential is a good overview, while RCA Country Legends focuses on obscure 1972 material that was shelved when Nelson left the label. But the prize is the reissue of Country Willie, where Nelson recut twelve of his own songs so simply and eloquently that for once countrypolitan producer Chet Atkins didn't even try to mess it up.
But Nelson was a legend as a songwriter, and most of what's in print from the early '60s are the simply arranged song demos that he cut for Pamper Music. The "Pamper Demos" have been so loosely licensed that we now have lots of competing, overlapping, poorly documented sets: Kingfisher's I Let My Mind Wander is the most consistent, Delta Blue's Face of a Fighter is more complete, Sugar Hill's Crazy has some rare cuts, the Oh Boy set has better known songs, and Proper's 40-cut Broken Promises is the best overall deal, but none of these are definitive. Rhino's Nite Life pulls Nelson's '60s together, an outstanding package where the "Greatest Hits" are if anything eclipsed by "Rare Tracks" like the unreleased "You'll Always Have Someone" and the B-side "Me and Paul."
Nelson's outlaw mystique emerged gradually, but was certified in 1976 when hype and opportunism converged in RCA's release of a passel of leftovers titled Wanted! The Outlaws. With solos and duets by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, extras by Jennings' wife Jessi Colter, and sureshot covers by Tompall Glaser, Outlaws sounded old and tough and crossed over enough to become the first country album to go platinum. Jennings got top billing there, but Nelson was the real talent, and had the legend to back it up: his exodus from Nashville to the promised land of Austin, and the series of ambitious albums he cut after freeing himself from the countrypolitan yoke: Shotgun Willie, cut in Muscle Shoals with Memphis horns, and two concept albums built around repeated themes, Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, the latter a huge hit. Red Headed Stranger went a step further in sketching out a story line, about a jealous preacher who kills his wife and her lover, who wanders dazed and lovesick, who kills again, but who finally finds redemption in the love of another women. What you think of that story may depend on how you estimate the life expectancy of the latter woman, but it was unique, its ambiguity befit an outlaw, and it sold miraculously well. It made Nelson a star. It was also the last ambitious artistic statement he ever made -- but not the last brilliant one.
Nelson's follow-up, The Sound in Your Mind, had little new and lots of filler. Then he knocked off To Lefty From Willie, a set of covers that even at best just remind you how incomparable Frizzell was. Then Nelson thought he'd try even older songs, pop standards like "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Georgia on My Mind" which he sang with such delicate conviction as to suggest that he owed more to Hoagy Carmichael than to Hank Williams. And that album, Stardust, sold some three million copies: his biggest hit ever, and all the legendary songwriter had to do was sing. That lesson, of course, wasn't lost on Nelson: he wrote less than ever, and covered damn near everything -- often brilliantly. But his later pop standards albums, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World fell short and shorter. And there are atrocities among the covers, including most of Always on My Mind and all of Love Songs.
Nelson's long stay at Columbia produced a lot of everything, which is the main reason why the compilations are such mixed affairs: the 3-CD box Revolutions of Time has a nice booklet, but sags in the middle (too much Half Nelson); the 2-CD Very Best of Willie Nelson starts strong but gets sandbagged in uninspired collaborations and overpowered covers; but while 16 Biggest Hits is short, it is the most consistently listenable, perhaps because it's the most consistently country. So the compilations really don't have much advantage over the better albums, which also include: Willie and Family Live, a feel-good concert album; Honeysuckle Rose, the mostly live soundtrack to a movie where Nelson expertly played himself; Me and Paul, with three good Billy Joe Shaver songs and a bunch of vintage Nelson classics; and a delightful series of duet albums with Nelson's old Nashville mentors: Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Faron Young, Roger Miller. The common denominator of his best albums was that all were loose, intimate, personal. (As is the case with the lovely reunion with Price 23 years later, Run That By Me One More Time.)
But Nelson's last Columbia album was anything but loose: he brought in Don Was to produce Across the Borderline, and called in his superstar connections to decorate the album with bits of Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt and Sinead O'Connor and Bob Dylan and plenty more. The album has some impressive sounding pieces, but also seems arty and contrived. Nelson's later albums seem to flip between fancy superstar confabs and the sort of minor projects that he really excels at. Among the latter are: Spirit, a spare set of originals done with just guitar, piano and fiddle; Night and Day, a set of jazz-tinged instrumentals that show his delight in his band; and Me & the Drummer, where he revisits his own vintage songbook.
On the other hand, when Nelson hooks up with his fellow celebrities, he tends to get lost. Milk Cow Blues, with wannabes like Francine Reed crowding the spotlight and veterans like B.B. King stealing the show, reminds you that Nelson never was much of a bluesman. But if Great Divide is any indication, Nelson's future in heavy metal power ballads and new jack r&b promises even less. And the live Stars and Guitars, even more laden with guest stars, fares better only because it hangs onto more old songs.
Over the years, Nelson has cut a lot of collaborations. The success of Wanted! The Outlaws led to Waylon and Willie and WWII, both of which have good things, including the latter's sarcastic "Write Your Own Songs." Waylon and Willie were joined by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen. Much of the thrill of their first two albums (cut down to Super Hits) is in hearing the unmistakable voices of Nelson and Cash trade turns, but their third album, The Road Goes On Forever features better songs, starting off with Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand." But Nelson's collaborations have more often than not been just a way to knock out some easy product. That turns out fine when he is working with his country music peers -- Brand on My Heart, with Hank Snow, is as much pure pleasure as anything he's ever done.
As for the big picture, Columbia/Legacy's new 2-CD The Essential Willie Nelson is the first serious attempt at a career-spanning, starting with Nelson's 1961 "Night Life" single and working its way through a riotous superstar encounter with Aerosmith 42 years later. Given Nelson's cornucopia it necessarily omits a lot and includes things one would rather forget, but in its big picture it reminds us what a wonder Willie is.
A little timeline: