After the release of The Willie Way in 1972, Willie Nelson opted not to resign with RCA Records, thus terminating his seven-year relationship with the label. He retreated to Austin, Texas for what was supposed to be a short trip, but found the bourgeoning hippie scene at Armadillo World Headquarters so enlightening that it had a profound effect on his musical style. Back in Nashville, he met Atlantic Records Vice President Jerry Wexler at a party who then signed Nelson as the first act under Atlantic’s newly formed country division.
The sessions for Shotgun Willie began in New York City (where Wexler rented Nelson a studio) in February 1973. The initial sessions yielded the tracks that would become his 1976 album The Troublemaker plus early sides for Shotgun Willie. Nelson was still feeling uninspired after these preliminary sessions, but found the motivation he needed after penning what would become the album’s title song on a sanitary napkin rapper in his hotel bathroom. Turkish-American music producer Arif Mardin oversaw most of the sessions while Wexler and David Briggs also shared production duties. Sessions for the project also took place in Nashville as well as Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
The significance of Shotgun Willie cannot be overstated – it was one of the original albums of the outlaw movement, a revolt against the slick pop-heavy Nashville Sound that was dominant at the time. National sales of the album were poor upon release that June, although in Austin it sold more copies than most of Nelson’s earlier recordings did nationwide.
Atlantic chose the title track as the lead single and it peaked at #60 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song tells the story of real-life domestic abuse suffered by Nelson’s daughter Lana. When Nelson confronted Lana’s husband, he threatened to kill him if he ever hit Lana again. Lana’s husband retaliated by shooting at Nelson’s house with his brothers, only to have Nelson fight back by shooting at their truck, thus ending the incident. It’s a fairly simple song given the subject matter, with Nelson singing, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ referring to his anguish over the recording sessions. The production is nice and understated, with acoustic guitars and drums framing Nelson’s confident vocal.
A cover of Bob Willis’ “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” was the second and final single peaking at #22. Nelson’s version is very good even though it scarifies the track’s western swing elements in favor of a jaunty barroom arrangement complete with a chorus of backup singers. His vocal could’ve also been stronger, as he seems to mumble a bit throughout, but it does add a nice effect to the whole proceedings.
Nelson’s original studio recording of “Whiskey River” was on Shotgun Willie, coming a year after Johnny Bush’s (who co-wrote the song with Paul Stroud) #17 peaking hit. Nelson would release the song from Willie and Family Live five years later and it would become his signature tune. The studio recording is very similar to the live one, but lacking in the famous boisterous energy Nelson is known for with the song. It’s still excellent and a nice alternate interpretation to the smoothness of Bush’s take.
“Bubbles In My Beer” was a second Willis’ cover and a song that became a country music standard shortly after Willis and his Texas Playboys first recorded it in 1947, taking it to #4 on the charts. Co-written by Cindy Walker, Thomas Duncan, and Willis it’s the drinking song that started the classic theme of drowning your sorrows in a barroom. Nelson hits a home run by retaining the western swing elements of the song while also updating it for the modern audience.
Keith Whitley covered “Sad Songs and Waltzes” in 1982 although it first saw CD release in 2000 as the title track to a compilation of his pre-fame recordings. Nelson’s original is phenomenal, with acoustic guitars and pedal steel framing his gorgeously deep vocal. He gives a more understated reading than Whitley, and his conversational tone has a hymn-like effect that helps the track stand out.
Leon Russell wrote “You Look Like The Devil,” a simple no-frills traditional country number complete with Steel and acoustic guitars. He also penned the American standard “A Song for You,” which closes the album. Nelson’s take is slow, with just a simple acoustic guitar backdrop, but it allows him to shine vocally, giving the track an everyman feel that draws the listener in to the story.
“Local Memory” is beautifully simple number with nice acoustic guitar, steel, and drums giving Nelson a gently rolling mid-tempo arrangement to compliment his warm vocal. It’s an excellent track, even when Nelson descends to near whisper at the end of the second verse, just before the melody picks up again.
“Slow Down Old World” has an elegant opening of Spanish-infused guitar that gives way to a wonderful mix of acoustic guitar and steel. Nelson’s vocal is sharp and confident giving off an intimacy between Nelson and the listener. “Slow Down Old World” is easily one of Nelson’s finest moments.
“Devil In My Sleeping Bag” gives the middle of the album a nice dose of pep, infusing acoustic guitars and drums in a sunny feel good arrangement. It’s an excellent story song about his return to Austin but the chorus becomes a little prodding with Nelson’s exaggerated twang putting a damper on the listening experience. “She’s Not for You” is a typical Nelson ballad, with his usually sleepy vocal, but the production (complete with steel, guitars, and drums) helps to nicely lift the song out of the doldrums of being another slow number. “So Much to Do” is also slow, but the fantastic lyric makes up for any shortcomings in the production:
My oatmeal tastes just like confetti
The coffee’s too strong so forget it
The toast is burning
Well let it
There’s just so much to do
Since you’ve gone
Too much to do all alone
Shotgun Willie may’ve only peaked at #41, but it remains one of Nelson’s most important albums, a project that “cleared his throat” as he later said. The project is a masterpiece not because of the Outlaw Movement it inspired, but on it’s own merit – song for song, vocal for vocal it’s spot on. The arrangements let the songs have their own life and Nelson once again proves his incredible talents at crafting simple yet effecting songs. Shotgun Willie stands out because it doesn’t pander to any ideals – it just stands on its own as an understated gem. If you’re only familiar with Nelson’s more popular recordings from the mid to late 70s, go and pick this one up. You’ll witness a singer/songwriter in his prime, who’s stumbled upon the authentic identity that would help cement his place in not just country, but American music history.