Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.
Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.
In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.
1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)
Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.
This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.
2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)
Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.
Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.
This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.
3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)
Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.
This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.
The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.
Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)
Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.
For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.
4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)
Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.
This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.
“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.
The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).
5) Willie Nelson & Hank Snow – Brand On My Heart (Columbia, 1985)
I don’t know what the connection was for Willie Nelson and Hank Snow (1914-1999). Maybe Hank was simply a singer Willie admired or perhaps he was someone who treated Willie well on his way up. Whatever the connection, Willie and Hank recorded an album together comprised of eight of Hank’s hits plus two other country classics. The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio but none of the songs were written by Willie although his band was used augmented by Johnny Gimble and Hank’s steel player Kayton Roberts. Hank, an excellent guitar picker, plays some guitar leads on this album. This is a very excellent old-school country album. Willie clearly had sung these songs for many years, so comfortable is he with the Hank Snow catalogue.
The title track “Brand On My Heart” is a song from Hank’s days recording with RCA’s Canadian affiliate during the 1940s and is the hidden gem of this album. If you like songs such as “Golden Rocket”, “I’m Moving On”, I’ve Been Everywhere”, “A Fool Such As I” and “I Don’t’ Hurt Anymore” sung by singers with a genuine affection for the songs, you’ll love this album. As it happens, Hank had not recorded for several years prior to this album, and he would never record again making this album, making the album a fitting send off to the career of a great country singer.
Unlike the albums discussed before this which somewhat functioned as tribute albums, Willie’s duet albums with Waylon Jennings and with Merle Haggard were albums with contemporary superstars in their primes .
6) Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Pancho & Lefty (Epic, 1983)
Merle Haggard (1937- ) is in the conversation for the title ‘greatest country artist of all time’ so this album is clearing a joining of equals. The album’s title track (a #1 single) was a cover of what was probably the signature song of singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. The rest of the album is a mixed bag of songs ranging from western movie star Smiley Burnett’s “It’s My Lazy Day” to a couple of Jesse Ashlock western swing classics for Bob Wills “Still Water Runs the Deepest” and “”My Life’s Been a Pleasure” to the other single on the album other single “Reasons To Quit”, a Merle Haggard song that went to #6).
Musicians from both Willie’s and Merles band play on the album along with the ubiquitous Johnny Gimble on fiddle, but except on the western swing numbers, this sounds more like a Willie Nelson album than a Merle Haggard album. It is a good album and deserved its success
7) Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Seashores Of Old Mexico (Epic, 1987)
This album reverses the dynamic of the prior collaboration as the musicians on this album are Merle Haggard’s Strangers plus Johnny Gimble, and this sounds more like a Merle Haggard album than a Willie Nelson album. The title song should be familiar to readers as a George Strait hit from a few years ago. Haggard wrote five of the songs on the album, including the title track, Willie wrote one song “Why Do I Have To Choose” and the remainder come from outside sources more connected to Haggard than Willie (other than “Yesterday”, written by Paul McCartney, who has no discernable connection with either).
The recording of “Yesterday” benefits from the world-weary approach that Haggard & Nelson give it – both were in their fifties when the one was released, whereas the Beatles were still young men during the mid 1960s. The single from the album was “If Only I Could Fly” which only reached #58 but by 1987 both Haggard and Nelson were losing their traction on the Billboard singles charts. This is a very pensive album with little in the way of optimistic material. I like this album better than I like Pancho & Lefty, but it wasn’t nearly as successful.
Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings (1937-2002)
Willie and Waylon never were best buddies, but they were comrades and colleagues for an extended period of time Although their names were bundled together, that was more due to circumstances as both wanted more say in the sound of their recordings and were willing to make waves in order to have that control. Hence the so-called ‘Outlaw’ movement which, while sometimes a throwback to traditional country music, also sometimes was more rocking that any of the artists above would have wanted to perform. Waylon and Willie had three #1 singles as a duet but two of the duets, 1975’s “Good Hearted Woman” and 1982’s “Just To Satisfy You” are not on any of their four duet albums.
8) The first and best seller of the bunch was Waylon & Willie (RCA, 1978) which features two of the songs for which they are best remembered in “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” (a #1 hit in 1978 and “Pick Up The Tempo” plus a bunch of other good songs such as “Wurlitzer Prize”, “I Can Get Off On You” and “Looking For A Feeling” .
9) WORLD WAR III (RCA, 1982) is a weird album. Producers Chips Moman and Waylon Jennings should have known better than to try a disco-pop fusion arrangement on the opening track “Mr. Shuck and Mr. Jive”. Although “Sitting On The Dock of The Bay” has been handled well by many, the Waylon & Willie take undoubtedly had Otis Redding spinning in his grave. The best song on the album is “The Last Cowboy Song”, originally a hit for writer Ed Bruce (with a guest vocal by Willie Nelson). The rest of the album is a waste of vinyl ranging from too cute (a cover of Barbara Fairchild’s “Teddy Bear”) to just misfired (a cover of Tom T Hall’s “The Year Clayton Delaney Died”). This album is a mix of duets and Waylon Jennings solos.
10) Take It To The Limit (Columbia, 1983) continues the slide. I don’t especially like the Eagles but their take on the title track is far superior to the dynamic duo’s lethargic take on the song. There is only one Willie Nelson song on the album which includes “No Love At All” , Willie’s “Why Do I Have To Choose” (a Nelson solo that reached #3), “Why Baby Why”, “We Had It All”, “Take It To The Limit (it reached #8 as a duet single), Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” , Justin Tubb’s “Blackjack County Chain” , Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again”, Roger Miller’s “Old Friends” and the David Allen Coe classic “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)”. This album is a mix of duets and Willie Nelson solos.
Insofar as they are any standout tracks on this album, I would select “Blackjack County Chain” and “Why Do I Have To Choose” . Both “Take It To The Limit” and “Dock of The Bay” charted in the top twenty, but that is more a tribute to the songs’ quality than anything W&W did with them.
11) After the disappointing two prior albums, I almost passed on Clean Shirt (Columbia, 1991). Prior to this album Waylon had been signed to RCA while Willie was signed to Columbia so there were some compromises made in track selections. By 1991 both artists were signed to Columbia, and both had lost favor with radio, so they could quit trying for radio hits. The resulting album marked a rebound to form.
The theme of this album is nostalgia. The title track, finds our heroes debating whether to head over the Mexican border and have the sort of fun they had when they were younger. The song titles pretty much tell the story of this album:
01. If I Can Find a Clean Shirt
02. I Could Write a Book About You
03. Old Age and Treachery
04. Two Old Sidewinders
05. Tryin’ to Outrun the Wind
06. The Good Ol’ Nights
07. Guitars That Won’t Stay in Tune
08. The Makin’s of a Song
09. Put Me on a Train Back to Texas
10. Rocks from Rolling Stones
I said this album marked a return to form, but in reality, song for song, it is my favorite of the Willie & Waylon albums. “If I Can Find A Clean Shirt” was the single, but it only reached #51.
Willie, of course, never did quit recording with other artists so there are several albums full of Willie Nelson duets where Willie sings with a bunch of different duet partners.
I hadn’t mentioned the VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (American Recordings, 1998) which was the soundtrack to an episode of a VH1 television series and not conceptualized as a duet album. But it’s a pretty good album on with Cash and Nelson singing a duet on “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and then swapping songs and occasional harmonizing together thereafter. The album features Cash and Nelson on vocals and guitar with Nelson doing the heavier picking since he is the better guitar player.