My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Bobbie Nelson

Album Review: Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection is a follow-up to Willie Nelson’s 2014 collaboration his sister Bobbie, December Day:  Willie’s Stash, Volume 1.   This time around Willie is teamed up with his two youngest sons, Micah and Lukas, who join him on eleven country classics and one contemporary number that leans heavily on the Hank Williams catalog.

Material-wise, there are no real surprises here.   As always when Willie Nelson records cover material, the unknown is always how much Willie will deviate from the originals.  In the case of this album, the answer is not much.   The seven Williams songs are handled reverently.   The two younger Nelsons, despite their youth, show great enthusiasm for the material and one gets the distinct impression that they have great respect and passion for, it and that these are not just a bunch of old songs that Dad forced them to record.    The three Nelsons harmonize well together, as family groups typically do, and there are some fantastic steel guitar solos courtesy of Mike Johnson.  Rarely have these old chestnuts sounded so energetic.

The one thing that did surprise me is how good Willie’s voice sounds throughout the album, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that has been apparent on some of his recent work.  From what I can gather, these recordings were made in 2011 and 2012, so that partially explains it.  However, his voice is noticeably stronger than it was on 2010’s Country Music collection for Rounder.  Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear Willie in such good vocal form.

This album could have been titled The Nelsons Sing Hank, since some of country music’s famous Hanks wrote the marjority of the album’s songs.  In addition to the seven Williams numbers (“Move It On Over”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” , “Cold Cold Heart”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), the album contains a remake of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which is my favorite song on the album.  Set to the melody of “Red River Valley”, it was a hit in 1973 for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, and it was later recorded by Willie for his Red Headed Stranger album in 1975.

The album is rounded out by a cover of Willie’s original composition “Healing Hands of Time” and a modern-folk tune “My Tears Fall” written by singer/songwriter Alyssa Miller.  This contemporary number fits in surprisingly wel l with these old classics and doesn’t sound out of place at all next to them.

Buddy Cannon’s production is tastefully understated and for the most part the album has a sitting around the living room jam-session type feel to it.  I cannot find any fault with it, other than to say I wish it had been released as a double album.   I highly recommend it without reservation.

Grade:  A+

Advertisements

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review – Willie Nelson – ‘Stardust’

220px-Willie_Nelson_StardustWillie Nelson was one of the biggest artists in country music in the mid-1970s. Red Headed Stranger and Wanted! The Outlaws had solidified his place as a genre superstar, selling at previously unheard of volumes. He also had complete creative control over his music; with Columbia Records allowing him to make whatever records he wanted.

Nelson had been mulling over the idea of making a standards album for a while, even trying to arrange “Stardust” on guitar from sheet music he and his sister Bobbie had, to no avail. By 1977 he was living in the same Malibu, CA Neighborhood as R&B/Soul Musician Booker T. Jones. They became such good friends that Nelson asked Jones to arrange a version of the standard “Moonlight In Vermont” for him. He was so pleased by the results, he asked Jones to produce an entire album of pop standards for him. The pair went into the studio and recorded the project in just nine days early that December.

The resulting album, Stardust, initially had the executives at Columbia Records nervous. A fusion of pop, jazz, folk, and country, the sonic direction of the project bared little resemblance to Nelson’s previous ‘outlaw’ album and thus they feared it wouldn’t sell. The label went forward anyways, releasing the ten-song collection in April 1978.

The label chose Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind” (a hit for Ray Charles in 1960) as the lead single. The song, despite a slow and prodding acoustic guitar-led arrangement, shot to #1 on the country chart. Nelson, who won the 1979 Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy for the track, gives a tender and endearing vocal on the recording.

Second single “Blue Skies” followed suit. Jones was smart, giving Nelson a more muscular arrangement to complement his somewhat free flowing vocal. Third and final single “All of Me,” easily the best and peppiest of the album’s singles, peaked at #3.

“Moonlight In Vermont,” the track that started it all, is a very slow jazzy/folk ballad that Nelson sings well. “Stardust” isn’t any livelier although the ethereal aspects of the production give it a gorgeously pleasant quality that nicely frames Nelson’s voice.

The Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” is aided by a distinctive melody that allows Nelson to give a more structured vocal performance. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is just as good, showing off Nelson’s interpretation skills as a jazz vocalist, with a nice upright bass and harmonica heavy production that suits the song well. “Unchained Melody” could’ve used a little more cadence in the production, allowing Nelson to give a more rhythmic vocal but he gives a nice effort, working with Jones’ arrangement.

“On The Sunny Side of the Street” gives Nelson a nice opportunity to step outside his musical comfort zone and embrace a finger snappin’ jazz style that actually works for his voice and overall persona. “September Song,” meanwhile, is nothing more than a deliberate pop/jazz ballad, although Nelson sings it very well (It peaked at #15 in 1979). The reissue edition includes two more songs – a beautiful folkish take on “Scarlet Ribbons” and a straight up jazz rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Both are very good and compliment the original album very well.

The execs at Columbia had a reason to be scared, as Stardust has a very unapologetic sound. Thankfully their nervousness was quickly put to rest. The album went platinum upon release and spent 540 weeks, ten years, on the top country albums chart and two years in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. Stardust went quintuple (5 million) platinum in 2002 and Nelson performed the entire album live – start to finish – at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles this past August to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary.

Stardust is nothing short of a classic and one of the greatest country albums of all time. I wish I could say it appeals more to my taste, but Jones’ production is too slow and sleepy for me to fully enjoy it. The project could’ve used some more uptempo numbers to even out the heaviness, and I probably would’ve enjoyed it more. But I can still appreciate the project for what it is, and there are some moments of brilliance here from Nelson.

Two Grades:

Personal Grade: C+ (I wish I could enjoy it more – it’s too slow and prodding for me)

On it’s own merit: A (I can fully see why it’s such an amazing album, and Nelson is brilliant here)

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Red Headed Stranger’

redheadedstrangerWillie Nelson’s brief stint with Atlantic Records yielded only modest commercial success, but the two albums he recorded for the label helped him land his deal with Columbia, where his labors finally began to bear some fruit. His first single for the label, a remake of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff thirty years earlier, reached #1, becoming the first of 25 Nelson chart-toppers.

His contract with Columbia gave Willie complete creative control over his records, a decision that initially resulted in some buyer’s remorse for the label when Willie submitted his first project, Red Headed Stranger. The album had been recorded on a shoestring budget in Garland, Texas and was produced by Willie himself. In stark contrast to the heavily produced fare that dominated country music at the time, Red Headed Stranger was a stripped-down affair, that used only eight musicians. Most of the arrangements consisted only of Willie’s vocals and guitar, some harmonica and occasional percussion, and the piano-playing of Willie’s sister Bobbie. Upon hearing the finished product, the executives at Columbia thought they were listening to a demo recording and were understandably reluctant to release what seemed at the time to be a decidedly non-commercial album. But release it they did, and to their credit, they did their job promoting it because Red Headed Stranger was blockbuster success, far exceeding everyone’s expectations. It’s hard to imagine an album in this vein being released today, especially by a major label, and even harder imagining it achieving a similar level of success.

Red Headed Stranger is built around the title track, which Willie had performed at his live shows in Austin. Encouraged by his then-wife, Connie Koepke, he wrote a backstory for the song’s protagonist and incorporated some of his own orignal compostions and some classic country songs, and created a western concept album that played a huge role in changing the country music landscape. The album opens with Willie’s self-penned “Time Of The Preacher”, which tells of a preacher who suspects his wife of infidelity. In the next track, Eddy Arnold and Wally Fowler’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”, his suspicions are confirmed. A brief reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” follows, and then a medley of “Blue Rock Montana” and “Red Headed Stranger”, in which the cuckolded husband kills his unfaithful wife and her lover, and then becomes a fugitive. The preacher laments the loss of his wife in “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” before committing another murder in the full-length version of “Red Headed Stranger”. The fugitive kills a woman whom he mistakenly believes is trying to steal his pony, to which he attached great sentimental value because it had belonged to his late wife. He avoids prosecution because apparently according to frontier justice, “you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”

Another brief 27-second reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” comes next, followed by the instrumental “Just As I Am” and another short number, “Denver”, which tells the listener that the Preacher has traveled south, where another woman catches his fancy. Another pair of brief instrumental numbers help to make the transition to a very nice version of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight” and Melba Mable Bourgeois’ “Remember Me”, which show that the Preacher is ready to bury his past and begin a new relationship. “Remember Me” was the album’s second and final single, landing at #2. “Hands On The Wheel”, which finds the Preacher as an old man with a new love and a young boy, concludes the story. The instrumental “Bandera” closes out the original album.

Sony’s Legacy imprint reissued a remastered version of Red Headed Stranger in 2000, along with four new tracks, which though very enjoyable, don’t add to the story and certainly don’t blend as seamlessly as the album’s original tracks do. They do have merit as standalone tracks, however. I particularly like Willie’s take on the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, a Pee Wee King number that had been a hit for Glen Campbell in 1974.

A sparsely-produced album such as Red Headed Stranger was as huge a commercial risk in 1975 as it would be today, and as I noted earlier, such a risk would not likely be undertaken today. However, Nashville record executives might be well served to look back as projects such as this one, which sold more than two million copies and is now regarded as a landmark album for country music. It is essential listening that deserves a place in the library of every country music fan.

Grade: A+

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Album Review: Willie Nelson and Family – ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’

let's face the music and danceAt 80 Willie Nelson remains one of the most prolific, and eclectic, of musicians. His latest album showcases his jazzy side, and the influences of the popular music of his childhood, but the relatively stripped down accompaniments should appeal to Willie’s country fans. Tastefully understated production from the estimable Buddy Cannon, and backings mainly from Willie’s ‘Family’ band (in fact the record is credited to Willie Nelson and Family) lead to a relaxed sounding set. Always a stylist rather than a great vocalist, Nelson’s voice has not deteriorated significantly enough to hamper his interpretations of these songs.

A quietly jazzy reading of 1930s Irving Berlin-penned standard ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ with Spanish guitar backing sets the mood for the album. Much of the album has a very similar pace, and although it works very well, occasionally it gets a bit samey.

Nelson has recorded ‘Twilight Time’ before, and this version is pleasant but feels redundant. Some of the remaining songs (Berlin’s ‘Marie (the Dawn Is Breaking)’, ‘You’ll Never Know’ and ‘I Wish I Didn’t Love You So’) have that classical Great American Songbook feel and Willie and band perform them impeccably, but I found my attention wandering a little while they were playing. The similarly vintage ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ has a lot more charm and the prominent harmonica from Mickey Raphael and Bobbie Nelson’s piano licks add character.

I also liked ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, which is even older, dating from a 1920s musical rooted in Harlem jazz, the most popular African-American music of the period. It suits Willie’s laid back vocal and the band sound great on the extended instrumental intro.

‘I’ll Keep On Loving You’ was a country hit in 1940 for country/Western Swing legend Floyd Tillman, and is another song well-suited to Nelson and band. Nelson also tackles ‘Shame On You’, a song from western swing pioneer Spade Cooley, sadly better known for the savage murder of his wife, which makes this song, castigating an unfaithful wife, rather uncomfortable listening.

Most of the songs come from the 1920s through the 1940s. The most modern song is Willie’s own ‘Is The Better Part Over’ (from the 1989 album A Horse Called Music). It is a distinctly downbeat number about calling time on a failing relationship, but it is an excellent song and Willie’s understated and subtle interpretation make this a highlight.

A couple of nicely played jazz instrumentals (both associated with Django Reinhardt) allow the band to stretch out.

First recorded for a movie by singing cowboy Gene Autry, ‘South Of The Border’ has a relaxed Mexican feel which rings the changes a bit. I also enjoyed the mid-paced harmonica-led take on the Carl Perkins rockabilly classic ‘Matchbox’.

This is a fine record from a man it would be no exaggeration to call a living legend.

Grade: A

Buy Let’s Face the Music and Dance at amazon.

Listen to the album on Spotify.