CD Review of The Complete Atlantic Sessions by Willie Nelson

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The Complete Atlantic Sessions
starstarstarstarstar Label: Atlantic/Rhino
Released: 2006
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Every country artist has their commercial ups and downs, based on what’s hot and what’s not at any given time, but when viewed in a historical context, the far more important consideration is this: when did they officially begin their rise to creative genius? In the case of Willie Nelson, it’s arguable that his genius has been with him since the beginning, owing to a constant desire to play any damned kind of music he wants, just as long as he likes it; this is evident from his forays into everything from reggae (Countryman) to Tin Pan Alley standards (Stardust). Still, the first time the creative genius was really evident for Nelson as a tremendous performer rather than just a songwriter – he’d already earned the latter reputation courtesy of “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – was with 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine. Unfortunately, as Nelson has since recalled, it was “regarded by RCA as way too spooky and far out to waste promotion money on.”

Flash forward to 1973. Nelson was, inconceivably, without a record contract when Jerry Wexler caught one of his live performances and said, “I’m starting a country division at Atlantic Records.” Before long, Nelson was signed to Atlantic, and Wexler, with the help of the late Arif Mardin, was producing his first album for the label (Shotgun Willie). Unfortunately, the stint with Atlantic would only last for two albums; after Nelson’s second release, Phases and Stages, the label decided to close its Nashville office, and Wexler, a longtime fan of Willie’s, freed Nelson from his contract. Still, in that short time on Atlantic, Nelson officially decided to stop caring about what Nashville wanted and, perhaps unintentionally, kickstarted what would soon be referred to as the outlaw country movement.

Now, Atlantic – in conjunction with reissue experts Rhino Records – has put together a phenomenal box set of Nelson’s two albums, each filled to the brim with rarities, alternate takes, and previously-unreleased tracks; they’ve also added a live album from the era, recorded at the Texas Opry House.

“Shotgun Willie sits around his underwear,” begins the title cut of Nelson’s Atlantic debut, “biting on a bullet and pulling out all his hair.” Not exactly standard country fare at the time, but, then, that’s Willie for you. In mere moments, he’s already begun his first criticism of the music industry, observing, “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say / You can’t play music if you don’t know nothing to play.” A few tracks later, he sings to the woman who’s left him that he’d love to “tell all about how you cheated” and “get even with you ‘cause you’re leaving,” but that, unfortunately, “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Among the classics included here are Nelson’s cover of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and Bob Wills’ “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” plus Cindy Walker’s “Bubbles in My Beer,” which Nelson covered again in 2005 when he paid tribute to some of Walker’s greatest compositions.

If the return to his traditional country roots wasn’t enough to confuse the mainstream country audience, you can imagine their bewilderment when he followed Shotgun Willie with a concept album. Phases and Stages contained ten songs; the first five tackled the dissolution of a marriage from the man’s point of view, while the second half of the record viewed it from the woman’s side. Although it holds together pretty well (despite Willie kind of ramming the concept down the listener’s throat by having several tracks emphasizing the phrase “phases and stages”), most of the tracks are, even taken out of context, still classics. “Bloody Mary Morning” is a definitive morning-after tale, and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” is a now-standard that offers a heartbreaking take on the end of a relationship (with “Pretend I Never Happened” its male counterpart). Meanwhile, “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” finds the woman trying to get over her denial, while the piano and fiddle of “(How Will I Know) I’m Falling in Love Again” showcase a man who’s concerned he may never find a romance to match the one he’s just left behind. It’s a little jarring to hear the spunky “No Love Around” in the midst of all this melancholy, but it’s also a nice change of pace, so it’s hard to complain.

The live album, “Live at the Texas Opry House,” is a nice bonus, spotlighting Nelson’s always-enthusiastic concert performances; a medley of some of the songs he wrote for other folks is a highlight, as is the take on “Good Hearted Woman,” later a huge hit for Waylon Jennings. The bonus tracks on the pair of original Atlantic albums are illuminating, showing the evolution to the finished product, and the thick booklet for the set provides tremendous insight into Nelson’s work during the era. Indeed, the packaging for the entire set is destined to be award-winning; the discs are housed in cardboard sleeves designed to resemble the original albums, and the box itself looks like a leather-bound book, complete with a ribbon to make the removal of the discs easier.

The Complete Atlantic Sessions are an indispensable piece of country music history, and they’ve been re-issued with every bit of the love and care they deserve. Not only is this set a must-own, it’s a must-stop-reading-and-go-get-it-immediately…so what are you waiting for?

~Will Harris