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Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman
Truth be told, it’s not that Nelson needs to keep his name in front of the public; here’s a guy that still excels with prolific prowess. In fact, releasing two or three new albums a year has become Nelson’s norm. So given that output of both current and recycled offerings, the new Naked Willie initially offers the impression that his handlers are grasping at straws. Whether or not that’s the case is uncertain; the era it spotlights is one of the least documented of Nelson’s career, when he specifically focused on being a country crooner. Yet, it found him at an odd juncture – several years had passed since he penned his huge hits ("Crazy" for Patsy Cline, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker and "Hello Walls" for Faron Young) and his brilliant breakthrough, Red Headed Stranger, was more than half a decade away. It was during this stretch in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that he recorded for RCA, well before he became the rebellious Willie, just another Nashville cat with Opry ambitions.
Being in mainstream mode required layers of orchestration and instrumental accoutrements that would seemingly make the music more palatable to the masses. Nelson was no exception, which is why Naked Willie attempts to revisit that material by stripping the songs down to the basics and effectively amplifying the vocals so they’re front and center. Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael takes the role of an "Unproducer," giving the majority of these tracks more of a contemporary feel than they had in their original incarnations.
Still, in listening to these new versions and the original recordings back to back, there’s little perceptible difference in the overall feel. While Willie’s in fine voice throughout -- his ragged, weary singing sounding similar to the way it does now -- commercial considerations negate the overall impact. "Bring Me Sunshine" finds him playing the role of a jazzy, snappy song stylist while "Following Me Around" is all swoon and sway. The dark and ominous anti-war lament "Jimmy’s Road" sounds dull and dated, and when Nelson deviates into the funky shuffle of "If You Could See What’s Going through My Mind," the results are more jive than genuine.
Happily, though, some songs do hint at Nelson’s later signature sound. The harrowing heartbreak that’s always been key to his themes is evident in songs like "The Party’s Over," "The Local Memory," "I Let My Mind Wander" and "I Just Dropped By." His take on Kris Kristofferson’s classic "Sunday Morning Coming Down" establishes an early bond that would eventually expand via their collaboration in the Highwaymen. Nelson’s "I’m a Memory" sounds upbeat and inspiring, a song that Roy Orbison might have made into a masterpiece.
Ultimately, Naked Willie becomes a mixed bag, part curiosity, part keepsake. But given the range and age of the material, Willie wears it all well.