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Full Nelson

With a new disc and a boxed history, Willie Nelson wonders who'll buy his memories

In 1978, Newsweek devoted a giant spread to Willie Nelson -- "The King of Country Music," as the headline heralded in huge type. The story celebrated the singer/songwriter's "good life" -- days spent hanging out with celebrities and new-found pals such as then-president Jimmy Carter, nights spent smoking pot and drinking tequila on Lear jets as he bounded to and from enormous, crowded concert halls.

The Newsweek writer documented Nelson's journey from the chicken-wire-and-pistols dance halls of West Texas to the top of the pops with grand understatement: "In 1970, Willie surveyed the ashes of his Nashville home, his two marriages and his dozen or so flop albums -- and decided to go home to Texas." When that story was printed, Nelson had been sitting at the top of the country charts for two months with Stardust, his album of pop chestnuts and Tin Pan Alley standards; three years earlier, he had scored similar success with the concept album Red Headed Stranger. CBS Records had said it wouldn't sell -- too ugly, too stark -- but it was a hit, just like Nelson claimed it would be.

But now, 17 years after the Newsweek story -- 17 years after he sat on country's throne in Austin, his laughter echoing all the way back to Nashville, from whence he was once banished -- Willie Nelson wonders what happened to his reign.

When his name is mentioned today, people often wonder if he's still in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. (He isn't, having come to a settlement a couple of years ago.) Even more telling, Nelson is without a full-time record label for the first time in almost 30 years. Since 1993's comeback Across the Borderline on Columbia, Nelson has had to shop his recordings from label to label, hoping he could find someone willing to release his work. He's produced discs for Houston's Justice Records (Moonlight Becomes You), SBK Records (Healing Hands of Time), Step One (Six Hours at Pedernales) and Promised Land (Peace in the Valley: The Gospel Truth Collection, Volume 1). "I think," he says now, speaking from his Pedernales studio in Austin, "that's my goal -- to have an album on every label there is."

On the Fourth of July, as he performs in front of the thousands who'll descend upon Luckenbach for his annual picnic, Nelson will celebrate two new releases: Just One Love on Justice, a recently recorded collection of honky-tonk standards and originals, and A Classic & Unreleased Collection on Rhino, a three-disc boxed set of recordings dating all the way back to Nelson's very first single, which he self-released in 1957.

Just One Love is Nelson's first all-country album since 1989, and with a song list that includes such standards as "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette" and Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," it rekindles a flame Nelson left smoldering throughout the first half of this decade. But it's the boxed set that's the certifiable Important Release, ranking with Bob Dylan's 1991 Bootleg Series as a document filled with profound revelation and amazing music. Consisting of loads of demos and studio outtakes, plus three complete albums deemed unworthy of release by Nelson's various labels, it traces Nelson's evolution as songwriter and singer from an Ernest Tubb acolyte to the inheritor of Hank Williams' throne; from Frank Sinatra fan to Frank Sinatra's contemporary. And like The Bootleg Series, A Classic & Unreleased Collection fills in the gaps of a prolific career thought well documented, proving that when the world thought Nelson (like Dylan) was at his most mediocre, he still had magical cards hidden up his sleeve.

Like most of country music's living legends, Nelson has become both immortal and ignored. The boxed set in a way seems testimony to that, given that it's being released by Rhino, the record industry dumping ground that boasts a list of reissues ranging from the Monkees to lost hillbilly classics. Too, there's the fact that Nelson has two albums currently in the can recorded with his original touring band -- Jimmy Day on steel guitar, David Zettner on bass and Johnny Bush on drums -- that he hasn't been able to convince anyone to release.

"I came home several weeks ago and I found all these guys in the studio here," Nelson says of the reunion with his band. "We called ourselves the Offenders, so I said, 'Hell, the Offenders are in town,' so I got my guitar and went into the studio and just sort of moved in on 'em. We recorded 11 sides the first two days, and we went back two weeks later and did 25 more.

"And then I went to the Western town over here where I did the Red Headed Stranger movie, and we did a movie. It has a little plot to it, a lot of stunts, cowboys fightin' in it and falling off of horses and shit. And it has five songs, which we'll turn into five videos we can use to promote it.

"And I've done all this without a label. So now today my manager is tryin' to convince EMI-Liberty we have some good product down here. But you can see it's a fight that never ends."

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