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Willie Nelson: One Hell of a Ride

At 100 songs clocking in just shy of five hours, Sony's latest dip into Willie Nelson's fathomless catalog, a four-CD behemoth timed to coincide with the release of Joe Nick Patoski's bio Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (see Racket, page 51) and the Red Headed Stranger's 75th birthday April 30, goes beyond scratching the surface — it might even take a stitch or two to close this particular incision.

Culled from a remarkable 59 albums, nearly all of them his, One Hell of a Ride doesn't play favorites; relative 1960s obscurities Both Sides Now and Yesterday's Wine land more cuts here than 1970s blockbusters Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, while critical if not commercial '90s smashes Across the Borderline, Spirit and Teatro take up a healthy chunk of Disc 4. If you happen to have forgotten '80s throwaways 1100 Bel Air Place (source of super-cheesy No. 1 Julio Iglesias duet "To All the Girls We've Loved Before"), Take It to the Limit and Partners, One Hell of a Ride will jog your memory. In the spirit of equal time, 1991's Who'll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes, which Nelson assembled to bail him out of the tax trouble into which such indiscriminate recording landed him in the first place, is also represented with the tender "Country Boy."

For a recording career that began more than a half-century ago in the studios of Pleasanton radio station KBOP, where Nelson recorded "When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song" — which bookends One Hell of a Ride with the 1954/55 original and the version he recut last year specifically for this set — his body of work acquits itself quite well in today's post-album digital age. From these four discs, it's possible to assemble a multitude of playlists: classics Nelson wrote for others ("Nite Life," originally recorded at Houston's Gold Star Studios in 1960, "Crazy," "Hello Walls," "Three Days," "Funny How Time Slips Away"); and kept for himself ("She's Not for You," "I Gotta Get Drunk," "Me and Paul," "Sad Songs and Waltzes," "Living in the Promiseland"); gospel treasures ("Laying My Burdens Down," "Family Bible," "Uncloudy Day"); pop and rock covers ("Everybody's Talkin'," "Heart of Gold," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Midnight Rider," "Graceland"); American standards that belong to others "One for My Baby and One More for the Road," "Georgia on My Mind," "Mona Lisa," "What a Wonderful World"); and Nelson alone ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Always on My Mind," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," "A Song for You").

We're not even close to done yet: One Hell of a Ride rounds up collaborations galore ("Good Hearted Woman" with Waylon Jennings, "Pancho & Lefty" with Merle Haggard, "Seven Spanish Angels" with Ray Charles, "Highwayman" with Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, "Crazy Arms" with Ray Price, "I'm Movin' On" with Hank Snow); more honky-tonk than anyone can handle ("If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time," "She's Gone, Gone, Gone," "Blackjack County Chain"); miscellaneous songs that belong in any self-respecting time capsule ("'Til I Gain Control Again," "If You Can Touch Her at All", "City of New Orleans"); and others that, for whatever reason, never quite got their due ("Yesterday's Wine," scathing record-biz riposte "Write Your Own Songs," Bob Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted," Spirit's aching "Too Sick to Pray," and brilliant Jimmy Cliff cover "The Harder They Come").

Whew. One Hell of a Ride and then some. And Nelson, fit as a fiddle and on the road as always, shows no signs of slowing down. He hasn't come close to singing his last hillbilly song, and won't until he draws that elusive last breath. At this rate, we can expect another similarly elaborate commemoration when Nelson turns 80 in 2013. The all-Willie iPod, perhaps?

 
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