Five Essential Willie Nelson Albums

Willie Nelson in the studio in the mid-'70s, making gospel album The Troublemaker
Willie Nelson in the studio in the mid-'70s, making gospel album The Troublemaker
Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

This week and into next, the State of Texas and the rest of the world will join together in saluting American hero Willie Nelson on his 80th birthday. Rocks Off would certainly like to add our congratulations, but we woke up today -- well, yesterday -- looking to start an argument.

The standard line in Willie's current bio is that he has released some 200 albums, and recently it sure seems like he has something new in stores every few months. Since 2008, his original, non-compilation titles include Two Men With the Blues (with Wynton Marsalis), Country Music, Willie and the Wheel (with Asleep at the Wheel), American Classic, Ray Charles tribute Here We Go Again, Heroes, and the brand-new Let's Face the Music and Dance. There may not be a stone-cold classic in there, but most of them are above average, and there certainly isn't an outright dog in the bunch.

True, Willie has said before that all he really does these days is play music and play golf. But he's still releasing albums at a clip that -- even considering that the Charles tribute and Two Men With the Blues were largely recorded live in one evening -- would put a man half his age to shame. There are a lot of reasons to admire Willie Nelson, and his laid-back but dogged work ethic is a big one for us personally.

Now, imagine that through some cruel twist of fate, you do not own any Willie Nelson albums. At all. That's where we come in. Of course these are not the only Willie Nelson albums you should buy, just the five we think you should buy first. But please don't stop there.

5. Yesterday's Wine (1971) A perpetual sleeper in Willie's catalog, Yesterday's Wine is considered by those of us who have spent hour upon hour listening to his records to be among his very best. Loosely a concept album about God setting a wayward honky-tonk musician on the straight and narrow, Yesterday's Wine was recorded with a tight crew of Nashville musicians that were already legendary, among them harmonica player Charlie McCoy, keyboardist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and steel guitarist Weldon Myrick.

Spare and understated, melancholy to the bone, Yesterday's Wine doesn't waste a note. It also contains "Family Bible," which dates all the way back to the years Nelson lived in the Houston area, and about which you can read very shortly.

4. Shotgun Willie (1973) At the time of its release, much was made about Shotgun Willie's being produced by legendary Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, who briefly stole Willie away before he ended up on Columbia. Today it works just as well as a Willie Nelson sampler, offering a taste of his several different facets dating back to his early days emulating Bob Wills ("Bubbles In My Beer").

Wexler's R&B influence is certainly apparent on the title song and "Devil In a Sleeping Bag," but the barely-there "Sad Songs and Waltzes" and "A Song For You" are much closer to Yesterday's Wine, while "Slow Down Old World" is even covered in countrypolitan strings. But whatever Shotgun Willie may lack in cohesion, it more than makes up for in illustrating just what a complex and complicated musician Willie Nelson really was.

3. Stardust (1978) Stardust marked the point where no one could safely call Willie Nelson a "country and western" singer anymore. (Or an "outlaw," for that matter.) Simplicity itself, Stardust reveals Nelson's expert guitar skills without calling attention to them as he navigates some of the most elegant and moving pop standards American songwriting has produced to date.

Expertly produced by Memphis soul legend Booker T. Jones, whose barely detectible keyboards shimmer throughout the set like a secret thread, Stardust unites Nelson's mastery of the material with his everlasting affection for the songs. Just a wonderful album, one that often comes close to freezing time altogether.


2. Across the Borderline (1993) Produced by Don Was, Nelson winds up his Columbia contract with an album much closer in tone and shading to Bob Dylan's work at the time (Oh Mercy or Time Out of Mind) than Red Headed Stranger. Dylan himself shows up to duet with Willie on "Heartland," and Sinead O'Connor on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," but his wistful cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland" trumps both of them. (Lyle Lovett's "If I Were the Man You Wanted" is a personal pick.) Apart from whatever single he's pushing at the moment, Borderline also produced the most recent song in his nightly set list, "Still Is Still Moving to Me" -- a Willie original.

1. Phases & Stages (1974) Many people do, but do not underestimate Phases & Stages. Shotgun Willie's defiant, good-timin' outlaw faces about the cruelest reckoning imaginable on his very next time out of the gate - the dissolution of his marriage as told from both sides. Musically, the recurring "Phases & Stages" theme -- contemplative, jazzy mood music -- is thrown into sharp relief by the pristine, gospel-tinged honky-tonk of "Sister's Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint" and "Pretend I Never Happened." Sandwiched squarely in the middle of Phases, "Bloody Mary Morning" feels almost like an exorcism.


Texas In My Soul (1968)

The Troublemaker (1976)

San Antonio Rose (1980)

Tougher Than Leather (1984)

Spirit (1996)

Teatro (1998)

Milk Cow Blues (2000)

Two Men With the Blues (2008)

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