Full Nelson

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."

As a result, Nelson -- who has long maintained a Zenlike attitude toward the music business -- says he's become increasingly frustrated with the resistance he faces. "It's just gotten to the point where it's funny," he says. "You either have to laugh or go kill somebody, and I prefer to laugh about it. But if I kill somebody, I might get more press. It's just gotta be funny. Like the Moonlight Becomes You album -- that album was [completed] so many years ago and it was turned down, but I held on to it. Justice put it out, and it was nominated for a Grammy.

"So I know the music doesn't get old. It just lies there for years, and someday somebody will get the balls to put it out."

That's exactly what happened with the Rhino collection, which both traces and turns up gems in a career that stretches all the way back to Nelson's first release when he was a DJ in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1950s. The kid from Abbott had long been drawn to the music of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, and as an Air Force DJ on stations such as KCNC in Fort Worth he came to the realization, he says now, that "that's what I wanted to do."

"That," of course, meant write and record country music, though when asked today exactly what it was that prompted him to enter a garage-cum-recording-studio in Portland in 1957 and make his first record, Nelson says, roaring with laughter, "I think I knew instinctively they [country musicians] got a lot of pussy. I knew the guitar gets the girls. I could see that already."

To listen to that 1957 single -- "No Place for Me" backed with "Lumberjack," both on the Rhino set -- is to barely hear the man who would become a legend. The recording is murky and plain, the voice young and fragile, the playing rudimentary and small. And yet when Nelson hawked the 45s, each accompanied by an autographed photo, out of his trunk for a solid buck, they sold out; eventually, he unloaded 3,000 copies.

"It was all a magic thing," Nelson says of his first foray into recording, "and the fact I was allowed -- and still am allowed -- to be a part of it is amazing."

When he speaks in that now-familiar nasal twang, Nelson sounds awfully cheerful for a man who has spent the last few years fighting to regain a foothold in an industry he once ruled. Nelson -- like another country legend and fellow Highwayman, Johnny Cash -- has somehow slipped from superstar status to more of a cult icon; both men are ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, exiles in their homeland. They may still sell out concert venues and pack in the rabid faithful, but even then they're forced to churn out a greatest-hits show. If Nelson doesn't open a performance with "Whiskey River" and close it with "On the Road Again," with such reliables as "Good Hearted Woman" and "Crazy" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" thrown in for good measure, the fans walk away feeling cheated.

And so Nelson and Cash -- not to mention such men as Waylon Jennings and George Jones -- are reduced to oldies acts when they consistently prove they're still capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite. The result can be debilitating: when Nelson took the stage at the State Fair of Texas last fall, he ran through a best-of set list with all the enthusiasm of a man half asleep, the arrangements sloppy and the performance listless. He had just released one of the best albums of his career -- the dazzlingly eclectic Across the Borderline, on which he recorded with Sinead O'Connor, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan -- but at the fair the risk-taking Nelson stayed home; what the audience saw, and wanted, was the waxwork, the immortal who never ages and never writes any new material.

Nelson's career, though, has always been pockmarked by amazing success and devastating failure. During the early '60s, he was writing hit after hit for country's best-known performers -- Faron Young took "Hello Walls" to number one in 1961, Patsy Cline went Top Ten with "Crazy" in 1962 and Ray Price scored a Top 20 hit with "Night Life" in 1963 -- but his own attempts to record his material were greeted with resistance.  

At the time, Nelson was under contract to Liberty Records, and though he scored a hit in 1962 with his debut single "Touch Me," the label simply didn't consider the wildly eclectic artist, who adored the lush pop standards performed by Frank Sinatra as much as the honky-tonkin' output of Ernest Tubb, to be commercial. So it cut him loose, and Nelson retreated to land outside Nashville to write.

"I look at it if it's a good song or not," Nelson says, explaining his legendarily eclectic taste. "I don't really try to put it like, 'Well, if it's this kind of song I won't do it, if it's that kind of song I won't do it.' I just like to sing music, a good song. It's a problem that there is a category for this and a salesman for that."

For a brief time in 1964, Nelson became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, and then he signed on as a weekly performer on Ernest Tubb's syndicated TV show; the latter provided the 31-year-old Nelson the chance to perform with one of his heroes. But the trouble he'd later encounter with Columbia Records in the '90s was foreshadowed during his stints with RCA in the late '60s and with Atlantic in the early '70s. Even though Chet Atkins, a Nelson fan, signed him to RCA, he became increasingly frustrated by his inability to sell this nasal-voiced man to the masses. "Willie was ahead of his time," Atkins says in the booklet accompanying the Rhino set. "He was hot in Texas, and that was the only place we could sell him."

Jerry Wexler, the mastermind behind the careers of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, was the man who brought Nelson over to Atlantic, where he recorded the concept albums Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. The Rhino set includes five songs recorded for Shotgun Willie that never made it to the final album (including the devastating "Both Ends of the Candle" and a solo acoustic rendition of Leon Russell's "My Cricket and Me") and three alternate takes of songs from Phases and Stages. But the boxed set's true revelation is the 1974 Live at the Texas Opry House, which was produced by Wexler for Atlantic and never released. It ranks with Neil Young's Live Rust and the Who's Live at Leeds as great live representations of an artist.

It kicks off with "Whiskey River" and runs through a set list that includes the Bob Wills standards "Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)," the George Jones hit "She Thinks I Still Care" and Nelson standards such as "Crazy." It's a frenetic and unrelenting performance, one that defines the so-called "Outlaw" movement of the time, every song splitting the difference between a good buzz and a hangover. The disc reeks of pot and whiskey, with Nelson and the band turning Western swing into Southern rock.

"That was a wild night," Nelson recalls. "I thought it turned out real good, and I hated that it didn't come out before. It's another one of those frustrations where you knew you had something good and it didn't come out, and this is how many years later? Ten? Twenty?"

Released from Atlantic not too long after that concert, Nelson came to Garland in February 1975 and cut Red Headed Stranger, which cost $20,000 to record and wound up going double platinum. Nelson, not surprisingly, points to that album and the subsequent success as the only period during his career when he was happy with both the business and artistic ends.

Yet even with the success of Red Headed Stranger, Columbia never gave Nelson the artistic control it promised. By the mid-'80s, the label began exerting control over his output, quashing the release of Sugar Moon -- an album of jazz and pop standards meant as a successor to Stardust -- and Willie Sings Hank Williams. Both of those albums, in their wonderful entirety, make the boxed set.

The Williams disc, which covers the hits ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") and the obscurities ("Why Should We Try Anymore"), is the masterpiece of the Rhino collection. Nelson proves himself the link between Williams' tradition and the modernist movement Nelson himself led; he assumes Williams' lyrics, embodies their meaning, stays true to the original arrangements but never merely mimics.

"I love that album, I really do love that album," Nelson says. "Jimmy Day was very instrumental in helping me do that album. You know that click sound in the back -- the old Hank Williams rhythm guitar? Sammy Pruitt used to play that, but Jimmy Day used to work with Hank Williams and he learned how to do that. So when we did this album, I said, 'I want it to be just as Hank Williams as it can be.'"  

It's somehow appropriate that, until now, the Classic & Unreleased Collection had been available only on the QVC home-shopping network, with Nelson actually showing up several times to promote his work.

It marked the second time in Nelson's career that his best work was available only by mail: in 1991, during the height of his troubles with the IRS, Nelson had made available a disc of never-before-heard acoustic performances. Titled Who'll Buy My Memories (but also known as The I.R.S. Tapes), it was Nelson's most sparse and memorable album since Red Headed Stranger. The disc -- a selection of outtakes and demos, tracks rejected for release by his label or the man himself -- was a profound revelation: Nelson, who had risen to fame on "concept" albums and a marketing mythology that merged hippie and country, had joined the ranks of the men whose work he grew up admiring. Stripped of gigantic arrangements, Nelson's songs evoked the poetry and power of Hank Williams. They were bleak and personal tales loaded with sorrow, all sung by a man whose well-worn voice dripped with obvious pain.

Who'll Buy My Memories ranks among Nelson's best works, an essential piece of a puzzle that explains his career. As, for that matter, does the Rhino set, which contains four of Memories' tunes. Still, Nelson won't be crushed if A Classic & Unreleased Collection fades into obscurity. He's resigned now to selling 50,000 to 100,000 copies of his albums, and content to tour when he wants to and record when he needs to. And when the time comes to pick his fight with the record industry, well, he's ready to do that, too.

"But that's if you really want to go through that again," he says. "And sometimes I do. Sometimes ... it's gratifying to pick those fights. In the first place, I know I'm right. I really believe, because if I don't think I'm right I shouldn't be there. But if I really think I am and there's somebody up there that says, 'You're not' -- well, then, that makes it even more fun.

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