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Reflections on Willie Nelson: The Complete Atlantic Sessions


by James Calemine

“If America had one voice, it would be Willie’s…” - Emmylou Harris

Willie Nelson’s music crosses many generations. His life’s work includes 50 years of songwriting, 50 million records sold, over 100 albums released, thousands of shows, countless collaborations, three books, and 2500 penned songs. Nelson spearheaded organizations such as BioWillie, Farm Aid, and many non-profit gigs providing donations to earthquake, tsunami, and flood victims. Many of Nelson’s fans are not old enough to remember him as the rough and rowdy songwriter struggling to make a living. These days, Nelson’s seminal image personifies a wise, pony tailed, grey-haired sage, dope smoking golf freak that represents peace, love, and earth awareness. Regardless of his image, not many artists can say Miles Davis named a song after them. These Complete Atlantic Sessions prove Nelson served as a purveyor of blending rock and roll and country cultures into one unmistakable sound.

Growing up in Abbott, Texas, Nelson began writing songs at age 7. He worked various jobs (even joined the Air Force) as a disc jockey, tree trimmer, and salesman. He soon began playing nightclubs, trying to get his music heard. In 1960 he moved to Nashville. Country great Hank Cochran scored Nelson a publishing deal. Soon, Nelson’s songs “Night Life”, “Crazy”, “Hello Walls”, and “Funny How Times Slips Away” were recorded by Ray Price, Patsy Cline, Faron Young, and Billy Walker, which all brought early success. In the early 60’s Nelson experienced a string of hits.

In 1965 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry and recorded a few more semi-hits. By the 1970 Nelson became frustrated by the narrow Nashville musical confines while the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bob Dylan all augmented country influence in their music. These groups helped expose longhairs to the purity and essential grains of country music in American culture.

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The 2006 release of Willie Nelson: The Complete Atlantic Sessions mark the second ascent in Nelson’s career. The handsome case contains a booklet where Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler writes about how he signed Nelson and recorded Shotgun Willie and Phases & Stages: “I think it was 1972 or 1973 that I first encountered Willie in the flesh. I was in Nashville checking the C & W scene for Atlantic; somehow I was invited to Harlan Howard’s house for his annual pickers’ party. Who all was there…I think I remember Ray Price, Conway Twitty, among others, and Willie Nelson minus a record contract! How could this be? Maybe because Willie was in bad odor with the Nashville establishment; he was a “rebel” (whatever the hell that was intended to imply), he sported an earring and a pigtail halfway down to his butt, and scandal of scandals, he was rumored to partake of the hierba buena. Somebody introduced us, and it was instant karma. I signed him up, and the first thing we did (mostly in our New York studios) was Shotgun Willie…”

Wexler, a New York City native, attended Kansas State University where he spent most of his time in dank clubs discovering Joe Turner, Andy Kirk, and Western Swing. In the late 40s Wexler wrote for Billboard magazine where he invented the term “rhythm & blues”. Wexler kept heavy company. He stands as, arguably, America’s greatest jazz, blues, and country music connoisseur. His instinct and ear remain unparalleled.

In 1953, Ahmet Ertegun made Wexler a partner at Atlantic Records. Ertegun seemed interested in music with a pop sensibility while Wexler sought out black artists in the mean streets and swamplands of the south during a time in American history when interracial relationships and friendships proved unacceptable. Wexler paved a progressive road, a link to all the sources of America’s most prized source, music.

Wexler’s cultivated musical amalgamations changed the music culture forever by cross-pollinating artists with different musical backgrounds to record together on specific projects. The list is too long to name every artist Wexler produced or co-produced, but to name a few: Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, Dr. John, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, Champion Jack Dupree, King Curtis, Duane Allman, Guitar Slim, Doug Sahm, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, The Dixie Flyers, Donnie Fritts, Tony Joe White, Ronee Blakely, Etta James, The Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Donny Hathaway, Dire Straits, Cher, Patti LaBelle, Carlos Santana, and Willie Nelson.

Wexler signed Nelson onto the label, and they soon set to work. The Complete Atlantic Sessions encloses three CDs: Shotgun Willie, Phases & Stages, and Live At the Texas Opry House. Each CD contains unheard bonus tracks, outtakes, and alternate versions to the official releases.

The importance of these two albums in Nelson’s career should not be taken lightly; they set the stage for the flowering of the Austin music scene. Like any great musician, Nelson suffered from a severe aversion to musical stereotypes. He wanted to reach people who didn’t necessarily listen to country music. His first Atlantic studio album, Shotgun Willie, released in 1973 proved his ability to reach Texas shitkickers, hippies in California, jazz freaks in New Orleans, sons & daughters of the South, and cynical urbanites in New York City.

Nelson stated the album’s title track was “the only song I ever wrote in New York City.” In his book The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes Willie wrote: “I did an album in New York City one time. It turned out to be called Shotgun Willie. I wrote the title song while I was making the album. Jerry Wexler was the producer—one of the best producers of all time. I was looking for a record deal and he really liked my work. So there we were in New York City, doing an album. I was thrilled. At the same time though I was a little pissed because I wanted to come up with a really good new song for the album.”

The booklet for these landmark Atlantic Sessions contains Nelson’s explanation for the title track’s origin. “I walked out of the studio and back to my hotel. In my room I paced from corner to corner, listening to radio waves, the old sensation surging through me. Then I went to the bathroom and sat down. I saw a sanitary napkin envelope in the sink. I picked it up and started writing: “Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear…”

On this opening track Nelson establishes immediately that he’s incorporated Atlantic’s blend of R & B into his music with a brass backdrop provided by the Memphis Horns. Shotgun Willie was recorded in five days. Wexler allowed Nelson to choose his own band. He recruited talented musicians such as Leon Russell, Doug Sahm, and Jimmy Day to contribute to these sessions. Nelson renders Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” so well many thought Nelson wrote the song himself, and continues to perform the tune in his live repertory.

Longtime musical sidekicks such as Bee Spears (bass guitar), Sister Bobbie Nelson (piano), and Paul English (drums) comprised the core of Nelson’s band on Shotgun Willie and they remain in his band until this day. “Sad Songs And Waltzes” sounds quite autobiographical considering that era was a tumultuous time in Nelson’s life and he sang about his daily pain and tribulations in a straightforward and honest manner that connected with the common man.

Nelson tips his hat twice to fellow-Texan Bob Wills by covering “Stay All night” and “Bubbles in My Beer”. Also, Nelson covers two of Leon Russell’s songs—“You Look Like the Devil” and “A Song For You”. The elusive Russell operated at the peak of his career during this time, having already collaborated with rockers The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. Nelson mentioned his bond with the Oklahoma native: “My daughter told me I had to listen to (Joe Cocker’s) Mad Dogs & Englishmen album. I was amazed by the arrangements. I made a point of checking him (Russell) out. I thought it was the most incredible show I’d ever seen. Not just the visual impact, but the music.” Russell and Nelson later cut a record together titled One For the Road. Russell recently appeared (as he has almost every year) at Nelson’s 2006 Fourth of July Picnic in Texas.

“Slow Down Old World” finds the songwriter at a crossroads at 40. “She’s Not For You” proves as a universal soundtrack for any man who’s lost a woman he’s loved. “So Much To Do” (with strings arranged by the late Donny Hathaway), tells a tale of a man forced to pick up pieces of a shattered love: “There’s too much to do now that you’re gone/too much to do all alone/time rolls on like a river/there’s so much to do/I just can’t do without you.”

These songs serve as therapy for any man facing the world alone with only a bottle as solace.

These Atlantic Sessions contain 12 bonus tracks unearthed from the Shotgun Willie sessions. Two outtakes included Floyd Tillman’s rocking “I Gotta Have Something I Ain’t Got” and Leon Russell’s “My Cricket And Me (also covered by Glen Campbell). Nelson songs that didn’t make the cut for the album were “I’m So Ashamed”, “Both Ends of the Candle”, a heart-rending version of “Save Your Tears”, and instrumental “Under The Double Eagle”. These songs would prove as hits for any other artist, but Nelson decided to leave them off the album.

Phases & Stages, a concept album, was recorded in October 1973 and released in March of 1974. The first five songs are told from a woman’s perspective in a disintegrating marriage; the songs reveal her unhappiness and plans to leave. The last five songs are told from a man’s point of view in the same relationship when he wakes up to realize his woman is gone. These songs were written by a man in an emotional and domestic upheaval. All the compositions on Phases & Stages were composed by Nelson.

The sessions occurred in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (“The Swampers”): David Hood, Berry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Pete Carr, accompanied by John Hughey playing pedal steel and Johnny Gimble handling mandolin and fiddle--serving as the band. Muscle Shoals became an oasis for artists because anything that contained “The Swampers” more or less appeared high in the charts. Countless great albums were cut in Muscle Shoals. Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Womack, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Leon Russell, and Lynyrd Skynyrd all recorded hits there. Not to mention great obscure recordings by Duane Allman, Little Richard, Eddie Hinton, and Bob Dylan.

Jerry Wexler spoke about industry doubts concerning Willie Nelson recording in Muscle Shoals, “Everyone in Nashville thought I was out of my mind. They said Muscle Shoals was too R & B for Willie. I said Willie was too R & B for Nashville…”

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s, low-bottom, sparse, warm sound on Phases & Stages permeates each of Nelson’s songs, which proves more subdued than Shotgun Willie. These tunes allowed Nelson to continue reaching a wider audience and solidifying his position as a timeless troubadour of country music.

The first three songs--“Washing the Dishes”, “Walkin’”, and “Pretend I Never Happened”--conjure folk, rhythm & blues, flamenco, and country ingredients in each song creating a melting pot of sonic alchemy that transcended musical boundaries.

Emmylou Harris enjoyed Nelson’s “Sister’s Coming Home” so much she covered the song on her Blue Kentucky Girl album several years later. “(How Will I Know) If I’m Falling In Love Again” sounds as if it could succeed in any musical form—country, blues, rock, soul, or even reggae due to Nelson’s strength of song construction.

“Bloody Mary Morning” stands out as the Phases & Stages centerpiece song which Nelson continues to play almost every gig. Often Nelson’s guitar prowess is overlooked, but subtle licks on this tune verify Nelson’s six-string aptitude. In his latest book, The Tao of Willie, Nelson wrote about his early musical influence which he incorporated for these releases, “Back in Texas, it was easier to remember all that great Mexican and Spanish guitar pickin’ I’d heard as a boy, and those sounds helped fill out two albums I made for Atlantic. Shotgun Willie and Phases & Stages were both hits…”

“No Love Around” tells the story of a man “coming home on Saturday morning” to find a note from his wife that she no longer loves him and she’s gone. “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” ranks as a gem (“It’s the very first day/since you left me/But I’ve tried to put my thoughts in a song/All I can hear myself singing/Is I still can’t believe you’re gone”). Nelson’s mode of operandi always revolves around his strength in simplicity although lush string arrangements sweeten these sad songs of love and loss.

“Heaven And Hell” reminds the listener Nelson never strays far from his country roots with a weeping pedal steel and toe-tapping solid drum beat. Phases & Stages closes with the re-occurring acoustic theme just before “Pick Up the Tempo” where Nelson sings like a desperate man resigned to a hard-luck hand he’s been dealt: “I’m wild and mean/I’m creating scene/I’m goin’ crazy/Well I’m good and bad/I’m happy and sad/And I’m lazy/I’m quiet and I’m loud/I’m gathering a crowd/And I like gravy/I’m about half off the wall/But I learned it all in the Navy.”

Ten bonus tracks from Phases & Stages include alternate versions of original songs on the album, essential for any real Nelson fan who played the album over and over. With each listen one hears another layer of Nelson’s musical genius. Phases & Stages ended a golden era at Atlantic.

The final CD of this Atlantic Collection comprises 16 live tracks performed on June 29 and 30, 1974, at the Texas Opry House in Austin, preserving the dynamic power of Nelson’s live performances. The staple songs include “Whiskey River”, “Me & Paul”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Crazy”, Night Life”, “Bloody Mary Morning”, “The Party’s Over”, “Truck Drivin’ Man”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, the Waylon Jennings/Nelson classic “Good Hearted Woman” (which set the stage for the timeless Outlaws album released a year later), and “Sister’s Comin’ Home.” This collection magnifies Nelson’s ability to assemble a band for incandescent live performances. Five previously unreleased bonus tracks close this live CD.

After Shotgun Willie and Phases & Stages, Nelson’s career improved dramatically. He became an icon. These days, there’s a plethora of great Nelson CDs to explore, but the Atlantic Sessions verify Nelson’s position as an essential American songwriter.

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