At 75 years old, Willie Nelson is cooler than your grandpa. He’s cooler than you, too. Sure, he’s made some mistakes in the past few years—reggae album Countryman, appearing in the horrid Dukes of Hazzard remake, just to name two—but others his age are spending their days watching Murder She Wrote and driving 40mph on the freeway, so in comparison, a handful of musical missteps are nothing to get too worked up about, considering Willie’s extensive touring schedule that would strain on a man half his age.
In 2009, Willie is firing on all cylinders, releasing some of the best material he’s done in years, decades even. Not satisfied with merely releasing one five-star album this year (the incredible Western Swing album Willie and the Wheel), Willie has done his best Ryan Adams impersonation and is back with another full-length record after just a few months.
(Sony; US: 17 Mar 2009)
Willie and the Wheel
(Bismeaux; US: 3 Feb 2009; UK: 3 Feb 2009)
Red Headed Stranger
(Sony; US: 4 Jul 2000)
Naked Willie is a collaboration between Willie and his longtime friend/harmonica player Mickey Raphael. The two often thought about obtaining the multi-track tapes of Willie’s recording sessions from the mid-1960s and seeing if they could strip away the musical embellishments and reveal the songs’ most fundamental nature.
When Willie arrived in the country music capital nearly 50 years ago, the prevailing trend was the Nashville Sound. Spearheaded by producers such as Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, the Nashville Sound was an attempt to sophisticate country music by moving the genre away from its honky tonk trends in order to appeal to the largest possible number of consumers.
It worked—hence Patsy Cline’s massive crossover success—but it also left country music un-countried, with vocalists being backed by heavy strings and all traces of twang erased. There was almost nothing in this music that could be traced back to the traditions of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, or Hank Williams.
Willie allegedly hated the Nashville Sound and wanted his records to be far more minimalist, but his label, RCA, would not allow him to record his music without lush instrumentals and obnoxious background singers. In other words, these songs bear little resemblance to the sound which Willie is now best known for.
With Naked Willie we get to hear Nelson’s original artistic vision, free of any ostentatious overproduction and sounding a lot more like Red Headed Stranger-era Willie. His unusual voice, singing just a bit behind the beat and free of any sort of pop sophistication, was already something of an acquired taste in the days of perfectly polished vocals; now he’s got the appropriate musical arrangements to go along with it.
In the liner notes, we see photos of Willie dating back to the time that these songs were originally recorded. With short hair and a pressed button down shirt, Willie looks almost respectable, like someone you wouldn’t mind your daughter dating (of course, with all the stories of Willie’s notoriously bad behavior in Nashville at the time, the photos surely hide his devilish side).
The back cover of the liner notes features present-day Willie grinning in a bubble bath, suds covering his grizzled face while a (surprisingly shapely) leg pokes out of the water. Now that’s the Willie Nelson we know and love. If anything, the songs of Naked Willie now sound like they were recorded in an equally intimate setting, perhaps a front porch, home studio, or a tour bus full of swirling bong smoke instead of a sterile recording studio filled with interchangeable musicians and producers.
Several songs on the album are rare Willie tracks, including “Jimmy’s Road”, a heart-wrenching track that juxtaposes a soldier’s struggles with pastoral scenes from his childhood. The song was originally released on The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, an album full of demos and outtakes which was made to help Willie pay multimillions in back taxes. There’re a few covers (“Bring Me Sunshine”, “Johnny One Time”) and a handful of Willie’s best-known tracks on the album, but all songs get the same treatment here; by the time he’s through with them, it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing them so well.
I’ve never been much of a fan of altering or editing material that was just fine upon its release. Case in point: the original Star Wars trilogy special editions or the abomination that was Johnny Cash Remixed. Clearly, Naked Wille is the exception that proves the rule. Editing the original RCA tapes makes the songs so much better that it’s listening to a whole new record.
I’d grown a little bit tired of Willie Nelson in the past few years—mostly due to his association with the Kenny Chesneys, Toby Keiths, and Jessica Simpsons of the music industry—but listening to these new old tracks, it’s like I’m hearing Willie for the first time and remembering the reasons why I fell in love with him so many years ago.
Removing the overwrought orchestra from his songs serves to reinforce the power of Willie’s lyrics, many of which were composed on the heels of his 1961 songwriting breakthrough with the release of “Hello Walls” (recorded by Faron Young) and “Crazy”. What’s more, if this was the way he intended his songs to be heard, then he was truly an outlaw long before the 1975 release of self-produced Red Headed Stranger, the first album in which Willie had “artist approval” written into his contract.
It also proves that Willie was something of a visionary: his music may not have been so widely appreciated 40 years ago, but listening now, it holds up a lot better than the works of Nashville Sound paragon Jim Reeves have in the intervening decades.
All too often these days it seems that Willie Nelson is bit of a punchline: he’s a bit eccentric, he’s got some pigtails, he’s a big pothead with his own brand of environmentally friendly diesel (Bio-Willie for those of you in need of such a thing). But just in case you’ve forgotten that he’s one of the best songwriters to ever live, Naked Willie is here to remind you.