Willie Nelson’s bearded face—smiling, a cowboy hat atop his head—presented inside both barrels of a shotgun: the cover art for his 1973 album Shotgun Willie seems like an iconic image for Nelson, often described under the guise of “outlaw country”. Nelson had been writing songs, for himself and others, all through the ‘60s (most famously, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”), and would go on to superstardom with his 1975 album The Red Headed Stranger, but the consensus seems to be that Shotgun Willie solidified that image of Nelson as an outlaw, a concept that lingers even today. Even as he’s become a celebrity, a larger-than-life pop-culture figure known for who he is as much as what he’s done, he still maintains the reputation of a bad boy, a rebel who smoked pot at the White House and evaded paying taxes.
That image was partly present in Nelson’s music already. Nelson’s 1971 album Yesterday’s Wine included “Me and Paul”, a song of life on the road that included talk of whiskey-drinking and getting busted for drug possession. But the idea of Nelson as “Shotgun Willie” was brought to the forefront on the album of that name. The booklet for The Complete Atlantic Sessions includes a photo of a beaming Nelson, beer in hand, wearing a t-shirt with “Shotgun Willie” in block letters across the front. Graeme Thompson’s oral history of Nelson’s career, Willie Nelson: The Outlaw, quotes Atlantic Records executive Nick Hunter recalling something Nelson’s then-manager Neil Reshen said about Shotgun Willie‘s title track, its first single: “Well it’s not a hit, but the image will last with Willie Nelson for a long time.” That plan, if it was one, certainly worked.
The song itself, though, doesn’t present the sort of confident, devil-may-care outlaw one might expect. Nelson begins the song by singing, over a slow, bluesy crawl, “Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear / biting on a bullet / pulling out all of his hair.” The sense of anxiety inherent in those words—the words, but not the lazy-day tone of the music—may seem counter to the cowboy-on-the run image of the word “outlaw.” But it’s central to the way in which Shotgun Willie, and the other music collected in The Complete Atlantic Sessions, can be considered outlaw music. That is, if Nelson in the mid-‘70s was an outlaw, it wasn’t because of his attire, but because he was a major musician struggling to follow his own artistic inclinations, to find a way within a business-minded industry to make the music he wanted to, even when he wasn’t sure exactly what that was.
Nelson’s next line in “Shotgun Willie”, after setting up the scene, is key, as he sums up an unwritten industry rule: “Well you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.” But the song itself is proof that you can, as Nelson aimlessly gives a shout-out to his Family (his touring band) and sings a nonsense verse about someone making money selling bedsheets to the KKK, as the slow groove is accented by both pure-country guitar and soulful brass by the Memphis Horns. Little of the rest of Shotgun Willie, and certainly not its 1974 follow-up Phases and Stages, would be described as nonsense, but this song playfully encapsulates Nelson’s determination to do his own thing. The “outlaw” notion may seem like mostly image now, but then it was also about creative independence.
Of course when Nelson, a 10-plus veteran of the country-music industry in Nashville, unhappy with the way things were going for him there, decided to move back to his native Texas to hang out with the hippies and the freaks in Austin, he was hardly an artistic outlaw. Rather he was a professional musician gathering inspiration from eccentrics. But there was a stream of freedom there quite different from the business model of Nashville. Nelson hung with freewheeling country musicians of the day—Doug Sahm, Leon Russell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings—and then went to New York City to record Shotgun Willie for a label that, at the time, respected his independence: Atlantic Records.
As often happens when business executives and headstrong artists meet up, the label relationship would only last for one more album, Phases and Stages. Hence the three-disc set The Complete Atlantic Sessions includes only those two albums, each with outtakes and alternate versions, and a disc of live recordings from a weekend in 1974, Live at the Texas Opry House. This period is marked, though, by Nelson making two albums that stand apart from the crowd for the ways they coherently articulate his particular vision, without kowtowing to commercial expectations.
The unusual concept album The Red Headed Stranger, released by Columbia Records in 1975 after Nelson’s Atlantic tenure ended, may represent Nelson finding the complete freedom to make exactly the music he wanted to, but Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages represent more than just steps in that direction, standing up as some of the most consistent and rewarding albums of his career. Both are examples of Nelson learning to make albums that hold together as albums, that tell one overall story. They also represent his willingness to step outside of country-music conventions, to throw some R&B grooves and jazz balladry into the mix without straying too far from the traditional C&W sound that he loved. They’re also both melancholy albums thoroughly driven by anguish.
Shotgun Willie, the more joyous of the two, starts with the playful title track and follows it with Nelson’s now omnipresent version of Johnny Bush/Paul Stroud’s “Whiskey River”. It may be a party song at his concerts, especially in its current, faster state, but at its core is loneliness, the desire to escape from heartbreak—“whiskey river take my mind / don’t let her memory torture me”. That’s the dominant mood of the album, the “concept” holding it all together. During the album Nelson acknowledges that singing songs of emotional devastation might not be a popular route to take—“sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year”—but he sticks to it, whether he’s singing songs he wrote about being haunted by the memory of the lover who left (“Local Memory”, “So Much to Do”) or covering old Bob Wills chestnuts like “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” and “Bubbles in My Beer”, songs that are lighthearted on the surface but filled with longing when he sings them. In mood the album’s a country-western version of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours (prefiguring Nelson’s later Stardust phase of interpreting jazz standards), but with saloon piano replacing cocktail lounge piano, whiskey and beer replacing martinis, and clouds of smoke hanging thickly in the air, along with pedal steel and fiddle.
Nelson ends Shotgun Willie with a proper love song, Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”. The spare, serious reading of the song, combined with the sadness inherent in the rest of the album, makes it all the more powerful, the perfect ending. Of course, in the Complete Atlantic Sessions version it isn’t the ending at all, since 11 bonus tracks follow. They’re a mixture of alternate, not-radically different versions of album songs and songs that didn’t make the cut. The latter, including Nelson’s “I’m So Ashamed” and another Leon Russell song (“My Cricket & Me”) fit right into the album’s lonely tone, serving as a nice complement without offering any stunning new insights into the album itself. Still they’re more interesting overall than the bonus tracks for Phases and Stages, which amount to a slightly different run-through of the entire album, in order.
Where Shotgun Willie contained a thematic mood of heartbreak, with Phases and Stages Nelson attempted to craft a narrative version of the same. The concept was simple, but at the same time unexpected for a musician seeking popularity among mass audiences. The album would tell the story of the end of the relationship, and the new beginnings that come after, from the perspective of both halves of the couple. Side 1 was from the woman’s perspective; Side 2 from the man’s. The title theme repeated several times during the album, used as a segue, with Nelson explaining that this story is a universal one: “scenes that we’ve all seen before / let me tell you some more.”
The narrative focus of the album was accompanied by a more narrow musical focus than its predecessor as well. While each side had a moment where the pace picked up—the Side 1 two-step of “Sister’s Coming Home / Down at the Corner Beer Joint” and Side 2’s “Bloody Mary Morning”, the album’s biggest hit—the mood overall was contemplative, even dour. All of the songs were written by Nelson himself. They’d been around since before Shotgun Willie—an album that Nelson reportedly wrote in a week—and compared to that album they’re more restrained in spirit but much more detailed in portrayal.
The songs tell their story through small details and expressions of emotion—this isn’t high drama, but careful, close-up portraiture. The first side starts with the woman doing domestic chores and remembering when she used to feel happy, almost honored, to do so for her love. It continues through her leaving, her trying to leave the past behind, and, finally, her steps towards a new love. One of the album’s most memorable images is her hitting the dance floor of the local honkytonk in search of a new lover. She’s done this before, but this time “the jeans fit a little bit tighter than they did before.” Everything’s the same, but completely different. The second side starts on a bender, the man realizing she’s gone and having a “Bloody Mary Morning”; again it’s a party mood built upon heartbreak. From there, though, there’s disbelief, absolute loneliness, more disbelief, resignation to confusion (the relaxed yet blistering “Heaven and Hell”), and steps forward into the unknown.
Nelson may have a reputation as a partyer, and the good-times vibe of the live show he’s been performing for decades certainly helps support that. The heartbreak and loss that’s crystallized in Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages—and present throughout much of his discography—shouldn’t detract from that impression. Rather, as Live at the Texas Opry House indicates, Nelson knows how to channel pain into a party. He plays to the crowd with the song order, lightens up the songs a bit (as in the opening “Whiskey River”), focuses on the impressive musicianship of his band, but still doesn’t gloss over the hurt. The medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Crazy” and “Night Life” play like a break between the more rollicking numbers, while offering a dose of recognition to the crowd (since all were hits Nelson wrote for others), but they also form a statement of loneliness and longing, as so many of his songs do. And when the good-times vibe picks back up, the hurt hasn’t disappeared. The set alternates between fast and slow, but the raw emotions from the studio versions still shine through, even as the set does feel like an absolute, hold-nothing-back, drink-yourself-silly celebration.
The outlaw is on stage to knock your socks off with old-time country music, here to make you dance the night away, here to make you feel like you can do anything you want to. But there’s tears underneath the surface. That awareness of life’s darker side, of course, makes the party feel even better, like even more of a release, and makes the outlaw seem even more like a genius, and an iconoclast, for tapping into the dynamic between happiness and heartache, between love and loss, between celebration and utter devastation—for showing the darker side of every phase and stage of life, and the lighter side too. And presenting them as part of the same story, refusing to separate life into tidy, discrete stages at all. These stories always continue, and circle back around to the start. As he sings, “Let’s call it a night / the party’s over / and tomorrow starts the same damn thing again.”
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