One the funniest commercials to air during this year’s Super Bowl was undoubtedly Willie Nelson’s spot hawking H&R Block. Due to a tax snafu, troubles which Nelson in real life is certainly familiar with, Willie is relegating to doing commercials for a no-name brand of shaving cream.
In a locker room full of towel-clad actors posing as athletes, Nelson begins to complain about the effects the cream is having on his delicate skin. By the second time he cries out, “My face is burning,” in his familiar high-pitched whine, it’s hard not to be in stitches.
Of course, the idea that Willie Nelson, the Red Headed Stranger, would shave off his iconic peppered red beard is absurd. Well, you would think so anyway. Not so much because Nelson is the bastion of credibility in the increasingly conflicted music business, but rather because the beard (along with bandanna and guitar with the hole in it) has become the lynch pin of his latter day, larger than life image. Willie Nelson is brand, as carefully crafted as Old Navy or Abercrombie & Fitch, and when you’re in the icon branding business, you don’t mess with success. You exploit it.
Hence, The Essential Willie Nelson , a batch of 41 songs (some classic and others not so) that make up what Legacy Recordings would have you believe are the essential songs recorded and sung by good ole Willie Nelson. But that’s just the problem with these types of “greatest hits” records, which Legacy is smart enough not to label this release. Lately, it’s really only a sure fire way to sell some records.
Take a respected yet still commercially viable artist whose new sales have waned over the last couple years and re-package him or her as American Icon. Collect a mix of strategically selected major and minor hits, sprinkle in a few lesser-known or demo tracks, enlist the help of some big name movers and shakers (and most importantly sellers), adorn the disc with black and white or faded pictures of the artist as a young man and, presto, you have an “essential” record for 30- and 40-somethings driving their SUVs around suburbia with NPR blaring at obscene noise levels. The O, Brother, Where Art Thou crowd.
It’s shame, really, because, for the most part, Legacy has a decent reputation as purveyors of quality music. (Though it shouldn’t go unnoticed in these increasingly incestuous times that the label, despite its retrofitted moniker, is owned by Sony Music Entertainment and manufactured by Columbia Records.) It’s also a shame because Willie Nelson has sporadically been an Important Artist with Classic Songs (classic, not just measured by the number of units moved). He is an artist who has added to the country (and popular) music canon songs crafted with the utmost quality and care. But didn’t we know that already? Isn’t Willie Nelson’s place in music history secure?
The answer to the both of those questions is “yes.” There have already been at least eight official Willie Nelson “greatest” or “best of” or “classic” collections. There are only two other plausible reasons (other than the commercially obvious ones) to release this record: to celebrate Nelson’s place in history as he approaches a milestone or to make available at least a handful of previously unreleased material to the die-hards. Obviously, Legacy is selling us hard on the first because there is only one unreleased track on this disc—“One Time Too Many”, recorded in 1987 in Vancouver with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. And after listening to it, you’ll soon discover why it’s never seen the light of day before.
The collection is predictable, from the early-‘60s Nelson (when the man sounded like a shell of himself on Liberty and Bellaire Records) to AM-radio sing-alongs “Georgia on My Mind”, “On the Road Again”, and the pandering and atrocious hit “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” with Julio Iglesias. Sprinkled in are some marginally interesting tracks (like the live versions of “Whiskey River” and “Stay A Little Longer”) along with some Nelson’s truly great work, like 1975’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (despite the many clichés present in the title).
But for the most part, this collection only embodies the image of Willie Nelson, the spokesman for the product Willie. This is the Red Headed Stranger in all his sad, tax-burdened glory. If you haven’t heard “Forgiving You Was Easy” or “Always on My Mind”, you might get something out of this. Hell, if you’ve never heard much Willie Nelson this is as good of a starting place as any. Though, if you really want to wax nostalgic or understand why the man is “The Man”, check out 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. It was an album then. Not a catch phrase.