Willie Nelson: The Essential Willie Nelson

Mitch Pugh

Willie Nelson

The Essential Willie Nelson

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2003-04-01
UK Release Date: 2003-04-28

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.