In his liner notes for this latest compilation of material from the lengthy musical career of Willie Nelson, author Colin Escott (famed for his book on Sun Records, Good Rockin’ Tonight), offers a comment so telling that it’s lucky it appears where it does, so that no one can read it until they’ve already bought and opened the disc:
“(Nelson)”, writes Escott, “has been on nearly every record label, sometimes more than once. He has recorded so prolifically that a complete Willie Nelson collection is an impossibility.”
This could be why the compilation is simply called Songs.
Now, mind you, there are rumors that they had a subtitle under consideration: A Seemingly Random Collection Bound Together Solely via the Magic of Chronological Order. But it’s a bit wordy, so perhaps that’s why they opted to forgo it and stick with simplicity.
Songs begins with the original 1961 demo for “Crazy”, the song which Patsy Cline made immortal and that started Willie on his road to superstardom. From there, it’s onward to one of the earliest of his own hits, “Touch Me”, released on Liberty Records in 1962 to a top-10 country chart placing. After that, we fast-forward six years to the RCA-released “Good Times”, which didn’t even make it into the top 40 on its original release (though it made it to #25 when reissued in 1981), then skips ahead to ’71 and “Yesterday’s Wine”.
Willie’s years on Atlantic are represented with two songs from Shotgun Willie — “Whiskey River” and “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Bit Longer)” — and one from Phases and Stages (“It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”). From there, it’s back and forth between Columbia and RCA, the former offering “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Always on My Mind”, the latter a pair of duets with Waylon Jennings. After another duet, this one with Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”, naturally), it’s time to hit the Island years.
Instead of this scattershot collection that tries to encapsulate 35 years of Willie’s career over the course of 12 songs, and then summarizes the last decade with the remaining eight tracks, what really needed to be released was a nice collection of Willie’s best work from his years on Island. From 1996 to 2001, Willie’s musical output included stellar releases like Spirit and Teatro, as well as sets consisting of blues covers (Milk Cow Blues) and family favorites (Rainbow Connection). There currently exists no collection from this era, and putting one together would’ve filled a void, as it’s probably the only era of Willie’s career that hasn’t been reissued and repackaged a dozen times over. But of Willie’s Island releases, the only one that scores more than one track on Songs is Milk Cow Blues… and that album would’ve probably got just the one, too, had there not also been a duet with B.B. King on the disc (“Night Life”) to put alongside the cover of “Funny How Time Slips Away” Willie did with Francine Reed.
If you’re noticing a theme, you’re not imagining things: of the twenty tracks on Songs, seven are duets and one, a live version of “On the Road Again”, is credited to “Willie Nelson & Friends”, having appeared on the 2002 all-star concert album, Stars and Guitars. There are so many other names listed on the back of this disc that it feels as though someone thought Willie wasn’t a big enough draw to sell his own best-of collection!
Of the selections from Willie’s 2002 Universal Records debut, The Great Divide, the most remarkable omission is “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)”, the Rob Thomas composition that was catchy enough to score the Red-Headed Stranger airplay on Adult Alternative Radio even in this very picky new millennium we find ourselves in. It’s hard to quibble with “Mendocino County Line”, which was a significant country hit, but “Don’t Fade Away” — Willie’s duet with R&B singer Bryan McKnight — while nice, could easily have been left off in favor of “Maria”.
Ultimately, the biggest sin committed in the general wake of Songs‘ release is the fact that Willie just released an album of new material, It Always Will Be. That album snuck onto record store shelves at the end of October 2004, and was declared by many to be his best since Teatro. But not only is there no reference to it in the liner notes — there isn’t so much as a slip of paper advertising its release (unforgivable, given that it also came out via Lost Highway, who released Songs in conjunction with Hip-O and UTV) — it didn’t receive a tenth of the promotion that this greatest-hits collection has scored.
Songs is a worthy purchase, if only because it has the potential to lead the casual listener towards the Island albums from the late ’90s that scored lots of critical acclaim but achieved limited sales. There really aren’t any bad songs within its 20 tracks, but it’s all over the place, with no coherence to bind the selections together; as a result, it’s hardly essential.