The Full Nelson

Willie make it

For me, coming up country was difficult under the auspices of Willie Nelson. This young buckaroo in south Texas received all sorts of life lessons and mixed messages from the Red Headed Stranger over the years, from the warning "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" to the telling admission that "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys." Earlier this year, the dust had scarcely settled on Brokeback Mountain when Nelson cut "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other)." But he wasn't (again) questioning the simplistic iconography of the cowpoke, he was merely cementing his continual identification with the outsider and outcast, whoever it may be.

By the early '70s, Nelson had become used to such a role himself. Although his pen had already captured honky-tonk heartache in amber with "Crazy" and "Night Life," two products of a particularly fertile songwriting week while he was based here in Houston ("Funny How Time Slips Away" was the third), he was out of sorts with the crewcut Songwriter's Row in Nashville. With his flat, one-step-behind vocal delivery, he wasn't exactly cutting it on his own, either. It didn't help that he doobed more than he drank and grew his hair long; he was also hep to the poetry of Kahlil Gibran, which revealed to him that "life on earth is a quest for returning to God." About to turn 40, Willie envisioned a country music that reached beyond mere boot-scoot tunes to full-blown concept records.

Dropped by RCA after his mystically perplexing Yesterday's Wine, he was quickly signed by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler to shore up their country division with his binocular vision. Although he cut only two records for the label — 1973's Shotgun Willie and 1974's Phases and Stages — both legitimized the "outlaw" movement and showcased the sort of country-rock hybrids being crafted in and around Austin. These two albums (alongside outtakes and a sweaty, ass-kicking live set at the Texas Opry House) are packed in a nifty stash box, The Complete Atlantic Sessions.

Country roads: Willie Nelson unleashes a box set.
Country roads: Willie Nelson unleashes a box set.

While I'm no closer to parsing the underlying themes of Shotgun Willie now than when I wore diapers with my jeans, the remaster stirs up childhood impressions nevertheless. Like thinking that "Whiskey River" was where you could go tubing on a summer's day, rather than a Lethe sort of oblivion. Or realizing that the character on the title track wasn't some cartoon kook, but rather a haggard speed freak "biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair."

Shotgun Willie was more than just an outlaw cutout in a shooting gallery, though; he was a master craftsman tucking poetic nuances and nimble musical hybrids into every pocket of a song. Callous and wary on "You Look Like the Devil," downtrodden on "Sad Songs and Waltzes," jovial and lascivious on "Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)," Nelson's mood swings are matched by the Western swing of his backing band. Versed in Bob Wills, roadhouses and Austin's hippie festivals, the band members (especially on the live disc) proved that they could imbibe brewhaus polka, Django's jazz, and the type of twangy Texas funk parlayed by folks like Joe Tex, and still call it country.

Phases and Stages, Willie's first full-fledged concept album, predates the epochal Red Headed Stranger by a year. In this reimagining of the well-trodden country trope of divorce, the husband and wife split the record evenly, albeit bitterly. Circular in its themes, it's stitched together with bittersweet perceptions and workaday detail: He feels like the L.A. smog and Houston haze amid the jet-plane bustle of "Bloody Mary Morning;" she misses his laundry while pensively "Washing the Dishes." Even upbeat two-steps like "Sister's Coming Home" mix in a shot of harsh reality: Her blue jeans fit a bit tighter now, and it's not so funny how time slips away.

 
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