By now, he’s larger than life. Just the name Willie Nelson conjures up images of a rough way of living rather than a particular body of work. Willie Nelson is now a brand name — and missing an opportunity for a licensing bonanza from manufacturers of blue jeans, bar stools, or chewing tobacco.
Released to coincide with his 70th birthday, Willie’s best work is now collected on The Essential Willie Nelson. (Essentials is Columbia Record’s version of a popular industry tack just now, to repackage catalog recordings of top-selling artists into top-shelf greatest hits packages — or “retrospectives,” in the case of those artists whose collected hits consist of a couple old 45s.)
However, listening to the music itself and setting aside the oversized reputation, Willie Nelson is a musician of modest talents, with flashes of musical excellence. Many of his songs and recordings from his first 30 years entertain, and a few have worn quite well with time — stop there and anyone should be impressed. Yet Willie kept playing long after the inspiration stopped, and the intervening years have given Willie plenty of time to replace the public’s memory of something special with something else.
Willie Nelson has been far more concerned with commerciality than anyone would have predicted for the original anti-Nashville outlaw of the 1970s. To compound the problem, he has developed a terribly tin ear for even that quality.
First, though, the good stuff. Willie Nelson wrote the Patsy Cline standard “Crazy.” He could put a tinfoil pyramid on his head and sing the phonebook and this achievement would not suffer. He wrote Hello Walls, “Night Life,” “The Party’s Over,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” too, all standards of American music.
By the early 1970s, Willie had abandoned the typical country sound for an amalgam of honky tonk and folk, with splashes of a country-rock sound that was growing in popularity with the success of bands such as the Allman Brothers and the Eagles. Pop and country were converging. In 1975, he released the album “Red Headed Stranger,” which showcased his laconic — and sometimes maddeningly lazy — phrasing, and introduced to the mainstream the idea that country music could be a singer’s showcase just as pop had once been. Combined with that year’s release of the catch-all LP “Wanted: The Outlaws” with Waylon Jennings, Willie launched the “outlaw” style, yielding “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” This era was capped by the hyper-success of Stardust, a collection of pop standards (well represented on Essentials) fulfilling and expanding Willie’s vocal promise on “Stranger.”
Then, creatively, things leveled off, as it usually does for singers when their newness wears off. His follow-up hits were modest vocal performances such as “Living In The Promiseland” and, more often, ill-advised pairings that put his real-world voice in the service of meaningless pop lyrics, such as those of Paul Simon’s tune “Graceland.” A low point came early when Willie recorded “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” with crooner Julio Iglesias, featuring Willie’s voice without his trademark sound. Though it reached Number 1, it was an overproduced, Vegas-style power ballad, with the sort of emotional punch most often associated with a Precious Moments figurine.
The last 20 years of recording and touring have not yielded many — okay, any — essentials at all, though Columbia jammed a few post-Reagan era cuts into this package despite the title. Thirty-eight of Essentials’s 41 cuts were recorded or released before 1994. For every gorgeous, sparse “You Were Always On My Mind,” there is some banality in his catalog where he sings with U2 or offends nature with Steven Tyler. Willie Nelson has recorded over 100, only a few of which are still in print. Creative decisions like those explain why.
Especially this one. Consider the recent release Texas Outlaws, bringing together various “Austin-sound” artists and reflecting much of Willie Nelson’s style. It is a great listen until the end, when the last cut burns up that memory like one of those mind-eraser things in Men In Black. Willie does a rap duet — yes, he raps, you read that right, no fooling — with someone calling himself “Lil’ Black.” It is too deliciously awful not to reprint in full here: Now it’s me, Willie Nelson, I’m rappin’ with Lil’ Black / Doin’ shows across the country and makin’ paper stacks / I’m rollin’ in the tour bus / You’re rollin’ in your Benz / And I can’t wait to get on the road again…. Between guffaws, any serious person would have to say this track is one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of recorded sound.
Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin’ (USA network), another birthday tie-in, is a tribute concert displaying the musician’s best abilities and worst tendencies in a career-matching mix of highs and lows. In an early highlight, Eric Clapton joins Willie for an electric blues version of “Night Life,” and it works because Clapton’s smooth counterpoint on the guitar contrasts well with Willie’s hard-edged voice and capricious phrasing. Willie is well engaged for the show and it comes out in his voice, which is fuller and stronger than usual, even in the studio. He may also have been inspired by the lineup, which included both musical greats such as Elvis Costello and Lyle Lovett and more mainstream artists such as Toby Keith (who is also Willie’s duet partner in the current hit “Beer for My Horses”).
The match between material and performer is sometimes laughable. Other times, the concert setting reveals a singer’s shortcomings. Wyclef Jean’s reggae version of “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” is an embarrassing unintentional parody, while Shania Twain’s I-sing-at-one-volume reading of “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” wastes an opportunity for someone else.
When he does well on the sprawling Essentials, he does very well. But when he fails, it’s a car wreck. Sill, the first disc and a half of this two-disc set is accident-free, and enjoyable enough. That’s Willie’s story too: consistent, casual, and often too loose. None of that makes a legend, but that’s what outsized reputations are for, anyway.
— Michael Long is a director of the White House Writer’s Group.