It is a bittersweet month for the country music world, as we mourn the loss of the genre's greatest singer, George Jones, but we celebrated the 80th birthday of the genre's greatest entertainer, Willie Nelson on April 30th. The pair took two divergent paths in their careers and life choices - George playing the role of the "King" in Nashville while drinking his life away, while Willie skipped town and went to Austin, Texas, to escape the corporate banality of the mainstream country music business, and found his mind-altering pleasure in the hemp fields. But as divergent as their legacies may be, they both stood tall in the highest echelons of country music.
There have been multiple detailed biographies written about Willie, and if you want his life story you can find one of those (hint: his various autobiographies are the best - hilarious jokes and fascinating stories). But what really matters to Willie is his music, so here is a very limited rundown of what I consider his "essential" recordings. Granted, when an artist of Willie's talent puts out well over 100 albums, it's next to impossible to generate a "top ten" that will have unanimous agreement. Nevertheless, if I could only take 10 Willie Nelson albums with me to live on Mars, here they are, in chronological order:
And Then I Wrote
(1962) - Willie's debut album was a landmark in showcasing the utter brilliance of his songwriting, with such future iconic tunes as "Crazy," "Hello Walls," and "Funny How Time Slips Away."
Willie Nelson and Family
(1971) - After years of Nashville-based production, Willie was obviously moving away from the corporate mindset with this hard-to-find release. Mostly cover tunes, he had a few personal goodies buried here.
(1971) - This particular year, Willie's Nashville home burned down, he divorced his wife, and moved back to Texas. When it came time to cut a new album, he wrote this concept piece about the life and death of "the imperfect man" in two days. Throw in "Family Bible" which he had sold for $50, and you have his first masterpiece.
(1973) - Free at last from Nashville, Willie signed with Atlantic Records and began releasing what may be the greatest trifecta in country music. First up is "Shotgun Willie," recorded in NYC and featuring the emerging "Family" that was to become his band for the rest of his career. Best known track - "Whiskey River," but it's all good.
Phases and Stages
(1974) - Another brilliant concept album, this one describing the breakup of a marriage. Side one tells the woman's tale, and side two takes the man's perspective. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, highlights include "Bloody Mary Morning," and the goose bump - inducing "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone."
Red Headed Stranger
(1975) - Now signed with Columbia and given complete creative control, Willie does yet another concept album. This one is a cowboy story, with vivid imagery and lasting melodies. Weaving classic country songs ("Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain") with originals and a short interlude linking the story, this one took Willie to the top of the charts.
(1978) - Composed entirely of pop standards, the incredibly successful Stardust
shot Willie's career into the outer limits. His voice and delivery was perfect on every track, and with Booker T. Jones' wonderful production, Willie's version of "Georgia On My Mind" became a signature song. One of many.
The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?
(1992) - Bad money managers put Willie $16 million in the hole to the IRS, so he released this 24-song solo acoustic collection to help pay off the debt. With just his guitar "Trigger," his voice, and his songs, Willie delivered a fascinating and beautiful set of hits, deep tracks, and obscure cuts. He ultimately paid off his restructured debt with this revenue and other income.
(1996) - Stripped down to 2-3 instruments, Spirit
was a departure from Willie's usual fare, and marked the start of a period of experimentation. Like "Yesterday's Wine" the songs once again explored the essence of life and death, changes and emotions, profoundly and with no apologies. This is one of Willie's less recognized works that deserves more attention.
(1998) - Produced by Daniel Lanois, "Teatro" allowed Willie to reinvent some of his classic songs with a whole new sound, heavy on drums and rhythm, and with Emmylou Harris providing harmony vocals. Unique and intriguing, this showcases Willie's ability to let go of the past and reshape his oeuvre.
So that's 10, and I left out about 90. Not to diminish any of those great recordings, but these particular ones still spend a lot of time on my playlist. While there's no mention of the '80s releases here, or the more recent projects and duet albums, even those have great merit. It's all subjective, but if you're looking to start a Willie Nelson collection, consider this list as a good takeoff point.
Willie Nelson and Aaron Lewis play Chastain Park Amphitheater on Sat., May 4. $35.50-$55.50 8 p.m. 4469 Stella Drive. 404-249-6400.