The Essential Willie Nelsonby Willie Nelson
Drawn largely from Willie Nelson's years on Columbia Records (197593), this double-CD retrospective arrives in time for the nonpareil singer-songwriter's 70th birthday and eloquently underscores the enduring majesty of his art. Of Disc 1's 22 songs, 10 predate the Columbia era, and some qualify as American monuments, including the original 1961 Bellaire single of "Night Life" and, from his 1962 debut album for Liberty, a jaw-dropping triumvirate of "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Hello Walls." Of the few obscure tracks here, one of the most dramatic in concept and execution is the 1964 Monument single "I Never Cared for You," a foreboding, Spanish-tinged kiss-off ballad that finds Nelson baying at both the elements and his unfaithful woman. Otherwise, the set hits those bright spots that never sound dated: "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Whiskey River," a live version of "Stay a Little Longer," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," "Shotgun Willie," and three standouts from Stardust, his collection of standards. Essential also spotlights several duets, including a couple with ol' Waylon Jennings (namely, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"); the beautiful, Grammy-winning "Mendocino County Line" with Lee Ann Womack; the ethereal "Pancho & Lefty" with Merle Haggard; and another south-of-the-border-flavored confessional, "Everywhere I Go," with Emmylou Harris. Nelson joins U2 on "Slow Dancing," a B-side from 1993, but it's Aerosmith's Steven Tyler who helps bring things to a fiery finish on a previously unreleased duet with the red-headed stranger, "One Time Too Many," an acoustic country ballad that mutates into blistering roadhouse rock. All in all, not a bad way to celebrate 70 years of this mortal coil.
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Disc 1 traces the rise of Willie from Nashville songwriter to king of the outlaws. The second disc mixes ballads with big name guests and more of his solo classics. I found the U2 and Aerosmith duets to be wastes of space and some of the other duets are only adequate. In other words, this is an accurate of somewhat unflattering portrait. For a picture of Nelson at the top of his game and to learn why he was so big in the 70s, try Willie and Family Live.
The ability of Willie Nelson to make arrangements that are favorites of all ages is truly outstanding. You can listen, dance and sing along to each and every song. He sings all styles as well as the old and new. This definitely is one you should have in your library of Music.