Help me get into Willie's music
September 8, 2008 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Can people help me finally get into Willie Nelson's music? I had the occasion to see him perform at the Oregon State Fair about a week ago. I can reference his discography and go buy what has charted well- to start off with, but I would like to know some deeper picks by people who really dig Willie. Compilations need not apply, please.
posted by captainsohler to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no superfan, but Red Headed Stranger is really, really good. Kinda Willie's Nebraska, except that it was really popular.
posted by box at 2:58 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed the VH1 Storytellers set he did with John Cash.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:10 PM on September 8, 2008

Willie and Waylon is great, especially if you also like Waylon Jennings. It's an outlaw country classic, and a great showcase. To be honest, though, this question seems a bit odd he's made more albums than anyone ever, like maybe 100 of them. It seems to me like there are perhaps too many deeper picks.

Another option is to pick an artist or genre you like and see if Willie has done a whole album of that: into Lefty Frizell? check out To Lefty from Willie showtunes? Stardust reggae? Countryman. The list goes on and on. And on.
posted by snofoam at 3:11 PM on September 8, 2008

Crazy: the Demo Sessions is what finally did it for me - it strips back a lot of the crap, and allows you to see what an excellent songwriter he really is.
posted by god hates math at 3:15 PM on September 8, 2008

I'm another one who's not a fan but owns and very much enjoys Red Headed Stranger.
posted by neuron at 3:21 PM on September 8, 2008

Response by poster: Well yeah, thats just it snofoam, there are many, many to choose from. That's why I'm asking for help.

I do have Spirit and I love it- start to finish.
posted by captainsohler at 3:29 PM on September 8, 2008

Seconding Crazy, it's beautiful.
posted by Nelson at 3:40 PM on September 8, 2008

Red Headed Stranger is gorgeous! And if you want to ease into it, I'd say start with Willie Nelson's newest release called Two Men With The Blues, recorded with Wynton Marsalis. Kinda jazzy bluesy country.
posted by cachondeo45 at 3:43 PM on September 8, 2008

My own particular bias is that his acoustic or solo pieces are clearly superior.
The demo sessions, red headed stranger, and vh1 storytellers are all great stuff and will leave you wanting more.
Here's a youtube clip that I enjoy. Maybe you will, too.
posted by Acari at 3:48 PM on September 8, 2008

Covers, Duets and Influences...

Willie and Waylon: Ladies Love Outlaws

Highwayman: The Highwaymen (Willie, Waylon, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson)

Willie Nelson: Graceland cover (Across the Borderline)

Norah Jones' Willie Nelson tribute band: The Little Willies
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 3:49 PM on September 8, 2008

[that link didn't work when tried it post-posting. second try is here]
posted by Acari at 3:50 PM on September 8, 2008

I'd like to get back to this question when I have a bit more time and my ipod, but as a big/long time fan here who owns a retarded number of Nelson discs I'd suggest "Across the Borderline" right off the bat. Also, he has lots of albums with 'friends', one of the better ones is "Stars and Guitars" (w/ Ryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Bill Evans, Norah Jones, Ray Price, Kieth Richards, Richie Sambora and Hank 3 among the friends).
I also love his covers of standards, two I'd suggest are "Moonlight Becomes You" and Healing "Hands of Time". If you like "Spirit" you'll probably like "Teatro" a lot also.
posted by dawson at 4:01 PM on September 8, 2008

and 'Phases & Stages'
posted by dawson at 4:04 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a single song recommendation: Willie's version of Blue Skies. It's heart-breakingly beautiful. So much sadness in that voice.
posted by lottie at 4:45 PM on September 8, 2008

Stardust is a wonderful and mellow album. Willie and Family Live really captures him.
posted by spork at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2008

Not such a deep pick--one of the ones that did well on the charts IIRC--but I think his Pancho and Lefty CD with Merle Haggard is fantastic.

Since you're a fan of Spirit, you might want to check out Teatro as well. The music is less spare and more ambitious but the two strike me as spiritual brothers somehow.

With any of these, I'd recommend checking your local library first--no pain then if it's something that's really not your cup of tea.
posted by johnofjack at 5:19 PM on September 8, 2008

I agree with captainsohler. "Spirit" is very good Willie Nelson. The poetry is very easy to hear. Every piece is such a good example of the softer side of Nelson.
posted by JayRwv at 5:36 PM on September 8, 2008

2nding Willie & Family Live.
posted by spilon at 5:53 PM on September 8, 2008

A single song recommendation of Seven Spanish Angels. I am not a big Willie fan but I like this one.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:25 PM on September 8, 2008

TPSWNS: THE perfect single Willie Nelson song suggestion:

Luckenback, Texas.

I am a Willie fan; I grew up listening to his music. The ultimate Willie Nelson experience is to go to his 4th party (in Luckenback, of all places), and hear him sing "maybe it's time / we got back / to the basics of love . . . "

Sure, Pancho & Lefty is great, but that's really Townes van Zant's genius . . .Willie just makes it sound good (kinda like what Patsy did for him back on Crazy, so many many years ago . . .)

And Blue Skies is one of the great covers . . . that's on the Stardust record, isn't it? That's a beautiful disc, if you enjoy the songs of Hoagy Carmichael (and who doesn't?) . . . But have you ever heard Willie sing The Rainbow Connection?

Willie's a true American hero. 'Nuff said.
posted by deejay jaydee at 6:36 PM on September 8, 2008

Oooh, Willie Nelson, "Half a Man'.

The lyrics could be silly or maudlin, but coming out of his mouth, his syncopation, like he's just speaking a listen and just end up saying to yourself: Damn Willie, that's just rough.

If I only had one arm to hold you
Well better yet if I had none at all
Then I wouldn't have two arms that ache
For you there'd be one less mem'ry to recall
If I only had one ear to listen to
The lies that you told to me
Then I more closely resemble
The half a man that you've made of me
If I only had one leg to stand on
Then how much how much truer picture you'd see
Cause then I more closely resemble
The half a man that you've made of me

Also his version of Pierce Webb's "There stands the glass ".
posted by anitanita at 7:53 PM on September 8, 2008

The IRS Tapes ("Who'll Buy My Memories") -- an under-appreciated gem, especially "Jimmy's Road."

And the complete Liberty Sessions (release as "The Early Years," but there are other collections with this name -- I'm thinking of an early 90s Capitol Box. Absolutely crucial to hear where Willie comes from.

He's had so many flavors, and so many incarnations. But I like it best when he does straight country. Duet tracks with Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall on those guys' records are wonderful ("Lily Dale," a McCall song, remains one of my favorite WN recordings).

He's a real genius. I've interviewed him at length. A deep, deep artist.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:33 PM on September 8, 2008

Hell, even on his most poppish and throwaway records, there are gems. I swear there are days that my very favorite Willie song (other than "Funny How Time Slips Away," which is a singular masterpiece) is "The Last Thing I Needed, The First Thing This Morning," from "Always On My Mind," an otherwise atrocious record that made him a lot of money he needed at the time.

And "Darkness on the Face of the Earth" or "Three Days" are the ultimate songs to drink someone off your mind to. After which you can come back to reality in the Bloody Mary Morning.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:35 PM on September 8, 2008

And "Seven Spanish Angels" with some guy name of Ray Charles is pretty damn sweet...
posted by dawson at 9:26 PM on September 8, 2008

by the way, the video i linked above will make you smile even if you're blue and convinced the world's going to hell in a hand basket.
posted by dawson at 9:29 PM on September 8, 2008

"I'd Have To Be Crazy" is a personal favorite.
posted by First Post at 9:46 PM on September 8, 2008

There are a lot of ridiculous compilations and stuff. You don't need them.

The very best thing Willie Nelson has ever done is Red Headed Stranger. It's one of the finest country albums ever made. Its popularity is well-earned.

It is one of very few country albums that's a concept record; the songs seem intended to tell a story, although they use broad strokes and are interspersed with covers. It's at once beautiful, lilting, achingly touching, and gorgeous. It is not 'rock n' roll Willie,' it is not the drunken Willie singing 'Whiskey River' here, but it is a Willie in full control of his capabilities and with restrain and wonder. It has some of his nicest, most understated guitar work.

There are people that think that, because it's so popular, it's overrated. They are wrong. It's fantastic. I'm not ashamed to say that it changed my life - it is at once the most country album I've ever heard

The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunrise
The stranger rode on, of course
'Cause you can't hang a man
For shooting a woman
Who was trying to steal his horse...

and yet it's different from every country record that came before or since: it's personal, it's nuanced, it doesn't broadside you with pain or pity. It's mainly yearning. It also contains what I still believe to be the greatest country love song, though that's certainly a matter of taste; it's a tune by Bill Callery, a friend of Willie's, called Hands On The Wheel:

In the shade of an oak down by the river,
Sit an old man and a boy,
Settin' sails, spinnin' tales and fishin' for whales,
With a lady they both enjoy.

Well, it's the same damn tune, it's the man in the moon.
It's the way that I feel about you:
With no place to hide, I looked in your eyes,
And I found myself in you.

Please don't repudiate me as an old sentimental before you listen to the song. It's ridiculously simple; the chord progress is at least a hundred years old with exactly one added element for color. But it's so incredibly heartfelt, so stark and direct, that it's hard to listen to without being completely floored. And it's very rare that a man can do that with nothing but a little old guitar and his voice.

There are other Willie Nelsons for you to get into. In fact, hell, go back and listen to Willie on that YouTube link I put a few paragraphs up. Drunk Willie's fantastic, too. But, for all the bluster about Red-Headed Stranger being "popular," I think those days are past; and more's the pity, because I meet more and more people who know and love Willie and yet who haven't heard this album. If you haven't heard this, then you don't know what he's capable of; trust me.
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 PM on September 8, 2008

SUPER STRONGLY SECONDING Who'll Buy the Memories,, which is just Willie and his guitar.

So stripped down, so moving.

It's oop & hard to find, but hey, that's what file sharing is for, eh wot?

Really, one of my favorite albums ever.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2008

I am partial to Highwayman 2.
posted by cda at 5:15 AM on September 9, 2008

koeselitz, that was quite an ode to Red Headed Stranger, which, you're right, is just a singular work of art in its own right. I do find that the concept hasn't aged as well as the individual songs, but I feel the same way about Clint Eastwood's 70s Westerns. I've always wanted Willie to have his "Unforgiven" moment, his return to the mythologies explored in RHS and Highwaymen, but with a deeper sense of experience and the more forceful politics of his recent years. Like Springsteen's re-tooling with Ghost of Tom Joad, take your old metaphors off the wall and go out to the gunfight with more wisdom and less pure speed.

Willie is one of those top-shelf artists for whom you can't pinpoint a single best work, or period. What's made him so remarkable is that he has always -- always -- pushed forward and against the wind (so to speak) while bringing his fans with him.

Even the throwaways have some gems. "Countryman," his "Reggae" album (the credits for which forego a list of thanks because they admit to being too stoned to remember all the Jamaicans involved in the record) is mostly forgettable, but "Darkness on the Face of the Earth" is transformed by the reggae feel.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:27 PM on September 9, 2008

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