First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4
Written by John Metzger
Thu April 23, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
There was a time when songwriters weren’t viewed as visionaries who could make it on their own, but rather as commodities whose jobs primarily were to provide fodder for the music industry to digest. Hidden away in small offices and cubicles, they toiled for hours, days, weeks, and months, crafting new material for others to perform. Neither they nor the artists who sang their tunes had much influence over how the final product sounded, either. There was a formula for everything, and Nashville’s producers, as well as the record labels for which they worked, followed it fully and completely. In a sense, the act of making an album was akin to working on an assembly line.
Willie Nelson was one of many budding performers who spent his early days refining his talent by writing songs in a building situated along the Music Row district of Nashville. The success that Patsy Cline and Faron Young had with his material brought him minor acclaim, which Nelson quickly parlayed into a series of record deals that took him from Liberty to Monument to RCA, while also landing him a stint at the Grand Old Opry. Within the studio, Nelson had no choice but to play by the rules, and consequently, the tunes that lined his albums were smothered in strings, horns, and female backing vocalists. By the early 1970s, Nelson had grown tired of this routine, and since he wasn’t able to obtain his artistic freedom, he opted instead to retire.
Naked Willie is the latest project to spring from Nelson’s camp, and by compiling material that was recorded between June 1966 and November 1970, it effectively traces an arc through the formative moments when he was struggling to define himself as an artist. In stripping away the heavy-handed production techniques that had been applied to his songs, the outing poses an intriguing "what-if" scenario. Specifically, it ponders the possibility that Nelson might have been successful at an earlier age, if only Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis hadn’t obscured the moods that Nelson was exploring with his work. Strange as it may seem, however, the answer that is revealed by the set isn’t necessarily the one that was intended. Rather, Naked Willie makes a case that Nelson’s still-developing approach held him back, too.
There is no doubt that Nelson had a way with words and melodies. This is, after all, why he was in demand as a songwriter well before anyone outside the industry really knew who he was. Without the gaudy accoutrements that made his material sound utterly generic, the emotions within the works presented on Naked Willie are allowed to run rampant. From the loneliness of The Ghost to the crushing heartache of The Party’s Over to the details of love’s deceits that are outlined in Johnny One Time, Nelson wove tales that deftly explored the basic tenets of human existence. In this regard, the album merely states the obvious.
Herein lies the problem with Naked Willie: Many of the songs featured on the set are musically conventional. They are not nearly as timeless as Nelson’s later efforts. Instead they are fixed in the moment, tied to a specific period of Nashville’s history. Consequently, they sound as if they were made to meet the typical expectations of the country music capital. Oddly enough, without their strings and backing vocals, the recordings feel as if something is missing from their architecture.
Even so, Nelson’s restless spirit managed to beat within the structured refrains that fill Naked Willie. Here, in the early moments presented on the endeavor, it is possible to hear the soul-stirring sound of outlaw country’s birth. Although he was trying to work with the mold allowed to Nashville’s artists, Nelson also was fighting to break free. These tracks — the rock-oriented undercurrent that fuels If You Could See What’s Going through My Mind, the Spanish guitar that drifts through When We Live Again, the Western swing that propels Bring Me Sunshine, and the antiwar sentiments that are expressed in Jimmy’s Road, for example — contain the touchstones to which he returned frequently throughout his career.
If anything, then, Naked Willie provides a glimpse at why Nelson has spent so much time reinventing his old songs rather than penning new ones. He is a perfectionist who wants to present his material in the best possible light; he wants his recordings to feel as timeless as those of his idols. Naked Willie doesn’t quite achieve those goals, but given his accomplishments, it’s hard to blame Nelson for trying. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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