The Complete Atlantic Sessions
Part One: Shotgun Willie
The Music Box's #3 boxed set of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2006, Volume 13, #7
Written by John Metzger
Willie Nelsonís tenure at Atlantic Records may have been brief, but he made the most of his opportunities. After years of toiling behind the scenes in Nashville, where Ray Price, Patsy Cline, and others turned his songs into major hits while his own recordings largely were ignored, Nelson moved back to Texas where he began to refocus his energy and refine his style. Although he wouldnít become a star until he joined Columbiaís roster and issued his 1975 country classic Red Headed Stranger, his preceding albums for Atlantic (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages) were equally ambitious and significant. Each has been remastered, reissued, and augmented with a plethora of bonus material as part of the three-disc box set The Complete Atlantic Sessions. Rounding out the collection is Live at the Texas Opry House, a concert outing that never made it to market, though large portions of it appeared on The Classic, Unreleased Collection. All in all, The Complete Atlantic Sessions lovingly turns the spotlight on an oft-overlooked period of Nelsonís career, and what follows is a closer examination of its components.
It somehow seems fitting that the same year in which Willie Nelson fully returned to his Texas-based roots ó by paying tribute to songwriter Cindy Walker on the stellar You Donít Know Me ó would also see his 1973 gem Shotgun Willie given its proper due. Walker, of course, wrote many of the tunes that are affiliated with Texas legend Bob Wills, and throughout Shotgun Willie, Nelson tipped his hat to his heritage by covering the Wills/Walker-penned Bubbles in My Beer as well as the Wills/Tommy Duncan standard Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer). For all intents and purposes, the two albums go hand in hand: the former being a crucial reminder of where Nelson obtained his genre-bending style, the latter being the effort on which he first fully embraced it.
Although Yesterdayís Wine hinted at the new directions that he would explore, Shotgun Willie was the key that unlocked the next phase of Nelsonís career. Freed from the confines of Nashville and signed to Atlantic Recordsí fledgling country music division, he suddenly had more freedom than ever before to package his material however he saw fit. Backed by his regular touring band ó which was augmented with Doug Sahm, Waylon Jennings, Larry Gatlin, and David Bromberg, among others ó Nelson injected country with a hefty dose of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and rock. Hinting at the changes to come, he took a final parting shot at the Nashville establishment that he had left behind by singing on the title track, which opened the set: "You canít make a record if you ainít got nothiní to say/You canít play music if you donít know nothiní to play."
Granted, there was a touch of sparkle to the production of Shotgun Willie, particularly the string arrangements that adorned Slow Down Old World and So Much to Do, the horns that drifted through the title track, and the occasional backing vocals throughout the endeavor that forever will tie it to the early í70s. Nevertheless, the collection also was a far cry from the sort of syrupy, formulaic products that Nashville was accustomed to making. The arrangements were pliant, the rhythms were freewheeling and loose, and the guitar solos ó be they Nelsonís acoustic flights; James Clayton Dayís weepy, pedal steel excursions; or the extra bite provided by the electric guitar accompaniments of Bromberg and Sahm ó rippled with an Americana edginess that fed a rock ínĎ roll audience that had been primed by Bob Dylanís Nashville Skyline and the Grateful Deadís American Beauty and Workingmanís Dead. Although Nelson would go on to make better albums, Shotgun Willie was the place where his ideas began to coalesce, and taken in conjunction with Waylon Jenningsí Honky Tonk Heroes, the country music world was turned on its ear.
Rather than offering alternate (and largely inferior) renditions of songs that appeared on the original album, the bonus material featured on the newly refurbished rendition of Shotgun Willie is predominately composed of outtakes. The fact that just over half of the extra tracks were issued previously on The Classic, Unreleased Collection makes them a little less revelatory than they otherwise might have been, but from the haunted devastation that Nelson brings to Both Ends of the Candle as well as a solo interpretation of Leon Russellís My Cricket and Me to the stinging, swinging blues of Floyd Tillmanís I Gotta Have Something I Ainít Got, thereís plenty here into which casual and diehard fans alike can sink their teeth.
This is the first installment of a three-part series,
which will examine The Complete Atlantic Sessions album by album.
The entire set is rated: Ĺ
The Complete Atlantic Sessions is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Shotgun Willie is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box