The Essential Willie Nelson
First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2003, Volume 10, #5
Written by John Metzger
Over the past 40 years, Willie Nelson has played many roles in a career with numerous twists and turns. He was the Nashville songwriter, the outlaw, the country-rock renegade, the pop crooner ó the list goes on forever. Indeed, it would appear to be an almost impossible task to condense such a varied story into a mere two-album, 41-track package, but The Essential Willie Nelson does just that with rather extraordinary aplomb.
For the record, the collection does include some of Nelsonís low-points, such as his lightweight cover of the epic Townes Van Zandt tune Pancho & Lefty as well as his even fluffier duet with Julio Iglesias on To All the Girls Iíve Loved Before. Nevertheless, it also would have been a travesty to exclude these tracks for they do demonstrate Nelsonís mighty commercial aspirations. These were resurrected on last yearís The Great Divide, from which Mendocino County Line, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Lee Ann Womack, is taken, though the Rob Thomas-penned Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me) might have been a better selection.
These few quibbles aside, The Essential Willie Nelson does sparkle brilliantly, fully living up to its name while leaving no stone unturned. Organized chronologically, the set follows Nelsonís career step by step, through the haunted loneliness of Hello Walls through Slow Dancing, his oddly effective collaboration with U2. Along the way, Nelson rocks out on a pairing of Johnny Bushís Whiskey River with Bob Willsí Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer, fondly reflects on his friendship with drummer Paul English on Me and Paul, embraces gospel on Uncloudy Day, and goes carousing on a terrific cover of Lefty Frizzellís If Youíve Got the Money (Iíve Got the Time). Other highlights include a romp through Paul Simonís Graceland, the soulful country twist he gives Hoagy Carmichaelís Georgia (On My Mind), and the galloping tour tune On the Road Again. Some of Nelsonís albums such as the classics Red Headed Stranger and Shotgun Willie as well as the underappreciated efforts Phases & Stages and Yesterdayís Wine should already be within the collections of any avid music fan. While The Essential Willie Nelson does include tracks from these efforts, it does so sparingly, allowing the overall set to place them within the context of his many other brilliant compositions and interpretations.
The Essential Willie Nelson 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!!
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