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Faces of a Fighter

A New Box Set Recements Willie Nelson's Place in The Musical Firmament

Alex Fine

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 4/30/2008

Willie Nelson just turned 75. To celebrate, Columbia/Legacy has issued One Hell of a Ride: four CDs, 100 songs. It's the first set to explore Nelson's entire recording career and therefore definitive by default, even beyond the immense pleasure it affords. It's a culmination, not an end point. The man himself, after all, will tour till he smokes his last bowl. But as dazzling an array as One Hell producer Al Quaglieri has assembled, you can't sum up Willie Nelson in five hours. He's much too large for that.

However richly deserved Bob Dylan's honorary Pulitzer Prize may be, Willie Nelson may be the most universally beloved living pop musician. There's good reason for that: From his endless pigtails to the palm-worn hole in the guitar he's been playing for decades to his stubborn midcareer relocation to Austin from country music's Nashville base, Nelson may be the most down-home superstar who ever lived.

The more plain-spoken and conversational his singing, the more musical it seems. He inverts nearly every axiom there once was about country music--that to go pop you need to drown yourself in bathos, that songwriters with unpretty voices should stay in the back room, that Nashville was the beginning and end of the business--and he embodies country music as fully as anyone in its history. Besides some ex-wives and, a few years back, the IRS, what music lover doesn't have a favorite Willie Nelson song--if not several?

That's why Nelson has so many best-ofs and collections already on racks both physical and digital, but One Hell affords an opportunity to hear him grow and change as a recording artist. Nelson was well known as a songwriter long before he was as a performer, and no wonder: One five-song sequence early on Disc 1 runs "Man with the Blues" and "Nite Life" (from obscure singles), "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Crazy" (from 1962's . . . And Then I Wrote)--wall-to-wall classics. All have been done better elsewhere (Al Green's "Funny" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy," for starters), but that hardly matters. Nelson's canny, distinctive phrasing is already there, waiting for the audience that would flock to it in a couple decades' time.

One Hell of a Ride is especially ear-opening for the way it captures Nelson's occasional capitulations to fashion--and establishes them as intrinsic to his artistry as the classics. "I'm a Memory" (Disc 1, 1970) has Willie going pop-psychedelic, with Jimmy Webb-ish strings and horns complementing surrealistic-pillowy lines like, "I'm a love that you bought for a song/ I'm a voice on a green telephone." (It makes you wonder whether Brian Wilson heard it before writing the Beach Boys' structurally similar "'Til I Die.")

And Disc 4's selections from 1993's Across the Borderline hold up better than you might expect from an aural snapshot of the middle of that decade's Adult Alternative model. Borderline was Don Was' subtle refashioning of Nelson as a pan-Americana icon rather than a straighter country one, an important precedent for another pair of signal '90s albums--Johnny Cash's American Recordings and Santana's Supernatural. Time-place associations aside, "Graceland," with Paul Simon and original session guitarist Ray Phiri playing along, is definitive, thanks to Nelson's phrasing.

That phrasing is why Nelson's most overfamiliar work, unlike that of many household names, gains depth and resonance after being pounded into your skull for decades on end. Embedded on One Hell of a Ride's third disc, cuts as obvious as 1980's "On the Road Again" and 1982's "Always on My Mind" sound deeper than ever: the good-time paean to happily rootless creativity switching from car-radio no-problemo to absolute statement of intent, the rueful look back at a broken marriage even more upright and even more shattered. You also notice how perfect Nelson's acoustic solo on "Always" is--and elsewhere as well, since Willie stepping out on guitar is as eventful, and as modest, as his way with a lyric. (See "Nuages," from 1999's wonderful all-instrumental Night and Day, on Disc 4.)

Of course, Nelson occasionally drowns himself in bathos, too: "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" is corn bread with syrup, while his Across the Borderline version of Bob Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted" merely demonstrates how peevish and would-be mysterious its lyric is. But sometimes that works wonders, as with the Lee Ann Womack duet "Mendocino County Line," which sounded wet in the company of 2002's mediocre crossover-duets collection, The Great Divide, but glorious here.

Of course there's stuff missing: 1978's Stardust, probably the consensus choice for Nelson's greatest album, is represented with only two songs, for example. But no one will blame you for letting One Hell of a Ride hold you for a while. Or until July 8 anyway, when Nelson releases his next regular album, in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis for Blue Note, titled Two Men With the Blues. Praises be to red-headed strangers who never quit.

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