Now here is a box set that is worth checking out. Willie Nelson's tenure at Atlantic Records was rather short-lived, lasting only two albums, but it was a crucial time in his career and it bridged the gap between his early RCA sides and the `superstar' product of his association with Columbia Records. As the story goes, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler stumbled upon Willie at a party, at a time when Willie was without a label and Atlantic was looking to branch out into country music. With his long hair and his Austin, Texas affiliations, Willie was not a `conventional' (read `Nashville') country artist, so this box set more or less documents the birth of country music's `outlaw' phase. It also documents a time when country music was starting to branch out toward the mainstream, and Willie's style was best suited for this purpose.
"Shotgun Willie" is the first album of this set, and it is a sporadic effort that contains more than its share of highlights, including his definitive version of "Whiskey River" (infinitely better than the dozens of live versions that are available) and the equally definitive interpretation of Leon Russell's "Song for You." "Slow Down Old World" and "She's Not For You" represent some of the best orchestrated, tear-jerking country music you'll ever hear, while the title track and "Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)" keep things loose and playful.
The masterpiece of this box set, though, is Willie's first theme album (before Columbia's "Red Headed Stranger"), entitled "Phases and Stages." The concept is simple, but brutally direct and powerful, documenting a breakup from the woman's perspective on `side one', followed by the male counterpoint on `side two'. The premise fits the stereotype of cheatin', drinkin' and cryin' songs, but Willie is a powerful songwriter and the self-indulgent sadness of the protagonists is palpable, especially on "Pretend I Never Happened" and "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone." "Bloody Mary Morning" is one of Nelson's best songs, and it is a brilliant starting point to capture the male perspective before the cold, hard truth sets in. Any fan of Country music will immediately recognize "Phases and Stages" as a timeless classic.
The surprise of this set, though (and a good reason to buy it even if you already own both of the others), is the previously unavailable live album. Recorded on Willie's home turf in Austin, Texas, it captures him performing with his most sympathetic backup musicians, including Paul English on drums (the subject of Nelson's "Me and Paul") and sister Bobby Nelson on piano. Of all the live Willie Nelson albums that are available, this is the best of the lot, capturing Willie at the height of his powers as a songwriter and as a performer. He would soon go on to become a household name, but the three CD's in this box set do the best job of capturing the reasons for his subsequent success. A Tom Ryan