The legendary career of Texas-born music icon Willie Nelson has spanned six decades and stands as one of contemporary music's greatest legacies. Nelson first rose to fame as a Nashville-based songwriter, penning many now timeless standards including Crazy, a top hit for Patsy Cline. Feeling constrained by the Nashville music establishment, Willie relocated to Austin in the early '70s, where the melding of rock and country audiences made a huge impression on him. He began fusing folk and roots rock with a rebellious 'outlaw' country flavor, inventing an authentic, stripped-down sound that remains vastly influential to this day. At this pivotal point in his artistic evolution, Nelson signed to Atlantic Records, delivering two signature albums revered as all-time masterpieces of his extensive repertoire, Shotgun Willie and Phases And Stages. This historic set presents remastered and expanded editions of these landmark classics, along with the also-expanded Live At The Texas Opry House, presented as a stand-alone disc for the first time.
Though Willie Nelson's career wouldn't surge until his mid-'70s label switch from Atlantic to Columbia, these recordings rank with his most significant. Before returning from Nashville to his native Texas and signing with Atlantic as its flagship country artist, Nelson had been dismissed as a journeyman writer of hits for others and a struggling recording artist who sang funny. Label honcho and producer Jerry Wexler (better known for his groundbreaking work with the likes of Aretha Franklin) encouraged Nelson to defy the dictates of conventional country and make the music that was already drawing hippies and rednecks together in Austin, while blurring the distinctions among country, blues, folk, and rock. His label debut, 1973's Shotgun Willie
, now sounds over-arranged in light of the organic style he would later favor, but the title cut's a classic, Nelson's version of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" has never been bettered, and his renditions of "Whiskey River" and "Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)" have highlighted his live performances ever since. The real gem of this three-disc set is the next year's follow-up, Phases and Stages
, an underheard classic of a concept album detailing the dissolution of a marriage from both the wife's and the husband's perspective, featuring some of the richest writing and most compelling vocal performances of Nelson's career. The last disc is a 1974 performance recorded on Nelson's home Austin turf, unreleased at the time, with the core of the band that still backs him today joined by virtuosic luminaries such as steel guitarist Jimmy Day and fiddler Johnny Gimble. Each of the remastered discs boasts an abundance of outtakes and alternate tracks. This music not only provided the launching pad for "outlaw country," it established Austin's reputation as a freewheeling music mecca where anything goes. --Don McLeese