Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson
We certainly aren’t going to be the only ones wishing country legend Willie Nelson a happy 81st birthday today – once you reach a point in your career where people are describing you as a “country legend,” you’re generally not short on good tidings on the day of your birth – but the man’s accomplished so much in his life, written so many great songs, and scored so many big hits that we’re also not going to try to sum up his career in a few paragraphs, because we’d never do in justice in the small space allotted.
What we will do, however, is spotlight a box set that features two albums which, even in a field of competition that features dozens of classic LPs, stand tall as some of the greatest work Willie’s ever done: The Complete Atlantic Sessions.
After having some troubles with his contract negotiations with RCA, Willie had an encounter with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records which led to a record deal and, in 1973, an album entitled Shotgun Willie. Produced mostly by Arif Mardin, aside from a couple of Bob Wills covers helmed by Wexler (“Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” and “Bubbles in My Beer”), Shotgun Willie helped define the “outlaw country” sound, introducing audiences to Nelson’s take on Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” as well as his own instant classic, “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The following year, Willie turned in another album, Phases and Stages, a concept album recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios that revolved around divorce, tackling the woman’s side of the story on Side A and the man’s side of the story on Side B. Although the album proved to be relatively successful, earning a top-20 country single with “Bloody Mary Morning,” Atlantic Records just wasn’t interested in moving forward with country music and closed up shop, causing Wexler to resign from the label and Willie to be released from his contract and sign a new deal with Columbia where he was given complete creative control of his works.
The Complete Atlantic Sessions also features outtakes, alternate versions, and live tracks culled from Willie’s short stint on the label, but it’s those two studio albums that contain the absolute must-hear moments of the set. Willie once said that recording Shotgun Willie “cleared his throat,” and it did, setting him on a new path on which many other country artists would follow, while Phases and Stages is country music at its most emotional and affecting without ever wallowing in schmaltz.
In short, if you’ve never heard these albums and you call yourself a country music fan, then you’re kidding yourself, because this is country music.
Thanks for setting the bar so high, Willie. Enjoy your 81st!