It's Been Rough and Rocky Travelin'

Three CDs documenting the birth of a country outlaw before Willie Nelson became an outlaw, he was a hustler. In "Attention Songwriters," a hilarious late-1950s radio ad included in this box set, he tells struggling composers how they can get their songs cut by "professional musicians" and pressed as publishing demos — for just ten bucks a tune, sent to an address in Fort Worth, Texas. As an aspiring hitmaker himself, Nelson never stooped that low. But he did damn near everything else, and you can hear it here: making his first tape at a San Antonio radio station in the mid-1950s; issuing singles on tiny labels like his own Willie Nelson Records; chafing under the MOR mentality at Liberty Records in the early 1960s as he recorded fine but not yet definitive versions of "Crazy" and "Hello Walls." It's worth coping with the Hollywood gloss of the Liberty sides (here in full) to soak in Nelson's creamy croon. There is also a lot of rough, rockin' Texas in 1950s singles such as "Man With the Blues," in which he sings like a hill-country Sinatra over a hot plate of Western swing.