One Hell Of A Ride

This anthology proves Willie Nelson was as much a country-music renegade when he wrotePatsy Cline's 1961 hit "Crazy" as he was in the Seventies when he grewout his hair, flipped Nashville the bird and cut Red Headed Stranger.His early-Sixties weepers, like "Hello Walls" and "Mr. Record Man," werecharacterized by an existential loneliness that followed the edgy,bluesy path of Hank Williams rather than the smooth pop freeway of anEddy Arnold or a Jim Reeves. Though this career-spanning four-disc setalso includes later chart-toppers such as "On the Road Again," "Alwayson My Mind" and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," Nelson's mostendearing work comes from the early Seventies: his raw duet with fellow"outlaw" Waylon Jennings on "Good Hearted Woman," thecan-I-get-a-witness gospel of "Uncloudy Day," the pedal-steel-poweredhangover "Bloody Mary Morning" and the spare beauty of "Blue Eyes Cryingin the Rain." The first disc compiles Nelson's earliest recordings, fromthe scratchy late-Fifties demos to his moody early-Sixties songs forLiberty Records, and the warm country folk he later recorded for RCA.This material has been maligned for its slick Nashville production, butNelson's distinctive vocal phrasing and nylon-string guitar leads peepthrough, providing a nice foil for the lush strings and syrupy backupchoir. Like most exhaustive sets, the last disc is the leastinteresting, as it picks from weaker late-period albums like thecountry-reggae hybrid Countryman. But even that disc includes trackswith teeth, such as "Write Your Own Songs," Nelson's jab at recordexecutives — and perhaps music critics, too.

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