Willie Nelson: 20 Essential Songs

From the signature ballad he wrote for Patsy Cline to his love letter to life on the road

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"Bloody Mary Morning" (1974)

The bleary-eyed hangover of "Bloody Mary Morning" was the morning-after moment of clarity that Nelson needed at a pivotal time in his career. His marriage in shambles, his contract with RCA Records going nowhere, and all signs pointing him back to Texas, the song's autobiographical statement of purpose didn't really register when it first appeared on 1970's Both Sides Now. But Nelson didn't give up on it, and when he played it at a party two years later it caught the ear of Atlantic's Jerry Wexler. The rest, as they say, was history. Reworked for his breakthrough concept album, Phases and Stages, the song's goose-chasing banjo gave the soon-to-be Red Headed Stranger a crucial hit and helped establish the footloose spirit that's been at the core of his work ever since.

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