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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"Pretty Paper" (1964)

Originally a hit for Roy Orbison in 1963, "Pretty Paper" was inspired by a vendor outside a department store in Fort Worth, Texas. An amputee with no legs who peddled paper and pencils for a living, Nelson suddenly recalled the man a few months before Christmas, and put the memory to music. "He had a way of crying out those words – 'Pretty paper! Pretty paper! – that broke my heart," Nelson wrote in his autobiography It's a Long Story. Nelson recorded the song himself, produced by Chet Atkins, in 1964, and then again as the title track for his 1979 Christmas album. Stripped of the Orbison sheen, Nelson made it a sweet and simple Southern waltz, anchored by some of his most aching, pristine vocals: his tender vibrato as he sings the word "ribbons" is enough to warm even the most calloused of holiday hearts. 

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