By the early 1970s, Willie Nelson was both an acclaimed songwriter and a frustrated artist. Having recorded for Liberty and then RCA Records, the Texan notched just one Top Ten solo hit with “Touch Me,” in 1962. He wouldn’t have another until 1975, by which time he was recording for Columbia Records, a move that afforded him more creative control over his material and the production of his albums.
But between his seven-year stretch at RCA, and the golden — and platinum — years at Columbia, Nelson was living in Austin and entertaining the locals at the now-iconic Armadillo World Headquarters. Beginning in 1973, he recorded a trio of exceptional albums for Atlantic Records. The first country artist signed to the label, which at the time was home to Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin, Nelson was championed by legendary producer and Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler. Both fans of Western swing and melodic jazz, Nelson and Wexler got along well, spending several days poring over tapes and listening to songs. Although the first project Nelson recorded for the label, a gospel album called The Troublemaker, was shelved and later released by Columbia Records, his next, Shotgun Willie, fired a powerful warning shot that the “outlaw” era was underway.
Although uneasy at first in a new setting, Nelson recorded much of Shotgun Willie in New York, with Arif Mardin producing the bulk of the sessions and Wexler assisting on two Bob Wills classics. Well-received but a poor seller, Shotgun Willie was followed by the brilliant Phases & Stages. Released on March 6th, 1974, 45 years ago today, the LP bluntly chronicled the dissolution of a marriage from two perspectives, with “his” and “hers” each occupying one side of the vinyl LP. As a concept album, it was a rarity in country music, so ambitious that Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo feared at the time it might be dismissed as “the shitkicker’s Tommy,” a reference to the Who’s recent rock opera. Hailing it as “his best work to date,” Flippo singled out “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone,” which Nelson had penned for the late wife of his drummer, Paul English, as “without doubt the saddest, most compelling [country] song I’ve ever heard.”
Recorded in a setting even more unlikely for a country album than New York, the LP was cut in two days in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with a powerhouse rhythm section that included Barry Beckett on keyboards and session guitarist Fred Carter Jr. In his 1993 autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, Wexler wrote of the decision to record in Muscle Shoals, then a veritable hotbed of R&B session work, “Everyone in Nashville thought I was out of my mind. They said Muscle Shoals was too R&B for Willie; I said Willie was too R&B for Nashville.”
One of the up-tempo highlights of Phases & Stages was “Bloody Mary Morning,” a song detailing Nelson’s own experiences as, in his own words, “a lousy drunk.” Like Shotgun Willie’s “Whiskey River,” it is now a familiar fixture in Nelson’s live concerts and was one of the songs he performed during the 1974 pilot episode of Austin City Limits.
Although Phases & Stages was a moderate seller — and pretty much put an end to Atlantic’s country-music division at the time — it is now rightly regarded as a classic. It also paved the way for Nelson’s major breakthrough a year later with another concept album. The cinematic Red Headed Stranger, recorded for the Columbia label, gave Nelson his first of 25 Number One singles as an artist when “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” topped the chart.