I grew up in West, Texas, a small Czech town about an hour south of Dallas. Five miles up Interstate 35 is Abbott, an even smaller Czech town where Willie Nelson was born and raised. Barely enough people lived there to qualify for a ZIP code. When I was old enough to drive, my friends and I usually ended most weekend nights--and during the summer, just about every night--sitting in Abbott's town square, drinking cases of cheap beer. Or pivo, as my grandfather and his friends at the bakery called it.
More often than not, Willie was there, too. Well, his songs were, at least, blasting out of someone's car stereo, rattling the empties in the bed of whatever pickup truck we happened to be huddled around. Every album felt like a greatest-hits collection: "Bloody Mary Morning," "Good Hearted Woman," "Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Always on My Mind," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "On the Road Again." One after the other, on and on and on. He didn't write them all, but he owned them. Only Johnny Cash could make someone else's words irreversibly his the way Nelson could.
He was heaven and hell to us, the same kind of sinner and saint who'd show up to Sunday Mass with beer on his breath. We learned how to do a lot of things that begin with "f" in Abbott's town square--fight, flirt, fall and one other four-letter word you can probably figure out--and Willie was the perfect soundtrack for every occasion.
Gypsy Tea Room
When I was younger, on more than a few Saturday afternoons I'd lie in front of the television, watching Nelson play some version of himself in movies: Honeysuckle Rose, The Electric Horseman and Barbarosa. Back then, I had no idea he was also a musician.
But my parents were big fans, so I figured out pretty quickly what his real career was. My mom would talk about the Willie Nelson she remembered: clean-cut and fresh-faced, trying to fit in with the rest of the Nashville crowd with his suit and carefully combed hair. This was back in the 1960s. He was a struggling singer but a successful songwriter, scoring hit singles for Faron Young, Billy Walker, Patsy Cline and Ray Price. When she was growing up in West, Willie was as important to her as he was to me. She bought And Then I Wrote when it came out in 1962--a classic featuring Nelson's versions of the songs Young and Cline took to the top of the charts, it was virtually ignored at the time. She'd kick herself--almost literally, at times--for getting rid of it later.
That's the version of Nelson that appears on Crazy: The Demo Sessions, a collection of early-1960s studio recordings released by Sugar Hill on February 11. The songs, live and laid-back one-offs, were located in 1994 on an unmarked quarter-inch reel of tape labeled "Pamper Demos" in the vast vaults of Nashville publishing company Sony/ATV/Tree. As Crazy demonstrates, the subtle and sophisticated guitar playing, the jazz-singer phrasing, the voice that sounds like it's aimed directly at whoever is listening--everything that would show up on his breakthrough album, 1975's Red Headed Stranger--was already there. It was just hiding underneath the Nashville gloss, the spit and polish that sounded as comfortable on Nelson's songs as he looked in those suits. Crazy, then, is every bit as important as unearthing a lost Beatles album.
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The release of Crazy is just part of a yearlong tribute to Nelson, in honor of his 70th birthday on April 30. Later in the year, Columbia/Legacy will reissue four of Nelson's classic titles: 1978's Willie and Family Live, 1980's San Antonio Rose, 1982's Pancho & Lefty and Always on My Mind. And on March 18, the label will put out The Essential Willie Nelson, the latest in its popular series of career-spanning, double-disc compilations.
From the first song he ever recorded ("Night Life") to a duet with Lee Ann Womack ("Mendocino County Line") from his latest studio disc, 2001's The Great Divide, Nelson's Essential collection--like last year's Johnny Cash set--walks briskly through a career that has remained relevant for four decades. (Of course, by teaming up with the likes of Kid Rock, Brian McKnight and Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, as he did on Divide, Nelson is starting to come off as a little desperate to maintain that status. Even I am not that much of an apologist.) He even holds his own when Aerosmith takes a soulful country song ("One Time Too Many," recorded in 1987) and turns it into a soulless blues jam. So maybe they're not all absolutely Essential, but since when does anyone expect the truth from a record label?
If you were lucky enough to land a ticket to Nelson's sold-out concert at Gypsy Tea Room, a rare performance in such an intimate setting, expect a live re-creation of Essential's track listing. (There's no shame in being a greatest-hits act when you have so many to choose from.) That was the case when I saw him play a year or so ago at the American Airlines Center, and he still had the goods. If you closed your eyes, you would have sworn it was 1978 and he was leading the family through another picnic at Luckenbach.
Or helping me make it through another night in Abbott's town square.