With 100 songs clocking in at just shy of five hours, Sony's latest dip into Willie Nelson's fathomless catalog—a four-CD behemoth timed to coincide with the release of Joe Nick Patoski's bio Willie Nelson: An Epic Life and the Red Headed Stranger's 75th birthday on April 30—this boxed set goes beyond scratching the surface.
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Culled from a remarkable 59 albums (nearly all of them Nelson's), One Hell of a Ride doesn't play favorites; relative 1960s obscurities Both Sides Now and Yesterday's Wine land more cuts here than 1970s blockbusters Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, while critical, if not commercial, '90s smashes Across the Borderline, Spirit and Teatro take up a healthy chunk of Disc 4. If you happen to have forgotten '80s throwaways 1100 Bel Air Place (source of super-cheesy No. 1 Julio Iglesias duet "To All the Girls We've Loved Before"), Take It to the Limit and Partners, One Hell of a Ride will jog your memory. In the spirit of equal time, even 1991's Who'll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes, which Nelson assembled to bail him out of the tax trouble, is represented thanks to "Country Boy."
For a recording career that began more than a half-century ago in the studios of Pleasanton radio station KBOP, where Nelson recorded "When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song"—which bookends One Hell of a Ride with the 1954/'55 original and the version he recut last year specifically for this set—his body of work acquits itself quite well in today's post-album digital age. From these four discs, it's possible to assemble a multitude of playlists: Classics Nelson wrote for others, ones he kept for himself, gospel treasures, pop and rock covers, American standards that belong to others, and ones that belong to Nelson alone.
One Hell of a Ride and then some. And Nelson, fit as a fiddle and on the road as always, shows no signs of slowing down. He hasn't come close to singing his last hillbilly song, and he won't until he draws that elusive last breath. At this rate, we can expect another similarly elaborate commemoration when Nelson turns 80 in 2013.
The all-Willie iPod, perhaps?