OL' SMOKEY EMPTIES BOTH BARRELS
If you're only going own one Willie Nelson album, then 1973's Shotgun Willie is you're best bet, an enduringly listenable, richly felt, expertly played work jammed with terrific songs built for blue collar sing-alongs and jelly jar socials.
It begins with Willie in his underwear, biting on a bullet and pulling out his hair. Oh sure, it's "Shotgun Willie" and not "Willie Nelson" but he's long delighted in being a character and his legend is richly swelled by this album, which launches with such confident cool that it's near impossible to refuse their hand when they yank you onto the dance floor. The horns and slinky arrangements smack of Muscle Shoals, and despite the nods to Bob Wills ("Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)" and barroom staple "Bubbles In My Beer") and general twang-i-ness, Shotgun Willie broadens country's church considerably, welcoming in soul music and a long haired troubadour like Leon Russell, who also picks up a pair of note perfect covers here ("A Song For You" and "You Look Like The Devil"). Surrounding himself with such heavyweight material prompts some of Nelson's finest compositions, master class craftsmanship oozing style and emotional punch. If a songwriter wanted to inspire a trickle of tears "Sad Songs And Waltzes" and "Slow Down World" are blueprints. The saucier numbers like "Devil In A Sleepin' Bag" and the title cut show an awareness of youngsters like Tony Joe White snappin' at his heels, which only makes the then-already-a-veteran step up his game.
There's no fat on this record. Despite a fairly dense instrument assortment, the presentation is clean and direct, with Nelson and famed producer Arif Mardin drawing great performances out of a pro's pros assortment that includes David Bromberg, Larry Gatlin, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyer, pedal steel pleasure James Clayton Day and Nelson's harmonica blowing partner-in-crime Mickey Raphael. Willie's own picking here is breathtaking, a jazzman in a cow pasture but a jazzman just the same. The overall sound is warm, jumping from western swing pastiches to cosmopolitan constructions that rival Charlie Rich's amazing work during the same period.
After years at RCA, Shotgun Willie was Nelson's Atlantic Records debut. It failed to live up to the label's commercial expectations, and Nelson's follow-up - the arty, experimental and wholly brilliant Phases And Stage (1974) – put the nail in his relationship with Atlantic, and he moved onto Columbia Records, where he remained until the early '90s. His creative streak continued apace with possibly the greatest concept album in country music, 1975's Red Headed Stranger, and numerous other highlights that decade including his lesser known gospel masterpiece, The Troublemaker, which was recorded in '73 but not released until 1976. In a very dramatic way, this period established Willie's independent, outlaw reputation and cemented his place as one of the 20th century's great musician/composers.
1. Shotgun Willie
2. Whiskey River (Johnny Bush, Paul Stroud)
3. Sad Songs and Waltzes
4. Local Memory
5. Slow Down Old World
6. Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)" (Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan)
1. Devil in a Sleepin' Bag
2. She's Not for You
3. Bubbles in My Beer" (Wills, Cindy Walker, Duncan)
4. You Look Like the Devil" (Leon Russell)
5. So Much to Do
6. A Song for You" (Russell)
All songs by Willie Nelson unless otherwise noted.
Here's a vintage live take on "Whiskey River," and we also heartily point you to the clips for "Whiskey River/Stay All Night" and "A Song For You" from Willie Nelson's 2nd Annual 4th Of July Picnic in College Station, TX in 1974. Embedding not allowed but they're well worth popping over to check out for a splendid assortment of booze hoisting, barely dressed party people having a great freakin' time. And the audience is pretty fun to check out, too!
Mark Lanegan gets at the heart of "She's Not For You" with this cover.
Next, "Shotgun Willie" with Kid Rock joining the Sensimilla Cowboy.
We conclude with another vintage live clip for "Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)." Go ahead, belt it out with Willie, it'll do wonders for you!