Before Willie Nelson and the rest of the outlaws reinvigorated Nashville in the ’70s, country music had become a homogenized product. An artist’s output, regardless of inspiration or inclination, was routinely subjected to a “sweetening” process that made songs about losing one’s lady, job, and dog somehow more palatable. The calling cards of this process, mainly overwrought strong arrangements and choruses of background singers, fit with Willie Nelson’s musical point of view like chocolate with pickles. Though Nelson eventually moved from Nashville both geographically and artistically, his early catalogue is caked with these extraneous touches. On Naked Willie, longtime Nelson bandmate Mickey Raphael has stripped the decorations from the original compositions, leaving them more in line with the rest of Nelson’s body of work.
Though the “un-producing” process is a little disorienting at first, Raphael has largely succeeded in taking songs that seem unrelated to the rest of Nelson’s career and making them more in line with the rest of his artistic output. The vocals in particular stand out; Nelson’s voice not only sells the heartache he is writing about, but also intones each syllable for maximum effect. Whether he is singing about a lost soldier on “Jimmy’s Road” or a lost soul on Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Nelson makes his subject seem both immediate and important. Nelson’s vocals match nicely with the spare arrangement of piano and guitar, making Naked Willie more than just an interesting “what if” scenario, but a genuine reimagining of the singer’s early work.
The only problem with Naked Willie is that it sells itself as a bit of revisionist history. The liner notes bemoan that Nashville tried to hammer quintessential square peg Nelson into a round hole and cites his early output as proof that he was misunderstood by the powers that be in mainstream country music. While the “un-produced” tracks on Naked Willie offer an interesting alternative to the original recordings, every step of Nelson’s career led him to become the artist he is today. If he had been able to write his own ticket from the beginning, he might never have attained the heights to which he eventually ascended. Though Naked Willie is eminently listenable and even ultimately preferable to the original recordings, the end of effect is something like a colorized movie. One can predict what might have happened, but the original has already made its mark on history.