Willie Nelson is unequivocally recognized as a country music star. The artist has written ("Crazy," "Hello Walls" and "Nite Life"), interpreted ("Pancho & Lefty," "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain") and created ("On the Road Again") some of the genre's most enduring classics.
Yet Nelson's success runs contrary to the traditional country-music narrative. His offbeat singing, which takes as many cues from Frank Sinatra as it does Lefty Frizzell, was criticized in the '50s as a flaw. When country musicians flocked to Nashville in the '70s, he started his own commune in Texas. And while current country stars duet with Toby Keith and Carrie Underwood, Nelson croons with Snoop Dogg, cuts an album of Jamaican classics and covers "Rainbow Connection" at his daughter's behest. Nelson's success is not because he is a country Renaissance Man who can do it all, but because he is a singular pop icon who sounds comfortable in so many different settings.
For the first time, Columbia/Legacy has attempted to make sense of this complex story by collecting a diverse batch of Nelson's recordings on One Hell of a Ride. This four-disc box set differs from the artist's countless single-disc greatest-hits packages by comprehensively mapping the many roads he has and continues to travel.
The collection begins with a modest yet auspicious recording of "When I've Sang My Last Hillbilly Song," a demo that Nelson recorded at a radio station he deejayed for and unsuccessfully shopped. In spite of the rough recording, Nelson's signature baritone and syncopated drawl are already in place. The collection continues to chart in both chronological and thematic order Nelson's progression as an artist. Less recognized versions of hits he wrote for Patsy Cline, Faron Youg and Ray Price are documented here, as well as early examples of his signature heartbreakers (the desperate "Mr. Record Man" and the semi-ironic "One in a Row"). Before the end of the first disc, Nelson's restless wandering becomes apparent as the groovy reading of Floyd Jenkins's "Pins and Needles (In My Heart)," the bar-closing, shot-slugging sing-along of Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein's "Once More With Feeling," and the quasi-northern soul of "I'm a Memory" mesh seamlessly with each other.
In this manner, One Hell of a Ride attempts to articulate the true character of Willie Nelson. By taking the difficult approach of aligning a required hit like "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," with a distinctly non-country record like "Mona Lisa," the compilation forces both well-versed fans and new-jack listeners to reconsider Willie Nelson, the iconic country celebrity, as a pop auteur. The move may not be too risqué, considering the abundance of documentation surrounding Nelson's career. But One Hell of a Ride takes a welcome step forward in the mainstream discourse of a genuine pop-culture outlaw.
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