The Essential Willie Nelson
This collection could just as easily been named “Willie Nelson is Essential,” for indeed he is. For 70 years, the “red headed stranger” has been existing in his own Zen-calm atmosphere of good songs, good times and holy smoke. Thankfully, he decided to take us along for the ride. And as Emmylou Harris once said, “The world would be a better place if we all could ride on Willie’s bus.” He writes songs as well as anyone, is our finest singer since Sinatra, plays a mean guitar and is a social activist to boot. His presence in the oh-so-timely Wag The Dog showcased his innate ability as an actor to play•Willie. Nobody else could.
This collection, while spanning two discs, barely hints at the wonders of Willie. To be truly named, it would include most everything he has recorded from his days as a hired-gun songwriter, a tenure that spawned “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and “Night Life,” among others. And it would include the “Outlaw” period, when Nelson, Waylon Jennings and pals decided to buck Nashville, get on back to Texas and create redneck rock, and in doing so, revolutionize modern country music. It would also include a healthy dose of Willie’s interpretations of songs such as Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Thru The Night” or the haunting “Pancho and Lefty” duet with Merle Haggard that gave its author, Townes Van Zandt, a much-needed cash flow. And for the most part this collection does give us a glimpse of these landmarks, with only a few quibbles. No one should ever have to hear Willie’s horrific duet with Julio Iglesias (“To All The Girls I’ve Loved”) again, under any circumstances. And the same holds true for his pairings with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler (“One Time Too Many” — aptly named, that) and Bono. But we forgive Willie his marketing, remembering as we do when the IRS stomped his happy ass — can’t blame the boy for wanting to sock away as much as he can, as a hedge against such tyranny occurring again.
But in the end, one can imagine that Nelson probably doesn’t care too much for money, only as a means to an end. He’d probably be happy motoring around the country until the end of his days, battered guitar in his lap, a joint in his mouth, with his family and friends gathered around. One of his band members sadly remarked to Willie, upon laying eyes on their venue for the night, “How much longer are we gonna have to play dives like this?” To which Willie replied: “If we’re lucky, forever.” Indeed. We should all appreciate life to such an extent.