Someone once observed that most box sets are like Oreo cookies. The good stuff is in the middle. Preferences regarding cookie and crème-filling aside, this four-CD retrospective of Willie Nelson is all good stuff, from start to finish.
After a few early demos, Disc One gets right to the trifecta of standards that put the kid from Abbott, TX, on the country music map. You've probably heard other artists covering "Hello Walls," "Crazy," and "Funny How Time Slips Away," but Willie's recordings are brilliant models of emotional and economical delivery. Just the way he sings "I guess I'll see you around" at the end of the latter is packed with more innuendo and feeling than most modern country songs display in their entirety. That gauntlet of excellence thrown down, Willie keeps delivering through the '60s, with his Hank Williams-meets-Hoagy Carmichael charm in "One In A Row," "Sweet Memories," "What Can You Do To Me Now," and "Summer Of Roses."
Disc Two opens with the sound of an audience cheering, followed by the singing voice of Waylon Jennings. Welcome to the '70s, wherein Willie grows a beard, takes up residence in a tour bus and with his compadre Waylon, defines the Outlaw Country movement with "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," "I Can Get Off On You," and "Bloody Mary Morning." But by the decade's end, Willie's tapping into his love of Tin Pan Alley pop for his best-selling Stardust album. His reading of "Georgia On My Mind" is right up there with Brother Ray's.
Willie the interpreter rules Discs Three and Four. Whether he's covering standards such as "Mona Lisa" and "One For The Road," contemporary gems like "Rainbow Connection," and "Graceland," or putting his original stamp on new classics like "Seven Spanish Angels" (with Ray Charles) and "Highwaymen" (with Waylon, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson), he exudes warmth and honesty. There's also a cover Django's "Nuages," showcasing Willie's expressive lead work on the nylon-string guitar he's been playing since day one.
Accompanied by a handsome 95-page booklet full of rare photos and a fine essay by Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski, this essential box set more than lives up to its title--One Hell Of A Ride. •Bill DeMain