Less is more
By Jim Caligiuri,
1:21PM, Wed. Mar. 11, 2009
Thank the Beatles for the latest from the Willie Nelson camp. Naked Willie arrives in stores next week, and Mickey Raphael, “unproducer” and longtime harmonica player with Nelson, maintains that hearing Let It Be … Naked sparked the idea in him.
“They took off the strings that Phil Spector put on," he explains from his home in Nashville. "I thought it would be great if we did the same thing to some of songs that Willie did. I knew that he had no say in the production. I mean he was happy to be doing it, but back then Chet Atkins produced him, and the artists really didn’t get involved in the production of their records. Knowing Willie like I do now, his mantra is ‘less is more.’ He likes things simple. I thought, ‘These are great songs. It’d be heresy to cut them again. I wonder what would happen if we just stripped everything off and kind of do it like Willie had produced himself.’”
When Nelson recorded for RCA from 1965 until 1971, Atkins was famous for his trademark Nashville sound, which included lush orchestral arrangements and backing vocals that often ran counter to the mood or message of the song itself. “It’s not to say that Chet’s production was wrong or bad, I just wanted to look at them through another lens,” Raphael clarifies. “I love these songs. I listen to the RCA era all the time. It’s the first batch of Willie recordings that I ever heard. I didn’t really know about him until I went to work for him. Darrell Royal introduced me to Willie in '72,'73. I was just a struggling harmonica player, hanging out in coffeehouses in Austin. When Willie hired me, I had to do a crash course in country music. So this era was my education.”
When RCA and Sony merged earlier this decade, Raphael's idea finally became possible. “I didn’t know anyone at RCA at the time, but then Sony absorbed RCA’s catalog,” he recalls. “I had some friends at Sony Legacy, so I pitched them the idea. I went up there and did a test, worked on a couple of them, and then they said, ‘Go for it.’ The masters were in a warehouse in New Jersey. I got about 30 of the songs on a hard drive and tried to figure out what I could do with them. There was leakage from strings and other instruments on some tracks that prevented me from using some of the songs that I wanted. Some of it was recorded with the strings in the same room. It was done on four tracks, which made some of what I wanted to do very difficult.”
What Raphael came up with is a disc that sounds almost as if it was recorded yesterday, not 40 years ago. “That’s it exactly,” he concurs. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘If Willie would go in and cut this song last week, what would he come with?'”
While the majority of the songs on Naked Willie are taken from albums recorded for RCA, “Bring Me Sunshine" is a rare non-LP single and several others, including “Johnny One Time” and “If You Could See What’s Going Through My Mind,” were previously only available on Nashville Was the Roughest, the massive and expensive box set issued through Germany’s Bear Family label.
“Eventually the 17 tracks on the disc were the ones that we could do,” Raphael asserts. “There are still some that I could do, but these are still all my favorites. If anyone wants to check out the originals, listen to the Bear Family box. For anyone who’s a Willie fan, that’s a must have.”