Reviewed by Christopher Gray, Fri., Aug. 15, 2003
Willie NelsonTo Lefty From Willie (Columbia/Legacy)
Willie NelsonWillie & Family Live (Columbia/Legacy)
Willie NelsonHoneysuckle Rose (Columbia/Legacy)
Willie Nelson & Ray priceSan Antonio Rose (Columbia/Legacy) Ready for even more Willie? These four LPs from the late Seventies and 1980 simultaneously capture Nelson at his most humble and most Hollywood. After Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, the Bearded One was as much an acolyte of the old masters as ever, but now also a multiplatinum-selling superstar with the commercial clout to do whatever he pleased. So in 1975, as Stranger took the world by storm, he recorded a tribute to one of his greatest influences, honky-tonk legend Lefty Frizzell. Abbott native Nelson and the Corsicana-born Frizzell grew up practically neighbors, and it shows in To Lefty From Willie's practiced care and easy familiarity. Nelson's superb band sinks its teeth into the spare melancholy of classic honky-tonk for "Look What Thoughts Will Do" and a luxuriant "Always Late (With Your Kisses)." "She's Gone, Gone, Gone" sparkles thanks to Bobbie Nelson's glinting piano rolls, and a frisky "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" appears on the reissue. Not quite essential, but an excellent frame of reference nonetheless. Willie and Family Live, on the other hand, is a choice example of Willie's telepathic bond with his so-called family. Recorded at Harrah's Casino in Lake Tahoe one raucous 1978 evening, Nelson and his seven mates maintain a deadly precision as this 2-CD behemoth seesaws from lightning-quick shuffles and aching blues to salty Southern rock and hair-raising gospel in a set that doesn't let up from "Whiskey River" on down. A 14-minute Red Headed Stranger operetta halfway through is positively riveting. The soundtrack to Nelson's 1980 star vehicle Honeysuckle Rose also contains several well-known live standards, alongside efforts from cronies Johnny Gimble, Hank Cochran, and Emmylou Harris. Bookended by the bow of "On the Road Again" and an uplifiting "Uncloudy Day," Honeysuckle Rose is more than a vanity project, no thanks to Nelson's duets with co-stars Amy Irving and Dyan Cannon. Ray Price, with whom he recorded 1980's San Antonio Rose, makes a much more suitable partner. His former employer's oaken baritone provides an ideal anchor for Nelson's laid-back tenor as the pair swap verses on lush favorites like "Crazy Arms" and "Faded Love." Unhurried, gentle, and meandering, Nelson's principal virtue and everlasting gift is his stalwart belief in whatever song he's singing at the moment. That simple fact, well in evidence on these reissues, is just as true today.
(To Lefty; Live)
(San Antonio Rose)