Reviewed by Christopher Gray, Fri., June 23, 2006
The Complete Atlantic Sessions (Rhino/Atlantic)
Atlantic Records, which gave the world Ray Charles, the Drifters, and Led Zeppelin, never had much luck with country. Too sophisticated, uptown, and, um, black for Nashville, the pioneering label nevertheless signed Willie Nelson, a refugee from Music City after his wife set fire to his bed with him in it. Relocating to blissfully stoned Austin, Nelson delivered a pair of albums that sold squat but ignited a string of personal and artistic triumphs that continued well after he and Atlantic parted company. His disintegrating marriage is the core of 1974's Phases & Stages, which casts the misery of his heroes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell into a fluid mixture of rock, country, blues, and jazz that, buddy Leon Russell notwithstanding, was completely unprecedented. It begins with a spurned spouse ironing lipstick stains out of her husband's shirts, pivots on the deceptively chipper "Bloody Mary Morning," and concludes with Nelson's shrugging resolve to play another show on "Pick Up the Tempo." (That alimony isn't going to pay for itself.) In between, Phases explains in painstaking detail why no woman in her right mind should ever want to marry a musician. Unless, perhaps, she's been seduced by Shotgun Willie, Nelson's seamless 1973 fusion of Bobs Wills and Dylan. Nashville Skyline with a Hill Country accent, Shotgun explores the dusky territory where honky-tonk and Frank Sinatra intersect: "Whiskey River," Wills' "Stay All Night," Russell's haunting "A Song for You." Previously unreleased, the third disc of this minibox was recorded Live at the Texas Opry House, a raucous account of Willie and Family entertaining, as Fort Worth scribe Dan Jenkins once wrote, "from nine 'til overdose." Even after the 329 other albums Nelson has released since, this abbreviated Atlantic repertoire remains the fulcrum of his career. Bountiful outtakes and alternate versions double the lengths of all three CDs with at least two hours of extra Willie, not yet a superstar but already, easily, unmistakably an icon.