Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., April 4, 2008
Willie NelsonOne Hell of a Ride (Columbia/Legacy)
That this 4-CD box set is the first to survey Willie Nelson's entire career is surprising but also testament to the Austin legend's prolific songwriting, as his 75th birthday approaches. Even with One Hell of a Ride's 100 selections, Nelson's catalog is so thick with hits that there are few surprises, nearly all tracks culled from previously released albums, including requisite live staples "Whiskey River" and "Stay a Little Longer." Yet bookended by "When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song," a scratchy mid-1950s demo of Nelson's first recording, and a new version of the tune produced at his own Pedernales Recording Studio last year, Ride arcs the songwriter's development while revealing the constancy of his eclectic, maverick vision. Disc one mines gold, recovering the self-released 1957 single "No Place for Me" and Nelson's versions of earliest hits like "Hello Walls," "Crazy," and an exquisitely jazzy "Nite Life." His voice, young and rich, blooms into his distinctively sweet tenor even as Nashville's saccharine 1960s production grapples with the songs' versatilities. Disc two rides the progressive-country boom of Shotgun Willie, The Troublemaker, and Red Headed Stranger to the lush pop turn of 1978's Stardust, while unearthing gems like dark fugitive ballad "Blackjack County Chain" and a sparse live take of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." Mickey Raphael's chugging harmonica saves the cover of "Midnight Rider," sister Bobbie's piano sparkles on soft instrumental "Nuages," and Hank Snow duet "I'm Movin' On" proves the best of usual suspects pairings. Recent representation is predictably spotty (though thankfully forgoing chart-topping Toby Keith duet "Beer for My Horses"), but as constant Nelson chronicler Joe Nick Patoski notes in his impressively extensive notes, Nelson admits to several thousand more unreleased songs recorded at Pedernales, so this Ride is far from over.