In 1960 a broke Willie Nelson left a steady gig at Houston's Esquire Club for Nashville. Despite finding instant success as a hit songwriter for premier Nashville talents like Faron Young, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, and Billy Walker, a frustrated Nelson returned to Texas in 1973 having recorded fourteen albums for three labels without achieving commercial success. Shortly after his arrival back on native soil, Nelson played his legendary gig at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters and began a country-music revolution now referred to as the Outlaw Movement.
Selected from Nelson's 1961-66 demonstration recordings made as a staff songwriter for Ray Price's Pamper Music, Crazy: The Demo Sessions is some of the most damaging evidence ever of the closed-minded blunders of the Nashville cultural gatekeepers, smoking-gun proof that Nelson instinctively understood more about honky-tonks and what country music could be than Music City's producers and money men did. Compare these extraordinary raw performances with major-label efforts to record Willie as a countrypolitan act, and the falseness of that vision is as obvious as the spot on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.
While half the tracks are solos, Nelson is backed on others by a crack studio ensemble featuring steel guitar gods Jimmie Day ("We brought out each other's bluesy side," Nelson has said) and Buddy Emmons, the budding talents of consummate session pianist Harold "Pig" Robbins, A-list session guitarist Pete Wade, and members of Price's Cherokee Cowboys. In either format, Nelson's realistic lyrics, jazzy progressions, trademark unorthodox phrasings, and conversational vocal style cut across the years to show how sophisticated and well-developed Nelson was even in this earliest period. His Sinatra and Tin Pan Alley influences are already clearly evident.
Not only do these one-take session recordings reveal the talents and traits that would be "discovered" during the Outlaw Movement period, they also remind us of what a songwriting genius Nelson was even before he was widely recognized as a performer. Filled with unusual depth and nuance, songs like the huge Patsy Cline hit "Crazy" ("the most-played song in jukebox history"), "Permanently Lonely," "Are You Sure" (which was on Price's 1962 classic Night Life), "What Do You Think of Her Now," "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," "The Local Memory," "I Gotta Get Drunk," and "Opportunity to Cry" vividly illustrate Nelson's incredible comprehension of the idiom and the breadth of his songwriting vocabulary. The album also offers our first glimpse at "I'm Still Here," a previously unreleased song and recording that sounds like another early Nelson classic.
Discovered on reel-to-reel in Sony's vaults in 1994 and recently restored by Buddy Miller, Crazy: The Demo Sessions should stand with Red Headed Stranger, Phases and Stages, and the early Live at Panther Hall as Nelson's masterworks.
Get the Music Newsletter