Blue Skies over Willie

He's easy to take for granted, the weird-voiced singer named Willie Nelson. He's been at it for so long it's hard to imagine a time when there wasn't a Willie Nelson around, writing some of country music's most enduring classics, revolutionizing the artistic and commercial possibilities of honky-tonk, forging a guitar style that's as singular as his pinched, quavering vocals. Somehow, sometime along the way, he became a legend of the oddest kind, pursuing a vision that is among the most unique in the vast lexicon of popular music, doing whatever he damn well pleased: concept albums and collections of white-bread standards, duets with country greats who had been all but forgotten by the Nashville music industry, tributes to songwriting buddies and honky-tonk heroes, Christmas songs and gospel classics, experiments with Latin and reggae rhythms, excursions with rock-producer hotshots, acoustic solo albums, and stylistic homages to jazz pioneers.

No matter what he does, it all comes out sounding like nothing but Willie, a nonchalant genius whose brilliance and importance rank with that of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. He's forever altered the sound and style of country and western, writing some of the songs that will forever help define the genre: "Crazy," "Hello Walls," "Nite Time," "Funny How Time Slips Away." His writing pinpointed the tragedy of love gone bad and celebrated the joys of romantic bliss. He could be eternally black or overwhelmingly joyous. His songs were packed with detail, yet decidedly Spartan, their artistry unfolding quietly, gracefully. They've been recorded by some of country's hallmark vocalists (including Faron Young, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, and his long-time friends Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard), yet they're best heard when presented by the composer, especially in concert, where the full scope of Nelson's eclectic artistry becomes apparent as he digs deeply into his vast catalogue.

Nelson (who was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas) began amassing that catalogue in 1957, when he made his debut recording via an obscure, self-released single issued while he was working as a disc jockey in Washington State. He soon relocated back to Texas, this time to Houston, and fell in with the noted producer Harold "Pappy" Daily, the man behind George Jones's classic Fifties sides. But after his first single for Daily's D label, Nelson's rebel streak was already apparent: When Pappy refused to issue Nelson's "Nite Life," dubbing it too bluesy, the singer financed a recording session and issued it on his own RX label in 1959. It stiffed, and the next year Nelson took off to Nashville, where he picked up some session work and cut a few demos, all the while pitching his songs to the hierarchy of Music City.

His voice was considered too strange to catch the ear of local producers, yet he somehow landed a contract with Liberty Records, for whom he cut a few marginally successful singles. His songs, however, established him as one of the city's sharpest and successful young writers. In the early Sixties, he netted hits through Faron Young ("Hello Walls"), Patsy Cline ("Crazy"), Billy Walker ("Funny How Time Slips Away"), and Ray Price ("Nite Life"), but continued to struggle in the studio. Liberty dropped him, and in 1964 Nelson was signed to RCA. He scored a few hits for the label, but his frustration with the Nashville establishment that was confounded by this unattractive, short singer with the screwy voice continued to grow. He left Nashville for good in 1971, just before the release of his last album for RCA, Yesterday's Wine, recorded in his new hometown of Austin, Texas.

An artistic harbinger, Yesterday's Wine strings together a collection of songs, many of them tinged with gospel. The stand-out track, "Me and Paul," chronicles the disappointing exploits in Nashville with Nelson's drummer and sidekick, Paul English. Bitter, biting, and smeared with melancholy and sadness, it is arguably his first genuinely great recording. He cut a pair of albums in the mid-Seventies for Atlantic: the half-baked Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, a stunning concept album about divorce with the sides divided evenly, telling the tale from both the male and female perspective. Nelson writes masterfully from either side of the gender fence.

Nelson's breakthrough arrived in 1975 with another concept album, one that would shake the groundwork of country and western and forever alter the way the music was conceived and marketed. Red Headed Stranger, his maiden effort for Epic Records, offered a somewhat murky travelogue of a murderous preacher, with production so sparse Nelson's new label execs thought the songs were mere demos. Thanks to a hit single with Roy Acuff's Forties classic "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and crossover exposure through his annual Fourth of July picnics held since 1972 in Dripping Springs, Texas, Stranger was a resounding commercial success, selling more than 500,000 copies and ushering in a wave of progressive, or outlaw, country. It also provided Nelson the freedom to call every shot.

And, for better or worse, that's what he's been doing for the past twentysomething years. His muse has led him down some treacherous paths, from good to dull albums with his honky-tonk cohorts to bathetic duets with the likes of Julio Iglesias and great ones with Bob Dylan. He's appeared in numerous films, busied himself in the mid-Eighties with the annual FarmAid benefit festival, and landed in scalding water with the IRS in 1991 following an investigation of back taxes. He bounced around for a while from label to label, spending a couple of years with the Houston-based indie Justice and banging out a one-off collection of oldie remakes for the 1994 Liberty disc Healing Hands of Time. And true to one of his best-known songs, he's stayed on the road through it all, playing blues festivals, casinos, and jumbo arenas, redeeming his lesser albums with concerts packed with passion, intensity, and loads of loose-limbed fun.

Surprise has always been at the heart of his finest work, however, and his greatest albums in the Nineties have come completely from left field. Following those IRS woes, Nelson released Who'll Buy My Memories, a double-album set of solo performances designed solely to repay some of the $17 million he owed Uncle Sam. What should've been a piece of hack work actually was an intimate, inspired masterpiece that eclipsed everything he had done since Red Headed Stranger. Upon an out-of-nowhere 1996 signing with Island (the label best known for Bob Marley and U2), Nelson delivered Spirit, a spectacular collection of stark ballads that spotlighted the piano work of his sister Bobbie Nelson and his still-astonishing gut-string guitar work. And in 1998 Nelson threw out yet another curve ball: Teatro, a remarkable assemblage of old and new originals recorded with country songbird Emmylou Harris and Cuban percussionists Victor Indrizzo and Tony Mangurian. Eclectic, exotic, imbued with heartache and romance, it sounds like nothing but Willie.