Willie Nelson is a living legend, he turned 80 this week, and has consistently been releasing new studio albums since the 1960s. Willie is undeniably one of country’s finest singers, songwriters and instrumentalists. He wrote the Patsy Cline hit Crazy, if you need any persuading, and was also a member of the country music supergroup The Highwaymen. Even his guitar, Trigger, is famous. He has also been outspoken about various controversial topics, most notably on his stance on the legalisation of marijuana, and recently his views on gay marriage- Willie wouldn’t be Willie without songs such as Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, or his cover of Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other.
So with all that in mind, here’s a list of a Willie albums from each decade, that have made an impact on the music world, for one reason or another.
1965 – Country Willie – His Own Songs
This was Willies first album after signing to RCA (he had previously released two albums on Liberty Records), and it’s produced by Chet Atkins. So even without Willie, it’s promising. But we get the man himself, introducing us to some of our most loved Willie Nelson songs, including Funny How Time Slips Away and Hello Walls. Willie clearly wasn’t holding back on his songwriting talent. It’s worth noting that by the time this album was released, Crazy, as sung by Patsy Cline, had already been a radio hit, peaking at number two on the country charts in 1962.
1975 – Red Headed Stranger
Willie had complete creative control over this album. His record label, which, at this point, was Columbia, were dubious about the album, due to the simplistic production of the album, but full creative control was in Willies contract- he is an intelligent man. This was a concept album, following the story of a fugitive on the run after killing both his wife and lover. It contains both original music, and covers, telling a story through the songs, in the order that Nelson intended on the album, but the songs have the musical integrity to stand alone as singles. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain appeared on this album, and was Willies first number one hit. This was the album that sprang Willies career to the next level; a film of the same name was released in 1986, and the album itself was reissued in 2000.
1985 – Highwayman
By the 1985 Willie was a bonafide country superstar. This album is not just Willie Nelson, however, he is accompanied by Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. It wasn’t until after the Albums release that the group became known as the highwaymen. Four of the biggest stars in country music came together to record an album of great songs, taking turns to share the limelight. The Highwayman and Desperados Waiting For A Train, are probably the most well known tracks, but check out Committed to Parkview, a Cash/Nelson duet.
1992 – The IRS Tapes- Who’ll Buy My Memories
In the early 90s Willie Nelson ran into trouble with the IRS. He owed them 16million dollars, and to pay them back, he released this album. It was a two CD disc set of Willie Nelson hits recorded without his band. It earned 3.6 million dollars for the IRS, but they requested 9 million dollars more. Willie ended up selling and auctioning many of his assets, but family, friends and fans bought Willies possessions, and many loaned or rented the items to Willie. This may not be Willies best album (that is not to say that it is not a great compilation), but it is probably the most important album released by Willie in the 90s.
2006 – You Don’t Know Me- The Songs of Cindy Walker
Willie Nelson is renowned as one of Nashville’s best writers, but he has never shied away from covers, or paying homage to his favourite writers. Distant Drums and You Don’t Know Me are two of Cindy Walkers most famous songs. She was a female songwriting pioneer, making a name for herself in the 40s and 50s, and when she passed away in 2006, Willie recorded this touching tribute, showcasing Cindy Walkers finest songs, and bringing them to a new audience.
2013 – Let’s Face The Music And Dance
80 years of age, and still recording albums. Nelson’s latest release brings us covers of rock, country and jazz standards. Nelson plays with his sister, Bobbie, who has been present throughout his career, and these are songs they played together over the years. It is an album that allows us to focus on Willies vocals and guitar skills. It is easy to forget, when wrapped up in Nelson’s lyrics, how great a guitarist and vocalist he is. And that is what shines when listening to this master of music play songs that are familiar to everyone.
Through these albums we can follow the trajectory of Willies Career; we can follow his highs and lows, with unwavering support from his fans. He has already started work on a new project, featuring a duet with Miranda Lambert . Willie Nelson is an important artist for music in its entirety, not just country music. I hope he’s around for long to come, for Willie can show us all how music is supposed to be done.