Nashville was the Roughest

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From “Nashville Was the Roughest”
Boxed Set by Bear Family
by Rich Kienzle

Amid the dozens of country singers with distinct vocal styles whose rhythms hit precisely on the beat, Willie stood out. Some, on first hearing him, felt he sang ‘funny’, and weren’t being complimentary. By Nashville standards of the time, his style was unorthodox. His penchant for different lyrics and syllables at different lengths, singing around the beat, was no big deal in pop music. This creative technique was the basis of Frank Sinatra’s style. Given Nelson’s lifelong admiration of Sinatra, his use of it wasn’t surprising. Nor was it unusual among Texas honytonkers, Floyd Tillman and Lefty Frizzell sang similarly (Lefty influenced by Tillman, Willie by both of them). Another vocalist followed a very similar path: Western swing vocalist-fiddler Wade Ray. He, too, would phrase by holding a specific syllable or a word, occasionally ending a note as he sang for emphasis. It made good lyrics even more expressive in the hands of the right vocalist. Ray, admittedly influenced by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and other Jazz singers, explained Willie’s singing in 1963 saying, “I’ve heard musicians say Willie sang out of meter. He did not sing out of meter. He phrased. He sang in front of the beat, behind the beat and just came out at the end.”

That was pop music, and Texas music.  Nashville didn’t see things that liberally, and right of the bat, Willie’s unorthodox vocal phrasing caused problems.  Frizzell was a star, albeit one no longer on top of the heap – (his hit single Saginaw Michigan would restore his luster in 1964).  1961 Nashville wasn’t ready for radically different singing styles. The ‘Nashville Sound’ was meant for singers who sang on the beat.

Hank Cochran, whose own career was taking off (he wrote Patsy’s I Fall to Pieces), played Liberty Records producer Joe Allison a tape of Willie’s demo recordings. Impressed, Allison signed Nelson to Liberty in the fall of 1961 and began recording him that September. The problem of phrasing materialized at that first session, when even the most versatile Nashville studio musicians found it hard to follow him. Accustomed to listening closely to the singers they accompanied, they had to tune out his voice and focus only on their playing.  At that session, he and Shirley Collie, wife of Country disc jockey Biff Collie, sang a duet on Willingly that flew into ‘Billboard’s’ country Top Ten.    As relations between Willie and wife Martha, always touchy, deteriorated in a flurry of violent fights, drinking sprees and mutual infidelity, he took up with Shirley, a veteran performer who toured with Willie and played bass in his band.

Late in 1961, Billy Walker took Willie’s song Funny How Time Slips Away into the Top Thirty, Jimmy Elledge’s late 1961 pop version of the song demonstrated the appeal Willie’s songs had beyond country.  His own first solo hit, Touch Me, came in the spring of ’62, peaking at #7 on Billboard’s country charts.  Liberty released his second solo hit, Touch Me, came in the spring of ’62, peaking at #7 on Billboard’s country charts.  Liberty also issued his debut LP ‘…And Then I Wrote’, that year.  He recorded half in Nashville, half in Los Angeles.  A year later, in 1963, Liberty released his second and final LP for the label, ‘Here’s Willie Nelson’ with liner notes by Willie’s idol Bob Wills.  That year, Ray Price’s chilling version of Night Life reached the top Twenty.

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