by Michael Bane
In New York, there was $25,000 waiting for Willie to sign with the legendary Atlantic Records, which had never signed a country artist before. Atlantic’s vice president, Jerry Wexler, wanted to expand the label into country music.
Atlantic started out in the late 1940’s as a jazz label, quickly expanding into rhythm and blues. The record label quickly came to dominate the rock market in the years after rockabilly and before the Beatles with groups like the Coasters and the Drifters. In the 1960’s Atlantic surged back into the limelight with the rise of soul music. As one of the heads of Atlantic, Wexler had an uncanny ear, the ability to sense the drifts in popular music before they were apparent to everyone. Wexler had long been fascinated with Southern music and had engineered Atlantic’s biggest successes, including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.
In the early 1970’s, Wexler’s sensitive antennae began hearing a sound in Nashville that Wexler felt could be the Next Big Thing. Wexler himself was familiar with the work – both the singing and the songwriting – of one Willie Nelson, but he’d never seen him perform until late 1971.
“I went to a party in Nashville after some banquet or other,” Wexler remembers. “All these big country stars were there, passing the guitar around, of course, all of them playing a couple of songs. Then Willie got up, ice cold and unknown, and took over. In that setting, it was the most remarkable think I’d ever seen.”
Afterwards, Wexler stayed to introduce himself to Willie. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time,” the record executive said.
“Hey,” Willie replied, smiling, “have I been looking for you for a long time.”
Wexler correctly perceived that all Willie Nelson needed was a studio and a little time, which Atlantic Records was quick to provide in New York City. Wexler also told Willie that he could have any musicians he wanted on the album.
Willie asked for his band: Bobbie “Bee” Spears, Paul English and Jimmy Day. He also opened the studio up to anybody who might want to drop in. That particular list grew to tremendous proportions and included Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Larry Gatlin, Johnny Gimble (Bob Will’s fiddle player), Texas rocker Doug Sahm and a slew of other people.
The session was launched in the best rock-and-roll tradition – throw a bunch of musicians together in a room, close the door and come back in a week or so, and pick up the tapes. Willie Nelson hit the Atlantic studios “like a dog released from its kennel for the first time in weeks,” wrote Jan Reid in The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, “spinning off in all directions because of the pent-up energy.”
Just to get a feel for things, Willie knocked off a whole gospel album in two days. The album was released as The Troublemaker in 1976. It refined the style Willie had used in Yesterday’s Wine, simple, nothing flashy. Larry Gatlin, Sammi Smith, Dee Moeller and Doug Sahm sang back-up; Gatlin also joined the band for the simple instrumentals.
With the gospel album in the can, Willie started into a second album. The sessions were going very well, but Willie still needed a song to peg the album on; not necessarily a concept, but a song to define the feeling of freedom that was blooming in the New York studios. Sitting in the bathroom of the Holiday Inn, he grabbed a pencil and wrote the lyrics to “Shotgun Willie.”
Yesterday’s Wine represented an artistic statement, but Shotgun Willie was the breakthrough album Willie had been looking for. It captured some of the feel of those Texas dancehalls, some of the sense of the many kinds of music Willie Nelson represented. In fact, with Shotgun Willie, Willie Nelson laid down the template for the rest of his life.
With beer in hand, he and the band cut Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” the song Willie still uses to open most of his shows. They did Willie’s own “The Devil Shivers in His Sleeping Bab,” another ode to Paul English and the road, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and “Local Memory.” Nor could Willie neglect the music of his idol; from Bob Wills’ heyday he recorded “Stay All Night” and “Bubbles in My Beer.”
Willie also recorded two songs by a man who was, at the time, a major rock-and-roll star. Willie recorded “Look Like the Devil” and “A Song For You” by Leon Russell, the high-rolling Tulsa sideman who had captivated rock with his electrifying performance in the movie Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Russell had played on Willie’s second Liberty Album, but it wasn’t until Willie heard a copy of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen soundtrack his daughter had that he really became interested in meeting the long-haired Russell.
Willie went to a Leon Russell concert in Houston, then arranged to meet him. As soon as they met, Leon Russell, idol to a million young fans, announced to Willie that his favorite song was “Family Bible.” The result? Two Leon Russell songs on Shotgun Willie.
Shotgun Willie, all thirty-three cuts, was finished in one week, a record of sorts for Atlantic Records. Willie Nelson went back to Austin to kick ass. The album outsold anything he had done in Nashville, and he quickly began work on a second Atlantic album titled Phases and Stages a concept album