Glide Magazine’s, ‘Naked Willie’ Review


Glide Magazine is sponsoring a giveaway of two (2) copies of Willie Nelson’s Naked Willie.  Visit their site to apply:

In the mid-1960s, at the dawn of Willie Nelson’s career as a country music recording artist on his first major label, RCA Records, Nashville’s assembly line studio production system was fast-moving.  It was an efficient machine that fed a never-ending supply of new albums and singles into the radio, jukebox and retail marketplace. 

The production stream kept country music apace of its more dominant city cousin, Top 40, which regularly allowed Nashville hits a hallowed place on the charts.  But the price of Music City’s homogenized country music output took its toll on many an artist, and just as significantly, on the artistry that was pouring out of its most prolific songwriters. 

The dozen or so original studio LPs that Willie recorded for RCA in Nashville between 1965 and 1974 were typical of the ‘Nashville Sound’: great songs – but more often than not, sweetened with lushly orchestrated arrange­ments and backing vocalists that could – and many times did – conflict with the actual mood or message or meaning of the composition itself.  Willie and his longtime sidekick, harmonica player Mickey Raphael wondered what those RCA sides would sound like, if they could retrieve the original multi-track tapes and get back to their unmasked essence, hear them naked.   

Their collaboration goes public with Naked Willie a 17-track collection of songs written and recorded  by an aspiring young songwriter named Willie Nelson for RCA Records in Nashville, between 1966 and 1970.  Naked Willie lays bare his original vision of those songs for the first time, with Willie’s vocals at the core, and bare-bones ‘A-Team’ guitars, piano, bass, and drums mixed as they were originally heard in the studio. 

With liner notes written by CMT’s Chet Flippo, Naked Willie will be available at all physical and digital retail outlets starting March 17th through RCA/Legacy, a division of SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT.

The majority of the songs on Naked Willie originated as tracks on some of the albums he recorded for RCA: 1967’s The Party’s Over And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs (“The Ghost,” “The Party’s Over”); 1969’s My Own Peculiar Way (“I Just Dropped By,” “I Let My Mind Wander,” “The Local Memory”); 1970’s Laying My Burdens Down (“Where Do You Stand?” “When We Live Again,” “Laying My Burdens Down”); and 1971’s Willie Nelson & Family (“What Can You Do To Me Now?” “I’m A Memory,” and his version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”). 

 The other six songs on Naked Willie range from the rare non-LP single “Bring Me Sunshine” (recorded in 1968, one of only three songs on the CD not written by Willie, along with “Johnny One Time” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”) to several tracks that stayed unissued in the vast Willie Nelson archive for decades.  For example, “Jimmy’s Road” (1968) showed up on the infamous The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? released in 1992; while 1968’s “Johnny One Time” and 1970’s “If You Could See What’s Going Through My Mind” appeared on Nashville was the Roughest, the Bear Family box set of 1998.

At the time these original recordings were made,” writes former Rolling Stone editor Flippo, a lifelong chronicler of country music, “Willie didn’t know that this kind of stripped-down personal sound was possible – on a released country record.  Or that it was feasible.  Nor did any other artist in Nashville, circa 1960-1970 or thereabouts.”

1961 is cited as Willie’s breakthrough year – when three of his compositions hit the Country charts and became American standards, “Hello Walls” (by Faron Young), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Billy Walker), and “Crazy” (Patsy Cline).  After two LPs for the independent Liberty label in ’62-’63, Willie was signed by Chet Atkins to RCA Victor, for whom he recorded nearly a dozen original albums, starting in 1965, produced by Chet, Danny Davis, and/or Felton Jarvis.  But as Flippo notes, “Willie has never really talked about the frustrations he felt at having his best songs become hits for others while he himself, as a recording artist, was not being necessarily afforded total – and serious – attention.”  This did not change until Willie’s arrival at Columbia in 1975, when ‘artist approval’ – ‘final cut’ – was actually written into his contract for the first time.  His landmark self-produced Red Headed Stranger was the result. 

Raphael has said that he ‘un-produced’ NAKED WILLIE, an expression that is bound for wider usage.  In contrast to the Beatles’ Let It Be…Naked (2003) which stripped that classic LP back to its essential tracks in a similar way, NAKED WILLIE explores a range of tracks recorded over the course of nearly five years, released on several LPs during that period (or shelved for years afterward).   

In many cases, the comparison of original tracks to the NAKED WILLIE version is revelatory.  As Flippo writes, “One of Nelson’s most important songs, ‘The Party’s Over,’ in its first incarnation is cloaked by heavy strings and a chorus.  The song’s inherent sense of tragedy is masked.  On ‘Following Me Around,’ Willie’s vocal on the original is literally chased around by a perky and persistent trumpet.  How much more distracting could it be?  Try listening through the huge background chorus and unwieldy the arrangement that attempts to reduce ‘Laying My Burdens Down’ to a wacky musical comedy romp.”

By the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s, artists of Willie’s caliber and temperament were beginning to stream into Nashville – coinciding with rock and folk’s “singer-songwriter” explosion at Top 40.  Many of them held kinship to country music and were flooding into Nashville to record there.  The studios had backed themselves into a corner, however, and were hard-pressed to change the system, which is still going strong today, albeit with some adjustments.

“Recording on Music Row meant assembly line recording,” Flippo notes. “Three three-hour sessions a day, maybe four, and out the door.”  Nevertheless, Willie was in great company: “the A-Team all the way,” says Flippo: “Stellar pickers such as Grady Martin and Chip Young and Jerry Reed on guitar, Roy Huskey Jr. or Norbert Putnam on bass, Buddy Harman or Jerry Carrigan drumming, David Briggs or Pig Robbins on piano,  Jimmy Day or Buddy Emmons on steel guitar.”  NAKED WILLIE, is every way, also serves as a tribute to their talents and versatility.

There are many chapters in Willie Nelson’s life and times: his formative years in the 1950s as a U.S. serviceman, radio dj, and fledgling songwriter and recording artist in Texas and Washington state; his move to Nashville with his family in 1960; his RCA years from 1965 to 1972; his historic 18-year association with Columbia, starting with Red Headed Stranger in 1975; and his adventures through the 1990s and ’00s leading full circle to his 75th birthday celebration in 2008.  That event was celebrated in 2008 with the release of One Hell Of A Ride (Columbia/Legacy), the 100-song, 4-CD box set that encompassed his career on a dozen different record labels from 1954 to 2007.

NAKED WILLIE – several of whose songs he has begun performing again in concert over the past few years – opens up a new chapter for this legendary character, as it revisits his early days in a whole new light.  As Flippo sums up, “This is, finally, Willie Nelson on his own terms.  The songs just as the way they (and he) came into this world.  Naked.” 

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