Naked Willie

photo credit:  Ben Noey, Jr.
by Preston Jones

It’s the early Willie Nelson albums — 1967’s Make Way for Willie Nelson or 1969’s Good Times — that first grabbed Mickey Raphael, well before the Dallas native began playing harmonica with Nelson in the mid-1970s.

“I’ve always been a fan of these songs and this era,” Raphael said. “I love these tunes; these were the first recordings that I really ever heard of Willie. Not being into country music at all when I first discovered him, these songs have just kind of embedded in my mind.”

Nearly four decades later, Raphael revisited these seminal cuts for the fascinating Naked Willie, a 17-track collection in stores Tuesday. The album takes the classic Nashville sound — syrupy strings, walls of background vocals — and strips it away, often leaving little more than Nelson’s limber voice, an acoustic guitar and other minimal instrumentation. The concept feels in line with Nelson’s recent string of albums, like last year’s Moment of Forever, that are decidedly light on ornamentation.

The effect can be downright haunting on Naked Willie Jimmy’s Road, from 1992’s The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, is a stark slow-burn — and occasionally jazzy (the 1968 single Bring Me Sunshine). But Raphael, who claims an “un-produced by” credit on the album, said the impetus for the archival project stemmed from advice that’s been “drummed into his mind.”

“Willie, being with him for 35 years, he’s always stressed musically, when we’d go in the studio, less is more,” Raphael said. “Keep it simple — it’s the space between the notes, you don’t have to overplay.”

Nelson was open to the idea of revisiting and slightly remodeling his vintage Chet Atkins- and Felton Jarvis-produced material, which involved securing the multitrack masters, painstakingly peeling back the layers and making sure that he didn’t obscure anything lyrically.

“To hear this stuff now, it’s kind of a cool Willie record,” Raphael said. “If you go back and find the original, you can see what they did to the original track and see how they were making records in the ’60s with that whole style.”

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic. 817-390-7713

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