NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie in His Own Way

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s not often you get the chance to eavesdrop on the beginnings of a major recording or songwriting career. Now we can do just that with a new collection of recordings that illustrate Willie Nelson ’s first exposures of his own songs.

The new CD Willie Nelson — Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill), due for release on Feb. 11, is a remarkable collection of Willie’s demo recordings of his own songs soon after he arrived alone in Nashville in 1960 in a worn-out old Buick that gave up the ghost once he made it to downtown Nashville. He soon transformed singing gigs at the fabled honky-tonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broadway into a songwriting contract with Pamper Publishing Company. At Pamper, he began cutting crude demo recordings of his songs.

It was long thought that these tapes no longer existed. But decades later, the recordings were found in the vaults of Sony/ATV Tree Music Publishing, which had acquired Pamper’s copyrights. The single ¼-inch reel-to-reel tape was labeled just “Pamper Demos,” and it took much time for workers to discover what was actually there.

To dramatically open this album of hidden gems, the previously unreleased recording of “Opportunity to Cry” is a very revealing window on the early Nelson songwriting mindset. In the intimate tiny Pamper demo room, with just Willie and his acoustic guitar, Nelson tells his sweetheart that “you gave your word and I’ll return it to you” and in the same eerie, dispassionate manner advises her that he isn’t sure whether “if I saw you/would I kiss you/or want to kill you on sight.”

The songs are wry, sardonic and very word-efficient takes on the human condition that songwriters in Nashville had never done in quite that way before. The 15 songs here span many that Nelson fans will recognize. “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” and “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” will be especially remembered from his Teatro album, his “I Gotta Get Drunk” became a live-show Nelson standard, and in particular “The Local Memory” appeared on his later My Own Peculiar Way and Shotgun Willie albums.

Especially listenable here is Nelson’s demo recording of “Crazy” that Patsy Cline heard in 1961 before she recorded her signature version of the Nelson composition that would define her career. Nelson’s is a slow desultory, seductive treatment of the lyrics, with thumping string bass, lilting piano and sinuous steel guitar treatment that foreshadows Cline’s own torchy version of the song that could burn the world down.

As album producer Steve Fishell points out in his liner notes, Nelson was already demonstrating in these primitive demo recordings two of what would be recognized as his most unique traits: his jazz-based, off-the-beat vocal phrasing and his notion of thematic songs that he could link together for concept albums.

These demos are also remarkable for the fact that Pamper hired many first-line studio musicians to accompany Nelson on these sparse sessions, such as the great piano player Hargus “Pig” Robbins and guitarist Ray Edenton and bassist Bob Moore. But most striking on some demos here — most notably on the mournful “Undo the Right” — is the steel guitarist Jimmy Day’s weeping guitar notes that perfectly echo Nelson’s stark emotions.

The never-before-released “I’m Still Here” finishes the album as a classic bar-room shuffle; soon followed by three unheralded “ghost tracks”: the chilling, dead man’s tale “Save Your Tears,” the classic, oft-heard lament “Half a Man,” and the bustling shuffle “Within Your Crowd,” which later reappeared on Country Willie: His Own Songs, Willie’s 1965 RCA album bow.

Nelson has established many legacies in country music. He bridged — or perhaps eliminated, as a better word — a huge gap between social classes of country fans when his early 1970s concerts wedded hippies and rednecks. Songwriters seldom get the chance to also be social engineers. He was the first to write and record credible country concept albums, as with Yesterday’s Wine, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger. He was the first to show that pop music classics could also serve as country music favorites, as he did with his Stardust album. As a major artist on the breakthrough Wanted: The Outlaws album, he showed that Nashville could finally sell platinum albums.

But his most lasting legacy may well yet be the example of the stubborn genius songwriter who proved to the world that he could do it his way. And proved that audiences would eventually come around to his way of thinking, and writing, and singing.

Listen to a new song each day with our Willie Nelson Track-a-day.