NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie’s Outlaw Roots Shown in Retrospective

Three-CD Boxed Set Collects His Atlantic Recordings After Leaving Nashville

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

A stellar early summer release will focus attention on Willie Nelson’s career development and in particular will trace his Outlaw roots. Willie Nelson: The Complete Atlantic Sessions, due June 20, is a three-CD set including his two Atlantic Records studio albums and a live Austin concert recording that has never seen a proper release. All have been remastered, and there are more than two dozen bonus tracks added.

Apart from the two studio albums, some of this material has been previously released, in a rather haphazard fashion on the QVC network in 1994, in a three-CD boxed set titled Willie Nelson: Classic & Unreleased Collection. It was offered in retail stores the following year. This time, Nelson’s Atlantic recordings are presented in a more organized format and are getting a proper treatment.

In the early 1970s, both Nelson and his running buddy Waylon Jennings, in their days before their epochal 1976 Wanted: the Outlaws project, were chafing under their contracts with RCA Nashville. Both of them had begun recording with RCA in 1965 after being frustrated at other labels (Jennings at A&M and Nelson on Liberty). But both had uneven work on RCA, primarily due to staff producers trying to force them into unfamiliar styles, and both were reaching dead ends by the very early 1970s. Nelson had found some success as a songwriter, with the likes of Patsy Cline and Faron Young having big hits with such songs as “Crazy” and “Hello Walls,” but his solo recording career was fizzling. Nashville did not know what to do with this young Texan who sang off the beat. And Jennings was proving troublesome for RCA’s assembly-line recording style.

Jerry Wexler, the legendary veteran record executive who had signed and produced the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield and the Drifters for Atlantic Records in New York, had had his eyes and ears on Nelson for some time. He was also planning to launch an Atlantic Records division in Nashville. When he heard that Nelson was available after his final RCA album, The Willie Way in 1972, he signed him and flew him to New York to Atlantic’s storied recording studio on Broadway.

The result of that first recording session was Shotgun Willie, an album that pointed Willie in the direction of his second Atlantic album, a brilliant concept work about a failing relationship told first from the man’s and then from the woman’s point of view. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., it was titled Phases and Stages, and it sounds as timeless today as when it was recorded. But Shotgun Willie was also some damn fine music. I went to those New York recording sessions and, in watching Wexler and Willie work together, I witnessed what I would later recognize as Wexler teaching Willie that he could largely control his own music destiny — that it was in his power to do so if he would dare try to do it. Willie’s Outlaw movement, as far as I could tell, began in that New York studio when Wexler completed Willie’s musical training. It was something he would never have heard in a Nashville studio.

Wexler was a wise producer. I’ve been to many of his recording sessions and never saw him lay a finger on a mixing board. That was for the engineers, and he had the best in people like Tom Dowd. What Wexler did was coach great music out of great artists. He put artists together with the right musicians in a comfortable setting, talked with them about what they should do and then let them do it. Sometimes he would ask them to do it again and might suggest rethinking an element or two. But he was always encouraging, never discouraging. And it worked.

After cutting those two albums, Wexler recorded Willie playing live in a raucous ballroom in downtown Austin called the Texas Opry House. I also went to those concerts, and they remain probably the highlights of any Willie concert I have ever seen. The audience was raw and eager for whatever Willie could throw at them, and he did just that. He was at the absolute height of his powers and clearly savored his newfound sense of freedom, and he threw down song after song with defiance and total confidence.

The audience was a colorful mosaic of Texas culture at the time: famed University of Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal, rich oilmen, Texas banking millionaires, hippies, socialites, real cowboys, Dallas Cowboys and UT Longhorns football players, beauty queens, the elite of Austin’s peyote and weed dealers, UT professors and politicians of all stripes. It was a tough ticket and was definitely the hip social event of the year. Willie was the toast of all Austin — and Texas, for that matter.

Atlantic, which had been bought several years earlier by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, pulled the corporate plug on Atlantic Nashville for commercial reasons, so the live Texas Opry House album was not released. Wexler’s Atlantic Nashville legacy remains two great Willie albums and two equally fine Doug Sahm albums, Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado. That’s four albums of wonderful music that anyone could be very proud of.

Building on his lessons learned from Wexler, Nelson next signed with Columbia Records and went off on his own to record his career-defining — and decidedly unconventional — concept album, Red Headed Stranger, which also yielded his first No. 1 single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”