(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
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.
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."