Willie Nelson may be the most important figure in country music history; if he’s not, only Hank Williams matters more. Willie’s also one of the most important musical artists in American history, a first-name-only giant like Elvis and Ella. The contours of the career that brought him to those heights are familiar. There was the huge, early-sixties success writing songs like “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” for big country stars, then the failed attempt to become one himself over the rest of the decade, his talents an ill fit for a stiff Nashville mold. There was his earthy rebirth in Austin in the seventies, when he started playing by his own rules and helped invent the outlaw subgenre that made country cool for a younger, rock-bred audience.
He grew that appeal worldwide with the pop mega-stardom that came in the eighties, and then, in the three decades that have followed—right up to today—he’s done pretty much whatever he’s wanted, as often as he’s wanted, which has been extremely often. He’s recorded hard-core country, western swing, gospel, flamenco, full-on orchestra, small-combo jazz, and solo acoustic music. He’s collaborated with everyone from Waylon Jennings to Bob Dylan to Carlos Santana to Mavis Staples to Steven Tyler to Snoop, which is a laughably small sampling of his many duet partners. And through it all, he has made his way by staying true to himself.
It’s a remarkable story, a meaningful inspiration for millions of fans, a great thing to think about when you listen to Red Headed Stranger. But like a bad biopic, the story is oversimplified. For one thing, it creates blind spots. Many fans tend to think that Willie’s early Nashville-sound records aren’t worth a listen because he hadn’t grown his hair out yet. Some people assume that his collaborations with lesser-known artists must be of lesser quality; that his pro-weed songs of the 2010s—“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “It’s All Going to Pot”—must be novelties, that his 2005 reggae album, Countryman, must be a bad idea from beginning to end. So they don’t give those records a chance. Then there’s the matter of the sheer amount of music he’s released. He cut his first tracks in 1954; his latest album, First Rose of Spring, is due in July, and he seldom slowed down in the 66 years in between. A fan might feel justified in thinking that the ten Willie albums they already own are all the Willie they need.
Late last summer, Texas Monthly set out to right the record. Our plan was to listen to, rank, and review every Willie album. The first step alone was a monster; just identifying every album was a massive undertaking. We excluded bootlegs and collections made up exclusively of previously released material—no greatest hits records—and still the number we arrived at was staggering: 143 distinct, proper albums. We also formed the Committee, a group of fourteen knowledgeable fans—including Willie biographer Joe Nick Patoski, noted country historian Rich Kienzle, and songwriters Robert Earl Keen, Jack Ingram, Bruce and Charlie Robison, Monte Warden, and Damon Bramblett—who contributed ranked lists of their favorite records. A byzantine scoring system was devised, and then a smaller group—the writers with bylines below—started assigning points to records. Finally, after months of phone calls, email threads, and one long, often heated summit meeting in January, we arrived at this list.
There were many debates throughout the process, but one bears retelling. When I asked Warden to participate, I used the phrase “worst-to-first” to describe the project. He shot back fast. “Excuse me,” he said, “we don’t use the word ‘worst’ when we talk about Willie.” The line was funny, but it proved true. Think about it: The Beatles built their legacy on a mere thirteen albums, not all of which are beloved. But the Willie album that comes in fourteenth on this list is a lot of people’s favorite. The album that comes in fifty-first is one of mine. Even the hundredth album is pretty darn good. And that’s the list’s big revelation: almost every Willie album has something to recommend it, a song or two, or a story about how it was made, that gives distinct insight into Willie and his art. After all, the only way to really know Willie is to listen to his music. And there’s plenty of it that you haven’t heard yet. –J.S.Read More
David Courtney, Michael Hall, Rich Kienzle, Max Marshall, Joe Nick Patoski, John Spong, Christian Wallace
Damon Bramblett, David Courtney, Michael Hall, Jack Ingram, Robert Earl Keen, Rich Kienzle, Max Marshall, Joe Nick Patoski, John Spong, Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison, Katy Vine, Christian Wallace, Monte Warden
John Spong, Jeff Salamon
Marilyn Bailey, Courtney Bond, Amy Weaver Dorning, Cynthia Rubin, Sarah Rutledge
Amal Ahmed, Jaclyn Colletti, Sierra Juarez, Doyin Oyeniyi
Brett Bowlin, Anna Walsh
Allison Horrell, Emily Kimbro
Tim Biery, Elijah Schow
Max-o-matic photo illustration sources: 1) Rick Diamond/Getty; 2) Willie, Wyclef Jean: George De Sota/Getty; Kid Rock: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect via Getty; 3) Willie: Richard Drew/AP; Bus: Daniel Boczarski/Marshall Headphones via Getty; Eagle: Dominic Marley/Getty; 4) Willie: Taylor Hill/Getty; Nashville: Erwin Widmer/EyeEm via Getty; 5) Sinatra: Mike Lawn/Fox Photos via Getty; Andrew H. Walker/Getty; 6) Willie foreground, Willie & Shirley: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty; 7) Willie as Barbarosa: Dean Williams/Universal Pictures via Photofest; 8) Kristofferson: AP; Willie: David Redfern/Redferns; 9) Django Reinhardt, Willie: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Made with love in Austin, Texas.