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Willie Nelson

Essential – 2003 (Columbia/Legacy)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

Waylon Jennings may be recognized for having first bucked the Nashville system, but Willie Nelson proved himself the true iconoclast. Both of these venerable outlaws shook off the chains of the country music industry to create brilliant musical legacies, but as this 41-track collection so aptly shows, Nelson's run was even more idiosyncratic than his compadre's. Nelson's music and lifestyle merged into a single entity, with his touring providing the grist of a troubadour's life.

In celebration of Nelson's 70th birthday, Columbia has gathered 2 full CDs from over 40 years and 9 different labels, and spiced it with a pair of bonus tracks - a rare B-side recorded with Irish rock band, U2, and a previously unreleased duet with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. The set opens with Nelson's first single, on the Bellaire label, "Night Life," and closes with his Grammy winning duet with Lee Ann Womack, "Mendocino County Line."

In between are samplings from his liaisons with RCA, Atlantic, Island, Lost Highway and over 2 dozen tracks from his years at Columbia, including a staggering 17 number 1 singles.

In addition to his solo work, Nelson's regular collaborators, Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson are all represented, as are one-time partners like Leon Russell, Ray Charles and Julio Iglesias. Throughout this collection one can hear Nelson's distinctive vocal phrasing (e.g, Nelson's recording of "Georgia on My Mind" is equally as memorable as Ray Charles' iconic rendition) and unique acoustic guitar, in service of his legendary compositions.

As Nelson broke free of the Nashville orthodoxy, his work focussed more on albums than singles, and his post-RCA albums (e.g., "Phases & Stages," "Red Headed Stranger," etc.), though well represented here, are necessarily shortchanged by the anthology form. Still, this is a nicely picked collection whose chronological sequencing plays surprisingly well, given the range of sources from which the tracks were pulled. As an overview, this provides the listener an invitation to explore Nelson's album catalog more deeply, aided by reissues forthcoming this spring and summer.

Some of the space that might have fleshed out Nelson's important albums is taken up with seemingly inconsequential tracks (e.g., neither bonus track, nor his duet with Lee Ann Womack, could really be labeled "essential"). Nelson's very first single, ("Lumberjack" b/w "No Place for Me?" recorded as an independent release) would have made a more spectacular bonus. Nits aside, however, this is a very good introduction to one of country music's most talented and original artists.