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Willie Nelson

Country Willie - His Own Songs – 1999 (Buddha)

Reviewed by Dan Williams

Willie Nelson has presided as elder outlaw statesman for so long that it's easy to forget that he was once just another struggling Nashville hopeful. This album - his first for RCA in 1965 - shows him staking a claim a decade before mass success had crossed the radar.

At the time of these sessions, Nelson had earned notoriety for some minor records on the Liberty label and as author of hits for Ray Price and Patsy Cline, among others. Producer Chet Atkins assembled a band (including stalwarts Jerry Reed and Pete Drake) that nicely frames a strong set of material. Call it embryonic Willie.

These are (mostly) songs familiar to any longtime fan: the longing of "Hello Walls" and "Funny How Time Slips Away;" the spare elegance of "Healing Hands Of Time." "Darkness On The Face Of The Earth" (re-recorded on last year's "Teatro") sparkles in a stripped-down arrangement, as does a smoldering take on the ageless "Night Life."

Then, as now, Willie's idiosyncratic phrasing proved anethema to the Music Row combine, and the real breakout move didn't arrive until 1975's "Red Headed Stranger," on another label. Despite clocking in at a scant 28:53, "Country Willie" shows an emerging performer with his songwriting chops firmly in place.