Willie Nelson

One Hell of a Ride – 2008 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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For many artists, compiling a four-CD retrospective would likely involve desperate scraping of the barrel's lower insides. But with the always productive Willie Nelson, this latest compilation barely even scratches the surface. These diverse 100 songs stretch from 1954 to the present day and nicely showcase Nelson's various musical personalities.

Willie Nelson was first known as a songwriter, especially coming to prominence when Patsy Cline recorded his composition, "Crazy." Nelson's own version of "Crazy" is included on disc one, as is "Funny How Time Slips Away." Both songs became country standards.

Although Nelson's songwriting talents never left him, at least not for long, it wasn't until he became associated with country's burgeoning outlaw movement that his unique persona became as recognizable as his tunes. When Nelson hooked up with Waylon Jennings, for a duo commonly known as Waylon & Willie, he helped put a tough face to one of country music's most innovative movements. This phase is best represented by W&W's "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" which, while not an original Nelson composition, is a rallying cry both real cowboys and cowboy wannabes. Hard partying fans loved Nelson's wild ways, yet the artist always knew there were consequences to his outlandish actions. When he admits during "Me And Paul" that he doesn't know if the made it on stage or not after much whiskey consumption, you get the feeling this wasn't any isolated incident. Adverse consequences are also considered during "Good Hearted Woman," a song he co-wrote and sang with Jennings, where a well-behaved wife is contrasted with her high living husband. She loves him in spite of his ways that she won't ever understand.

Nelson's extensive work with Jennings underscores one of his career trademarks - the always willing duet partner. And many of Nelson's most familiar duets are spread throughout this compilation. He sings "Crazy Arms" with Ray Price and croons "Seven Spanish Angels" with Ray Charles. But Nelson and Merle Haggard's reading of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" is probably his best duet ever. As fine an artist as Van Zandt's own version is, this recording is likely the definitive take on it. Willie and The Hag sing it like wise old observers who recognize the nuance in this story song.

Despite its abundant material, there are few rarities here. It begins with "When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song," Nelson's first record, and ends with a new recording of that debut track. The rest is previously released material, although the release contains a 100-page booklet including a commentary from Joe Nick Patoski. Willie Nelson's life has been one hell of a ride, and this retrospective is one heavenly sampling of his recorded output.