Willie Nelson | Naked Willie (RCA/Legacy Media)

cd_naked-willie.jpgAll the tracks sound great, and they present a nice variety of material.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know about you, but when I put a Willie Nelson CD into the boom box, I want to hear Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, many of his albums don’t make that easy, because they were released with the standard Nashville production package which included heavy "sweetening" by way of backing vocals and string-heavy orchestrations. That changed in 1975, when Nelson was able to demand artist approval of the final cut into his contracts, but for his earlier work, up until now you’ve just had to listen through all the extraneous production material.

Fortunately, through the magic of technology, the extra orchestrations and vocals can be removed electronically from recordings. That’s the idea behind Naked Willie, a new collection from RCA/Legacy which presents 17 Nelson songs released between 1966 and 1970, with the sweetening removed so his voice is backed only by guitar, piano, bass and drums, as originally mixed in the studio (on a few cuts do include additional instruments, including vibes on "Let My Mind Wander" and organ on "What Can You Do To Me Now?". The songs were "un-produced" from the original master tapes by Mickey Raphael (a harmonica player who played with Nelson and many other musicians, from Emmylou Harris to Elton John), engineered by Tony Castle, and mastered by Eric Conn and Don Cobb.

All the tracks sound great, and they present a nice variety of material, although perhaps pitched a bit toward the mournful. On the other hand, this is country music, and how many truly great songs have been written about romances which worked out, servicemen who returned from the war unscathed, or the joys of clean living?

OK, "Bring Me Sunshine" is one, and "Laying My Burden Down" qualifies as upbeat as well; both are included on this album. On the mournful side, it’s hard to beat "Happiness Lives Next Door" (doesn’t the title say it all?) for pure heartache, and for an expression of the human costs of war, "Jimmy’s Road" ("This is Jimmy’s tree where Jimmy liked to climb/ But Jimmy went to war and something changed his mind"). And to give pure dissipated self-reproach its due, Naked Willie includes Kris Kristofferson’s "Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down."

It’s great to hear Nelson’s vocals clearly on these songs, and another benefit of the "de-sweetening" process is that you can finally hear what the other studio musicians were doing as well.  Since they include luminaries like Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, Bob Moore and David Briggs, it’s certainly more interesting to hear them rather than the standard vocal and strings package. All in all, Naked Willie is an album fans of Willie Nelson and admirers of pure country music will want to hear. B+ | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: Stardust; Chester & Lester; Roughneck Blues

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