Perhaps the only thing that rivals the beauty of the Willie Nelson discography is the depth.
A titan of songwriting, Nelson captures the human spirit like a genie in a bottle.
What’s more remarkable is that he’s done it with such frequency: Nelson has released nearly 100 studio albums in total, spanning solo records and numerous collaborative LPs, making him among the most prolific artists in the history of recorded music.
This being said, attempting to fully digest Nelson’s catalog can be kind of like trying to navigate a dense, intensely overgrown forest on a moonless night, so we’re here to provide a few breadcrumbs to help you on your way.
With Nelson kicking off a three-show run at The Venetian on Wednesday (an illness forced the cancellation of the first two shows of Nelson’s stint in town, which were originally planned for Saturday and Sunday), here’s a primer on 10 essential records from his 60-year career.
“Country Willie — His Own Songs” (1965): From the beginning, Nelson established himself as country music’s conscience, a mirror to the face of the genre, high among its most consistently introspective, reflective artists. He’s always asked big questions in song and then argued against the need for definitive answers. Which sounds contradictory, but for Nelson, inquisitiveness and humility complement one another, both in life and music. This early collection of tunes encapsulates Nelson’s musical and emotional range with songs that hint at his taste for jazz and blues, doing so, as Nelson puts it, in “My Own Peculiar Way.”
“Yesterday’s Wine” (1971): “You do know why you’re here?” a voice-from-above asks at the outset of one of country music’s most sublime ruminations on the meaning of life. “Yes …” Nelson answers. “Perfect man has visited Earth already, and his voice was heard. The voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest.” That voice is like spider’s silk here, delicate and strong at once, as Nelson waltzes themes of existentialism and spirituality down a tear-slicked path to destinations unknown.
“Shotgun Willie” (1973)/“Phases and Stages” (1974)/“Red Headed Stranger” (1975): Maybe the finest three-album run in the history of country music — all released in as many years, no less — this trio of classics saw Nelson become more ambitious narratively and musically each time out, challenging both himself and the parameters of the genre he helped redefine here. “Shotgun” was an early touchstone of the outlaw country movement and, at the time, one of Nelson’s boldest forays into incorporating jazz influences into his sound. “Phases” is arguably country’s first concept album, a tale of divorce told from the perspective of both husband and wife, each getting one side of the album. “Stranger” rode an even more involved storyline of a preacher with blood on his hands. The emotions that Nelson mines on these albums are complex, and these songs, progressive and adventurous, mirror that, establishing Nelson as the face of a genre at the same time he deconstructed it by turning age-old conceits — temptation, lust, regret — into something ageless.
“Stardust” (1978): Three years after treating the conventions of country music like a Rubik’s Cube, something to be scrambled for fun, Nelson did an about-face, recording an album of pop standards that would become his top-selling release. Some of these songs, like “Unchained Melody,” have literally been recorded thousands of times over the years, and yet Nelson brings his own distinctive warmth to them. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” has seldom sounded so cloud-free.
“Pancho & Lefty” (1983): Nelson has long been country’s reigning chameleon, capable of blending in with just about any musical background until he’s indivisible from the setting in which he’s immersed himself. As such, he’s one of the genre’s most willing and wide-ranging collaborators, having cut records with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow to Wynton Marsalis (more on him later). He even made a reggae album at one point (2005’s “Countryman”). But perhaps his greatest musical foil was Merle Haggard, with whom he made three records, “Pancho” being the first. The two just brought out the best in one another, Haggard’s gravitas and Nelson’s playfulness going together like whiskey and Coke. “We keep rollin’ down the fast lane like two young men feelin’ no pain,” Nelson sings on “Reasons to Quit,” their boots never leaving the accelerator.
“Music from ‘Songwriter’ ” (1984): The soundtrack to this semiautobiographical 1984 flick featuring Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom contribute songs here, boasts one of the all-time great kiss-offs to the Nashville suits who bedeviled Nelson for decades. “We write what we live, and we live what we write, is that wrong?” Nelson asks on “Write Your Own Songs,” his words foreshadowing the prefab, market-tested nature of so much country music to come in the following years. “Mr. Purified Country, don’t you know what the whole thing’s about?” The ensuing decades have answered that question with a resounding “Nope.”
“Spirit” (1996): Loneliness is the titular spirit haunting this spare, biting batch of tunes capable of wringing tears from a tire iron. With a lead-heavy heart and feather-light fingers, Nelson delivers one of his most emotionally resonant albums, a record that plainly, powerfully chronicles how exquisite and cruel love can be from one breath to the next.
“Two Men With the Blues” (2008): Nelson has always displayed a taffy-like malleability as a musician, ignoring genre designations like prohibitions on a certain leafy green substance. This feisty pairing with jazz great Wynton Marsalis further underscores as much. Recorded live at New York City’s Lincoln Center, “Blues” is enviably cool and blisteringly hot at once, with Marsalis’ trumpet playing chicken with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. “Listen to what the blues are saying,” Nelson commands during a fireball take on his well-traveled ’60s staple “Night Life,” Marsalis’ lungs fanning those flames with each mighty exhale.
Read more from Jason Bracelin at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.
Who: Willie Nelson and Family
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Feb. 3-4
Where: The Venetian Theatre, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd South
Tickets: $59.50-$200 (702-414-9000)