The Complete Atlantic Sessions

Willie Nelson

2006 is a year that has, so far, seen no fewer than 25 officially released Willie Nelson compilations and reissues, but of all of them the handsomely packaged The Complete Altantic Sessions is arguably the best of the bunch. Covering Nelson's two year stint at Atlantic, this boxed set includes a pair of his most enduring and influential works, as well as a previously unreleased live record.

One thing there is no arguing about is Nelson's influence in bringing rock into country music and vice versa. After a decade of songwriting, Nelson left the slick environs of Nashville for the much freer atmosphere of Austin, Texas in the late 60's and — continuing a tradition started by Hank Williams — fostered an outlaw movement that left an indelible mark on both genres and made Willie a star. His Atlantic recordings represent the very best of this work.

The first disc in the set, 1971's Shotgun Willie is the seminal outlaw record: a country disc with a Rock and Roll attitude. Willie's sharp writing and laid back persona take us through such classics as "Whiskey River," "Shotgun Willie," "Sad Songs and Waltzes," and "Devil In a Sleeping Bag." Additional songs penned by Leon Russell and Bob Wills fill out a record that influenced many artists in the decades that followed.

Also included is Nelson's 1973 release, Phases and Stages. Nelson wrote all of the material on this record while going through a divorce and the record is an utterly personal concept piece. The original vinyl version featured songs from the male perspective on side one. Side two took the female view in the war of the roses. While the record garnered less than stellar sales, it remains one of Nelson's most creative and enduring works.

The live record Live at the Texas Opry House, originally scrapped and released in pieces over the following years, wraps up the set. Nelson has always been an excellent live performer and this concert showcases the full range of his material from classics written a decade before ("Crazy") to his then-current hits ("Whiskey River"). Nelson's irreverent rendition of "Truck Driving Man" (where he supplants a whorehouse in place of the roadhouse in the original -- something that would have melted a few rhinestones at the Texas Opry House's Grand Ol' counterpart) represents, perhaps better than any other song in this set, his giving the high-sign to Nashville and embracing his new musical home.

For hard-core fans, each disc comes with bonus tracks and outtakes, and the included booklet features excellent photos and details about the recordings. As a collection, however, even casual fans should check out The Complete Altantic Sessions — an important, if brief, set from one of country and rock's pioneers.

~ Drew Todd

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