Occasionally slick and always slippery, Willie Nelson has remained relevant, first as a songwriter and then as a performer, for nearly 50 years. He has proved to be an eager collaborator, a gifted chronicler, a savvy reader of musical trends and a righteous rebel focused more on artistic integrity than the Nashville company line.
Nelson, who will perform Saturday at Bell Auditorium, has also proved to be prolific. Completely comfortable on the road (again), he's also clearly at ease in the studio. He has released more than 70 studio albums, not counting frequent collaborations with the likes of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. His body of work might feel intimidating.
As a tool for the Nelson novice, here's a guide to five essential Willie Nelson albums.
WHAT: This is essentially one of his stellar duet records. Emmylou Harris appears on most of the tracks, and though both have contributed much to the style and sound of contemporary country, this record has an oddly appealing syncopated backbeat that makes it feel more Havana than Nashville. It's a great example of Nelson's willingness to experiment at a point when most artists are willing to coast.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: Darkness on the Face of the Earth
'RED HEADED STRANGER'
WHAT: This Old West concept album was less concerned with hit singles (although there are a few) than with creating a cohesive mood. The result is a masterpiece. Musically, Nelson kept the arrangements sparse, allowing him room to slip in front of and behind the beat. It might be the finest example of this technique, which is an integral part of the Nelson sound.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
WHAT: Produced by Booker T. Jones (Booker T and the MGs), this collection of standards from the American song book is a classic crooner's record. Featuring lush production and reverence for the source material, these renditions of tunes by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and George and Ira Gershwin illustrate not only Nelson's natural talent for interpreting other people's songs but also his affection for music of every stripe.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: Blue Skies
WHAT: This is perhaps the closest Nelson has come to a true rock record. Produced by alt-country star (and Nelson acolyte) Ryan Adams, the record makes use of Adams' muscular backing band, the Cardinals. The result is an interesting dichotomy of rock band power tempered with Nelson's musical sensitivity.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: We Don't Run
WHAT: This album in many ways established the Willie Nelson persona that audiences are familiar with today. Shotgun eschewed many of the established norms of country music and replaced them with Nelson's potluck approach to music. Sure, there's aching pedal steel and one of the great barroom ballads of all time (Whiskey River), but there are also elements of jazz phrasing, rock attitude and true storytelling sensibility. Shotgun fired the first Outlaw shots over Nashville's broad bow.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: Whiskey River