For a songwriter of Willie Nelson’s stature, it’s surprising that his early ‘60s Nashville demos have received so little attention. A few slipped out on compilations and bootlegs, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Sugar Hill pulled together fifteen for Crazy: The Demo Sessions. And it was thirteen more years until Sony expanded the catalog with two volumes of digital downloads on The Demo Project. Real Gone now collects the latter two volumes into physical CD and LP releases, augmenting the twenty-eight tracks with liner notes by Colin Escott, and photos from the archives of Bear Family founder Richard Weize. As with the previous releases, the recordings are clean and compelling, and with only partial overlap of the 2003 Sugar Hill disc, this is an essential addition to any Willie Nelson fan’s collection.
Nelson signed a publishing deal with Pamper Music in 1960 and commenced to churning out songs and demos with his guitar and in off-hour sessions with Nashville A-listers. The material includes many of his most iconic compositions – “Crazy,” “Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Hello Walls,” “Night Life,” “Pretty Paper” – first turned into hits by Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Ray Price, Roy Orbison and others. But also heard here are the initial takes on songs that would populate Nelson’s early albums for Liberty and RCA, and fully flower in the years after he’d shucked off Nashville’s stylistic straightjacket. His idiosyncratic vocal phrasing had yet to fully form, but you can hear its roots here, and the sophistication of his songwriting was already steps ahead of the Nashville mainstream.
The band tracks are two-steps and shuffles, and though Nelson sings straight to the beat, his voice, melodies and lyrics are distinctive. The violence of “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” probably wouldn’t be released as a single today, but Nelson actually had middling success cutting it for RCA in 1965. The low strings on “Little Things” sound like Nelson’s guitar playing, though they don’t have the tone of Trigger, and the walking bass line of “I’m Gonna Lose a Lot of Teardrops” and the acoustic blues guitar and fingersnaps of “Night Life” offer changes of pace. Nelson turned out numerous songs of romantic dissolution, each colored with a unique shade of self-pity, anger or remorse, and “I Gotta Get Drunk” sounds like something Hank Williams might have written had he lived into the 1960s.
Comparing these demos to their later incarnations provides an interesting lesson in what songwriters, singers, musicians and producers each contribute to a hit record. The lyrics of “Pretty Paper” provide a sympathetic portrait of the song’s subject, but the demo couldn’t anticipate the level of pathos that would be brought to the hit by Roy Orbison, producer Fred Foster and arranger Bill Justis. Similarly, Nelson’s demo of “Crazy” suggested the phrasing that would turn it into a hit, but didn’t take it to the crooning extreme that made it a signature for Patsy Cline. The talking guitar that threads through “Hello Walls” is a nice period touch, but only a placeholder for the answer vocals on Faron Young’s hit. As memorable as are the hits, it’s a treat to hear these early sketches and enjoy Nelson’s early burst of songwriting genius. [©2018 Hyperbolium]