Stacks: Willie Nelson

heystacks:

Willie Nelson
“Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)”
Live at the Texas Opry (The Complete Atlantic Sessions), 1974/2006

Willie Nelson has been on my mind a lot lately. He turned 80 at the end of April, which prompted a big round of articles about him, and just this past week his 4th of July Picnic concerts had their 40th anniversary which spurred another round of articles and recollections. I’m not above the tug of nostalgia, especially with an artist like Willie. He’s perhaps the most humble of the towering figures of 20th century music, an approachable figure without pretension or conceit. At least, that’s what I hear from those who have met him. Personally, I’d probably just mumble and look at the floor, too awestruck to treat him like the hundreds of musicians I’ve met over the years. He’s Willie Nelson, for Christ’s sake!

But the legendary Willie Nelson of today isn’t the man who made this recording in June of 1974. This is the sound of a man and a band about to go from stardom to superstardom, with the cool confidence that entailed. Phases and Stages had been released a few months earlier, and “Bloody Mary Morning” had recently hit #17 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart. Within a year, Atlantic will have closed their country label; Willie will have a contract with Columbia that grants him complete artistic control; and Red Headed Stranger will hit the top of the country charts and sell a million copies in under a year.

Live at the Texas Opry is my favorite live Willie and Family recording, official or otherwise. While the setlist here comprises the core of what would be played at every Willie Nelson show since, there is a laid-back assurance to the performance that is absent from the Superstar era recordings. If you contrast “Stay All Night” here with the recording on Willie and Family Live from April of ‘78, that comfortable confidence has turned into almost callous indifference, as the manic take seems almost an in-joke for the musicians, including a mid-song challenge of breakneck speed instead of a mere double-timed swing shuffle. I like the latter record for some of Willie’s phrasings on both guitar and vocals but it doesn’t sound like a great gig to be at. Then again, it’s 1978 and the amount of casual cocaine use by both band and audience might have put everyone on the same accelerated wavelength.

Also, the presence of former Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys fiddle player Johnny Gimble at the Opry date keeps Willie and the Family swinging. Gimble, as well as steel guitarist Jimmy Day (another legend, who first played with Willie in Ray Price’s band in 1958), played on the reverential studio version cut for Shotgun Willie, but the playing here takes it out of Wills’s oeuvre and into Willie’s, the two-step a bit quicker, the licks a bit hotter, the vibe a little randier, and Willie slides his voice down behind the beat, breezy, conversational. It’s magic.

—Erik

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