In 1971, Willie Nelson released the concept album Yesterday’s Wine. Although a very fine album, it was too unconventional and eccentric to be accepted by mainstream Nashville. Frustrated by the album’s lukewarm reception and a general lack of direction in his career, Willie quit the music business and headed home to Texas. Fortunately, the retirement was only temporary and within a year Willie was back in the recording studio, ready for another go with a newly formed band, The Family. The ensuing album, Shotgun Willie, is among the best of Nelson’s career. Having switched from RCA to Atlantic, he was given greater artistic freedom, and this album represents the “birth” of Willie Nelson as most people know him. It’s among the first outlaw country records ever recorded.
The unmistakable funk vibe of the opening title track leaves no doubt that a new Willie has emerged. Backed by nontraditional country instruments like a horn and trumpet, the lyrics feature Willie humorously opining on the state of his career and seem to include a bizarre but interesting reference to the Ku Klux Klan buying sheets in bulk. Elsewhere, the wildly entertaining travelogue “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” has Willie relating several anecdotes from his life on the road as a touring musician, including the whole band catching pneumonia, the tour bus beginning to fall apart, and Willie (jokingly) becoming infatuated with Rita Coolidge after seeing her and her husband Kris Kristofferson perform at the Philharmonic Hall.
Willie revisits three of his classic compositions from his RCA catalog. “The Local Memory”, “So Much to Do” and “She’s Not For You” are all given a rawer production than the more polished original versions, and they benefit from Willie’s increased experience as an interpreter. Like most of Willie’s underrated work with RCA, these are fiercely intelligent country songs that examine relationship problems in Willie’s unique way and show why he is among the best songwriters in country history. The brand new “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a knockout, a classic cheating ballad and, given its subtle dig at the Nashville establishment, is possibly the first protest song ever recorded.
The most famous track on this album is likely the cover of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River.” It’s one of Willie’s most well-known songs, and deservedly so, but when it comes to “drowning my sorrows” songs, I enjoy the cover of Bob Wills’ “Bubbles in My Beer” even more. A second Wills cover, the standard “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” features the legendary Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter and Doug Sahm on backing vocals. It’s ridiculously fun and catchy.
The album contains two songs written by the great Leon Russell. “You Look Like the Devil” is a sharp lyric that has both a touch of humor and sadness, telling of a man beginning a relationship with a promiscuous and emotionally unstable woman that is not likely to end well. The second is “A Song For You”, my favorite track on an album not short of classics. Many people only familiar with Willie’s later recordings are unaware that he could be quite a powerful vocalist in his youth, and nowhere is this more evident than on “A Song For You”, which has the narrator starkly bearing his soul to his lover and asking her to forgive him for his previous emotional distance.
Although Nelson would arguably reach even greater artistic heights with his next two highly ambitious albums, Shotgun Willie is essential listening and an excellent starting point for anyone who is unfamiliar with his music. It represents Willie at the peak of his ability and shows more sides to his eclectic musical personality than any other album. There isn’t a single moment or track on this album that doesn’t add to the experience. It’s among my top 100 albums of all-time and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
Grade: 4 out of 4 Flags!