All 97 albums listed in Wikipedia plus The Highwaymen discography plus some extra albums listed on Rateyourmusic (there are some albums listed on Rateyourmusic that seems to be impossible to hear such as Don Steele/Willie Nelson collaboration of Renegade Heart in 1986 and some of the archival release listed there)
The initial listening experience was a hard slog however surprisingly Willie Nelson did win me over in the end.
You see the difficulty is that I am a stereotypical rockist who says, ĎI like everything except for rap and country'. However, unlike rap music, country music is unique for me as it is probably the most alien of the mainstream western popular music genre out there. Whatever my opinion of rap and hip hop, I know that this is a culturally entrenched genre, and I will hear music from that genre due to cultural osmosis whether I like it or not. However, country music doesnít seem to have the same mainstream appeal here in Australia. I have never met a single person who is a fan of country music. In terms of pure country, I guess the song I have heard on the radio would be some of Johnny Cashís hits such as I Walk The Line, Rings Of Fire, Iíve Been Everywhere, Folsom Prison Blues and thatís about it. There is no country music radio where I live, the only radio station that plays classic rock, I donít see any pure country songs in this list of most requested songs https://www.triplem.com.au/story/listen-the-complete-classic-666-countdown-100708. I donít see any pure country albums in the list of greatest albums of all time voted by Australian https://web.archive.org/web/20140717121244/http://www.abc.net.au/myfavouritealbum/top100.htm
Probably the only country songs that I liked are when rock artists cover that genre such as The Rolling Stones. However even the gateway country albums such as The Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers or Graham Parson or some of Johnny Cash Prison live prison albums I didnít get at all. In terms of Willie Nelson, the only songs I previously recognise were his early songs that were popularised by other artists such as Crazy and Night Life.
However, knowing that this is a gap in my music knowledge and knowing that country music is a huge historically important genre including its influence on rock music (after all rock and roll tends to view as a synthesis of country and rhythm and blues). This Willie Nelson discography listen seems like a good opportunity to start addressing this knowledge gap.
Initially, this was an extremely hard slog. While itís true that I listen to the album once and moved on in a listening binge, I did make sure I listen to Willie Nelson key albums (ie. Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, Red Headed Strangers and Stardust) multiple times and I didnít get it at all. The whole listening experience from 1962 to 1980 was a completely alienating experience and I was thinking I may have made a horrible mistake in engaging in obsessive completionist listening.
- It was stated throughout the podcast that Willie Nelson was an excellent lyricist and storyteller. To be honest, when people raved on the lyrics of any artist, I do consider that a red flag simply due to auditory processing issues, I canít retain or remember any lyrics simply by listening to the song and hence I can only ever really appreciate any lyrics by reading the lyric sheet which I only really do if I love the music.
- There was a mention in the podcast that Willie Nelson has an emotional restraint approach to music. There isnít the heart on the sleeve emotionalism associated with rock music and there is more of a stoic brave face in front of adversity. Now my own bias is that I am a fan of music with a sense of dramatic arc and some sense of theatricality. I love contrast and I love to build up and I love crescendo and decrescendo, I love sudden dynamic changes etc. I generally view dynamics within a song to be a good thing in itself. Someone like Bob Dylan was was a quite a bombastic dynamic and theatrical singer was able to achieve this with his voice. However with Willie Nelson he generally approach the music with a stoic restraint was a difficult adjustment. I like Willie Nelsonís voice timbre as I like a distinctive vocalist and if I was able to immediately tell who the vocalist is by hearing him/her sing then I view that as a positive thing. I also can tell that Willie Nelson is a decent melodist/songwriting, however, I didnít always appreciate his stoic subtlety approach to singing which made it difficult to appreciate his strength.
I was willing to just concede that this just isnít my style, and I just donít get this genre. However, something interesting happen when I listened to Willie Nelsonís ďSomewhere Over the RainbowĒ which was my gateway to Willie Nelson (which is probably consider a bizarre introduction to Willie Nelson pickpick). I may not know anything about country music at all but my rockist background could appreciate that Willie Nelson is a damn good guitarist. I guess that album should be added to my ďMost personally influential album listĒ I posted previously
The traditional standards songs that were covered in this album I always recognised were well-written, but I never emotionally connect with those songs due to the arrangements of the time that I consider sluggish. However, give the song a rootsy arrangement, give it a brisker tempo, add some spectacular swing jazz guitars and interplay with fiddles and suddenly the song made sense. The countermelodies from the guitar playing were captivating to listen to and I can just follow the guitar playing throughout the song.
Another example of great guitar playing from Willie Nelson is the live album VH1 Storytellers by Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson especially the song Night Life which blew me away. I generally see the stripped-down arrangement as intensifying what is left behind and in this case, it intensifies the songwriting and the guitar playing. The guitar playing by Willie Nelson where he simultaneously plays lead while maintaining the harmonic progression is spectacular.
I also dig his instrumental album Night and Day where the focus is on his guitar playing.
My favourite album would be Spirit. Which has some great interplay of guitar, fiddle and piano with the counter melodies alternating between those 3 instruments like a conversation between those instruments. My favourite Willie Nelson would be ďI Thought About You, LordĒ which it has his strength plus a dramatic dynamic contrast between the verse and chorus.
Now I didnít suddenly become a hardcore Willie Nelson or country music fan and even after elements of his music clicked, the albums that I didnít much care for outnumbered the albums that I like however I now have 16 albums (including live albums) that I enjoy which the following is my ranking.
2. Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson - VH-1 Storytellers 9 June 1998
4. Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Archival) (I really have to thanks Jesse Walker for recommending the demos during this podcast. The songs finally clicked)
5. December Day: Willie's Stash Vol.1
6. The Highwaymen Live: American Outlaws Live at Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York, March 14, 1990
7. Moment Of Forever
8. Somewhere Over The Rainbow
10. The Highwaymen - Live Battle Creek, Michigan 15 April 1993
11. Hill Country Christmas (El Nino is a great song)
12. Night And Day
13. Highwaymen - Live At Point Theatre, Aberdeen, Dublin 13 April 1992
14. Django And Jimmie
15. Highwaymen - Lonely Are The Brave (Live at Stockholm 3 April 1992)
16. Highwaymen 2
I suspect this is a very atypical/bizarre pick of favourite Willie Nelson albums. I suspect that now that Willie Nelson has somewhat clicked that if I relisten to his classic 70ís albums I may finally appreciate those albums. However, I am a little bit burned out by listening to 100+ Willie Nelson records and I probably revisit those albums after a break.
I also mentioned that since I enjoyed the Highwaymen albums plus the Johnny Cash/Willie Nelson collaboration live album. I decided to give At Folsom Prison a relisten and finally, that album clicked and I enjoyed it. Who knows maybe this is the start of the journey of becoming a country music fan.
Top 5 Songs pick
1. Night Life (VH1 Storytellers Live)
3. I Thought About You, Lord
4. El Nino
5. Over You Again