Willie Nelson: Naked Willie

Music Reviews Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson: Naked Willie

Early works of an old master, all dressed down

Despite being on the far side of 70, Willie Nelson continues to churn out new albums at a mind-boggling rate, so there’s not a crying need to mine additional product from his mammoth back catalog. Still, Naked Willie makes sense. Culled from sessions spanning the mid ’60s to early ’70s, this appealing exercise in revisionist history—supervised by Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael—deletes the strings and backing singers routinely added as sweetening by producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis back in the day, leaving just Willie’s laconic voice and the polished playing of Nashville session aces like Jerry Reed, Buddy Emmons, Charlie McCoy and Hargus “Pig” Robbins. The resulting tracks are of a piece with the later recordings that made Nelson a star, but they lack comparable emotional heft. Though recognizably himself when these tunes were cut, Willie had yet to acquire the weathered expressiveness of his best singing. And the backing is almost too sparse. Still, moving songs such as “Following Me Around” and “I Just Dropped By” ooze sadness, and “What Can You Do to Me Now?,” which reveals the bitter anger lurking in a broken heart, is all the more chilling for Nelson’s offhand delivery. If Naked Willie is essentially a footnote, it’s an interesting one.

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