With this truly awesome Willie Nelson retrospective, the folks at Columbia/Legacy, experts at assembling compelling box sets, the have raised the bar to a daunting standard. Bookended by two versions of one of his earliest original tunes, "When I've Sang My Last Hillbilly Song" -- the first being the tinny, spare original executed at radio station KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas, in 1954, and the last, recorded in 2007, a full-band rendition with rich, ambient sound, Mickey Raphael's mournful harmonica moans, sister Bobbie Nelson's church piano, and Willie's own stinging, gut-string guitar solos and understated, bluesy vocal -- One Hell of a Ride
rolls out another 98 cuts from every phase and stage of Willie's monumental career. It does what a good box set should: inspire both casual and truly ardent fans to head back into the catalog and listen with new ears for deeper hues of musical and emotional complexity. As this collection asserts, when Willie hasn't been serving up some beautiful, self-penned poetry in song, as he does predominately on the first three discs, he's made impeccable, bold choices in cover material. There's the brisk country shuffle he employs to bring a fresh, celebratory feel to Paul Simon's "Graceland," one of many startling moments on his Don Was-produced gem, Across the Borderline.
As well, the duet tracks reveal an artist both confident of his place in the universe -- to the point where he can stand toe-to-toe with Ray Charles on the beautiful, Billy Sherrill-produced lament "Seven Spanish Angels" -- and eager to demonstrate a larger point, as he does in a rousing 1984 rendition of Hank Snow's classic "I'm Moving On" that features the writer himself pitching in with a couple of smoking-hot verses of his own; at a time when the industry Snow helped build had almost forgotten him, Willie made sure others didn't.
The big, beating heart of his body of work is highlighted on the latter part of Disc 1 and the entirety of Disc 2, in adventurous selections culled from the monumental '70s albums beginning with Yesterday's Wine and embracing Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, Red Headed Stranger, and The Sound in Your Mind and culminating in the staggering, unpredictable breakthrough of the classic pop renderings comprising 1978's mega-hit Stardust. Equally startling, arguably, is the development charted in Disc 1's first half, which begins in the aforementioned Texas radio station in 1954, with Willie in serious vocal debt to Lefty Frizzell and systematically crafting a signature sound, not only vocally and instrumentally but especially as a writer with the 1961 tsunami of "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy": remarkable recordings all, comparable to the celebrated hit versions of each recorded during Willie's brief tenure with Liberty before RCA found him. All of the usual suspects are accounted for here: Waylon, the Highwaymen, Hag, Emmylou, even Julio Iglesias, as well as the standards of the Willie canon. In the end, what to do but tip your hat and stand in awe? It has indeed been a hell of a ride, for the iconoclastic Willie and for those fans and fellow musicians who have followed him on his odyssey.