Invisible Hits is a column in which Tyler Wilcox scours the internet for the best (and strangest) bootlegs, rarities, outtakes, and live clips.
Willie Nelson may have canceled a series of concerts earlier this year due to illness, but he remains one of the busiest 84 year olds on the planet. His 61st (!) LP, God’s Problem Child, just dropped in April and is one of his strongest efforts in years. He has a lengthy summer tour scheduled, including dates with performers young (Margo Price, Father John Misty), old (Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne), and in-between (Dwight Yoakam, Sheryl Crow). Nelson has also been making the rounds promoting Willie’s Reserve, the line of cannabis products he developed with his wife Annie. He’s always moving forward, but this recent activity made us want to look back at his extensive body of work. A genre unto himself, it’d be a fool’s errand to try to sum up the deep river of song that flows naturally from Willie’s subconscious. But spending a little while digging into a diverse selection of choice rarities and live performances from over the decades is always time well spent.
“The Storm Has Just Begun” / “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song” Demo (1954)
One of the earliest glimpses of Willie Nelson’s songwriting prowess come to us via a lo-fi demo recording of two world-weary originals, “The Storm Has Just Begun” and “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song.” The two songs, totaling less than three minutes altogether, were cut in 1954 on wobbly reel-to-reel equipment at KBOP, a 50-watt Pleasanton, TX radio station where the barely-out-of-his-teens Nelson worked as a late night DJ. Though clearly under the spell of his idols—Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Ray Price, among others—Willie’s reedy voice, wise-beyond-his-years delivery, and subtly sophisticated guitar work foreshadow the talent that would blossom in the next few years. When Nelson sent the recordings around to record labels, they were summarily rejected. But he was just getting started.
“Hello Walls” / “Funny How Time Slips Away” / “Night Life” / “Crazy” (1962)
By the early 1960s, Willie had established himself as a reliable hit country songwriter, lending his sensibilities to such singers as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and Billy Walker. But he had ambitions as a solo artist as well. This charming 1962 Nashville television clip shows a shockingly clean-cut Nelson performing abbreviated versions of some of his most well-known tunes (though many in the audience likely didn’t know he had authored them). Dapper in a suit and tie, Willie’s distinctive vocal style is already firmly in place—that off-the-beat phrasing that led Dwight Yoakam to call him “the most avant-garde country singer of all time” in Rolling Stone’s roundup of the 100 greatest singers. His bordering-on-jazzy delivery may have been what kept his early Nashville solo albums from racing up the charts, but as we’ll see, it would serve him well in the years to come.
The Very First “Austin City Limits” (1974)
After finding only middling success in the middle of the road, Nelson grew his hair out and ditched Nashville for Austin, soon finding himself at the forefront of the 1970s “outlaw” country scene, alongside Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. This free-flowing sound is on full display during Nelson’s “Austin City Limits” appearance in 1974, the inaugural episode of the iconic PBS show. This is a buoyant, joyful hour’s worth of peak Willie, featuring a backing band full of friends (harmonica master Mickey Raphael and guitarist Jody Payne) and family (his older sister, pianist Bobbie Nelson). Eagle-eyed viewers might spot a few famous fans in the audience, too: Townes Van Zandt and Guy and Susanna Clark pop up for a few frames, appearing to be having the time of their lives. It’s a particular pleasure to see Nelson’s impressive guitar chops here—check out the scorching solo on his signature opener “Whiskey River” for a taste of his gypsy-jazz-meets-Chet-Atkins fretwork. The “Austin City Limits” set would provide the template for Willie’s future shows, but he wasn’t ready to settle into a comfortable groove just yet.
Stardust Radio Session (1979)
Nelson had earned his greatest solo successes as a so-called outlaw, but his 1978 standards LP, Stardust, was a stylistic left turn into decidedly less edgy territory. Despite his label’s initial misgivings about the project, Stardust’s risk paid off both artistically and commercially, expanding Willie’s repertoire and selling millions in the process. Nelson fully inhabited these classics from the American Songbook, embracing the jazz-inflected vocals and guitar he’d flirted with earlier while still maintaining his essential earthiness. He took Stardust’s surprise crossover success in a stride, as shown in this crackling late ’70s FM broadcast. With Leon Russell popping up as a special guest, Willie adds several Stardust standards to the set (including a ravishing rendering of the Hoagy Carmichael-penned title track) around his tried-and-true warhorses. Like virtually everything he does, it all feels as natural as can be.
Countless Star-Studded Duets
For decades now, Willie has been a compulsive duet partner and stage-hopper—has he ever turned anyone down? This laissez faire attitude towards collaboration has resulted in some questionable moments, to be sure. No one needs to hear Willie’s guest spot on fellow cannabis connoisseur Snoop Dogg’s “My Medicine” ever again. Ditto the atrocious, Kid Rock-featuring “Last Stand in Open Country.” But there’s plenty of gold to be found in Nelson’s diffuse team-ups, whether it’s him and Bob Dylan attempting to out-brood each other on Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or his New Orleans-inspired pairing with Wynton Marsalis. He can jump onstage with Neil Young & Crazy Horse (as seen above), trade verses with Ray Charles, or slip easily into a reggae groove with Toots Hibbert. It’s hard to imagine a more open-minded musician than Nelson—and one can only imagine that even in his old age, Willie’s still got plenty of tricks up his sleeve.