Someday, somebody with great taste, and no desire to be all things to all markets, is going to put together a Best Of Willie Nelson box. Because nobody’s taste is absolute, fans like me and you will question some of the selections, and complain about what’s been left out. But the box will not contain tracks of Willie backed by U2 or Aerosmith (with Steven Tyler sounding like some kind of grotesque “Beverly Hillbillies” reject), and it will not contain “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”.
Until then, this will have to do. Released in honor of Willie’s 75th birthday, it does include the latter, but spares us the former two (they were on the double-CD celebrating his 70th birthday). All in all, it’s probably the strongest of the Willie boxes out there.
Starting with a 1955 voice-and-guitar version of “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song”, his first recording and recorded so badly it’s almost unlistenable, and ending with a 2007 Family Band take of the same tune, One Hell Of A Ride gathers 100 selections from throughout his career. There’s some obscure small-label takes of stuff such as “Night Life”, lush Hollywood orchestrations from Liberty of early gems including “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”, a huge range of RCA Nashville Sound material from “Mr. Record Man” and “The Party’s Over” through the macabre “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye”, and the Outlaw breakthroughs on Atlantic and Columbia.
And then, for more than two discs, a casual stroll through WillieWorld, a place entirely of his own creation, where revivals of Tin Pan Alley standards, duets, tributes, rock and pop and folk and gospel and reggae and jazz and hard country, and even the occasional Willie Nelson original, all hang out.
Sometimes you have to struggle to get past the arrangements and instrumentation so you can hear the actual songs, and that monochromatic, behind-the-beat voice singing them. But the songs and voice — oh, and the personality — are what hold the whole thing together. Even the fourth and final disc, which kicks off with the delightfully scabrous “Write Your Own Songs” and covers nearly 25 years of often maddeningly patchy albums that Willie has thrown out one after the other as quick as he could, hangs together. It’s not necessarily the best of Willie, but it’s more of the best than you’ll find anywhere else. The title’s no lie, either.