There's a remarkable emotional and thematic unity that runs through [Willie Nelson's] entire body of work. As one of the most talented songwriters and song stylists this country has ever known, Nelson has carved out his own special place in American music: the Church of the Honky-Tonk. But no matter how many people have called him a country singer, Willie Nelson is no such thing—he sings spiritual and scary stone-beer-joint blues. Indeed, he's the closest thing to a Ray Charles the white race has yet produced. (p. 87)
That some of his songs were too weird for the country market—songs about a man strangling his lover, for instance—was of no great import. Nashville protects its innocents and eccentrics, and Willie Nelson was both. While he raced through a series of wives and battalions of tequila bottles, Nelson, seldom speaking unless he was spoken to, naively clung to the belief that someday his genius would be recognized. Naturally, it was—just the way it always happens in the movies….
No film, however, could depict the shadowy, haunted world created by Nelson's finest songs: a bleak, burned-out landscape where hope is only a joke, where love is no more than a stolen kiss on a dance floor and hollow betrayal after a night in a shabby motel room, where you're doomed to a life whose single truth seems to lurk in the bottom of a bottle, and where the only reality is the four walls of a honkytonk. Willie Nelson captured it all in a single line: "I've got a wonderful future behind me." And, mister, he meant it….
Nelson's emotional—as well as commercial—breakthrough and breakaway from that life came in 1975 with Red Headed Stranger, an album of such awesome depth and impact that I still find it hard to believe it's only a record. For me, the only other LP in pop history that even approaches it is Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which runs a distant second. Morrison's vision, however, is not so dissimilar from Nelson's.
When he was hurting, Willie Nelson was truly a masterful songwriter. These days, now that he's rich and famous, the songs don't come tumbling out the way they used to.
Nelson's newest album, Willie and Family Live, though terribly produced and mixed …, is the best representation of his career. It includes many of his greatest early numbers ("I'm a Memory," "Mr. Record Man," "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away"), beautiful snippets from Red Headed Stranger, a little gospel, a lot of blues, a bit too much Grateful Dead-like improvisation and some middle-period Willie-and-Waylon (Jennings)-flavored songs. Overall, this record resembles a church meeting, albeit one led by a very skilled and tuneful preacher. (p. 88)
Face of a Fighter is a gem: stark vocals and clean production of some of Nelson's earliest and least-known compositions…. The title tune is terrific ("Mine is the face of a fighter / But my heart has just lost the fight"), but the real treasure here is "The Shelter of Your Arms," written when the artist was (for him) still fairly optimistic. Some of the lines are: "If I die while I'm asleep / I pray my dreams He'll let me keep / And carry me through eternity / In the shelter of your arms." Very sweet and very untypical of Nelson's bitter songs. (pp. 88, 90)
There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight and Sweet Memories are blatant attempts to cash in on Willie Nelson's present-day popularity by offering generally inferior older material. (p. 90)
Chet Flippo, "The Great Willie Nelson," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 289, April 19, 1979, pp. 87-8, 90.