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Title - 'One Hell Of a Ride' (4-CD Box Set) (Legacy)
Artist - Willie Nelson

To be sure, there's no shortage of Willie Nelson best-ofs out there, but this far-flung 4-CD set is a real doozy. It draws on Willie's work from a number of labels, including former rivals RCA and Columbia (now both part of Sony-BMG) as well as early '60s recordings on Liberty (owned by EMI), a couple of tracks from his lone mid-period album for Atlantic and various offerings on Universal over the last ten years.

It's a fitting tribute to Nelson, a prolific trendsetter and stubborn iconoclast whose seventy-fifth birthday coincides with the album's release. The collection starts out with a prehistoric demo that Willie made around 1954 or '55, back before his early success as the songwriter of hits such as "Crazy" and "Nite Life..." Even back then, working in the real hillbilly days when Nashville was only beginning to consolidate its power as the center of a new country music industry, Willie had an odd, exceptional air about him.

His phrasing was already a little bit weird and his sense of rhythm was kinda cock-eyed. This collection moves from early hillbilly gems such as "No Place For Me" (an indie single that Willie self-released back in 1957), into his early work for RCA, a period that yields several off-the-radar gems, even though Nelson found the Nashville studio system creatively frustrating.

The playlists of this four CD set are not organized in strictly chronological order - there's a much-welcomed, intelligently thought-out aesthetic at play, which can pair a song from one era with another that compliments it in interesting ways. The big hits are there (although not all of them) but they are sandwiched between less well-known material that more fully illuminates Nelson's creative trajectories. After the "outlaw" era, Discs Three and Four take us into Willie's years of superstardom, and his long run of reinterpreting old standards and teaming up with old pals and heroes, first on a series of duet albums, and then on the Highwaymen records.

It's all dutifully sampled, although nothing touches the transcendent beauty of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," which is one of the most brilliant works of country revivalism, and possibly Nelson's finest moment as a song stylist: even with all the other great songs included here, that's the one song that I find myself playing over and over again, even after all these years.

The packaging is pretty cool, too - it's eco-friendly, with soft cardboard slipcases instead of plastic trays, so it may feel a little unusual at first... But the real treat is the glossy booklet, which has a wealth of super-groovy photographs taken at all stages of Nelson's career, as well as pictures of all of his LPs ever released, which is also pretty neat.

And so, from the man who on April 30th, 2008 turned 75, comes this monster collection of songs; many of them touchstones, some lesser known gems, but all that reflect the musical sense and sensibility of an artist for all ages - and for the ages.





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