Its hard to imagine, but there was a time when Willie Nelson -- who will be honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy award on Feb. 23 -- was just a funny looking songwriter struggling to make it as a singer and a performer. "I guess Nashville was the roughest," a soon-to-be outlaw Nelson sang in 1971, near the end of his frustrating seven-year stint at RCA Victor.
As a writer, Nelson had already proved himself, having penned such classics as "Crazy," "Night Life" and "Funny How Time Slips Away." But fame as a recording artist was more elusive. His producer at RCA, legendary guitarist and Nashville Sound architect Chet Atkins, couldnt quite figure out what to do with the chubby fellow from Texas with the quirky vocal phrasing. Sometimes Atkins had the good sense to keep things simple, but too often he laid the syrupy strings and the mushy background vocals on a little too thick. Of the dozen or so albums Nelson recorded for the label, a few are superb, particularly the first, "Country Willie -- His Own Songs" (1965), recently reissued on Buddha, and "Yesterdays Wine" (1971). Most, however, are pretty forgettable -- and long out of print. None sold very well.
"Country Favorites -- Willie Nelson Style," from 1966, is a little-known gem from this period that deserves to be called a classic. (Its available on CD for the first time.) Recorded in just two days with members of the legendary Texas Troubadours, Ernest Tubbs band, the album is a showcase for Nelsons relaxed, jazzy singing style, which apparently baffled many Nashville regulars. The Troubadours, however, play with polished ease as Nelson alternates between upbeat Western swing numbers ("My Window Faces the South," "Home in San Antone") and tear-stained ballads ("Seasons of My Heart," "Go On Home"), all of which had been made famous by other singers. (None of the songs on the album were written by Nelson.)
Nelsons now-famous habit of holding onto notes a little bit longer than your average country singer is especially evident on the swing numbers. On "San Antonio Rose," the Bob Wills song, he gets downright abstract as he cheerfully adds an extra syllable here and stretches a phrase there. Wade Ray, whose incendiary fiddle playing can be heard on the uptempo numbers, once said, "Ive heard musicians say Willie sang out of meter. He did not sing out of meter. He phrased. He sang in front of the beat, behind the beat, and just came out at the end." Well put.
"Country Favorites" spent 17 weeks on Billboards country chart, peaking at No. 9 -- not bad, but it didnt make Nelson a superstar. "Red Headed Stranger" (1975) did that. "Country Favorites," however, showed that Nelson was a first-rate singer and an interpreter of great American songs. Nelson made this abundantly clear in 1978, when he recorded "Stardust," his collection of pop standards. But "Country Favorites" is where it all began.