If you've checked the Willie Nelson bin in a well-stocked record store in recent months, you may have found 30 or more different album titles--enough to satisfy even the most loyal fan of the acclaimed country singer-songwriter.
So why is it news that Atlantic Records has reissued yet another Nelson album in CD?
Because this collection--1974's "Phases and Stages"--is not only Nelson's most absorbing studio package, but also quite possibly one of the half-dozen most finely crafted country albums ever released.
The graceful and poignant concept work deals with the breakup of a marriage--the first half devoted to the woman's side, the second to the man's.
Nelson's rich, understated vocal style is ideal for the tension and drama of his narrative, which opens with a song--"Washin' "--that introduces us to the loneliness and eventual bitterness of a woman who feels neglected.
In "Walkin'," the second tune, Nelson outlines the woman's conclusion that it's better to face the uncertainty of change than to remain in the relationship.
\o7 If guilt is the question
Then truth is the answer
I've been lying to me all along
There ain't nothing worth saving
Except for one another
And before you wake,
I'll be gone.
\f7 The second half begins with "Bloody Mary Morning," a spirited tale of a musician's returning home from the adventures and romantic conquests of the road, only to discover that his marriage has dissolved. In "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" and "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," two songs that rank with Nelson's all-time best, he tries to deal with the realization that his world has fallen apart.
Rather than record the album inside the Nashville framework, Nelson reached outside to producer Jerry Wexler--who has also worked in the studio with such compelling figures as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan--and some musicians associated with the Muscle Shoals R&B and rock scene. Together, they helped Nelson achieve a more tailored and distinctive sound than is usually accomplished in the more conventional, country-radio conscious Nashville studios.
Also From Atlantic: "Phases and Stages" is just one of a series of noteworthy reissues or retrospectives due from Atlantic, which ranked with Sun and Chess as the most important record companies during the early days of rock. The October releases include "The Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Box Set," an eight-CD package. Also on the way: retrospectives on Ray Charles, the Clovers, LaVern Baker and Clyde McPhatter.