Leave it to Willie Nelson to break this rule, as he has so many others. His epic 1978 double-disc release Willie and Family Live (Columbia Legacy) is one of the reasons live records shouldn't be outlawed, and it will be reissued on the 24th with even more tracks to love.
The set catches Willie in the full bloom of his most popular period, after Red Headed Stranger made him a superstar. Crowds flocked to Willie then, and would for the decades to come; on Live, the rave-up sing-alongs that became predictable if beloved staples of his stage show sound as fresh as Pedernales weed: "Whiskey River" kicks up a load of sawdust (not once, but twice), "Bloody Mary Morning" sounds driven more by amphetamines than vodka and tomato juice. But what's more fun is the way Nelson plays around with more laid-back favorites: He goofs his way through "Mr. Record Man" and turns selections from Red Headed Stranger into a spare suite that encompasses the album's emotional sweep in fourteen and a half minutes.
Then there are Nelson's songs that were hits for others back while the songwriter toiled in obscurity. "Crazy" and "Night Life" (hits for Patsy Cline and Ray Price, respectively) are here in jazzy versions which take plenty of liberties with the more famous interpretations. The audience eats them up, and rightly so.
Some of those Nelson-penned hits show up on Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill), a treasure trove for Williephiles. These are tapes from the early '60s that were never meant for release but instead sent to established artists who might consider recording them. This version of "Crazy," for example, is the one producer Owen Bradley heard before pitching it to Cline. Most are solo recordings, just Nelson and a guitar, probably made in a single take; many of these versions have never been released. There's even a song, "I'm Still Here," that has allegedly never been released in any version by any artist.
Columbia Legacy's ongoing celebration of Nelson's 70th birthday continues on June 24 with three other reissues: To Lefty from Willie, a beautiful but awfully respectful tribute to Lefty Frizzell; San Antonio Rose, a fantastic duet with Ray Price featuring both singers in their prime, singing some of Country's greatest songs and having a grand time (even if the 1980 production is a little slick). Last is Honeysuckle Rose, the soundtrack to a film that aimed to capture the genuine "on the road again" vibe - it certainly has its moments, but the record stops dead when Willie's costar Dyan Cannon starts to sing.
He may never have been quite as big a star, but Nelson's old partner Waylon Jennings is also the subject of a big recent reissue. His 1976 release Waylon Live (BMG Heritage) was originally intended to be a double LP like Willie and Family Live, but it was put out as a single disc instead. Now a double CD contains the original album, the tracks slated for the second LP, and 22 additional tracks never released at all. Drawn from one show in Dallas and two consecutive ones in Austin, the tapes catch Waylon in top form - that big, cocky voice growling through songs of his own and handfuls by Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, and Nelson.
Like Nelson, Jennings isn't too reverent with his own hits - although his heavily affected singing style tends to cover up variations like a thick coat of maple syrup on slightly irregular pancakes. His band takes off on more solos than they would on studio albums, which is nice, and the singer talks to the crowd occasionally, but he doesn't approach his material like a jazz soloist the way his fellow Outlaw sometimes does.
Still, I'll take one Waylon Live over a dozen of those Pearl Jam official bootlegs… •