Willie Nelson long ago reachd that stage in his recording career where his history created its own discography momentum. Last year, for instance, while true aficionados welcomed the rustic grace of It Always Will Be (one of Willie's finest recent collections), it was easy to lose the disc in the deluge of 2004 Nelson product which also included two live albums and a compilation.
On February 15, the week after his appearance at this year's San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, Lost Highway will release the latest in a long string of Nelson retrospectives, the blandly titled Songs. This compilation earns its distinction by billing itself as the first Nelson release to span more than 40 years and six labels. What listeners will hear is a smart Nashville songwriter with a natural feel for romantic obsession ("Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away") morphing into a Texas maverick with an equally natural feel for strong cover material ("Whiskey River," "Good Hearted Woman").
In a way, Nelson's career echoes that of his late friend (and chess rival) Ray Charles. Once Charles had established that people would pay to hear him sing everything from pop standards to country ballads, he didn't see the point in writing his own material anymore. Both artists became bigger than their material and tended to slide into creative cruise control, but where Charles became a nostalgia figure by his early forties, Nelson is still capable of surprises. A populist - both musically and politically - equally at home with Darrell Royal and Keith Richards, he's a walking Mount Rushmore monument with a beat-up nylon-stringed guitar.