Willie Nelson’s voice is unmistakably country, but the ease and the cadence of it separates him from the rest of the pack as far as I’m concerned. Everything about his voice is natural and authoritative, soft and crooning, slightly weathered and wise. He doesn’t have to play up twang or masculinity or exaggeration—he’s Willie Nelson, for fuck’s sake. He wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, started the Texas outlaw scene, wrote some of the greatest country ballads ever, pulled off some of the most unexpected covers, and became a cult-hero spokesman for smoking weed long before the rest of society caught on to it, all while having the humorous Everyman persona you’d expect from a guy that played the same guitar at live shows for about forty five years. There was always something fundamentally unchanging about Willie Nelson even while he was being a chameleon. Throughout everything, though, is his voice. The warm, campfire voice that in my book no one has ever come close to sounding like. The other country icons may have more gravel or whiskey or smokiness or performance to them but Willie’s has a je ne sais quoi to it that connects directly to me, much like how Frank Sinatra’s voice comfortably sits above the other iconic crooners of the Tin Pan Alley sound.
Needless to say, Willie Nelson will make a few appearances on this site going forward and in trying to figure out which song to write about first I had to go with the one that made me realize just how great he is. For most of my life I pretty much avoided country music. When I was growing up there weren’t really any country stations in Chicago and I grew up on classic rock, then R.E.M., then Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails anyway. Phases and Stages was my first full album introduction to Willie Nelson and while, yes, “Bloody Mary Morning” and “Heaven and Hell” and “Pretend I Never Happened” are all masterpieces it was “Sister’s Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint” that just knocked me out on first listen. The music is great—the first part of the song utilizes a fiddle in the best possible way, the second part has a piano shuffle that would sound at home on a Pigpen-era Dead track—but his voice… just listen to his voice. Nelson was 40 when he recorded this album but his command of every little syllable makes him sound like a 40 year-old with 70 years of recording experience. It’s all just so effortless. He’s not singing that loud but he’s surrounded by some pretty polished music, and still his voice stands in the foreground with ease. When I heard this song, a light clicked on. I got it. I got why Willie Nelson is a cult hero and a mainstream icon: he’s a charming outlaw with a voice that paints a picture of an America that is both familiar and new.
Just like Sinatra.