One Hell of a Ride 

A career-spanning four-disc set makes the case for Willie Nelson.

Boxed sets tend to be a bad bet. One of the great moneymaking gambits of the CD era, these prestige items are often a way to convince fans to repurchase music they already own — and in less listener-friendly formats. Too often, they're more consumer items for owning and displaying than functional collections made for good listening.

This is especially true of single-artist boxes and especially single-artist boxes focusing on bands or musicians who came of age in the LP era. No one needs a Velvet Underground boxed set when they could just own Velvet Underground & Nico and Loaded. No one needs to hear Led Zeppelin's album catalogue reconfigured into a multi-disc collection when you can own the individual albums.

There are exceptions, though, even among artists with classic albums to their name. James Brown's Live at the Apollo and Sex Machine may be must-owns, but the best way to hear the Godfather of Funk is in box form — on the epochal four-disc collection Star Time, probably the most essential single-artist box ever issued.

One Hell of a Ride, a career-spanning, four-disc Willie Nelson collection released a few months ago, is another exception. One Hell of a Ride isn't as good as Star Time because Nelson isn't as monumental an artist as Brown. And it's not as definitive, because Nelson's catalogue of worthy recordings is, at this point, far deeper.

Still, this may well be the best way to hear Nelson. Despite the presence on his discography of such '70s touchstones as Red Headed Stranger, Phases and Stages, and Stardust and such late-era gems as Spirit and Rainbow Connection, Nelson — like Brown — isn't really an album artist, and yet his greatness isn't rooted in a collection of big hit singles either.

Instead, Nelson — like Brown — is the owner of an immense, messy, era-spanning catalogue, where the best stuff has to be mined. In fact, I can't think of another American musician who has so fully inhabited three disparate types: cornerstone pro songwriter whose compositions have been turned into classic recordings by other artists; singer-songwriter auteur; and ace interpretive performer.

One Hell of a Ride, which collects five hours of music across 100 songs and four discs, is the first thorough, career-spanning Nelson collection, and, as such, it makes a case for each of these roles. It's also a towering testament to an immense, varied musicality whose basic foundation — deliberate sing-speak vocals and simple yet eloquent guitar — opened into a whole musical universe: western swing and honky-tonk, folk-rock and soul, jazz and pop standards, blues and gospel, and even reggae.

Nelson has lived some kind of American life. He was raised by grandparents who taught shaped-note singing in the Arkansas hills before relocating to central Texas on the cusp of the Depression, sang songs and shined shoes for spare change in front of a barbershop as a boy, sat in with a polka band as an adolescent, and joined his sister and brother-in-law in a Texas swing band as a teenager.

As a radio DJ and aspiring artist, Nelson penned the song "Family Bible," which became a Top 10 country hit for someone named Claude Gray, a success that brought Nelson to Nashville as a Music Row songwriter, and the story pretty much starts there.

In Nashville, Nelson penned some classics that other singers turned into hits or standards, including "Hello Walls" (Faron Young), "Crazy" (Patsy Cline), "Funny How Time Slips Away" (widely covered, including by Ray Price and, later and definitively, Al Green), and "The Party's Over" (Don Meredith, sort of). The original versions of all those songs are here, as well as some of Nelson's own early country hits, such as "Half a Man" and "Record Man," and early hints at Nelson's jazz influence ("Nite Life") and capacity as an interpreter (Ernest Tubb's "Texas in My Soul").

Still, I think One Hell of a Ride lingers a little too long in the late '60s. There was a reason Nelson failed to really hit under the stewardship of producer Chet Atkins and his lush "Nashville Sound." Countrypolitan didn't suit Nelson, because he didn't have a voice big enough to take schmaltz to the bank.

It was after fleeing Nashville in the early '70s to return to Texas that Nelson found his voice, reconnecting with the organic diversity he was weaned on in his Texas swing youth and forging a personal sound rooted in Bob Wills and honky-tonk, folk and Tin Pan Alley.

This vast middle stretch of the collection is awesome: his genre-generating "outlaw" pairings with Waylon Jennings, his Shotgun Willie/Red Headed Stranger idiosyncratic folk country, his good-time Texas jam-band faves, his "Stardust" and beyond standards.

One Hell of a Ride also does an excellent job surveying the underrated series of duet albums Nelson made in the '80s at his home studio, pairings with such country luminaries as Ray Price ("Crazy Arms"), Roger Miller ("Old Friends"), Merle Haggard ("Pancho & Lefty," "Reasons To Quit"), Webb Pierce ("In the Jailhouse Now"), and Hank Snow ("I'm Movin' On").

Still, One Hell of a Ride suffers from the biggest problem for compilations in the iPod age: It's not nearly as good as the mix you could make for yourself.

The fourth disc of this roughly chronological collection is not as strong as it could be. Nelson had a late creative — if not commercial — boom in the past decade that rivals his best '70s work, releasing four terrific albums between 1996 and 2001: the spare Spirit, the Daniel Lanois produced Teatro, the instrumental roots-jazz Night and Day, and the autumnal yet playful Rainbow Connection. Those four albums are represented by only five songs on One Hell of a Ride, while 1993's slick "comeback" disc Across the Borderline gets four slots by itself.

I hate that the new original "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" from Rainbow Connection isn't on One Hell of a Ride — a far more beautiful and meaningful Willie Nelson song than at least 80 of the hundred songs here. But I'm sure glad I own One Hell of a Ride. If you love American music, chances are pretty good you'll feel the same way.

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