Willie Week: Five flawed and fabulous Willie Nelson collaboration albums

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Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson were longtime friends and recorded several albums together. Photo by Gary Miller/Courtesy of Arlyn Studios.

By Dave Thomas

For every Willie Nelson milestone, there’s a hundred music critics with a list of essential Willie albums. If you’ve been a fan for any amount of time, you probably don’t need another rundown of how “Shotgun Willie” changed the game or how “Red Headed Stranger” was sublimely brilliant or how “Stardust” was … hey, they were great, we got it.

You know what those lists are missing? Collaboration albums! Willie, who surrounds himself with family and Family onstage and off, doesn’t miss the chance to record with friends, as well. You could say he loves a good joint effort.

Here are five flawed and fabulous collaborations you should check out …

VH1 Storytellers, with Johnny Cash: In his autobiography, Cash says that he and Willie were not particularly close, but they come off as old friends here. The intimate, acoustic performance is great for emotion and hearing Willie’s guitar (and Cash’s self-deprecating jokes about his own guitar playing), but hard on the songs, which are often abbreviated and unfocused. The metaphor: This album is a cup of hot chocolate in a cozy room on cold day.

An image of the Willie Nelson and Leon Russell album "One for the Road" at The Broken Spoke. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

An image of the Willie Nelson and Leon Russell album “One for the Road” at The Broken Spoke. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

One for the Road, with Leon Russell: The mellow marriage of Willie’s guitar and Russell’s piano give this unhurried album an easy charm that occasionally drifts toward somnolence, then rouses itself just enough to find the groove again. The metaphor: This album is a high-quality buzz on a warm afternoon.

Pancho and Lefty, with Merle Haggard: Despite Nathan Rabin of the AV Club pointing out the intro to the title track sounds “like the theme music for a bad detective show,” Willie and Haggard hit this one out of the park, never stepping on each other’s toes as they stretch their legs — two country thoroughbreds running side by side. The metaphor: This album is as satisfying as a victory beer hard-earned.

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at KLRU studio during the taping of the Willie Nelson 60th birthday special. Photo by Sung Park / American-Statesman

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at KLRU studio during the taping of the Willie Nelson 60th birthday special. Photo by Sung Park / American-Statesman

If I Can Find a Clean Shirt, with Waylon Jennings: A man might recognize that quality cinema stretches the mind and replenishes the soul … but sometimes a man just wants to see stuff blow up. It works the same way for music, and this collection of songs is a lightweight-yet-infectious good time. The metaphor: This album is passing by the TV on the way to the garage on Saturday afternoon and ending up watching the rest of the “Die Hard” from the doorway.

Half Nelson, with everyone else: No jibber-jabber or metaphors here. Seriously, if you haven’t serenaded traffic with your best Julio Iglesias accent on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” or improvised Ray Charles’ parts on “Seven Spanish Angels,” then you ain’t living right.


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