There’s a new statue of him in Austin, all sorts of Grammys and hall of fame inductions to honor his legacy, a campaign to get him a Nobel Peace Prize (for his ceaseless work with Farm Aid) and too many tribute albums to mention, but the truth of the matter is Willie Nelson isn’t dead yet. Not even close. Everyone’s favorite jogging, pot-smoking, road-hounding Texas countryman turns 80 today, and is still very much kicking, as evidenced by a full tour calendar that includes a return to New Orleans’ Jazz Fest this weekend and two Minnesota dates May 17 at Shooting Star Casino and May 18 at Grand Casino Mille Lacs. So is this birthday really that big a deal?
Especially after last week’s passing of George Jones -- one of his few peers left -- we didn’t want the day to pass without honoring Willie somehow. Here are some listening tips from a hardcore fan. What with the fact that his over 200 albums to his name, Willie’s discography can be a hard one for record collectors to decipher. Presumably, you know to get the big albums like “Red Header Stranger,” “Stardust,” “Shotgun Willie,” “To Lefty From Willie,” “Willie & Family Live” and (my personal favorite) “Phases and Stages.” Here are some gems among his lesser-known albums.
1. “Sings Kristofferson” (1979) – Never mind that he’s honoring a close friend and former running buddy. Wounded and weary classics like “For the Good Times” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” sound like they could’ve been taken straight out of Willie’s own life.
2. “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker” (2006) – Another lovingly made tribute to a friend, this one also serves to spotlight an unsung Texas music hero and pioneering woman songwriter, whose work includes “Bubbles in My Beer” and “You Don’t Know Me.”
3. “Night and Day” (1999) – This jazzy instrumental album provides ample proof that, along with everything else he has been, Willie is also one of the most soulful guitarists ever.
4. “Family Bible” (1980) – While 1976’s “The Troublemaker” is his definitive gospel album, this casually made little record sounds more intimate and personal, with Sister Bobbie his only accompaniment.
5. “Live at the Texas Opry House” (1974) – Issued as a bonus disc with 2006’s “Complete Atlantic Sessions” three-disc set (also featuring “Phases and Stages” and “Shotgun Willie”), it’s a lively recording at a hotel-turned-club in Austin that Willie owned for a spell. It's of special note right now with its lovely cover of Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care.”
6. “Me and Paul” (1985) – A good contrast to a lot of his slick, overproduced ‘80s albums, this one includes spirited updates of the title track and other oldies plus two key Billie Joe Shaver classics.
7. “Pretty Paper” (1979) – It sure beats 98% of the other Christmas albums out there.
8. “Country Music” (2010) – He still makes a great one every now and then, too, as evidenced by this T-Bone Burnett-produced, violin-laced workout of way-old country classics, highlighted by “My Baby’s Gone” and “Dark as a Dungeon.”