Willie Nelson has a wealth of great songs and recordings, this list is only going to be dealing with the ones that he wrote though. Willie’s songs are finely tuned and clearly from the country music school of precise language and form. He comes from a time before the Bob Dylan stream of consciousness, beat poetry influenced, mid to late 60s psychedelic songwriting shift.
One of country music's best propositions is looking stone faced at the thing staring you down. Willie's style is a clear-eyed view of something, seen with a charming arrogance and grace. Musically he has a talent for coming up with hooks that are meaty and high hung. Almost Elvis-style hooks that you can really sink your teeth into. He’s got that needle point voice too, not sharp, but incredibly centered and focused.
Over time his writing output slowed considerably, but part of his defiance has always been a kind of laziness. The laziness of the common working outlaw. Here are his ten greatest song writing moments.
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10) It's Not Supposed to Be that Way
Willie has a talent for coming up with lines that really stick out and can a bring a song to a stop for a minute as they ring out. That clear eyed view of things together with a deep wisdom that can take you by surprise. This song has got one of those moments, "And like the other little children, you're gonna dream a dream or two. But be careful what you're dreaming, or soon your dreams will be dreaming you". It’s a heart-breakingly beautiful, inspired, and prescient line. Just one of his best, philosophy aglow in the fires of Texas.
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9) Pick Up the Tempo
One of Willie's great outlaw country moments, the defiant country waltz. There’s a strange intro to this song because it’s off of his great 1974 “Phases and Stages” album which has that same intro to a number of songs on the record. A middle finger in the face of the detractors he’s singing to, (ostensibly the country music establishment?) Not only will he not slow down, he’ll pick up the tempo he says. "Some people are saying that time will take care of people like me. That I’m living too fast and they say I can’t last too much longer. But little they see that their thoughts of me is my savior. And they really should know that the beat oughta go a little faster.”
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8) Time of the Preacher
This song is sung a couple different times over the course of Willie's 1975 Red Headed Stranger album. Similar to the intro to Pick Up the Tempo, it's supposed to be the narrative thread tying all the songs on the album together. This song is like a Tarantino movie, it's bloody and cold and violent. It’s in the tradition of the murder themed folk song, a theme that’s very common and seen over and over again in a lot of old music. "It was the time of the preacher, in the year of 01...now the preaching is over, and the killings begun." Willie rarely sounds as cold and old testament/Johnny Cash like as he does on this song. “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” comes from the same place that this does, a very cold, very bleak vision of the West in the United States.
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7) Night Life
The chorus feels so simple but it’s so brilliant. "The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life." The simple, lazy almost, perfect hook. There's Willie's jazz leanings leaning in close on this one. The great country tradition of drinking too much, of partying too much, of doing bad things to your body, never sounded so subdued and elegant as this. It's Willie the upscale craftsman in this one, dressing up the vagaries of a life ungodly in major seventh chords. A Sinatra-esque, sophisticated, defiant, mature Willie Nelson, obeying the Sinatra call from the bar and singing the lament as he’s ordering one more.
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6) The Party's Over
This could almost be an early Beatles song done the right way. This is the closest to a pop-rock song that I’ve heard from Willie and it’s brilliant. This song has one of his greatest and catchiest meat hook in the neck choruses. “The party’s oveeeeer.” This one is also a great example of Willie’s lyrical cleverness. The “party's over” because his girl has left him because he’s going out and partying too much, but the actual parties that he’s been going to are still going on and he’s still going to them. It’s clever wordplay and clever songwriting, with more in common with Cole Porter than Hank Williams, and with a back-beat stronger than either of them.
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5) I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone
Willie made an album in the early 90s with the supposed purpose of paying off a big debt to the IRS. The album was released as The IRS tapes and every song is just Willie and his guitar, no band, no backup singers, no harmonica. That bare bones style fits this short and aching in the heart song perfectly. They don’t have that version on YouTube, but you should go download or buy that album and listen to that version of this song. "He counts the days since she's left and he's still counting, stunned in some kitchen I’ve always imagined." You can feel the chill, immaculately empty space hes singing from, and that acoustic version of this in particular puts that over really close to home.
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4) Me and Paul
An awesomely rebellious, subversive and winking narrative from behind the barricades of the Nashville establishment. Notes from the country music counterculture, the hint of pot or whatever types of drugs they were using hover around the edges in a funny and charming way. Two lazy rebels up against a cadre of old men. Name checking actual country singers Charlie Pride and Kitty Wells also feels like a movement against the old establishment, you never heard Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell name checking Roy Acuff or Hank Snow in their music. This song feels like a breath of fresh air and changing times and smoking pot and package tours, and on the cusp of being big, but stuck misunderstood for a little time to come.
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3) Angel Flying Too Close
One of Willie's most beautiful and elegant sounding songs. The great "So leave me if you need to" hook that strings you up for whatevers coming next. This has always seemed to me like a great leap of a country song, both in Willie's own writing and in country music writing in general. There's an epic quality to the sound and lyrics, country brilliance at the next level, almost like a strange visitation among his songs. A very pure, very grandiose, very intense vision.
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A just awesomely crafted song and lyric, "walkin is better than running away, and crawling aint no good at all." The great, feeling sorry for yourself, country music style break up song standard theme. The gun of her glaciation pointing squarely at your pants or your chest. Take it in the chest Willie says.
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1)Funny How Time Slips Away
One of those perfectly written songs that seems unwritten and just found. Willie takes the line "ain't funny how time slips away" and gets a ton of mileage out of it. It's "funny" in an achingly regretful way, it's "funny" in a bitterly accusing way, it's "funny" in a grimly mocking way, it's of course never really funny though. It’s usually more heartbreaking when you have to infer the heartbreak. Musically and lyrically this is a swooning and hurt, brilliant, and perfectly written masterpiece.
There’s also an awesome cover of this by Al Green below.
Zak Smith is an alternative/Americana rock singer songwriter from New Jersey. His latest release is the Precambrian Age. Find out more about him and listen to some of his music on his website ZakSmithBand.com.
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