In Just One Love, his second album for Texas’s Justice Records, Willie’s gone and cut a straight country record, his first in years. There are no pop chestnuts, just Nashville classics—Tex Williams’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart”—and a few new tunes (none, alas, by Willie). At 62, Nelson no longer burns with the energy of two decades ago, when he stormed into the nation’s consciousness. The Willie of Just One Love is the Icon in Repose, an ultra-laid-back elder statesman making classy, if unsurprising, music.
The Rhino box is somewhat under-whelming. Neither comprehensive nor revelatory, it’s a grab bag of odds and ends, including Nelson’s first two recorded songs from 1957 (which, despite a certain rawboned appeal, mask his future greatness pretty well), a dozen demo recordings from the early ’60s, outtakes from the classic ’70s albums Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, and four previously unissued cuts from Who’ll Buy My Memories, Willie’s ’91 effort to relieve his tax burden.
The early-’60s demos are a pleasure. Several (“December Day,” “Healing Hands of Time”) are now classics, and all 12 give today’s listeners the thrill of hearing that least conventional of voices in an ultra-conventional, early-’60s Nashville setting (pedal-steel guitar, tinkly piano, etc.). The box’s high point is the 11 live tracks, whose best moments come courtesy of the great western-swing fiddler Johnny Gimble: time and again, Gimble sails into the stratosphere. The Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages material—alternate takes and unissued songs—is fine too, though some of it (“Bloody Mary Morning,” “No Love Around”) is hardly unfamiliar. Tucked here and there are a few more winners—”After the Fire Is Gone” for one, a scorching ’74 duet with blues-rock belter Tracy (no relation) Nelson. To put it charitably, A Classic & Unreleased Collection is an enjoyable hodgepodge, more for confirmed Williephiles than new listeners.