This feature debuted at The Musical Divide on July 16 and will continue on at Country Universe, with this being the republished first edition of this series. Sing One With Willie is a new feature where I cover Willie Nelson duets from both inside and outside the country universe.
Two weeks ago, Willie Nelson released his latest project, The First Rose Of Spring, an album composed of famous classic country singles, a couple Nelson contributions, and a few original tracks not penned by Nelson. In a word, it’s a symbol of Nelson’s approach to music – deliberately crossing stylistic boundaries, not only through his solo recordings but also by singing with artists spanning the musical spectrum. This feature is meant to explore his many, many duets, so welcome to a new feature, Sing One With Willie. In every edition of this series, I’ll highlight two Nelson duets – one to explain its backstory and how it added to country music history, and one from a more critical perspective, where the focus is more on describing the song itself.
The featured single: “Seven Spanish Angels” (w/ Ray Charles) (1984)
In the early 1960s, as country music’s Nashville sound became the stylistic center of country music fit for crossover success, a rhythm and blues singer and piano player was set to crossover into country. In 1962, Ray Charles, given creative control of an album for the first time in his career, surprised everyone at his label when he recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included, among others, covers of Hank Williams, Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, and Eddy Arnold songs. To Charles, “you take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.” Upon its release, Nashville still didn’t consider Charles a country singer. Today, it’s credited for introducing how soulful country music could be – demonstrating the power of a song, regardless of genre. Though it was also a test to see how popular country music really could be, and as the mainstream industry fought for crossover appeal and to keep the genre relevant, Charles was taking it to new heights, especially with his cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” as a single.
It’s no surprise, then, to hear Willie Nelson say that Charles, “did more for country music than any one artist has ever done.”
By 1982, Charles was in the process of revamping his career, signing a recording contract with Columbia Records in Nashville, leading to a series of four country albums released over the next few years. Of the four of them, Friendship was the only one to achieve any success, a duets project that, ironically enough, would also give Charles his only No. 1 country single.
“Seven Spanish Angels” originally belonged to one of its two writers, Eddie Setser. Setser and his co-writer, Troy Seals, had used Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso” as a guide for the eventual Mexican-flavored tragedy. There was no recreating that song, of course, but they managed to work in cowboy imagery and a Southwest flavor, all with Nelson in mind to record it.
They sent out two copies of the song – one to Nelson, and one to producer Billy Sherrill at Columbia Records, who was producing the Friendship album. Originally, Sherrill wanted to make the song a duet between Charles and Ronnie Milsap, who counted Charles as an influence. For unknown reasons, Milsap declined.
Nelson, however, liked the tune, and recorded it with Charles. The only complication was that Sherrill didn’t like the song’s drawn-out storyline, especially for a radio single. The song contained a melody with the first two verses telling a basic story, then a refrain in the middle, and an entirely different melody at the end to explain it all. Through Seals’ approval, Sherrill cut out the ending, leaving listeners confused as to what the song’s true meaning was, but also opening it up to interpretation.
The b-side: “Ain’t Life Hell” (w/ Hank Cochran) (1978)
Willie Nelson credits songwriter Hank Cochran for making him feel like a professional songwriter. The two first met at Tootsie’s, a Nashville hangout. Impressed by Nelson’s writing talents, Cochran used his leverage within the industry to score Nelson a publishing contract with Pamper Music. During his time there, Nelson penned “Hello Walls,” and Cochran later penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” for Nelson’s landmark release, Red Headed Stranger.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the two collaborated on “Ain’t Life Hell,” released in 1978. It’s by no means the best song in either writer’s discograpgy; it’s a slow, booze-riddled single where two meant-to-be insufferable fools commiserate over life’s troubles, and the fiddle, harmonica and guitar are all given their chance to shine with a small solo. It’s a fun honky-tonk song where Nelson’s unusual delivery style helps to convey the role he’s playing, and where Cochran’s cheery disposition further keeps the song feeling loose and not overly serious. That’s about all there is to it; if you want anymore words written about it, write your own, as the two would say.