Since he's one of the few country legends who is best defined by his albums rather than his individual tracks, creating a Starter Kit for Willie Nelson is a tough row to hoe.
What follows is the cream of the crop from Willie Nelson's peak years, minus the collaborations with other artists. His pairings with other great acts would be another Starter Kit unto itself.
When you're ready to dig deeper, check out his studio albums in their entirety, starting with Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie, moving on to Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, and picking up lesser-known classics from the later years, like Spirit, Teatro, and You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.
“Yesterday's Wine” from the 1971 album Yesterday's Wine
Nelson encounters an old friend at a local drinking establishment and they share a round of drinks as they reflect on how they're “aging with time, like yesterday's wine.”
“Whiskey River” from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie
It's since become a live favorite of Nelson's fans at a speedier tempo, but there's a a beautiful melancholy to the studio version found on this album.
“Bloody Mary Morning” from the 1974 album Phases and Stages
A centerpiece of what is arguably Nelson's finest concept album, it's since become something of a standard. Also of note from this set is “It's Not Supposed to Be That Way.”
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” from the 1975 album Red Headed Stranger
A most unexpected breakthrough hit came in the form of an old country classic delivered with sparse accompaniment.
“The Troublemaker” from the 1976 album The Troublemaker
It just might be the best country song ever written about Jesus. It's certainly more grounded in the Gospel than anything I've heard in mainstream country music.
The CMA Awards should be the evening every year where country music is shown in the best possible light. However, it’s been many years now since the CMA fully took advantage of the opportunities that prime-time slot presents. Here are ten ways the show can get back on track, and maybe even be better than ever.
1. Expand the Ballot
Limiting the second ballot to only twenty entries per category was a disaster, resulting in some truly lackluster nominees. Take a page from the Grammy playbook and put all eligible submissions on the second ballot, regardless of vote total. Have the CMA voters choose five entries from a wider swath of nominees, and create a more level playing field for all of the labels, major and indie.
2. Limit the Number of Entries per Artist
The CMA can go one step further and improve the Grammy model by eliminating the first ballot entirely, and allowing each artist to submit only one entry, of their choice, for consideration. This will help avoid embarrassments like we saw this year, where Alan Jackson was represented in the Song of the Year category by “Good Time” instead of “Small Town Southern Man.”
3. Tighten up the Categories
Take the long-clamored for step of combining Vocal Duo & Vocal Group into one category. Limit to one the nominations an artist can get in the “New Artist/Horizon” category. Amend the antiquated Song of the Year loophole that allows a song to be nominated two years in a row.
4. Add Live Performance and Songwriter, Artist-Songwriter Categories
Eliminate the confusion caused by the Entertainer category, which has unfortunately morphed into a “biggest tour” award in the post-Garth era, by adding a Live Performance category. This will help focus voter attention on all dimensions of the Entertainer category. Create two new categories for songwriters - Songwriter of the Year and Artist-Songwriter of the Year. With artists and musicians already being honored individually, equivalent recognition for writers is long overdue. Create the separate categories to ensure that high-profile writers like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift don’t overwhelm non-artist songwriters in the same category.
5. Move the Show Back to the Opry House
The scale of an arena is a total mismatch for a televised award show. The CMA Awards always sounded great in the Opry house, and it connects the show back with its own history and that of country music. If the show must be kept downtown, move it to the Ryman.
#4: Cindy Walker
Hall of Fame acceptance speech
Cindy Walker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, an honor that is still rare for women (only nine female artists currently hold membership). This achievement was made all the more remarkable considering that Walker was a songwriter. But her talent was undeniable, as she penned songs such as “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” “I Don’t Care,” “Take Me in Your Arms” and “You Don’t Know Me.”
For all intents and purposes, the story of professional female songwriters in country music begins with Cindy Walker. In an era where almost all artists and writers were men, she was a phenomenon, a prolific writer whose work was cut by the top recording artists of the forties and fifties, and whose songs were so strong that they’d be recorded over and over again in the decades that followed.
She grew up in Texas, where her mother was a highly skilled pianist. Though she loved performing, and was doing so publicly from the age of seven, her greatest passion was songwriting. She dreamed of going to Los Angeles, where the western movies of her hero Bing Crosby were made. In 1941, her father had to go to L.A. on a business trip, and he invited his wife and daughter along. Cindy threw all of her songs into a briefcase and set out for the West Coast with mom and dad.
She headed straight for the office of Bing Crosby. Fearless and certain of her talent, she talked herself into an audition for Bing’s brother. He was so impressed that he contacted the star immediately. Not only did Crosby cut her song “Lone Star Trail”, she ended up with a recording contract of her own.