Crazy: The Demo Sessions
Playing 7:30 p.m. May 15 at the Ryman Auditorium
Willie Nelson was pissed off, more than a little drunk and lying down in the middle of the street outside Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge hoping to get run over. It was 1968, and things weren’t going the way he’d hoped. Sure, the former vacuum cleaner salesman and deejay was being touted as one of Nashville’s primary songwriters. In a few years, he’d gone from being hungry enough to sell the rights to “Family Bible” for $50 (to move here in 1960), to being the toast of Music Row, thanks to hits like Ray Price’s “Night Life,” Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline’s crossover smash “Crazy.”
Heady stuff for Willie the songwriter. But Willie the artist was going nowhere in a hurry. Singles like 1962’s “Touch Me” and “Willingly” showed Top 10 promise, but subsequent releases, lavishly produced with the full Nashville Sound treatment (A-Team pickers, the Anita Kerr Singers, swooning strings), had stalled on the charts. No one seemed to get Willie, with his jazzy vocal phrasing and curious guitar syncopations, and Nashvillethen as nowdoesn’t embrace what it doesn’t get. So here he was, drinking too much beer and whiskey with Harlan Howard, Roger Miller and Hank Cochran at Tootsie’s, fighting bitterly with his third wife, feeling like he was banging his head against too many walls and beginning, once again, to think seriously about getting out of town.
Songwriter Cochran, Nelson’s friend for over 40 years, witnessed the incident outside Tootsie’s. “He just laid down in the middle of the damn road out there,” Cochran begins. “And I said, 'What in the hell are you doin’?’ And he said, 'I’m just gonna let somebody run over me.’ I said, 'You know ain’t nobody gonna run over you. Get the hell up!’ ”
So how did they get Willie off the street? “We drug his ass,” says Cochran. “We didn’t pick him up, we just drug him over off to the side.”
Newly released on Sugar Hill Records, Crazy: The Demo Sessions offers insight into the creative gestation of Nelson, one of country’s rock-stubborn individualists. The demos range from unadorned voice-and-guitar renditions to full-band offerings featuring the studio aces of the dayincluding Buddy Harman on drums, Bob Moore on bass, “Pig” Robbins on piano and Jimmy Day on steel. These latter works, freed of background choirs and lush strings, indicate the loose, lean direction the Red-Headed Stranger would take a few years later when he helped spearhead the Outlaw movement of the ’70s.
Some of the songs on the album are forgettable, others are classics. The ironic “Three Days” (which became a Top 10 hit for Faron Young and later appeared on k.d. lang’s Absolute Torch and Twang) is presented with only Nelson’s gut-string guitar and wry phrasing. “I Gotta Get Drunk,” with its buoyant rhythm and somber lyric, shows the influence of cohort Roger Miller. The legendary “Crazy,” the second-most-played jukebox record of all time, is heard in its original demo form, clearly a prototype for the phenomenal single that Patsy Cline and producer Owen Bradley would soon create.
A glance at some of the CD’s other titles”I’ve Just Destroyed the World,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”suggests that the Music Row of the ’60s (unlike the contemporary one) wasn’t as bent on cloning an endless supply of upbeat radio fare. And that Nelson harbored a streak of melancholy rivaling that of the apocalyptic Bill Monroe.
As an added bonus, the enhanced CD also includes an eight-minute video interview with Cochran, the man most integral to Nelson’s Nashville career. Cochran describes bringing Willie to Pamper Music (Hank’s employer), the modest trailer that became Nelson’s first Nashville address, and the night a nervous and inebriated Nelson sat parked outside Patsy Cline’s home while Cline and her husband Charlie Dick were inside listening to the demo of “Crazy.” Cochran also talks about the well-traveled back-alley route connecting the Grand Ole Opry to Tootsie’s as a hand-held camera traces those very steps, lending an eerie authenticity.
Nelson was living in Ridgetop, Tenn., in the late ’60s when his house burned to the ground. “We’d just finished writin’ a song called 'What Can You Do to Me Now?’ and we were sittin’ in Tootsie’s,” chuckles Cochran in retrospect. “Somebody called me and said, 'Is Willie there with you? His house is burnin’ down!’ I said, 'Willie, your house is burnin’ down!’ He said, 'Tell ’em to pull my car out of the garage’ and went right back to drinkin’.”
The sale of Pamper Music to Tree Publishing in 1969 effectively spelled the end of Willie’s Nashville adventure. Cochran, by then a partner in Pamper, became a staff writer at Tree. There was talk of Nelson doing likewise, but instead, he returned to Texas. It was there, in Austin, that the new Willie Nelson began to take shape.
We know him now as the world’s favorite old hippie, with his long, time-bleached tresses, IRS woes and fondness for marijuana. And for playing outrageous guitar solos on his beloved, cancer-eaten Gibson gut-string or singing “Whiskey River” and “On the Road Again” for the umpteenth time at Farm Aid, forever mellow and so cool that only he could survive that corny duet with Enrique Iglesias’ dad and shine.
Crazy: The Demo Sessions transports us to another time and another Willie, neatly groomed and still preferring firewater to pot, a womanizing rascal with a poet’s gaze and a wizard’s knack for cranking out hit songs. Listening to these 15 tracks, we wish that similar collections were available for some of the other early Music Row songwritersRoger Miller, say, or Harlan Howard or John D. Loudermilk. And we’re very grateful that Willie Nelson’s drinking buddies dragged him from that cold pavement of Lower Broadway before a car got him.
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