Originally released via the Home Shopping Network and later issued through Rhino, A Classic & Unreleased Collection is a three-disc box set that, given its origins, could seem like a quick cash-in but is really an unexpected delight, necessary for any serious fan of Willie Nelson at his prime. It would have been easy for this to be a collection of released album tracks or half-baked outtakes, but this is a veritable treasure trove, containing no "classic" recordings in the classic sense (in other words, there are no hits), but instead a wealth of valuable rarities spanning from 1957 to the mid-'80s. Some of this borders on the legendary, as in the case of the Pamper Music demo recordings, while others are albums so lost they've not even been rumored, but the overall quality of the music is remarkably high. The first disc contains the most historic material, containing his first single for D Records ("No Place for Me"/"Lumberjack") and 11 songwriting demos he cut for Pamper, only a handful of which appeared on Sugar Hill's 2003 collection Crazy: The Demo Sessions. While the D single is a little slight, it is appealing and Nelson's style is apparent even at this formative stage, and the Pamper recordings are rich and textured, highlighted by early versions of "Healing Hands of Time," "A Moment Isn't Very Long," and "Slow Down Old World." Then, the collection moves into 11 unreleased cuts from his short stint at Atlantic in the early '70s. He released two of his best albums, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, at Atlantic, and while these songs don't have the cohesive themes of those records, the music is at a similar high quality, highlighted by an alternate take of "Bloody Mary Morning" and a great duet with Tracy Nelson on "After the Fire Is Gone."
The middle of the second disc is devoted to the complete unreleased album Live at the Texas Opry House, which captured a 1974 gig. Up to that point, Willie hadn't had a live album, and while this is hardly as epic as the subsequent Willie and Family Live, it offers a different take, capturing Willie and his band as a Texas roadhouse band, kicking out storming versions of "Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)," "Whiskey River," and "Truck Drivin' Man," while slowing down for some slow-dance numbers; it's a hell of a performance and reason enough to get the collection. From there, the box moves into the '80s, starting with the unreleased Sugar Moon album, yet another collection of standards, like so many of his post-Stardust albums, but this has the benefit of a really swinging, relaxed vibe with interesting songs and arrangements that actually let Nelson and his band breathe and play; it's better than most of the post-Stardust sound-alike records. Then, there are four songs from the scrapped guitar-and-voice album Willie Alone, before ending up with Willie Sings Hank Williams, a fine record that doesn't deliver any surprises, either in song selection or delivery, but still is a nice listen, one that' s more modest and enjoyable than many of his released '80s efforts on Columbia. Simply put, everything here is very good indeed -- maybe not seminal, but always enjoyable and often fascinating. Any serious Willie Nelson collection needs to have this.