It's little wonder that Bear Family's collection of Willie Nelson's earliest recordings is titled It's Been Rough and Rocky Travelin': not only is it a lyrical lift from "Me and Paul" that fits neatly with their previous set, Nashville Was the Roughest -- an eight-disc box of his '60s RCA recordings -- but Willie's initial path was indeed bumpy, as he skipped through several labels before gaining success as a songwriter, and then spent a long stint at Liberty, where they were never quite sure what to do with him. All of this is documented on Bear Family's three-disc set, which begins in 1954 when Willie cut an audition record for the Texas label Sarg, then running through all of his local independent labels -- including songs he released on his own in 1957, songs that he cut while working as a DJ -- then gathering all of his sides for Pappy Daily's legendary Lone Star independent "D" before concluding with his complete recordings for the California pop label Liberty. If ever recordings could be called formative, it's these sessions. Almost every element of Nelson's music can be heard here, drawing equally from Western swing and honky tonk, all spun sideways by Willie's relaxed, jazzy delivery. There is ample evidence of his sly, skillful interpretive skills and plenty of his classic songs, including "Nite Life," "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Hello Walls," the latter trio all recorded at the same September 1961 session for Liberty, which arrive just about halfway through this set, where they provide the crest of the wave that begins with the spare, dusty demos that start the first disc.
There is a natural progression toward this idiosyncratic sound and the halting, sometimes awkward, early indie and demo recordings on disc one point toward it, and those initial Liberty recordings -- which commence with disc two -- are varied, even rich, with Willie already blending hardcore country with sophisticated Sinatra-esque phrasing. Once the hits started to come -- more for other artists than him -- things started going awry at Liberty, with the label never quite figuring out how to get him a bigger hit. They tried a bit of everything, having him sing duets with Shirley Collie, cut a little straight Texas country and Western swing, but generally directed him toward string-saturated pop arrangements where the orchestrations and backing vocals gradually get heavier. These wind up obscuring some otherwise very good songs -- written by Nelson, Hank Williams, Boudleaux Bryant, Floyd Tillman, and Fred Carter -- and straighten out Willie's phrasing, turning it into pleasantly bland countrypolitan. Bland has never been what Willie has done best and so hearing him in this silken straitjacket is odd, as he never sounded this constricted, not even when he was battling Chet Atkins at RCA. There are some period pleasures to be found in these plush strings, but it's the rare moments when Willie comes close to shaking off that straitjacket that provide compelling listening. Nevertheless, the whole package is interesting listening, a rough and rocky but sometimes rewarding first act to one of the greatest stories in 20th century American music.