Willie Nelson

Naked Willie

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In the late '80s, Ted Turner caused a furor by colorizing old black-and-white movies, claiming that this colorization modernized ancient artifacts for an audience that just couldn't bear to see shades of grey on their television set. It was modernization through addition, a misguided venture that never found its contemporary audience because it was trying to seduce an audience that never would have been interested in the first place. About 20 years later, Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael did a kind of reverse colorization on Willie's '60s recordings for RCA, stripping away the strings, backing vocals, horns -- any of the accoutrements that sweetened Nelson's basic combo. Raphael cleverly dubs this process as "un-production" and there is some precedent for their historical revisionism, notably the Beatles weird rejiggering of Let It Be, which wasn't a flat-out reissue of the scrapped Get Back but a remix of the released album, scrubbing out all of its Spectorisms. That was called Let It Be...Naked and this Nelson collection plays upon that title with its smirky Naked Willie, a title that implies that this music might sound a little bit more unvarnished than it actually does. A large reason for that is the original recordings themselves; they're not as loose and woolly as the albums Willie recorded for Atlantic just after leaving RCA, nor are they as intimate as his breakthrough for Columbia, The Red Headed Stranger. These are the albums Naked Willie attempts to evoke, but it's just a bit too mellow, relaxed, and jazzy to get this vibe -- they point the way toward his outlaw work, but they belong to his transitional '60s period, so all the strings and things added after the initial sessions don't feel out of place; in other words, these aren't like the strings added to posthumous Hank Williams records, these overdubs were integrated into the production. Nevertheless, these overdubs dictated by Chet Atkins have been demonized through the decades by legions of listeners, critics, and, yes, artists who claim they perverted the intentions of the artists, which may be true, yet the revisionism of Naked Willie kind of distorts cultural history much like colorization did in the '80s. Now, it's not nearly as bad -- it's not as harmful to the source material, it's not distracting as blush on Bogie, so it's much easier to enjoy (these are indeed 17 of the best songs that Willie cut at the end of his tenure at RCA) -- but this is still messing with pop culture history, albeit for an audience who wants this revision because, unlike with the meddlesome colorization, there is an audience who will want to hear these cuts without overdubs, thinking these will sound more authentic when the opposite is true. The "naked" versions aren't tonally different than the originals -- listen to them back to back and it's sometimes hard to tell what was taken away -- and the authentic releases were those original RCA releases: latter-day listeners can either appreciate those originals as a full pop production or listen through the overdubs to hear Nelson's intentions. That's part of being a modern listener appreciating the past: you don't change it, you accept it -- and love it -- for what it is. But that's an idea that Naked Willie proudly, wrongly ignores.

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