It's easy to argue that Willie Nelson's two albums for Atlantic, 1973's Shotgun Willie and 1974's Phases and Stages, are his two best albums. Recorded between his 1972 departure from his longtime home RCA and before his star-making stint at Columbia, these two albums are the roots of Nelson's brand of outlaw country, where he casually fueled Nashville songwriting with Texan Western swing, pop melodies, folk storytelling, hard country, lazy blues, and a renegade sensibility borrowed from rock & roll, all spiked with a little bit of jazz. Add to this his increasing fascination with themes that played out over the course of a full album -- Shotgun Willie was an outlaw's record through and through, Phases and Stages was an explicit divorce album, with a strong narrative pull -- and it made for two near-perfect records that worked as a whole, but could stand as collections of perfect songs: these albums contained such Nelson standards as "Shotgun Willie," "Whiskey River," "Sad Songs and Waltzes," "Slow Down Old World," "Pretend I Never Happened," "Bloody Mary Morning," "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," and "Pick Up the Tempo," after all.
So, even if Nelson's time with Atlantic was brief, it was certainly pivotal, and ripe for a collection like Rhino's superb 2006 triple-disc set The Complete Atlantic Sessions. Over the course of these three discs, the two albums are presented in their entirety, adorned with outtakes -- some alternate takes, some early versions, some unreleased songs -- and then on the third disc the scrapped live album Live at the Texas Opry House is presented. This album was first released in truncated form on the 1995 box set A Classic & Unreleased Collection, along with a good chunk of the non-LP material here, so there are not any big revelations in terms of unheard music, but when music is this good (not to mention historic), it seems petty to complain that there isn't more here that's genuinely rare. Plus, this set is expertly assembled, with a disc devoted to each album, and the live set taking up the third. There are little gems sprinkled throughout -- an electric version of "Whiskey River," songs like "My Cricket & Me" and "Under the Double Eagle," which are good enough to have fit comfortably on the albums -- but the main draw are the three proper records. Shotgun Willie remains one of his very best albums, a highlight of songwriting and interpretation, as he pays tribute to Bob Wills ("Stay All Night [Stay a Little Longer]" and "Bubbles in My Beer") and lays claim to Leon Russell's "A Song for You." Phases and Stages is hurt slightly by the incessant title theme, which hammers its point way too hard, but the songs themselves are stellar, drawing an excellent picture of the end of a love affair. And then there's the live album, which may not have seen release at the time, but it's utterly fantastic, beginning with a version of "Whiskey River" that speeds up almost of its own will within the first verse, and there's no stopping the band from that point on. There's a beautiful medley of his early hits as a writer ("Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life"), a breakneck "Stay All Night," a medley of "Bloody Mary Morning" and "Take Me Back to Tulsa," and a rip-roaring "Truck Drivin' Man," where Nelson stops at a whorehouse instead of a roadhouse. Nelson has had plenty of great live shows over the years, but this is one of the best captured on record, and the vitality of this show -- it still sounds exciting decades after it was recorded -- acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the carefully considered studio albums. And all three discs together add up to an essential testament to Willie Nelson's most creative period.