Prior to become a recording artist, Willie Nelson cut a number of demos for Pamper Music, a publishing company co-owned by Ray Price and Hal Smith. Though he had some success once he started pursuing his recording career in earnest in the '60s, he continued to cut publishing demos, partially because he was better known as a writer than a performer. Some of these demos have come out on assorted reissues over the years, but Sugar Hill's 2003 collection Crazy: The Demo Sessions is the first comprehensive collection of this work, and it's a very welcome addition to Nelson's often unwieldy discography. Nelson's earliest recordings for Liberty (and to a lesser extent, his recordings for RCA in the '60s) have been roundly criticized for awkward, string-laden country-pop arrangements -- a criticism that may have been overstated, but is certainly valid -- and this serves as a counterpoint to those polished recordings, since these publishing demos are spare and unadorned, all recorded in one take. The first eight songs are Nelson alone with a guitar and occasionally a harmony vocalist, and these songs sound like precursors to Red Headed Stranger in their intimate directness. The remaining seven feature Nelson backed by a band, which follows his lead and turns in loose, warm performances that follow his trademark idiosyncratic delivery. (There are also three other unlisted songs added as an unlisted bonus on the 16th track, recorded with band.)
Many of these songs were made into hits by artists other than Nelson: Of course, there is Patsy Cline's "Crazy," which was cut after hearing this demo, but several other songs were brought to the charts by such Nelson patrons as Ray Price and Faron Young. Many of these songs remained in Nelson's repertoire over the years, highlighted by "Crazy," the great honky tonk raver "I Gotta Get Drunk," "Three Days," and "The Local Memory," but several of these also showed up on his 1998 album Teatro. Nevertheless, many titles won't be especially familiar to anyone outside of hardcore Nelson followers -- and one title, "I'm Still Here," was not known to exist prior to this release -- and it's a testament to his body of work that they seem like minor works compared to his other songs; by any other standard, they're major works. Certainly, the quality of the songs is excellent -- it's easy to see why other singers would want to cut the songs after hearing them here -- but it's not just the quality of the songs that makes this a revelation, since Nelson's stature as a songwriter is secure. What is revelatory about Crazy: The Demo Sessions is how it illustrates that Nelson had a handle on his distinctive, idiosyncratic vocal and performing style very early in his career -- much earlier than his records suggested. But what makes this such a wonderful, even essential release, is that these performances are as good and affecting as anything Nelson ever cut, and are endlessly listenable not for historical reasons, but for pure musical enjoyment.