Released in late 1976, at the height of Willie mania, The Troublemaker is Willie Nelson's first all-gospel album, but country gospel in his hands doesn't sound like traditional country gospel -- it's a Willie album, through and through, performed with the freewheeling Family as support. Consequently, it's every bit as wonderfully idiosyncratic as any of his other mid-'70s work and, in some ways, even more so, because inspirational songs and religious material are usually not given arrangements as imaginative and free-spirited as this. Although the album can be divided pretty evenly between ballads and rollicking up-tempo numbers, there is the inherent jazz-like unpredictability in the performances of Nelson and his band that makes even familiar numbers like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" sound spontaneous. Then again, the choice of material also helps, because that song is the most familiar here; while many of the other numbers are also country gospel standards, they're not recorded nearly as often as "Circle" and these song choices also give The Troublemaker a unique, fresh feel. Another interesting thing about the album is that the music, not the message, is at the forefront, which is why it doesn't sound separate from his other mid-'70s peaks. Although it is overshadowed by them both, the sublime subtlety of the performances on The Troublemaker make it sound of a piece with The Red Headed Stranger and Stardust. It may not be nearly as popular as either, but musically, it's just as satisfying and is one of the quiet highlights in Willie's vast catalog.
The Troublemaker Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine