Willie Nelson's Singing "Chops" All There On 1961 Debut

The term “singer/songwriter” hadn’t yet been coined when the “hotter’n a depot stove” 29 year-old songwriter Willie Nelson stepped into the studio to record his debut album for Liberty Records. Back then, you were either a songwriter or a singer, though of course there were a very few who were both. Here Nelson proves he was one of them.

Nelson had released a couple of unsuccessful records a few years earlier. He moved to Nashville in 1960. No label would sign him. He got hired by a publishing company and began writing songs made famous by others including “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Pretty Paper” (Roy Orbison) and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Billy Walker).

Liberty Records signed him in 1961 and into Owen Bradley’s Quonsut Hut Studios he went to record what turned out to be the album’s two singles “Touch Me” and “The Part Where I Cry”. Producer Joe Allison, unhappy with the results, moved the remaining sessions to Los Angeles where the rest of the album was recorded under the musical direction of Billy Strange, who went on to become a “Wrecking Crew” member, playing on Pet Sounds and many other classic albums of the era.

This cryfest of an album consists of a dozen deliciously melodramatic midtempo “poor me” songs. Nelson’s idiosyncratic singing style, particularly his unusual and unpredictable phrasing were there from the beginning.

Since this album serves as a singer showcase, Nelson’s voice is way upfront in the mix and the three-dimensionality plus an overabundant echo typical of that era puts Willie almost in your lap. The backing musicians are mostly way back and in the case of the background singers’ “oohing and aahing”—another artifact of that era— that’s fortunate!

Look, Stardust this is not but it’s a collection of 12 Nelson tear jerkers like “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” and “Where My House Lives” that somehow turns “down in the dumps” self-pity into excruciating pleasure—especially if you’ve ever been there. Yes, both the production sound and maudlin sentiments are somewhat outdated but so what?

Matt Lutthans mastered at 45rpm on the finally fully up and perfectly running The Mastering Lab’s tube-based cutting system now housed at Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas. How great it is to see the TML-M stamp on two brand new slabs of 180g QRP pressed records. Housed in gatefold Stoughton Press “Tip on” jacket. Willie Nelson fans will want to have this.

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gMRfk6LMHn's picture

How come it has taken so long for The Mastering Lab to get up and running?

James, Dublin, Ireland

Michael Fremer's picture
Everything in it is "custom". There are no "off the shelf" component so following the move the system was plagued with "bugs". Easy fixes in Salina, KS not so easy! But as this record proves, wow! Worth the wait..
MrRom92's picture

Aside from probably being the best sounding version of this material, it’s nice to see that someone has allowed something great to be done with the tapes, rather than just have them sitting there on a shelf in a salt mine for all eternity just because there’s a usable file that’s “good enough”

Anton D's picture

This record is a classic and us old guys like it, so you are wrong.

Try reviewing again when you’re 80 and you are more mature.


Merry Christmas to this great site!

Michael Fremer's picture
Only a few years to wait. I rated it lower not because of the songs, which of course are mostly 9s and 10s but because the arrangements are "dated"....it's still fun...
Trius's picture

Well, chronological age and maturity are not always in sync.

Tom L's picture

...Wilie sounds sort of proud of his two Liberty releases. He scoffs at the arrangements and doesn't say much about the songs, but he notes that they sold reasonably well. Shortly after the second LP was released Liberty got out of the Country market entirely, so his albums never got much promotion.

SloppyJoeBuck's picture

Anton, you win. That comment had me rollin'!

I gotta say, I think Willie's Liberty albums convey his music much better than his first few for RCA. It's still "countrypolitan" or whatever, but this album's production is more "Owen Bradley" than "Chet Atkins", know what I mean?

John Cee's picture

It's good to see an old Willie title reissued with such care. Hopefully AP sees fit to release some of his 70s titles in the same manner.

Knowing TML's cutting rig is back up and running truly brought a few tears to my eyes. Coincidentally I posted elsewhere not long ago the huge loss we suffered with the passing of Doug Sax while proselytizing about TML's Who's Next cut.