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September 25, 1996

Get the Spirit

Willie NelsonWillie Nelson, Spirit (Island Records 1996) - The new album from Willie Nelson has been cruelly overlooked. Recorded with an intimate acoustic combo of friends and family at his home base of Pederneles Studios (outside of Austin, Texas), Spirit features a new batch of Nelson originals with spare, acoustic arrangements that prove the maxim "less is more."

Now age 63, Willie's 35-year career as a songwriter and musician includes 100 albums and countless miles on the road. In addition to penning many classics recorded by other artists, including "Crazy" (made famous by Patsy Cline) and "Night Life" (recorded by Ray Price), several of Willie's albums are widely acknowledged as country classics in their own right, including 1975's Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws (with Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter, and Tompall Glaser).

Not just a musician, Willie has also appeared in such movies as The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose. In between, he has found time to stage his annual 4th of July picnics (which began in 1973), as well as the annual Farm Aid shows, which have helped call attention to the plight of the American farmers since 1985. Says Willie, "I was always dumb enough to think I could do anything. But I got lucky and done it sometimes."

Willie NelsonWhile Nelson's reefer bust and split with his long-time label (Columbia) have grabbed the headlines, his recent releases have been strong, including Across The Borderline (his last record for Columbia, produced by Don Was) and Moonlight Becomes You, a collection of standards recorded by tiny Justice Records in Texas. (By the way, Nelson settled his IRS debt in 1993.)

The 13 tracks on Spirit are acoustic numbers recorded with veteran Family member Jody Payne on rhythm guitar, Texas legend Johnny Gimble on fiddle, and sister Bobbi Nelson on piano (note lack of drummer). Of course, Nelson's trademark voice and guitar playing are featured front and center.

Spirit (which represents the first signing of a country artist in the 33-year history of Island Records) comprise a series of somber, soul-searching numbers. In addition to two glorious instrumental numbers ("Matador" and "Spirit of E9"), the album shows Willie at his most reflective.

While songs like "She Is Gone," "I'm Not Trying To Forget You Anymore," and "Too Sick To Pray" (the gut-wrenching highlight of the album) may appear dark and depressing, they're not. Rather, Willie conveys a sense of understanding, optimism, and introspection that is rarely heard. Never one to give up without a fight, Spirit also includes "We Don't Run," a feisty tough-guy ballad.

Spirit is a terrific release from Willie, balancing equal parts of voice, songwriting, and guitar technique. Unlike Johnny Cash, Willie doesn't need Rick Rubin at American Recording (who would have wrecked this recording). Truthful, honest, introspective - that's all you can ask of a man. And that's what Spirit provides.

Beach BoysBeach Boys & Various Artists, Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (River North Nashville 1996) -- Speaking of Willie Nelson, he's one of the 12 guest artists who appear on Stars and Stripes, a planned two-volume set of Beach Boys songs recorded by country artists. Which is fairly unremarkable, until you learn that all of the Beach Boys (including Brian Wilson) appear on this collection, which was recorded earlier this year in Nashville.

That's right. Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and Brian provide the harmony vocals on all of the cuts, with various country artists contributing the lead vocals. Still reflecting their deep division, Mike Love is listed as "executive producer," while Brian and Joe Thomas are given production credits.

Mike, Brian, and BruceEven more incredibly, it appears that Brian sang live with the group at an outdoor music festival in Nashville this summer to promote Stars and Stripes. And what first caught my eye about this album was James Houses' video for "Little Deuce Coupe" that includes Brian back with the group.

The selling point of Stars and Stripes are the guest artists, which include Sawyer Brown ("I Get Around"), Toby Keith ("Be True to Your School"), and Laurie Morgan ("Don't Worry Baby"). Also featured is Timothy B. Schmidt's faithful version of "Caroline No."

The tracks are recorded around a strong house band that includes Brent Rowan and Greg Leisz on guitars, Eddie Bayers on drums, and Michael Rhodes on bass.

To be honest, some of the artists sound out of place, including Willie Nelson's version of "The Warmth of the Sun" (Willie doesn't need the backing chorus) and Junior Brown's sleepwalking rendition of "409."

Kathy TroccoliBut there are some real standouts, including Kathy Troccoli's version of "I Can Hear Music" (one of two tracks that isn't a Beach Boy original) and Colin Raye's ride on the "Sloop John B." Kathy Troccoli's voice blends perfectly with the Beach Boys on this Jeff Berry and Ellie Greenwich classic, which deserves substantial airplay. If I were Kathy's manager (Kathy records for the Christian-based Reunion Records), I'd ask if she could become the first Beach Girl -- she'd earn a good living, and bring a fresh voice to the group.

Stars and Stripes doesn't offer many revelations about the Beach Boys. But it's a treat to hear the whole group together again. And maybe the album will help country fans cross over to this classic sound.

-- Randy Krbechek

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