There once was a time when Willie Nelson was just another starving songwriter trying to make it in music city. Stories abound of songs he tried to sell for $50. During the early ’60s he made a number of demos for Hal Smith and Ray Price’s Pamper Music. In 1994, a large reel labeled “Pamper Demos” was found in Sony/ATV/Tree music vaults, which contained many of these original demos. Fifteen of these demos have been digitally restored and mastered on Crazy – The Demo Sessions. Along with the first versions of “Crazy,” “I Gotta Get Drunk,” and “Three Days,” is the previously unreleased song “I’m Still Here.” Some of the tunes are breathtakingly brief, “I Just Destroyed the World” only runs 1:13. Even the longest, “Crazy,” has only a skeletonized arrangement and backup. These Spartan arrangements, often merely with Willie’s voice and guitar, highlight not only the strength of his early material, but Willie’s unique vocal phrasing and delivery. Just like Johnny Cash’s early studio recordings, much of Nelson’s early brilliance is buried under syrupy arrangements and loopy background singers. On Crazy – The Demo Sessions, none of these stylistically dated musical distractions obscure the timeless modernity of Nelson’s songs.
Producer Steve Fishell and digital restorer and editor Buddy Miller should be commended on the fine job they have done resurrecting these old tapes. Judging by the sound, they were not recorded on exactly state-of-the-art equipment to begin with. Occasional pitch variations and deviations from full A-440 pitch are obvious on certain tracks, but these small sonic warts never get in the way of the music.
Along with 15 tracks of great music comes an equally worthy extra. Hank Cochran, the great Nashville-based songwriter who helped Willie Nelson sign his first publishing deal provides insight into Nelson’s first years in Nashville in an exclusive interview produced by Digital Vision Media. Both PC or MAC owners can enjoy this quick-time multimedia presentation on their computers.
Crazy – The Demo Sessions is the sort of album that at first might be dismissed as merely for hardcore Willie Nelson fans. But after a single listen anyone who appreciates great American music will be smitten. If you only want to own one Willie Nelson CD (which is akin to eating one potato chip), this is the one to get.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.