A compilation that’s more interesting than it is essential, Naked Willie is an act of historical revisionism by Willie Nelson and his longtime sideman Mickey Raphael. Country music in the late 1960s and early 1970s was defined by the “Nashville Sound,” which, while iconic, homogenized many of the genre’s artists with its overbearing, assembly-line production style. What makes many of Nelson’s albums of that era so fascinating is the tension between the slick, anonymous production and the singularly distinctive songwriting and vocal styling that were present in Nelson’s work since his breakthrough.
Naked culls its songs from Nelson’s early RCA albums and previously unreleased tracks from those recording sessions, and Raphael has “unmixed” the records, removing the unnatural sheen of Chet Atkins’s original production job. Without gratuitous horn sections and legions of overzealous female backing vocalists, the emphasis here is on the songs themselves as well as Nelson’s unique sense of phrasing. While it’s always a pleasure to hear Nelson’s incomparable voice at its youthful peak, and it’s no great loss to have jettisoned the ridiculous trumpet part on 1970’s exceptional “Following Me Around,” this un-production approach does not necessarily result in more natural-sounding recordings. In fact, there’s something cold about the whole record: The obvious comparison is to the Beatles’ similarly ineffective Let It Be…Naked, but the artificial effect is perhaps more similar to those creepy new Elvis Christmas song duets.
That Nelson eventually adopted a similar aesthetic to what Raphael has created here simply does not make these remastered sides any better or more correct than they were in their original form. The value to the project is that it’s a collection of some of Nelson’s finest-written songs—“The Party’s Over” is among the most melancholy cuts in his vast catalogue, and “Jimmy’s Road,” which he wrote after a bandmate was drafted into the Vietnam War, is a damning anti-war protest—and a handful of choice covers from before Nelson became the larger-than-life artist he is today. And a big part of Nelson’s ongoing appeal is his air of authenticity: Even when he’s making bizarre artistic choices that don’t work or play to his strengths, there’s still a degree of honesty to his intentions, of accepting flaws as part of the creative process. Naked doesn’t work, then, because it adopts the opposite stance, attempting to whitewash what might be perceived as flaws in some of his early, transitional output and robbing those recordings of their character in the process.