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Published: 2003/01/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Crazy: The Demo Sessions – Willie Nelson

Sugar Hill Records 1073
There’s something wonderfully fascinating about the idea of a factory system
entertainment industry — sprawling companies with different departments to
conceive, manufacture, and market product. I like imagining bureaus of
Hollywood writers smashing out scripts to pitch to executives who approve
the movies (or not), assign them to directors, have sets built on studio
lots and stocked with goods from the props departments while being fed by
catering from the commissaries, and on and on. Corporate art, in other words
— the very opposite of the personal. One question that is raised is "how or
where does beauty emerge from that?" Yet, it does somehow.
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, for example, is cherished as one of the
most sublimely emotional albums in pop history, yet it came part and parcel
out of the Los Angeles music system. Brian Wilson – who, in some ways,
seemed to yearn to be part of a larger arrangement of musicians and
producers – wrote the tunes with a hired lyricist, Tony Asher, and worked
with a crack team of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.
Nashville, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, worked in pretty much the same
way — which brings us to Crazy: the Demo Sessions, a collection of
recordings from Willie Nelson’s days as a gainfully employed studio
songwriter. (Ironically, it would be the so-called "outlaw country" movement – led in part by Nelson – that first presented an alternative to the
Nashville system.)
The 18 songs on Crazy are more than demos. They are, literally,
demonstrations. They are pitches that would eventually be presented to
singers and producers in the hopes that they would be tapped for the full
treatment (and a lump sum of money). Nelson worked in a (presumably drab)
office with a guitar and, occasionally, a tape machine. From time to time,
he was able to set down demos with a crew of other musicians.
None of this remotely conveys the stark beauty captured in these songs.
Given the circumstances of the music, there’s no use in trying to question
the sincerity of the songs. No matter what inquisitions one throws at them,
the music is still filled with an undeniably profound heartache and one
still comes up with the model of a paid-by-the-number hired songwriter
trying to make hits. The songs are the very definition of concise, emotional
songwriting. Though "Crazy" clocks in at almost four minutes, most of the
tunes clock somewhere between a minute and a minute-and-a-half — just
enough time to convey an idea, a core emotion. In places, the first half of
the album, where Nelson sings mostly alone, sounds like Beck’s One Foot
In The Grave (which is still, incidentally, more rawly emotional than
his supposed loss-of-irony on Sea Change).
Steel guitarist Jimmy Ray makes his first appearance on "Undo The Right", a
spare, perfect duet with Nelson. Later, he turns up on the bulk of the band
tracks, delivering precise diamond twinkles on tracks like "A Moment Isn’t
Very Long". The fact that nobody really knows which session musicians are
playing on the cuts lends an air of the mysterious to the disc, as does the
simple sonic picture created by the recording. It is a rich, black and white
space. On any album, it is the technology that defines the blend of the
instruments, and it is the blend of the instruments that primarily defines
the character of the recording. Here, the accompanying musicians hover in
the gray, hissy mist of the past, which – in turns – leaks out of the
speaker, and into the listener’s ears.

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