Willie Nelson has been around the block. By the time he finished writing and recording his 1962 debut album …And Then I Wrote, he was almost 30. It boggles the mind today that Nelson had been making music for years without success or interest from labels. With a reflective lens, we can easily say that Nelson’s smoky-voice and knack for writing made him a talent that was overlooked for a long time. But back then, things didn’t work the way they did today. A 2020 New Yorker profile notes that “Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service.” The young Texan Willie Nelson spent years doing just about everything besides being the country superstar he is today.
According to one of his autobiographies, Nelson wrote many songs while still living in Texas. Among these is “Crazy”, which became a big hit for superstar Patsy Cline, helping to jumpstart Willie’s career. I knew the Cline version before I knew that Nelson wrote it, and there are marked differences in delivery between the two recordings. Patsy Cline’s is melodic and whimsical, while Nelson’s near-spoken-word vocal in his version reveals more personal pain. He actually sounds kind of crazy, or at least hurt and lost. It’s incredible.
…And Then I Wrote‘s title reflects the fact that Nelson was a hit songwriter long before he was a solo star. And as a showcase of songwriting talent, the album is both an unheralded country classic and an excellent precursor to more expansive and well-known Nelson releases like Red-Headed Stranger. These songs are stark expressions of heartbreak. “If you can’t say you love me, say you hate me,” Nelson sings on “Undo the Right”, desperate to feel something. “Three Days” is darkly comic: “Three days I dread to be alive: today, yesterday and tomorrow.” “The Part Where I Cry” and “Where My House Lives” are brilliantly coded expressions of grief. In the former, Nelson describes his life as a movie (or “picture”) and sells it to the listener-turned-viewer (“I was great in the part where she found someone new”). “Where My House Lives” is a heartbreaking closer: “Here’s where my house lives… I never go there / ‘Cause it holds too many memories” Nelson tells the listener, removing himself from the picture of domestic happiness and accepting the role of lonesome cowboy-drifter that would come to define his future.
Musically, …And Then I Wrote is Willie Nelson at his simplest, but don’t let that fool you. This seemingly effortless collection of hits (it’s one of those studio albums that plays like a best-of compilation) was borne from years of toil, failure and heartbreak. It wasn’t a huge success upon its release and still seems relatively unknown today, but thankfully, we know ol’ Willie got his due. If you’ve any interest in hearing how it started, I highly recommend a listen to this album.
Listen to …And Then I Wrote on Spotify.