On a cold night in Oak Hill, West Virginia, I sat with my father by the glow of a Christmas tree, waiting for the New Year’s Eve ball to drop in Times Square, NYC. A quiet house, a quiet night, the howl of a coal train echoing through the mountains — a timeless longing that descends when the moon rises over the hills of West Virginia. And as we sat there, a familiar twang suddenly filtered through the radio — it was Willie Nelson. But not Willie Nelson as my father and I had heard him before. I pride myself on knowing the works of Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Hank Williams and, of course, Willie Nelson, by heart. But on that quiet New Year’s Eve, to our surprise, we were confronted with a song that was new and unfamiliar.
“Look around you / Look down the bar from you / At the faces that you see / Are you sure this is where you’re meant to be?” That question hung heavy in the air. Our trip out west had been last minute and ramshackle. It had been a fight to corral my family together to celebrate the holiday, full of coercion, a few tears, and blatant bribes. The mournful, slow guitar of Willie Nelson’s “Are You Sure” penetrated somewhere deep in my soul. For a moment, I wondered — was I sure this is where I was meant to be?
Yes, it was.
And then the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve.
Later, I tracked down the album from “Are You Sure,” to find the Holy Grail of Willie Nelson’s The Demos Project, Vol. One. The original album, Things to Remember: The Pamper Demos is a collection of some of Willie Nelson’s earliest recordings. For digital streaming, The Pamper Demos was released as The Demos Project (Vol. one & two) in 2016.
It is a wonder, for fans new and old, to find this goldmine of Nelson material. The album has the same familiar lonesome cry of Nelson’s best known works, but is more bare-bones and minimalist in the instrumentation. Everything about the album is softer, more vulnerable; Willie Nelson’s song-writing and woeful lyrics are on full display. While “Are You Sure” is a personal favorite — the song is a haunting echo that strikes the soul — every track on the album is fantastic.
“Hello Walls” opens with the whine of the guitar imitating an answering “Hello, hello,” making for a somber, yet fun experience. “A Moment Isn’t Very Long” also has the same brand of lonesome country that Willie Nelson is known for. While “Things to Remember” is a self-deprecating — even sarcastic — spin on pining heartbreak. In the song, Nelson makes an amusing list, “Things to remember/ Plans that were set/ Things didn’t work out/ Things to forget,” the lament all too relatable. I was also surprised to find a rendition of Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy” — only to find later Nelson himself originally that “Crazy.”
But what’s most striking about the album isn’t solely that the songs are good — which they are — or its hidden gem status (due to criminal under-promotion by the label). Rather, that the album acts as a time capsule for the start of Willie Nelson’s career. These songs symbolize the beginning of a musical career that would define the country and rock ‘n’ roll genres. Here, it’s a man, his guitar, and a dream to make it big. And Nelson, like maybe country artists before him, game “late” to the game, a family man with some life experience already under his belt. Despite the youth and vibrancy of his voice, the pain and regret eternalized in all country songs is ever-present.
Willie Nelson has been a well-loved friend for many. His music is there for heartbreak, for the lonesome cowboys, and the travelling friends “On the Road Again.” In the end, though, listening to The Demos Project feels like a proper introduction. Willie Nelson with his trusty guitar and rockin’ pigtail-braids seems like a constant fixture in the industry and the country genre. As his career stretched into what may be the last home run, it is all too fitting to go back to the beginning, at least one more time.