Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 17: Willie Nelson & Friends: Live at Third Man Records
This week I received the seventeenth set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postal service, my package was sent on October 23rd. I received it on the 28th.
This seventeenth set of items revolves around the celebration of the 80th birthday of country legend Willie Nelson at Third Man Records on April 18th, 2013, featuring a live double-LP recorded at the studio, and a one-sided 6-inch single (you read that right) containing a duet between Nelson and Jack White.
That 6-inch single, pressed in transparent yellow vinyl, captures a less-than-two-minute recording of Willie and Jack playing Willie’s 1975 song “Red Headed Stranger” in Third Man’s Voice-O-Graph recording booth. The use of the antique recording machine results in a grainy sound that seems slowed down, much like the sound of a record that is warped or a cassette tape that is being played back with low batteries. This short-playing one-sided single is basically a novelty for music history buffs, but it’s a good one.
The double-LP Willie Nelson & Friends: Live at Third Man Records (pressed on one “smokey grey” record and one “bio-diesel green” record) documents Willie’s 80th birthday concert at TMR, much of which was broadcast on the CMT channel’s Crossroads program on June 24th of that year. Willie was surrounded by a stellar group of guest musicians for this privately held event. Each of them performed duets with Willie, and this three-sided LP set features some performances that were omitted from the hour-long broadcast.
The set starts off with Willie’s performance of “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, in which he shows plenty of attitude at age 80. Although it is easy to mistake the title for a marijuana reference, the song actually shows Nelson defiantly expressing that he is not afraid of dying, and telling his fans and loved ones not to be sad on the day he passes. (Fat chance!).
The rest of the set has Willie performing alongside some of his famous friends. The mood of these performances tends to be casual, yet respectful. There is remarkable chemistry to be heard in Willie’s two duets with Leon Russell, as they do spry renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Townes Van Zandt’s “A Song For You” that are among the set’s high points. Willie jibes almost as well with Norah Jones as they play two of his compositions: Jones turns “Funny How Time Slips Away” into a smooth jazz number, with Willie’s guitar blending in very nicely; and Jones provides good enough support on “I Gotta Get Drunk” (although she lets Willie do most of the country singing on that track). Willie’s duet with Sheryl Crow on Whitney & Kramer’s “Far Away Places” has a sophisticated type of country feeling that makes a good case for Crow’s recent crossover into the genre. Although five guest performers give backing to Willie on “Whiskey River”, they wisely underplay their parts and allow the guest of honor to dominate the song.
Neil Young’s performance of “Long May You Run” is clearly meant as a tribute to Willie; although Nelson does play on it, he mainly seems to be simply allowing Young to sing it to him. Young also dominates their rendition of Sam Neely’s “Sail Away”, and that works just fine in both cases, because Young is in fine form here.
At the end of the set, we hear Nelson and Jack White sitting down and working on their “Red Headed Stranger” duet in impromptu fashion. It’s a pleasure to hear.
One false note: Willie’s duet with Ashley Monroe on “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” is missing the chemistry that Nelson shares with the other guests. It was a nice touch to include a fresh-voiced singer who is nearly young enough to be Nelson’s great-granddaughter, and Monroe does fine when she sings the sole lead vocal on “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”. But there is clearly a wide musical generation gap between her and Willie, and their duet does not work very well. Another quibble: “Shotgun Willie”, a duet between Nelson and Jamey Johnson shown during the broadcast, is omitted from this set.
Those flaws aside, this album captures an agreeably touching tribute to a musical legend, while proving that the living legend himself still has considerable life left in him at age 80. Long may Willie run.
Besides the striking colors that the two transparent records are pressed in, there is another unique vinyl visual asset on display here: the fourth side, which has no musical grooves, has an image of Nelson’s famous Martin N-20 guitar named “Trigger” etched into the disc. It’s a clever bit of artistry that vinyl lovers will appreciate.
The proper “bonus” item in this package is a double-sided fold-out metallic-print poster, with a handsome Third Man logo printed on one side, and a black-and-white photograph of Nelson performing in the recording booth on the other side. The folks at Third Man threw in a few other goodies this time around: a sticker containing a drawing of the original tower that the Third Man logo is based on; an enamel Vault lapel pin shaped like a key; and a cardboard model of the Third Man tower that can be assembled and placed upon the spindle of a record player so it will spin as the record is playing. It’s all very creative, although I am personally not likely to use any of these mementos.
A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The A-side of the single has “I’m not Willie Nelson” carved in the dead wax; the blank side has “Hear yourself as others hear you” printed large where the grooves would have been. The double-LP has these three messages carved on its respective sides: “If only the water broke…”, “Even teleprompters get it wrong”, and “No, really, I’m not Willie Nelson”. The blank fourth side (with the guitar image etched) has “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” printed plainly in the center.
Willie Nelson and Jack White “Red Headed Stranger” (Third Man single TMR229) 2013
a. Red Headed Stranger
Willie Nelson & Friends “Live at Third Man Records” (Third Man TMR228) 2013
1. Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
2. Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground – with Ashley Monroe (unreleased)
3. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain – with Ashley Monroe
4. Funny How Time Slips Away – with Norah Jones
5. I Gotta Get Drunk – with Norah Jones (unreleased)
6. Sail Away – with Neil Young (unreleased)
7. Long May You Run – with Neil Young
8. Far Away Places – with Sheryl Crow
9. Whiskey River – with Neil Young, Ashley Monroe, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Jamey Johnson
10. A Song For You – with Leon Russell
11. Heartbreak Hotel – with Leon Russell (unreleased)
12. Red Headed Stranger – with Jack White (broadcast version)
SIDE D has an image of Willie Nelson’s famous guitar named “Trigger” etched in the green vinyl.