Essential Willie Nelson

Ten of the country legend's most enduring releases

Willie Nelson may be one of the most well-known individuals in America, be it for his music, his braids, his movies, his books, his battered guitar, his activism, or his trouble with the IRS. His unique sound combines a variety of musical styles: country, rock, blues, jazz and folk. There is nothing more distinctive than his high tenor voice and the unmistakable melodic sound of that guitar. He is a symbol of country music and a true American icon. These are the ten best Willie Nelson albums that will give you the most well-rounded sampling of his sound.

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Red Headed Stranger (1975)

Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger album cover
Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger album cover. Google Images/

Red Headed Stranger was Nelson's first release with Columbia Records, a label that gave him total creative control. It's a concept album about a fugitive who's on the run after he kills his wife and her lover. Upon listening to the finished product, which has a notably sparse sound, Columbia thought it was actually a demo. Still, the album was incredibly successfully, and the two singles "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Remember Me" became huge hits. The 2000 reissue contains previously unreleased songs.

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Stardust (1978)

Willie Nelson Stardust album cover
Willie Nelson Stardust album cover. Google Images/

After distinguishing himself as a figure of outlaw country music, the premise of Stardust was controversial among executives at Columbia: the album consists of renditions of Nelson's favorite pop standards, a far cry from what he had been honing in the years prior. Produced by R&B and soul icon Booker T. Jones, Stardust proved the skeptics wrong by reaching No. 1 on Billboard's country album charts, and the singles "Blue Skies" and "All of Me" peaked at numbers one and three on Billboard's country singles chart, respectively. The album has since gone multi-platinum.

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Pancho & Lefty (1983)

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard Pancho & Lefty album cover
Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard Pancho & Lefty album cover. Google Images/

Pancho & Lefty was a hit from the get-go. When you combine artists as talented as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, what do you expect? The album is solid country music: enjoyable with no apologies, no trends and no holds barred. Listening to the album, it's as if you can feel the collaboration. Pancho & Lefty exceeds expectations and showcases these two prolific talents at their best.

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Waylon & Willie (1978)

Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings Waylon & Willie album cover
Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings Waylon & Willie album cover. Google Images/

Waylon & Willie is one of the best-selling albums for both artists, even years its release. The album enjoyed No. 1 status on the country charts for ten weeks, and in total it spent a staggering 126 weeks on the charts. Waylon & Willie includes the song "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," which spent four weeks at No. 1 and earned the pair a Grammy.

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Always on My Mind (1982)

Willie Nelson Always on My Mind album cover
Willie Nelson Always on My Mind album cover. Google Images/

Nelson shakes things up time and again, and 1982's Always on My Mind is no different. Though it's essentially a pop album with standards like "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Always on My Mind was a breakaway success. It held down the Billboard country albums chart's No. 1 spot for an impressive 22 weeks and was the number one country album of 1982.

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The Great Divide (2002)

Willie Nelson The Great Divide album cover
Willie Nelson The Great Divide album cover. Google Images/

If one thing is for certain, it's that Nelson is one artist who records whatever he wants, whenever he wants. The Great Divide doesn't sound like a typical Willie Nelson album and it was panned by critics for being overly-produced, but it does show another side of the singer. Nelson collaborates with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, Lee Ann Womack, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight and Bonnie Raitt.

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To Lefty from Willie (1977)

Willie Nelson To Lefty from Willie album
Willie Nelson To Lefty from Willie album. Google Images/

Country music legends are becoming a rare breed, and Nelson, who is in his 80's, is one of that rare breed. To Lefty from Willie is a salute to country icon Lefty Frizzell, in which Nelson renders some of the legend's most famous hits: "Always Late (With Your Kisses)," "That's the Way Love Goes" and "She's Gone, Gone, Gone," to name a few.

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Crazy: The Demo Sessions (2003)

Willie Nelson Crazy: The Demo Sessions album cover
Willie Nelson Crazy: The Demo Sessions album cover. Google Images/

Crazy: The Demo Sessions was released in 2003, although its songs had already existed for decades. It's an album of demos recorded between 1960 and 1966 while Nelson was working as a songwriter for a music publishing company in Nashville. Many of the album's tracks feature him and his guitar and show that he was geared up to follow his own path even as he was struggling mightily against Nashville's desire to polish him into a diamond when he was a different kind of gem.

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Willie and Family Live (1978)

Willie Nelson Willie & Family Live album cover
Willie Nelson Willie & Family Live album cover. Google Images/

Nelson has always been a genuine, one-of-a-kind legend, and this live recording taped at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, shows the star at the top of his game. Emmylou Harris and Johnny Paycheck offer backup vocals in country staples like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Amazing Grace."

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Willie Nelson & Friends - Stars & Guitars (2002)

Willie Nelson & Friends Stars & Guitars album cover
Willie Nelson & Friends Stars & Guitars album cover. Google Images/

Only someone like Nelson is capable of gathering such an eclectic mix of artists for another successful Willie Nelson & Friends album. Stars & Guitars is one record that is sure to make any music fan happy. The album wasn't a huge critical or commercial success, but it does a fantastic job of blending music legends including Waylon Jennings, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with the unexpected likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Ryan Adams and Norah Jones.