‘Willie and Family Live’ Album Review, L.A. Weekly (1978)


L.A. Weekly published this writer’s short review of the “Willie and Family Live” album in the alt-news tabloid’s December 21, 1978 edition. The double LP caught Willie Nelson and his band of wandering gypsies at their peak and Nelson on the brink of international fame.

Before the review, a little Family history will provide context leading up to the album’s release that November.

Nelson began assembling what eventually became known as his Family band in the early 1970s, after he fled the city limits and musical constraints of Nashville (his cabin in nearby Ridgetop famously burned down on December 23, 1969, though he managed to rescue a pound of Colombian weed and his trusty Martin N-20, Trigger).

A successful songwriter but struggling as a solo record-maker, Nelson “retired” from his longtime label, RCA Records, and moved back to his native Texas, where he wound up plugging into and amplifying the nascent Lone-Star-beer-fueled redneck rock-“progressive country” scene that would soon blow up in Texas.

RELATED: Willie Nelson, Lone Star Jerry Retzloff & The Texas Music Conspiracy

Willie Nelson and Lone Star Beer’s Jerry Retzloff conspire in the early ’70s for mutual benefit.

The Family’s core lineup came to feature Nelson (acoustic guitar) and his sister Bobbie (piano), Paul English (drums), and Bee Spears (bass), all of whom had played together since the late 1960s. Mickey Raphael (harmonica) joined in 1972 after Nelson heard him at a jam session, and Nelson hired Jody Payne (electric guitar) away from Merle Haggard’s road band a year later (Payne and Nelson had met way back in 1962 when Willie was playing bass for Ray Price’s touring group).

After a couple more critically acclaimed semi-stiffs for legendary producer Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records (“Shotgun Willie” in 1973 and “Phases and Stages” in 1974), Nelson signed a deal with Columbia Records. He finally broke big in 1975 with his first album for the label, the epic “Red-Headed Stranger,” which topped the country LP charts and eventually scored double platinum for sales surpassing two million copies.

RCA wasted little time cashing in, releasing “Wanted! The Outlaws” in January 1976, compiling tracks by Nelson and labelmate Waylon Jennings. He insisted the album also include tracks by his wife Jessi Colter, who’d recently scored a major hit with “I’m Not Lisa” for Capitol, and his artist-producer sidekick Tompall Glaser, also signed to RCA at the time.

“Wanted! The Outlaws” hit No. 1 country and crossed over, reaching No. 10 on the pop albums charts. It quickly sold more than a million copies, and by November became the first country album to be certified platinum, the new award the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) established that year for album sales of a million-plus.

Over the next three years, Nelson solidified his stature as an American country legend with “The Sound in Your Mind” (1976, No. 1 country, platinum); “The Troublemaker” (1976, No. 1 country, gold); “To Lefty from Willie” (1977, No. 2 country); and “Waylon & Willie” (1978, RCA again cashing in with back catalog, No. 1 country/No. 12 pop, double platinum).

Nelson became an international pop superstar with his next LP, “Stardust,” an album of his favorite pop standards Columbia released in mid-April 1978. It charted No. 1 country/No. 30 pop in the States and eventually was certified quintuple platinum, scoring multi-platinum as well in Canada (2×80,000), Australia (7×70,000), and New Zealand (4×15,000).

“Stardust” appeared the same month Nelson and his band delivered the high-energy performance at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, that was recorded and released seven months later in November on the two-record “Willie and Family Live.”

But the Harrah’s setlist included none of the “Stardust” songs. The band played essentially the same set they’d been refining for the previous few years.

Willie’s Extended Family

By the Harrah’s gig, Nelson had extended the Family lineup by two, adding Rex Ludwick (drums; he’d been backing outlaw DJ/singer Jimmy Rabbitt in his L.A. backing band, Renegade, and playing around Texas with Too Hot for Snakes, a loose aggregation of redneck rockers) and Chris Ethridge (bass; the Delaney & Bonnie and Flying Burritos Brothers alum had replaced Spears for a short time, and stayed on after Spears’ return).

For the Harrah’s show, Emmylou Harris joined the chorus on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Uncloudy Day,” and “Amazing Grace,” while Johnny Paycheck contributed vocals on “Amazing Grace” and his signature hit “Take this Job and Shove It.”

The Showco mobile recording crew from Dallas recorded the performances, and the 24-track tapes were mixed at the Enactron truck in Los Angeles, a studio Harris’ producer, Brian Ahern, built in a semi-trailer parked in his driveway.

The back cover of “Willie and Family Live,” released by Columbia Records in November 1978, with Willie Nelson pictured front and center (holding Trigger, his trusty Martin N-20 classical guitar), and bandmates (clockwise) Jody Payne, Bee Spears, Chris Ethridge, Mickey Raphael, Paul English, Rex W. Ludwick, and Willie’s sister Bobbie Nelson.

‘Willie and Family Live’ Tracklist & Video Playlist

Side One
“Whiskey River” – 3:40
“Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” – 3:24
“Funny How Time Slips Away” – 2:45
“Crazy” – 1:47
“Night Life” – 3:55
“If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” – 1:44
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” – 3:33
“I Can Get Off on You” – 2:06

Side Two
“If You Could Touch Her at All” – 3:00
“Good Hearted Woman” – 2:57
“Red-Headed Stranger Medley” 14:25
“Time of the Preacher” – 2:13
“I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” – 1:03
“Medley: Blue Rock Montana/Red-Headed Stranger” – 2:40
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – 2:29
“Red-Headed Stranger” – 4:31
“Under the Double Eagle” – 2:43

Side Three
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” – 5:59
“Bloody Mary Morning” – 3:33
“I’m a Memory” – 1:52
“Mr. Record Man” – 2:01
“Hello Walls” – 1:29
“One Day at a Time” – 2:05
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – 2:18
“Amazing Grace” – 5:12

Side Four
“Take This Job and Shove It” – 2:52
“Uncloudy Day” – 3:40
“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” – 1:29
“A Song for You” – 2:43
“Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” – 1:56
“Georgia on My Mind” – 4:09
“I Gotta Get Drunk” – 1:22
“Whiskey River” – 2:42
“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” – 2:12


‘Willie and Family Live’ L.A. Weekly Review

Here’s the “Willie and Family Live” review from December 2, 1978, sharing a page with reviews by L.A. Weekly Music Editor Stuart Goldman and fellow contributor Don Snowden:

Willie Nelson, whose maverick approach to country music helped him achieve widespread popularity in the last four years, is finally represented accurately on an album. His studio albums have consistently failed in this respect; the only exception was the 1966 live LP at Panther Hall, which until now was the best example of Nelson’s onstage magnetism.

Backed by the players he’s toured with for three years, Nelson takes the listener through a complete live set, opening as usual with “Whiskey River” and coming around full circle to the same song at the end. I’ve seen dozens of Willie’s sets in the last four years, and these performances are above average.

Throughout, Nelson’s songs of love and betrayal, outlaw camaraderie, alternative lifestyles, and general hell-raising rivet the listener’s attention. And they’re told in formats ranging from acoustic country to electric rock and roll, with plenty of jazz-influenced nuances to add further color.


Stephen K. Peeples is a Grammy-nominated multi-media writer-producer and award-winning radio/record-industry veteran raised in Miami and Los Angeles by career newspaper journalists and music lovers. He’d been a music journalist for three years when he wrote the review above; in 1976-1978, he contributed reviews to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, and Performance, and features to Circus, Rock Around the World, Rocky Mountain Musical Express, Picking Up the Tempo, RePlay, and Music Retailer. Based in Santa Clarita, California, Peeples wrapped a 45-year media career in April 2021. As of spring 2024, he is authoring a new book celebrating the 60th anniversary in 2024-2026 of Bruce Brown’s epic surf movie “The Endless Summer.” And he is developing an art book/biography, “Boyd Elder, Artlaw: The Greatest Artist You’ve Never Heard Of,” about the artist who created the skull art for three classic albums by the rock group Eagles and much more (due in 2025-26). See the “Stephen K. Peeples” page on his website. Read and watch more original stories and exclusive interviews there and on his YouTube channel.

Article: ‘Willie and Family Live’ Album Review, L.A. Weekly (1978)
Category: News and ReviewsBlasts from the Past
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: stephenkpeeples.com