For the first time—at least in physical form—Willie Nelson’s earliest recordings have been compiled together and released as a proper album. Called Things To Remember–The Pamper Demos, it contains the very first recordings of what would go on become some of Willie Nelson’s most iconic songs, including “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Are You Sure,” “I Gotta Get Drunk,” and many more destined to be huge hits for Willie Nelson and others. Some of the 28 songs in total have emerged as bonus material and other add-ons via compilations in the past, or have been released in digital form. But this is the first time all the songs and the stories behind them have been released together.
The origin of The Pamper Sessions starts in 1960, when Willie Nelson arrived in Nashville from Texas with wife and hungry kids in tow, looking to make it big in country music. He met fellow songwriter Hank Cochran who admired Willie’s songs so much that he decided to help him get signed to Pamper Music as a songwriter. At the time, Pamper was owned by Ray Price and fiddle player Hal Smith, and was one of the most successful song publishing concerns in Nashville. Initially Willie didn’t want to sign with the company because the weekly draw wasn’t enough to feed his family. But Hank Cochran, believing in Willie, gave him $50 of his own weekly draw just so Willie could get started writing and recording demos.
As Willie Nelson wrote songs, he would then record them with Nashville session musicians who didn’t have other work that day, and they would be pressed into acetate to be pitched to the big country stars of the time. That’s eventually how songs like “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, and “Night Life” by Ray Price would make it to the masses, and ultimately into country music history. “I was writing to prove I could write,” Willie said, “To get the money and feel like I was earning it.”
Hardcore Willie Nelson fans will have heard some, if not many of these recordings before. A few of them were added to compilations as bonus tracks over the years, and in 2002, Sugar Hill Records released 15 of the 28 recordings in an album called Crazy: The Demo Sessions. Also in 2016, Sony released two volumes of the demos digitally in Willie Nelson: The Demos Project Vol.1 and Vol. 2, but for unknown reasons, the releases were never promoted. Unless you stumbled upon them via Amazon, iTunes, or your streaming service, you would have never known they were there, and little to no literature explaining what the songs were, or where they were from accompanied the releases.
Things To Remember–The Pamper Demos released on July 13th by Real Gone Music is not available digitally, but it does come with a detailed explanation of the recordings that have all been remastered by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, annotated by Grammy-winning writer Colin Escott (best known for being the biographer of Hank Williams), and come with photos courtesy of Bear Family label founder Richard Weize. It is available on CD, or in a limited-edition red vinyl double LP. For those tied to streaming, Willie Nelson: The Demos Project Vol.1 and Vol. 2 can be found through most providers.
The recordings contained in Things To Remember–The Pamper Demos really are an important and iconic part of country music history, and some would argue the stripped-down nature resulted in the best renditions of these memorable songs. Some are more acoustic, while many feature steel guitar and other instrumentation not normal to Willie Nelson’s style of country music. Most striking is to hear Willie Nelson’s voice so early in his career, immediately recognizable, including his often off-kilter delivery, but with an earnestness, enthusiasm, and hunger in it hard to parallel with later recordings from his career.
Why these important recordings have been dealt with so loosely, and their release so under-promoted over the years (including this current release) really is a shame. For any Willie Nelson fan, a spin through The Pamper Demos is essential.
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(Not available digitally, but can be found on streaming services via Willie Nelson: The Demos Project Vol.1 and Vol. 2)