Willie Nelson

Tougher Than Leather – 2003 (Columbia/Legacy)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

Legacy's second batch of reissues captures several of Willie Nelson's musical sides: hit-single maker, visionary album artist, eclectic chance-taker and duet partner. It's a fitting tribute to a musician whose artistry can't be fully explained in a greatest-hits package or anthology box-set. So much of Nelson's catalog was conceived and executed as holistic long-playing albums, that to abbreviate or interweave his work is to fundamentally alter the original artifacts.

A prime example is 1983's "Tougher Than Leather," a thematic song-cycle often overshadowed by Nelson's earlier breakthrough, "Red Headed Stranger." Recorded with his road band, it's not as musically broad or dramatically stagey as "Stranger," but its old west tale of life, karma and reincarnation stands as one of Nelson's most seamless blends of music and philosophy. "Leather" forms a bookend with "Stranger," capping nearly a decade of film appearances, soundtrack recordings and albums full of others' material with a solid return to Nelson's songwriting roots.

"Tougher Than Leather" reveals some of Willie Nelson's mystical inner workings.