“No need to force the love scenes anymore /
And a one act play comes to an end /
And we turn to leave, we can both part friends /
But this is the time to say goodbye, goodbye /
Because the words don't fit the picture anymore, anymore.”
—Willie Nelson, “The Words Don’t Fit The Picture”
When Willie Nelson sang those words in 1972, he was at a crossroads. He was about to move back to Texas full time, and wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a performer anymore, thanks to his label, RCA, meddling with his music and under-promoting it. Willie was half broke; his money-losing tours—where he was trying to forge a solo career solely by strength of his shows—would eat up all his songwriting royalties every year. Nelson, signed to RCA in 1965 largely off the strength of his songwriting—he had written “Crazy” in 1962—had been bristling against the label’s mandates over how his music sounded ever since he landed at RCA. Chet Atkins, the legendary finger-picking guitarist, ran RCA’s country division and dictated how everyone’s albums sounded. For his part, Atkins made RCA a supremely successful country label through what he called “The Nashville Sound,” a regal, smooth sounding alternative—complete with string sections and backing vocals—to the more raucous, Hank Williams-indebted honky tonk music that defined country music in the '40s and '50s. Its final form was called “Countrypolitan,” an epithet meant to note that they were trying to weld the music of the city with the music of the country. It wasn’t a bad system, all things considered, since it made stars of Patsy Cline, Jimmy Newman and Brenda Lee, among others. But it didn’t help Willie much; he felt creatively stifled, and like he was being held back from being the star he could be.
It all came to a head with 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine, a concept album about an “imperfect man” struggling with questions of god, existence and purpose. In his recent biography, It’s A Long Story, Willie says someone at RCA told him, “It’s your worst fuckin’ album to date.” It bombed commercially, and Willie considered quitting music altogether. Willie still had time left on his RCA contract, so he went back to the studio to record one more album with RCA (though a second one was put together from remainders of studio sessions past), intending to either quit or to sign a new contract with a different label down the road. A year later, he signed with Atlantic, then Columbia, and was given full creative control of his music, and become the Willie Nelson of popular memory, the Texan with the battered guitar and the red bandana blowing waves of smoke, with albums like Shotgun Willie, Stardust and Red Headed Stranger.
His 1972 album, the last recorded for RCA, The Words Don’t Fit The Picture, is often written out of Willie’s career arc, forgotten unjustly, along with multiple albums from his RCA days, as the albums he had to make to satisfy his contract, and not the best music he could make. Sure, The Words Don’t Fit The Picture is not his seminal mid-'70s albums, but leaving it to the vagaries of forgotten history isn’t right either. Willie might have hated the Countrypolitan sound, but The Words Don’t Fit the Picture might be one of that production technique’s finest achievements; a delicate, heartfelt album that showcases a part of Willie that is often lost in the perception of him as a tax-dodging pothead: the softie who could write the best love—and heartbreak—songs in all of music. And in a lot of ways, the version of Willie that’s ascended to icon status has roots in this album.
The title track is an all-time classic, almost the inverse of Willie’s “The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” where Willie is telling a romantic partner that there’s no point in continuing the charade of staying together. He deals with a breakup on “Stay Away From Lonely Places,” a how-to guide for avoiding wallowing in heartbreak. “If You Really Loved Me” finds Willie “more dead than alive” over a breakup, lilting his voice over plucked guitar strings, and a mellow tempo. “Will You Remember,” with its worries of a lover forgetting his love, could read as saccharine, but it’s one of Willie’s most wounded ballads on an album full of them. It’s a mode he’d perfect, particularly on Always on My Mind, but Willie’s balladeering ascended to another level on Words Don’t Fit the Picture.
The cover of The Words Don’t Fit The Picture is a joke on the title: the vision of Willie as a millionaire with a chauffeur (his producer Felton Jarvis) and a wife with a fur hat does not jive with Willie Nelson himself (or read another way, it’s a joke on how his album covers don’t match his music on RCA). Willie lays out his eventual outlaw country persona on this album in the form of “Country Willie,” a song that is practically the mission statement for the rest of Willie’s recording career in the '70s. The song also serves as a nice bookend to Willie’s RCA career, as his first album for the label was Country Willie.
“Good Hearted Woman,” an eventual smash duet for Waylon and Willie on their seminal, genre-defining Outlaws! album, appears in its earliest form here, more subdued than it ended up, coming out the same year that Waylon recorded his version on an album of the same name. According to Joe Nick Patoski’s Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Willie and Waylon wrote the song during a drunken late-night poker game while in Fort Worth, Texas. Connie, Willie’s wife at the time, remembered, as she was drafted by Willie to write down the lyrics because “none of us is going to remember this tomorrow”:
“Willie had been drinking and Waylon was doing his thing [making trips to the bathroom to snort cocaine]. The only part Willie came up with was ‘through teardrops and laughter we’re gonna walk through this world hand and hand.’ Waylon said, ‘That’s it! That’s what’s missing,’ and gave Willie half the song.”
The song hit No. 1 on the country charts, and, a rarity at the time, even hit No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But that success came a couple years after The Words Don’t Fit the Picture, and it was after Willie left for greener pastures at a different label and had moved on to Texas, far from the Nashville machinery. He recorded 14 albums for RCA in a little over seven years. And though they don’t stand out as his personal favorites—he mocks the cover of 1969’s Good Times in It’s A Long Story—Willie’s early catalog and dalliance with the Nashville Sound is more than overdue for critical reappraisal. His catalog is one of the most peerless in American music, a songwriting legend who has flashed his brilliance across albums for 60 years. The Words Don’t Fit The Picture was a transitional album for Willie; the last album under the old boss, but in a lot of ways, the first pointing towards the legend he’d eventually become.