musical histories

Remember That Crazy Album the IRS Made Willie Nelson Release?

Willie Nelson. Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images

Willie Nelson is one of the most revered names in country music. And he’s prolific as hell, having released 67 studio albums since his 1962 debut. Although that’s a staggering output, cranking out a ton of content over decades doesn’t necessarily make you memorable: John Tesh has 43(!) studio albums, and I challenge you to name one. (I’ll save you the hassle: 2001’s Classical Music for Babies and Their Moms Vol. 1 & 2.) Being prolific is one thing; being high-quality prolific is quite another. And that’s where Nelson has shined.

Problem is, such an expansive back catalogue of standout music can be paralyzing for neophytes looking to take the Willie Nelson plunge. It’s not exactly a walk in the park for casual-to-moderate fans either. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. Simply pick up a compilation album of Nelson’s biggest hits and you’re good to go. Just kidding: The guy has 42 compilations albums, so you’re still screwed.

As an alternative to investing in some Trivago-style aggregator site for Willie Nelson songs, a solid, but offbeat recommendation is 1992’s The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, a wholly unexpected career highlight from the Red Headed Stranger’s vast arsenal. While it’s tempting to immediately delve into the album’s numerous merits, that’s pretty near impossible to do without first exploring the financial megarumpus that strong-armed it into existence.

The CliffsNotes backstory: Like many of us in the late 1980s, Nelson discovered that he owed $16.7 million in back taxes. Fortunately, the singer’s attorney, a shrewd legal entity more retainer than man, used some next-level divestiture witchcraft to negotiate that sum down to $6 million. One obstacle remained. Nelson didn’t have enough funds to cover this reduced rate, and never quite got around to paying it. Cause and effect: On November 9, 1990, federal agents seized all of his assets. Not just his home (as was widely reported), but his recording studio, memorabilia, and countless instruments. In the end, the music legend was left with little more than the shirt on his back and (presumably) a bandana or three.

The long-running narrative (read: joke) is that Nelson got buried in tax debt because he’s bona fide inept with all things money. In reality, the story is a little more nuanced. Although clearly no Warren Buffett, the singer had the good sense to place his financial faith in accounting firm Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). Unfortunately, Price Waterhouse in turn placed its faith — and his money — in a tax shelter eventually found to be illegal. Nelson went on to sue the firm, which settled the case out of court a few years later. However, he was still a man without money. And the now-infamous IRS auction of his worldly possessions didn’t do much to offset that $6 million bounty on the musical outlaw’s head. After a new round of negotiations, Nelson and the Feds agreed he would record a new album, with proceeds going directly to the good folks at the Internal Revenue Service.

The end result was The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, a 25-song collection that by any assessment reeked of a low-rent marketing stunt. There was the cheeky “C’mon, help me pay these guys off!” album title. There was the album cover (never one of Nelson’s strong suits), which looked like design duties were pawned off on a family acquaintance who’s “good with the Photoshop.” And there was the fact that The IRS Tapes was initially only sold via goofy hotline number (1-800-IRS-TAPE) and a series of Curb Your Enthusiasm–level awkward TV commercials. (In one spot, the announcer cheerily notes, “This is the only Willie Nelson album where proceeds go directly to retiring his IRS debt!”) The content itself wasn’t even new: These were just songs culled from a bunch of Nelson’s previous releases.

The gambit came across as a government-mandated cash grab. A contractual obligation to pay down some serious debt, and fast. From a financial perspective, it most certainly was, and it most certainly worked. The IRS eventually collected $3.6 million from album sales, paving the way for Nelson to mosey from the red into the black within a few years.

That said, from a creative perspective, the gambit didn’t work at all. Over the years, a boatload has been written about the cognitive dissonance of Nelson’s musical team-up with Uncle Sam. But despite The IRS Tapes being one of his most discussed albums, precious little has been written about the music itself. Reviews are unusually scarce: Only three exist online, totaling a mere 318 words when combined. Which is somewhat understandable. On the surface, the album has all the markings of a footnote — an instantly disposable curio buried deep in the annals of popular culture.

But as a musical achievement, The IRS Tapes rises well above the circumstances that demanded its inception. Much of this can be chalked up to restraint. First the financial kind: Nelson had little choice but to make this album on the cheap. So he walked into a studio with his faithful guitar, Trigger (the one instrument not seized in the IRS raid), and pretty much just hit record. This necessity gave way to the most intimate recording of his career. A sparse showcase of Nelson’s soulful voice and his impeccable, underrated guitar playing. To avoid doling out royalties, cover songs couldn’t make the cut, which leaves out some of his biggest hits. We’re talking everything from “Always on My Mind,” to “All the Girls I’ve Loved,” to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” to “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Fortunately, keeping these songs out of the lineup only bolstered the validity of the final product. You’re getting 25 Willie Nelson songs written by Willie Nelson.

With this financial restraint came a refreshing amount of personal restraint. Nelson could have still jammed this sucker up with his best-known original songs, from “On the Road Again” to any one of his dozens of other hits. Popularity sells, as does familiarity. Still, at the literal expense of his own financial self-interest, he refrained. Instead, The IRS Tapes is a collection of lesser-known original songs from Nelson’s catalogue. In fact, only “Yesterday’s Wine” and “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” were originally released as singles, and nether cracked the top 50 on the U.S. country charts. It’s a curious selection for an album ostensibly created to be a naked cash grab.

Although The IRS Tapes spans two decades of Nelson’s career (1962 to 1983), there’s a deliberate cohesiveness to the selections, which prevents the album from devolving into a haphazard collection of themes. These are all songs connected by loss, heartbreak, redemption, and sentimentality. A quarter of the tracks, including “Remember the Good Times,” “Summer of Roses,” “Pretend I Never Happened,” and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” are culled from Yesterday’s Wine (1971) and Phases and Stages (1973), country music’s first- and second-ever concept albums. And Nelson’s beardless 1960s era is equally well-represented with “Buddy” (Good Times, 1969), “Wake Me When It’s Over” (… And Then I Wrote, 1962), and the wistful unreleased track “Will You Remember Mine” (1961). To boot, there are some mighty good bones propping up the bittersweet “Lovely Little Mansion” and “Home Motel” from 1963’s Here’s Willie Nelson. (Side note: Early 1960s album titles sure loved introducing us to the artists making their records.)

Instead of compiling these original recordings and calling it a day, Nelson went for stylistic cohesiveness, rerecording and rearranging each song, stripping them down to their sparse essence. His acoustic arrangements come off as simple at first listen, yet are deceivingly complex, seamlessly alternating from open chords to intricate picking to the occasional Spanish-guitar flourish. The result is timeless, evocative, and at times downright haunting. If there was a country-music version of Nick Drake’s seminal Pink Moon album, The IRS Tapes would be it: It’s the sound of an empty room, where a down-on-his-luck man with a guitar musters up sweet melodies and lyrics flush with introspection. Here’s a sample from “December Day”:

This looks like a December day

It looks like we’ve come to the end of the way

And as my memories race back to love’s eager beginning

Reluctant to play with the thoughts of the ending

The ending that won’t go away

At the risk of veering into blatant aggrandizement, that’s some gorgeous Robert Frost–level shit right there. To provide a sense of how out of sync The IRS Tapes was with modern country music upon its release, here’s a lyrical sample from the genre’s No. 1 song at the time:

Don’t tell my heart

My achy breaky heart

I just don’t think he’d understand

And if you tell my heart

My achy breaky heart

He might blow up and kill this man

While difficult to fully convey how far novelty had seeped into country music by the early 1990s, “Achy Breaky Heart” does a pretty bang-up job. As does the below video, which remains a thing that exists.

Which brings us back to the issue of restraint. Nelson’s IRS Tapes does the genre a service, sidestepping a minefield of tried-and-true country-lyric clichés, nary once referencing or paying tribute to any of the following:

Trucks, hunting, Jesus, jukeboxes, being a man’s man, drinking away your sorrows, shooting off guns, cowboys and cowboy attire, one-light towns, casual misogyny, Jack Daniels, swingin’ hips, honky-tonks, longnecks, over-the-top yarns, rodeos, cutoff jeans, the South, endless summers, one-night stands, riding shotgun, things that are swayin’, tailgating, horses, moonshine, Nashville, ten-gallon hats, 12-point bucks, Friday afternoon quitting time, shotgun weddings, double-wide trailers, being rowdy and/or raising hell, patriotism, and the ol’ red, white, and blue. The absence of those last two is particularly notable: Over the course of these songs, the only track remotely about America is “Jimmy’s Road,” a devastating antiwar ballad that Nelson originally penned back in 1968. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional country-music trope, and it’s not like Nelson hasn’t flirted with them before or since. But not here.

Which benefits the album particularly well. There’s no ironic detachment in The IRS Tapes. No good ol’ boy wink and a smile. This is an intimate collection of personal, fragile, and unabashedly sincere music from a man deep in the throes of personal ruin. Which makes it a more than fitting entry (or reentry) point into Nelson’s imposing library of near-endless content. Plus, it’ll serve as a damn fine way to help get you through the day. As Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson once wisely affirmed, “The Human Resources department requires that I be available once a month to discuss workplace disputes with my employees. The rules do not specify whether or not I am allowed to listen to Willie Nelson on my headphones.”

Remember the Crazy Album the IRS Made Willie Nelson Release?