Yesterday's Wine

Yesterday's Wine is the thirteenth studio album and a concept album by country singer Willie Nelson. Nelson had been recording for RCA Victor since the early 1960s, and had no significant hits. By 1970, his recordings had reached mid-chart positions. Nelson lost the money from his song-writing royalties by financing unsuccessful concert tours that were generally unprofitable. In addition to problems with his music career, Nelson had problems in his personal life. He had divorced his wife, Shirley Collie, and his Tennessee ranch had been destroyed by a fire.

Yesterday's Wine
Studio album by
RecordedMay 1971
LabelRCA Records
ProducerFelton Jarvis
Willie Nelson chronology
Willie Nelson and Family
Yesterday's Wine
The Words Don't Fit the Picture

After moving to a new home in Bandera, Texas, Nelson was called by RCA producer Felton Jarvis about the upcoming scheduled recording sessions. At the time, Nelson had not written any new material. He returned to Nashville, where he wrote new songs to use with others from his old repertoire. These new concept songs were recorded at the RCA studio in Nashville in just two days.

Recognized today as Country Music's first true concept album, Yesterday's Wine is the story of the "Imperfect Man", from the moment he is born to the day of his death. RCA originally released the singles "Yesterday's Wine" and "Me and Paul". The former peaked at number 62 in Billboard's Hot Country Singles. The album failed to reach the charts, and a frustrated Nelson decided to temporarily retire from music, while still under contract to RCA Records. Later with his musical style revitalized, he returned to music in 1972.


By the fall of 1964, Nelson had moved from Monument Records to RCA Victor, under the leadership of Chet Atkins, signing a contract for US $10,000 per year.[1] During his first few years at RCA Victor, Nelson had no significant hits, but from November 1966 through March 1969 his singles reached the top 25 consistently: "One In a Row" (number 19, 1966), "The Party's Over" (number 24 during a 16-week chart run in 1967), and his cover of Morecambe & Wise's "Bring Me Sunshine" (number 13, March 1969).[2] Up to 1970, Nelson had no major success. His royalties were invested in tours that did not produce significant profits. In addition to the problems in his career, Nelson divorced Shirley Collie in 1970. In December, his ranch in Ridgetop, Tennessee burned down. He interpreted the incident as a signal for a change. He moved to a ranch near Bandera, Texas and married Connie Koepke.[3] In early 1971 his single "I'm a Memory" reached the top 30.[3] Felton Jarvis contacted Nelson for the recording of his next album.[4]

Recording and compositionEdit

Nelson had not written any material for the sessions by the time he arrived in Nashville in April 1971. While living in the new ranch, Nelson read the Bible, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the works of Edgar Cayce and Episcopal priest A.A Taliaferro's work.[5] Inspired by his readings, Nelson decided to work in new material.[6] On May 1–2, he wrote nine songs, combining new ones with previous material from his repertoire, such as "Family Bible", to create the concept for the album. He recorded Yesterday's Wine in four sessions, backed by David Zettner and the studio session players, beginning with two sessions on May 3 and finishing with the last two on May 4.[7]In his 2015 autobiography, Nelson reminisced about this turbulent time in his life:

I looked up and simply began asking questions. Rather than keep those questions to myself, I put them into songs. The songs became my own particular prayers, my own personal reflections. I strung those prayers and reflections together in a loose-fitting suite of songs. Music critics were throwing around the term “concept album”...I guess you could say that this new notion of mine came together as a concept album. Rather than try to write a bunch of hit singles, I simply followed the natural path taken by my mind.

Nelson had recorded a concept album previously about his home state called Texas in My Soul, which had been the brainchild of RCA head Chet Atkins, but Yesterday’s Wine was far bolder, contemplating his mortality as the “imperfect man,” an idea that was so far-out that when it came time to record in early May of 1971 producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to let the tapes roll.[8] The album describes the life of a man, called "The Imperfect Man", from the beginning to the day of his death.[4][9] The story begins with a dialog between two characters. The first asks the other "You do know why you're here?", and the second replies: "Yes, there's great confusion on earth, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already and His voice was heard; The voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest; and I have been selected as the most likely candidate." This statement is followed by "Where's the Show" and "Let Me Be a Man". In the medley, Nelson depicts the birth of the character, who implores God to become a man. The song is followed by "In God's Eyes", depicting the character learning to act as a good Samaritan. In "Family Bible", the character describes his memories of and nostalgia for his childhood, the times with his family and the reading of the family Bible. "It's Not for Me to Understand" depicts the character praying, after watching a blind child listening to other children playing and finding himself unable to understand why God allowed that to happen. God replies to the Imperfect Man, "It's not for you to reason why, you too are blind without my eyes, so question not what I command". In the last stanza, the character now expresses his fear of the Lord and his reluctance to question the unfairness of the world again. The medley "These Are Difficult Times / Remember the Good Times", describes the character's bad times and his recovery by remembering the good times.[10] "Summer of Roses" depicts the character falling in love and in the prime of his life. It is followed by the anticipation of the beginning of the end in "December Day", as the character announces "This looks like a December day. It looks like we've come to the end of the way". "Yesterday's Wine" finds the character drinking in a bar, talking to the regulars about his life, and reflecting on aging. In "Me and Paul", the Imperfect Man remembers the circumstances in which he lived with a friend in past times. The album ends with "Goin' Home", as the character watches his own funeral.[11]

Although it was perhaps the LP's most accessible track, and has since become regarded as one of Nelson's finest compositions, the title track - a tale of two old friends meeting up unexpectedly in a bar after many years - limped to #62 on the Billboard country survey. In 1982 Merle Haggard and George Jones recorded a duet of "Yesterday's Wine" which became a #1 single, remaining so for one week and spending a total of ten weeks on the chart.[12] Yesterdays's Wine also contains two love ballads, "December Day" and "Summer of Roses," with Nelson later remembering, “I couldn’t write a suite of songs, no matter how spiritual, without reference to romance,” calling “Summer of Roses” and “December Day” “love poems. In the first song, love was fleeting, tragically brief; in the second, love was remembered...”[13] “December Day” had been recorded previously for Nelson’s 1969 LP Good Times. “Family Bible” was another old tune that Nelson, a struggling songwriter at the time, sold to Paul Buskirk for fifty dollars; Buskirk took it to Claude Gray, who scored a number 7 hit with it in 1960.[14][full citation needed] A song about his own youth, Nelson later insisted, “There could be no Yesterday’s Wine without ‘Family Bible.’”[15] In his memoir Nelson wrote that "Me and Paul" was a song "that described the road that my drummer and best friend, Paul English, and I had been riding together.[16]

RCA reactionEdit

Yesterday’s Wine marked the beginning of the end of Willie’s relationship with RCA Records.[17] In 2015 Nelson recalled one RCA Records executive telling him, “It’s your fuckin’ worst album to date.”[18] Nelson also quoted somebody at RCA as opining, “This is some far-out shit that maybe the hippies high on dope can understand, but the average music lover is gonna think you’ve lost your cotton-pickin’ mind.”[18] Nelson felt at the end of his rope:

At this point I was tempted to say something, to show how the songs fit together in one cohesive story, but I stuck to my guns and stayed silent...Nashville and I had been trying damn hard but we hadn’t really seen eye to eye for most of the sixties. I felt like I had shown goodwill and patience. I’d given the Music City establishment a fair chance. After Yesterday’s Wine, I cut other albums for RCA, but the story was always the same. The sales were slow and the producers lukewarm about my output. My career had stalled.[19]

RCA appeared to finally realize its folly five years later when Jerry Bradley included the album's title track and "Me and Paul" on the platinum-selling RCA compilation LP Wanted! The Outlaws after Nelson's popularity had exploded. The songs were a perfect fit for the outlaw-themed record.

Release and receptionEdit

Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic     [21]
Christgau's Record GuideB+[20]
The New York TimesFavorable.[22]
Rolling StoneFavorable.[23]

RCA released the songs "Yesterday's Wine" and "Me and Paul" as singles. The song "Yesterday's Wine" peaked at number 62 in Billboard's Country Singles.[24] The promotion of the album was complicated for RCA's marketing department by the changes of Imperfect Man between spirituality and mundane behavior.[25] The album did not appear on any chart, failing to satisfy RCA's expectations.[4][7] Although his contract was not over, Nelson decided to retire because of the number of failures he had had. Nelson later wrote in his autobiography, "I think it's one of my best albums, but Yesterday's Wine was regarded by RCA as way too spooky and far out to waste promotion money on."[9] Nelson returned to music in the following year, as his style was influenced in the Armadillo World Headquarters.[26][clarification needed] Music critic Robert Christgau wrote: "The great Nashville songsmith has never bowled anyone over with his singing, and here he finds the concept to match. Most of these songs—though not the two best, "Yesterday's Wine" and "Me and Paul" are on religious themes, which tends to limit their general relevance."[20] Nathan Bush wrote for Allmusic: "'Summer of Roses', 'December Day', and the title track – songs that detail a sense of longing and loss with the changing seasons mirroring the narrator's own life ... many of the numbers stand on their own, outside the album context. 'Family Bible', 'Me and Paul', and the title track are all particularly fine examples of Nelson's songcraft. As a whole, Yesterday's Wine provides further insight into the development of his art during this prolific period."[21] The New York Times later described Yesterday's Wine as "the last and best of [Nelson's] Nashville albums", saying that it was "Organized in the manner of an epic poem, each cut a metaphor in the journey through life ... it was Nashville's first fully conceived concept album, and nobody knew what to make of it. It soon disappeared quietly and utterly."[22] Rolling Stone wrote: "[Yesterdays Wine] is the first of his bold, conceptual departures from country's hits-plus-filler norm. Rather than tack rock guitar riffs onto modern honky-tonk sagas, Nelson absorbed the innovations of Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters into his own distinct style. Even if the narrative concepts don't always hold together, Willie hangs his most ambitious albums on some of his catchiest tunes."[23] Author Michael Streissguth "tried to be a concept album, but it lacked a clear thread, despite Willie's claim to the contrary."[27] Robert Oermann and Douglas B. Green, in their book The Listener's Guide to Country Music, compared the album with Nelson's later recordings for Columbia Records: "All of those are beautiful records. They're all on Columbia and are made just the way Willie wanted them. It was not always so at his previous record label, RCA. Nevertheless, he made a few landmark recordings while he was with that company ... Few of the songs on Yesterday's Wine are well-known Nelson compositions, but all are minor masterpieces".[28]

Track listingEdit

All tracks were composed by Willie Nelson;[7] except where indicated

Side one
1."Intro: Willie Nelson and Band" / "Medley: Where's the Show; Let Me Be a Man" 3:41
2."In God's Eyes" 2:23
3."Family Bible"Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk, Walter Breeland3:12
4."It's Not for Me to Understand" 3:06
5."Medley: These Are Difficult Times" / "Remember the Good Times" 3:17
Side two
1."Summer of Roses"2:05
2."December Day"2:19
3."Yesterday's Wine"3:15
4."Me and Paul"3:50
5."Goin' Home"3:06


Chart positionsEdit


Song Chart Peak
"Yesterday's Wine" Hot Country Songs 62[24]


  1. ^ Reid, Jan 2004, p. 224.
  2. ^ Dicaire, David 2007, p. 246.
  3. ^ a b Kienzle, Richard 2003, p. 248.
  4. ^ a b c Kienzle, Richard 2003, p. 249.
  5. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 200-201.
  6. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 202.
  7. ^ a b c Kienzle, Richard (1997). "Willie Nelson: Yesterday's Wine". Yesterday's Wine (CD). Nelson, Willie. BMG Heritage.
  8. ^ Patoski, Joe Nick 2008, p. 219.
  9. ^ a b Nelson, Willie; Shrake, Bud; Shrake, Edwin 2000, p. 167.
  10. ^ Scobey, Lola 1982, p. 196-197.
  11. ^ Duke University 1994, p. 263.
  12. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 182.
  13. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 204.
  14. ^ nelson, Willie; Bud Shrake 1988, p. 136-137.
  15. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 203.
  16. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 205.
  17. ^ Patoski, Joe Nick 2008, p. 220.
  18. ^ a b Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 207.
  19. ^ Nelson, Willie; Ritz, David 2015, p. 208.
  20. ^ a b Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: N". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 8, 2019 – via
  21. ^ a b "Yesterday's Wine – Overview". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved October 10, 2011.
  22. ^ a b The New York Times 1979, p. 218.
  23. ^ a b DeCurtis, Anthony; Henke, James; George-Warren, Holly 1992, p. 500.
  24. ^ a b "Yesterday's Wine – Charts & Awards". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved October 10, 2011.
  25. ^ Doggett, Peter 2000, p. 354.
  26. ^ Reid, Jan; Sahm, Shawn 2010, p. 79.
  27. ^ Streissguth, Michael 2013, p. 103.
  28. ^ Oermann, Robert; Green, Douglas 1983, p. 118.


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