At 65, Willie Nelson is an icon. His headband-and-pigtails could be trademarked if it was in him to bother, and neither his IRS run-in nor his adventures in the marijuana trade will stop the man who toked up on the roof of Carter's White House from receiving his Kennedy Center honor this December--no doubt with more enthusiasm than his immediate predecessor in this modestly countercultural coup, his longtime Columbia labelmate Bob Dylan. However suspect, this analogy goes a long way. True, Dylan was promulgating his songs as a youthcult avatar while the older man still hewed to the Nashville system of selling "Four Walls" to Faron Young and "Crazy" to Patsy Cline, finally cracking the hit parade with a cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" after 15 years of major publishing bucks and failed record deals. But as Nelson entertained a solidly middle-class crowd at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center a few weeks ago, what came clear was the overriding link between these two great American songwriters: both now earn their livings, and find reason for living, as road musicians. Maybe if Nelson has a near-death experience someone will notice.
The irritation in my tone is not meant to imply that Dylan is unworthy. On some objective level, he's probably more "important" than Nelson. But not by much--they're both titans, definitely in the same league. Live and on record, I've gotten even more from Willie than from a resurgent Bob in recent years. So I'm impatient with the cultural politics that transform one icon into a symbol of eternal life and the other into a has-been. Admittedly, I was long derelict myself--until the 1996 Supper Club show timed to his finest recent album, the Island debut Spirit, I'd never seen Nelson, and so was astonished by what was in many respects a standard set. An hour in, figuring he was about done, I chortled to my wife that he was going to exit without playing one song from the record he was supposedly promoting. Just then he ambled into an instrumental I dimly recognized: the lead cut from Spirit, which he proceeded to run through in its entirety and in order, the whole album from beginning to end. Then he went on as usual. All told, Nelson and his companionable little four-piece played for two hours and 40 minutes that night, performing some 52 songs. It was wonderful. It was also, as I told my diary, "the unflashiest music I've ever seen in my life."
Understandably, the standard bios all strike the same chords: Nashville and then outlawism, annual Fourth of July shindig and then Farm Aid, concept albums and then off-the-cuff collaborations, the unplanned windfall of his 1978 classic-pop masterpiece Stardust. Whether or not they note Nelson's stint on bass for Ray Price (taught himself overnight, the Virgin Encyclopedia adds), all they have to say about his guitar is that he plays one. They talk up his "starker, more modern" writing, so much "more complex technically than the usual country tune," while treading gingerly around the "weatherbeaten directness" of his "parched, grainy" or "dry, wry voice." But in concert it's different.
The first thing you notice is that he's some guitarist. Famously, at least to his fans, his customized Martin has two holes, one cut by the luthier, the other worn in by his pick. Its sound is resonantly gorgeous, and the chords he gets from it have no parallel in country--he has a way of timing a dissonant comp so that the beat stumbles in a precise-seeming parallel to the chord's harmonic effect. His single lines are just as adroit and unpredictable, and once you acclimate to his musicianship, you start really hearing his singing, which beyond all that parched stuff is loud, flexible, strong. Nelson's midrange is so nasal that it diverts attention from his phenomenal breath control, and though he doesn't lift into high tenor as readily as when he was 40, he still glides at will into a powerful baritone that locates the true source of his voice deep in his thorax. What makes this harder to remember is that his records hardly seem sung at all--they register as half-spoken. Like all his music, the off-beat phrasing that pigeonholed him as uncommercial until he fled Nashville in 1970 is distantly informed by jazz, but the effect he intends is antivirtuosic. He's going for the intimate clarity of one-on-one conversation.
That's the secret of his unflash: he's an adept of the natural. Amazingly, the band that backed him in Newark--guitarist-vocalist Jody Payne, harmonica heartthrob Mickey Raphael, bass man Bee Spears, percussionist Billy English, drummer Paul English (his kit a snare on a packing case), and older sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano as if she'd learned from the saloon scenes in a hundred Westerns although in fact she doodles Mozart in her spare time--has been with him since 1972. These are not the crack shots Dylan likes to hire--they're just Willie's friends, and 150 nights a year they play together like water seeking its own level. They were on for two hours and 38 songs--one every three minutes, bang bang bang. Both nights the simplicity of the presentation had a devotional aura. Not that there was anything mystical or sanctimonious about a bunch of old buddies playing a bunch of old songs. But live, he makes it his discipline to avoid not just pretension but metaphor. In an artist who willingly keyed 1981's Somewhere Over the Rainbow to E.Y. Harburg's dreamy kitsch and 1993's Don Was-produced showcase Across the Borderline to Paul Simon's filigreed "American Tune," the basic-English literalness of the set list amounted to a statement of aesthetic principle--or at least entertainment strategy. In Newark, Nelson's mostly instrumental Cole Porter selection was the elegantly laconic "Night and Day," and "City of New Orleans" and "Pancho and Lefty" seemed positively Shakespearian in their narrative detail.
Nelson has cut lots of rock material, but "City of New Orleans" is as close as I've seen him get live; although he has a Jamaican album in the can and correctly credits producer Booker T. Jones as the hidden genius of Stardust, the only African American song he performed (both nights) was Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues." "What I do for a living is to get people to feeling good," he declares on the jacket of his out-of-print autobiography, and this he achieves with instantly recognizable country and pop touchstones whose meaning can't be mistaken: "All of Me" and "Blue Skies," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Working Man Blues" and "Georgia on My Mind." If other people's copyrights outnumbered Nelson's two-to-one at his shows, the model for their simplicity was still the bare-bones diction and subtle musicality of "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," of "Night Life" and "Me and Paul"--and of Spirit, buoyed by new songs, suffused with his guitar, and defined by a drumless variant of his road band.
It is widely believed by people who've barely listened to Nelson's '90s albums--and since he's bedded down with at least six labels since Columbia ditched him in 1993, this clueless group includes almost everyone outside his fan club--that they aren't much good. But in fact the quality has picked up plenty since that played-out relationship ended. Nelson will never write a "Funny How Time Slips Away" again, but neither will anyone else. In fact, most would be happy to match the rejects he pulled out of a steamer trunk for the new Daniel Lanois-produced showcase Teatro, especially the infinitely hummable "Everywhere I Go," which celebrates either a memory or a harmonica. And on Spirit, the likes of "I'm Not Trying To Forget You Anymore" and "Too Sick To Pray" break Nelson's New Age-ish vow to abjure songs "that can put you into a self-perpetuating mood of negative thinking"--only to be turned around by the likes of "I Guess I've Come To Live Here in Your Eyes" and the inspirational "We Don't Run," performed at the Supper Club as a singalong devoid of all exhortation and cheerleading. Spirit certainly deserves canonical status as much as the overinflated Red Headed Stranger.
And to get down to cases, I also prefer it to another artist's Daniel Lanois-produced showcase: Time Out of Mind. Because if Bob Dylan seeks to capture what Greil Marcus has dubbed "the old, weird America," then Willie Nelson is after the enduring, commonplace America. One is as great a mystery as the other.
You'd figure the greatest Willie Nelson record has strings all over it. But instead, 1978's definitive Tin Pan Alley resuscitation Stardust (now available straight up or as a luscious audiophile CD) relies on the subtlest organ Booker T. has ever played, several hotshots, and the same road band that lives and breathes Willie two decades later. The jazzier Somewhere Over the Rainbow is the runner-up in this vein, but before you invest, access his inconsistent, ill-preserved Columbia output via the three-CD Revolutions of Time--60 tracks that do right by Nelson-on-Columbia's panoply of conceptual tactics and commercial calculations.
These come to a head on his label farewell, the inspired yet mannered Don Was cameofest Across the Borderline. Like such deleted Columbia oddments as Me and Paul and the Hank Snow vehicle Brand on My Heart, Spirit recreates the naturalness Nelson achieves live as no live album can (cf. disc two of Rhino's obscurantist box). For all Daniel Lanois's aural affectations and pet drummers, the new Teatro gestures honorably at the same feel, although Justice's 1995 Just One Love, an old-fashioned country record produced by sometime Nelson guitarist Grady Martin and featuring Austin songbird Kimmie Rodgers, is sure more fun. Atlantic's 1974 Phases and Stages remains the most coherent of his concept albums. Rhino's Nite Life and (less undeniably) RCA's Essential Willie Nelson offer generic Nashville stylings of a catalogue now so classic it renders the off-the-rack arrangements becoming, while Kingfisher/Ichiban's I Let My Mind Wander stand as the strongest current configuration of Nelson's stark, early, oft-recycled Pamper demos. And Sundown's 1997 Don Cherry collaboration Augusta features the singing golfer, not the sainted trumpeter. The title song is about a golf course. Did I mention the golf course Nelson owns? A man of parts, that Willie.
Village Voice, Nov. 17, 1998