On Tuesday, Willie Nelson will turn eighty years old. If you happen to have caught him live lately, that might take you by surprise. Willie won’t be the first touring octogenarian — Ralph Stanley’s still on the road at 86; Chuck Berry, who is the same age, is still banging around St. Louis; and Yoko Ono, 80, was alive and screaming on last year’s collaboration with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Even the Old Possum George Jones made the rounds right up to his death last week at the age of 81. But on-stage, Willie seems nearly ageless. His band might have lost a step in the last few years, but Willie, if anything, has only gotten better over the past decade or so. Despite (or perhaps because of) his battles with carpal tunnel, his playing has become freer, slightly more impressionistic, pushing him as near to the avant-garde as anyone who’s shared the stage with Toby Keith can reasonably get. This is not hyperbole.
But what truly separates him from his peers, aged or otherwise, is the songs. When Phosphorescent released their 2009 tribute album To Willie, we declared Willie to be “a master of the human condition, a lonely and frustrated chronicler of the Great Country Virtues — whiskey, Jesus, sin, redemption, murder, love doubt — plucking great stabs of heartache and celebration like so many nylon guitar strings.” Even at his age, having played the majority of the songs on his nightly setlist for over forty years, he still seems to know this about himself, or at least about his work as a writer and performer; he’ll goof his way through “Me and Paul,” raising his eyebrows ironically at drummer Paul English as he recounts their Nixon-era exploits, but when he shifts into “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” or “I Never Cared for You,” he sells it like the heartbreak’s still fresh. As long as those songs are around, it will be.
In honor of the eightieth birthday of The World’s Greatest Living American, here’s ten of his slightly lesser-known tracks, a Willie Nelson 201.
In 1956, Willie worked as a radio announcer in Vancouver, Washington, and sold a simple gospel song called “Family Bible” for a mere $50. Though it was his first sale, and the song became somewhat canonical in the world of country gospel, Willie’s take on it wouldn’t find a home on an album until 1971′s morality tale Yesterday’s Wine. (Oddly enough, the track would warrant an album of its own in 1980). The song itself is more of a nod to the culture of Christianity than it is an actual spiritual song. Over tasteful fiddles and pedal steel, Willie remembers the family gathering around the table to hear Bible stories and his mother’s faithful strains of “Rock of Ages.” When he finally gets to the moral — “This old world would better be / If we’d find more Bibles on the tables” – we have to wonder whether Willie’s more in favor of the Word of God or the spiritual bonds of family and memory, or whether we can even have one without the other.
Kicking off with a jagged Spanish guitar run, “I Never Cared for You” is Willie’s first great kiss-off. It slides quickly into Willie’s voice, solo with reverb. “The sun was full of ice and gave no warmth at all,” Willie sings. “I never cared for you.” And just like that, a loping Mexican rhythm fills in behind him and he’s in the saddle, riding out of town with his back to Main Street. Soon enough, he’d retire from country music and leave Nashville, retreating to the hills of Austin, Texas, where he’d emerge several years later, reenergized and playing a rock and folk infused version of country music that would scare Nashville out of its platinum pants.
By 1973, Willie Nelson needed a hit of his own. He’d left Nashville something of a failure; Ray Price and Patsy Cline had made household names of “Night Life” and “Crazy,” respectively, but Willie had yet to score one on his own. Back in Texas, Willie penned “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a lament for, well, lamentation. Willie, always the gentleman, tells his ex-lover that he’s writing a song about her but, not to worry, as no one would ever hear it. “Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year,” he explains, a pedal steel dragging behind him. Though Shotgun Willie was a critical smash, it would be a few more years before the sad songs and waltzes on Red Headed Stranger would sell in the millions.
A hit for Roy Orbison and the opening title track from one of the few essential Christmas records in any genre, “Pretty Paper” is more a moral quandary than celebration of the season. Coming at the end of a nine-album streak of classic albums that concerned themselves as much with morality, Christian devotion, and the afterlife as they did with drinking and loving, “Pretty Paper” is one of Willie’s more complex songs. Though it moves slowly, with all the tenderness of new lovers on their first Christmas, its stroll takes it downtown, to the shopping crowds, where it tries to avoid the gaze of the beaten-down. The narrator struggles with whether or not he should stop and help, and we’re left with the laughing down the streets, muffling the cries of what’s right in front of us.
While still a brokedown songwriter going by his middle name of Hugh, Willie charmed Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s husband, over drinks at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, eventually convincing him to pitch “Crazy” to his wife. Surprisingly, Patsy hated Willie’s speak-singing style and dismissed the track; it wasn’t until her producer, Owen Bradley, re-arranged it into a ballad that she sang it, rocketing its melody up and and down the scale with gold-straw precision. Willie’s original version captures more of the song’s darkness, though, his voice sounding as if it were recorded in the alleyway between Tootsie’s and the Opry.
The live version of “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)”, from 1978′s Willie and Family Live, showcases Willie’s fleet-fingered picking and the power-oomph of the Family Band, Willie near-rapping over the top like a newscaster — “You can’t go home if you’re going by the mill, cos the bridge washed out at the bottom of the hill.” This version, from 1973′s Shotgun Willie, finds the Family more subdued. They’re playing behind the party here, a bit weary, slightly resigned but not completely given over to the idea of staying a little longer.
“Down Yonder,” a barroom-piano driven instrumental track written in 1921 by Russian-born composer L. Wolfe Gilbert, has somehow emerged as one of the most enduring tracks from Willie’s most popular album. Thanks in no small part to “Little” Sister Bobbie Nelson’s fleet-fingered piano playing, “Down Yonder” has remained a live staple in the Family’s set for thirty-plus years.
Country music has a tendency to amplify everyday realities, which is a sterile way of saying that when country musicians sin, they sin hard. This live track from 1977 finds Willie up Whiskey River without any semblance of a paddle. Jerry Jeff keeps him in the hold until the M-O-T-H-E-R spellout at the song’s center. “M is for the pickup truck,” Willie begins, and it doesn’t get any better from there. He eventually spells out “M-R-E-A-R” (that first R being for “reverse on the pickup truck”) in what has to be one of the most bizarre, embarrassing, and hilarious moments a major star has ever allowed to be released. Still, the thumping drums, Jerry Jeff’s bark, and the clarinets honking in the background make it sound like it was one hell of a party.
Willie Nelson :: Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother (via Jerry Jeff Walker’s A Man Must Carry On)
Some songs are bigger than any one performer. Neither of these songs were written by Willie, nor are they necessarily associated more with him than with any other artist, but when the Family Band launches into spiritual mode after two and a half hours of hardcore country music, there’s no better celebration in the world. Willie’s hands are tired from having plucked away at Trigger, his face is sweaty but (always) smiling, and his one index finger is pointing heavenward in a move he stole from Billy Graham and made his own. The beer halls clap their hands and stomp their feet on wooden boards, gone off hard to the same place that audiences have been going for years. Sometimes it takes good country music to help us clap our hands again.
“Willie Nelson’s reggae record” seems more like a headline on The Onion than an actual reality, and, true to form, most of Countryman is a misguided joke. But the centerpiece, a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come,” finds the project at its height. Over the reggae backbeat and Mickey Raphael’s stuttering harmonica, Willie strums a steel-stringed acoustic while a Jamaican-accented choir coos. The result is something that pays equal tribute to both country and reggae without feeling at all contrived. words/ m garner