Willie Nelson’s Historical Burden
December 24, 1980
My friend from Texas once told me that when people down there started raving about Willie Nelson a couple of years ago, he assumed it was not the same Willie Nelson he remembered from when he was growing up. Of course it was — the middle-aged hippie country star is indeed the former country and western journeyman. It’s become the essence of his mystique and I only mention the story to show that I’m aware that Willie Nelson comes from a a real culture in a real place.
I however, didn’t tune into him until Red Headed Stranger in 1975. I ignored the story line — man loses girl, man kills girl, man rides off with horse, woman touches horse, man kills woman, man falls in love — but was hooked by the simple instrumentation and Nelson’s lean, straightforward, wistful voice and flawless phrasing. I’ve always hated critical raves about flawless phrasing, considering it as useless as complicated, super-fast guitar solos, but I don’t know how else to describe it. While Nelson’s voice suggests a whole history of memories; he sings the lyrics with an expertise that doesn’t undercut the directness of the song, but adds to it by working around whatever stale or banal spots might be hidden in them. Any form of sophistication implies some distance, I guess, but Nelson’s skill as a singer doesn’t add the typical distance of irony or hipness. If anything it enriches our sense of history, regret, and memory, underlining his ability to find that rare naivete on the far side of experience.
And that was at the heart of his amazing accomplishment on the album that really hooked me — Stardust, his 1978 collection of old pop standards swung by Willie and his band plus Booker T. Jones on organ. At the time it was a shock to hear Nelson’s version of songs I associated with Bing Crosby, but they were hardly weird or offbeat. He just sang as if these were his songs, and by that time the man was so in command of his sound and his singing that he could make those old standards fresh for the first time ever for people like me.
I impose my own personal history on this review not because it’s so remarkable but because it’s so typical of a portion of Willie Nelson’s expanded audience. So when we went to see him at the Palladium last week I didn’t try to distance myself from the event. I wasn’t a critic observing an interesting but foreign subculture. I was a fan. It was at the Palladium, after all, not even the Felt Forum or some more typically country venue in New Jersey. And Carlene Carter, sounding like Nick Lowe’s wife, was the opening act, and did not go over well. But the country cross-over intent was clear.
I might not be from Texas, never grew up listening to him, never got stoned at his Lone Star Woodstock in July, but since Willie’s been doing some crossing over in the last five years, he’s now got some fans like me. Fans for whom the bloom was taken off the evening when his warm-up comedian, Don Bowman, told very stale old pothead jokes and very ugly old sexist jokes, and did a parody in which “Big Bad John” is a gay hairdresser in L.A. Fans who cringed when the Red Headed Stranger couplet “You can’t hang a man for killing a woman. Who’s trying to steal his horse” got cheered. Fans who sank lower in their chairs when the audience proved too fucked up to remain quiet during a quiet song.
What’s weird is that while Willie calls forth reactionary shit-kicking reefer madness in his audience he is also flinging off an endless stream of albums in his evocative, quiet, neo-traditonal, memory-saturated Stardust style. Not counting the live double and the Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack (a fake live double) the Electric Horseman soundtrack (a hodgepodge), there’s been the Kris Kristofferson tribute, the Leon Russel collaboration on lots of old western pop and straight pop (One for the Road), the country classics heavy on western swing with Ray Price (San Antonio Rose) the traditional white gospel with sister Bobbie (Family Bible), and the Christmas standards (Pretty Paper). And they all sound fresh, sincere, and interesting, with just a few ringers. It’s almost as if the man has gotten so good he could do a listenable collaboration or tribute album with anyone.
There’s just one question about this kind of boundless pop success: Now what? Stardust sent a signal to people outside his audience like me while reclaiming pop standards for the country tradition — it showed a way to add Cole Porter to your repertoire without having to flip into a foreign musical vocabulary, and all sorts of lesser artists will be in Willie’s (and harmonica player Mickey Raphael’s) debt for that.
The Kristofferson and Russell albums are a certification of Nelson’s identification with country’s aging new wave, the Ray Price and gospel albums with its past. All of them make the material fresh, and that’s fine. But they don’t take it anywhere, the way Stardust did.
Is Willie summing up, or is he at a dead end? Is there any cultural vitality left in the idea of bringing the hippies and cowboys together or are they both becoming artificial historical postures? And are there really any hippies or cowboys left? Is the generation gap closing because the lessons of the Vietnam War era were learned or because they’ve been forgotten? And are white men settling their differences to do something other than go back to shitting on women and blacks?
Stardust speaks to me. I guess Family Bible speaks to me too, because it’s so audaciously unhip, being neither up-to-date Jesus music nor certified folk-country classics. (I used to be moved by “Amazing Grace” but it closes more shows these days, including Willie’s, than “Johnny B Goode” did 10 years ago.) The Ray Price album might speak to me as well. But I find all this outlaw-cowboy stuff so much bullshit. As I see it, Willie Nelson isn’t supposed to be an old Charlie Daniels, he’s supposed to be a Pete Seeger with less ideology but a better voice. But then, I’m not from Texas.
So I called my friend in Texas, hoping he’d confirm my fantasy that out there where all these traditions are or were real, the audiences wouldn’t respond in such a depressing way. And of course he told me that in Texas these days they’d be worse.
Willie Nelson’s got a way of singing and playing now that makes him sound like all that’s best from all parts of what is broadly called country-and-western culture. Can that tradition help us break through into something better as we head into a harder era? Or is it ready to harden back into something uglier itself?
Tom Smucker, Village Voice
Dedicated in loving memory to Gary Kennedy