If anyone is still dubious about the extent of Willie Nelson's success and influence, any of these six albums will serve to convince that he has become a model for country singer/songwriters.
The Troublemaker, Nelson's latest release, was actually recorded for Atlantic almost three years ago Sales of his two previous albums for that label apparently weren't enough to warrant the release of this one, a collection of white gospel songs. But the big success of The Outlaws and Red Headed Stranger and the Willie/Waylon sweep of the Country Music Association Awards have since ensured that Nelson could record Hamlet and still command healthy sales.
The excellence of The Troublemaker as a white gospel' album is not at issue. What is more important is the success of the country "Outlaw" movement — personified by Nelson — which has created a climate in which almost anyone who can don a cowboy hat, a pair of jeans, grow a little extra hair and write half way philosophical lyrics has an excellent chance of landing a major recording contract.
So powerful has this movement become that Columbia has pieced together the greatest hits of Floyd Tillman, who has been ignored since the Fifties. The reason is obvious: Willie Nelson patterned his singing style, practically phrase for phrase and pause for pause, after Tillman. Moreover, the songs on the Tillman album, all recorded during the late Forties and early Fifties, bear a striking resemblance to the pre-Outlaw Willie songs — it is not many steps from Tillman's "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" to Nelson's "Hello Walls." The re-release of Floyd Tillman, however, is one of the most worthwhile spin-offs of the Outlaw movement — this album is clearly the best of the bunch, including Willie's own.
While Tillman is a major influence on Nelson's early work, the path Nelson has followed since returning to Texas — especially in the kinds of songs he wrote for Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger — has been totally his own. And it is the post-Nashville Nelson who is being imitated by the new generation of country singer/songwriters.
Writers like Clark, Seals, Wier and Taylor (to a lesser extent) have adopted Nelson's outsider pose without matching his creativity. With varying degrees of success and talent they have used Nelson's quasi-philosophical tone to flesh out their images as the new establishment country singer/songwriters. This process has been more a matter of style than substance.
In Troy Seals' latest album, we find the general theme of the worthless man and the long suffering woman — as in the Nelson/Jennings "Good Hearted Woman." Beginning with "Tall Texas Woman" and running through "A World of Good" on side one, Seals sings about the shiftless, drifting, but sensitive man who seeks out the company of various ladies — read "easy lays" — to help him through the night. On side two, we find a couple of songs in which the young man goes home to his woman, but he can do little more than apologize for himself.
This is part one of the singer/songwriter image: he is usually a self-admitted no-good and a failure, but he sure is lovable. Besides, he's "creative." It's a peculiarly defensive sort of machismo in which the man takes no responsibility for his behavior.
Nostalgia, particularly for the American West, is also de rigueur. Rusty Wier's Black Hat Saloon is a bar that has seen its better days — the Gold Rush days, to be precise. This sort of half-sorrowful, half-happy longing for the past is found not only in Nelson's own work on Red Headed Stranger but also in songs like "Calico Silver," by Michael Murphey.
In "The Devil Lives in Dallas," Seals' good ole boy just can't help himself. In Wier's version, however, the drunk and the woman and the hangover are blamed on "the devil." Ever since Kris Kristofferson wrote "Silver Tongued Devil," Old Scratch has been adopted as an alter ego by the country singer/songwriter whenever the hero of a song finds himself in a fix.
Guy Clark, a Texan transplanted to Nashville, is one of the more highly regarded new songwriters. Texas Cookin' can do nothing but damage to his reputation. Clark's song material goes right along with the rest of the crowd on this record, and one song, "The Last Gunfighter Ballad," presents a near-perfect example of the new establishment hero. Combining the characteristics of The Red Headed Stranger's outsider, the "Good Hearted Woman" 's loser, the nostalgia of "Black Hat Saloon" and a little of "Mr. Bojangles," Clark has come up with a broken-down old man who claims he used to be a gunfighter in the Old West. He is then run over by a car while reenacting a High Noon scene for a disbelieving crowd, thus giving us the ironic twist which passes for philosophy.
Helplessness and brave resignation also are valued commodities among Nelson-style writers, and Clark gives us these in "It's About Time":
Looks like a chance with no reason to take it,
Looks like our dance while the record player fakes it.
Hold on, King's X.
I think I'll be a captain standin' on a burnin' deck.
Now, to be absolutely orthodox, Clark should have characterized himself as Sam Houston fending off Santa Anna at the Alamo. But his heart's in the right place.
If Guy Clark breaks the mold in places, Chip Taylor is definitely suspect as an Outlaw. He does have a song here, called "The Gambler," which is okay because it's about a man who neglects his woman — but the guy lives in New York City, for heaven's sake. "Hello Atlanta" has a nice helpless line: "And it's hello Atlanta, I've had a heart full, it's pain as usual, won't you share it with me." There's even a line in "Peter Walker's Circus" that claims, "And we'll sing a Willie Nelson song and pass the drinks around."
Taylor, however, isn't going to make it with the Outlaw establishment. The title song, "Somebody Shoot Out the Jukebox," is downright subversive. Taylor not only questions the sincerity of your standard singer/songwriter, he implies that the music stinks. This alone will keep him out of the Outlaws' inner circle, because he has hit the nail on the head. With the exception of Floyd Tillman and Nelson, there is no music on these albums.
Here lies the ultimate irony of Willie Nelson's success, and the success of the whole country Outlaw business. In winning the fight to record what he wants the way he wants to record it, Willie Nelson has managed to flush out 20 other guys who think that they can make it by writing and singing exactly like Willie.
I've got the jukebox cornered. Somebody bring me a gun.
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