I own Willie Nelson records on the following labels: Columbia, Lone Star, RCA, United Artists, Liberty, Atlantic, Capricorn, Diplomat, Sunset, Double Barrel, Plantation and a couple of others I forget right now. Obviously, the man has been around. It shows in his music. There’s a remarkable emotional and thematic unity that runs through his entire body of work. As one of the most talented songwriters and song stylists this country has ever known, Nelson has carved out his own special place in American music: the Church of the Honky-Tonk. But no matter how many people have called him a country singer, Willie Nelson is no such thing — he sings spiritual and scary stone-beer-joint blues. Indeed, he’s the closest thing to a Ray Charles the white race has yet produced.
The fact that there once was no room in the music business for a white Ray Charles was an irony not lost on Nelson. Early on, the only door that appeared open to a slightly eccentric, Abbott, Texas, redneck who sang off the beat seemed to be the songwriting factories in Nashville. Consequently, for almost two decades, he languished in Tennessee, writing hit songs for other people. Now and then, they’d let him out of his cubicle to cut an album, just to prove to him that his own LPs wouldn’t sell. Country singles were what they wanted, and Nelson could write them as well or better than anyone.
That some of his songs were too weird for the country market — songs about a man strangling his lover, for instance — was of no great import. Nashville protects its innocents and eccentrics, and Willie Nelson was both. While he raced through a series of wives and battalions of tequila bottles, Nelson, seldom speaking unless he was spoken to, naively clung to the belief that someday his genius would be recognized. Naturally, it was — just the way it always happens in the movies. (In fact, it’ll soon be a movie. The singer now has a multipicture deal with Universal.)
No film, however, could depict the shadowy, haunted world created by Nelson’s finest songs: a bleak, burned-out landscape where hope is only a joke, where love is no more than a stolen kiss on a dance floor and hollow betrayal after a night in a shabby motel room, where you’re doomed to a life whose single truth seems to lurk in the bottom of a bottle, and where the only reality is the four walls of a honky-tonk. Willie Nelson captured it all in a single line: “I’ve got a wonderful future behind me.” And, mister, he meant it. One can only imagine the sort of Edgar Allan Poe nightmares that seized him in those days when he was really suffering inside — he won’t talk about it, and the only clues are those provided in some of his early tunes.
Nelson’s emotional — as well as commercial — breakthrough and breakaway from that life came in 1975 with Red Headed Stranger, an album of such awesome depth and impact that I still find it hard to believe it’s only a record. For me, the only other LP in pop history that even approaches it is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which runs a distant second. Morrison’s vision, however, is not so dissimilar from Nelson’s.
When he was hurting, Willie Nelson was truly a masterful songwriter. These days, now that he’s rich and famous, the songs don’t come tumbling out the way they used to.
Nelson’s newest album, Willie and Family Live, though terribly produced and mixed (you have to struggle up out of your chair every thirty seconds or so to adjust the volume before you lose an eardrum or two from the next volume jump), is the best representation of his career. It includes many of his greatest early numbers (“I’m a Memory,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”), beautiful snippets from Red Headed Stranger, a little gospel, a lot of blues, a bit too much Grateful Dead-like improvisation and some middle-period Willie-and-Waylon (Jennings)-flavored songs. Overall, this record resembles a church meeting, albeit one led by a very skilled and tuneful preacher. If Willie Nelson wanted to start a cult — well, he wouldn’t. But if he did, I’d like to be its treasurer.
Face of a Fighter is a gem: stark vocals and clean production of some of Nelson’s earliest and least-known compositions. Though these songs were once released as part of Double Barrel’s Willie Nelson 1961, that LP probably sold about 4000 copies in Austin and suburbs. The title tune is terrific (“Mine is the face of a fighter/But my heart has just lost the fight”), but the real treasure here is “The Shelter of Your Arms,” written when the artist was (for him) still fairly optimistic. Some of the lines are: “If I die while I’m asleep/I pray my dreams He’ll let me keep/And carry me through eternity/In the shelter of your arms.” Very sweet and very untypical of Nelson’s bitter songs. All he asks here is that, when he dies tonight, God will at least grant him the fantasy of being eternally happy with you (since you’re the only one who hasn’t been a lying, cheating bitch). Nowadays, there’s always a large contingent of women fans who openly proclaim that they could keep the singer happy — forever, if need be.
There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight and Sweet Memories are blatant attempts to cash in on Willie Nelson’s present-day popularity by offering generally inferior older material. Both albums are heavily overdubbed with sticky-sweet string sections that make the artist sound like a Hostess Twinkie drowning in maple syrup. United Artists, heir to much of Nelson’s best early work on Liberty, and RCA should know better. Especially RCA, for whom the singer recorded a string of brilliant LPs. If that label wants to reissue something, it should re-release Country Music Concert/Live at Panther Hall, Nelson’s great performance in Fort Worth.
How ironic that record companies that didn’t know what to do with Nelson when they had him, now know even less about what to do with what they’ve got in the can. I don’t understand why they can’t at least call up an expert (such as the present writer) and ask: “Hey, we got all this stuff Willie Nelson cut for us a long time ago. Which is the good oranges and which is the bad oranges?”