Willie Nelson: The Herbal Hillbilly Sinatra

There are people who despise country music who will admit to liking him. Notorious honky hater Miles Davis named a composition for him. He's a country star who releases what he wants — even a reggae album and a single about (closeted) male homosexuality. He's sold more than 50 million records, and he's friends with politicians and Hollywood stars. He's an activist and occasional actor, tours about 200 days a year, and smokes the heathen devil weed like there's no tomorrow. Ladies, gentlemen, farm animals: I give you Willie Nelson.

How is it that a longhaired pothead can record with Latin pop star Julio Iglesias, rockers Alejandro Escovedo and Carla Bozulich, fellow country icons Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and iconic jazz snob/star Wynton Marsalis and have it all, for the most part, work so well? Probably because throughout his career, Nelson has integrated assorted influences from American music (rock, Western swing, blues, traditional/Tin Pan Alley pop, gospel, etc.), but never in a facile manner. He's open to fresh ideas while being true to himself, and early in his career he paid the price for it.

You could say Nelson waited for the world to come his way. He doesn't have a "pretty" voice, but it's rich with a plainspoken directness and vulnerability, somewhere among Frank Sinatra's genially swinging croon, the craggy raconteur qualities of Lightnin' Hopkins and Hoagy Carmichael, and the lovesick hillbilly blues of Hank Williams Sr. These timeless qualities cut across generational and genre divides. But his songs — wise, weary, funny slices of life — laid the foundation for his career, with singing coming later.

Born in Fort Worth in 1937, Nelson grew up in a time when American music wasn't quite so segregated. He was raised with the mainstream pop of Bing Crosby, the Western swing of Bob Wills, and the country of Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman, along with the strains of Mexican music that wafted across the Texas border. As young as age 7, he was writing songs, eventually playing in local bands.

Fast-forward to 1960. Local success with songwriting motivated Nelson to hit Nashville, where he worked odd jobs, singing in bars and trying to peddle his songs to singers and publishers. His nasal, jazz-tinged vocal style was anathema— but his songs got noticed. Faron Young had a #1 country hit with "Hello Walls," and "Crazy" was a monster for Patsy Cline on the country and pop charts.

But success as a singer eluded Nelson. Circa 1972, having his fill of the conservative Nashville environs, he relocated to Austin. There, divisions between pot-smoking hippie rock fans and pot-smoking country fans were not so well defined, and Nelson's mellow eclecticism was embraced. This was the beginning — after a short stint with Atlantic, he landed on Columbia in '75, where he had creative control. Many hits on the country and pop charts followed, and at the seeming height of his success in 1978, Nelson did what some industry types thought unthinkable: He released Stardust, an album of Great American Songbook tunes. A unique and unassuming blend of country, jazz, and pop, Stardust stayed on the charts for about ten years, and remains one of his most successful albums. He showed himself to be not only a great songwriter and admirable singer, but also a distinctive interpretive performer.

Lots of water has passed under the bridge since — three divorces, major trouble with the IRS, and the death of one of his sons. And yet Nelson not only perseveres; he thrives. Listen to the unexpected, free-ranging joy that is Two Men with the Blues, his recently recorded live collaboration with Wynton Marsalis. For deeper perspective, there's the forthcoming disc, Naked Willie, a disc of recordings circa 1966-1970 with the Nashville high-gloss (syrupy strings and such) removed, letting the songs shine as never before.

Nelson is like the kindly, hip old uncle we all wish we had — a humble rebel and redneck intellectual.

 
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