Monday, August 18, 2008

fair appraisal of Willie book

I don't enjoy reading reviews of my work any more than I enjoy re-reading my own writing. When I'm done, it's out the door and that's it.

And while I don't agree with all of his points, I gotta say, Jason Chervokas does a fair, analytical assessment. He's enthusiastic about the subject and writes long and deep. As much as people bitch about the demise of book sections in newspapers, reviews like this, which aren't limited by physical space or tight word length, are the upside of the migration of reviews from hard copy to online.

Willie’s World

Little, Brown missed the mark in subtitling Joe Nick Patoski’s absorbing new biography of Willie NelsonAn Epic Life’.

Willie’s story is more of a tall tale. Like Daniel Boone, Willie belongs both to American history and American myth. Huckster. Trickster. Philanthropist. Pothead. Road dog. Genius. His nicknames read like godly epithets of a peculiarly American sort–Shotgun Willie, the Red Headed Stranger, Booger Red. Like Boone, in his own lifetime Nelson has become a living symbol of pioneering American virtues–individualism, integrity, survival, self-made commercial success. And the people around him speak of him as if he were the Yoda of Austin.

“Whenever Merle Haggard felt Willie’s intense gaze, he turned into a different person,” Patoski writes. ” ‘You’d see Haggard come onto the bus like a caged animal, withthat frantic, frenetic look in his eyes, being really uptight with a lot of people,’ publicist EvelynShriver said. “Then you’d see him sit across from Willie and you’d watch him physically change. When he makes that eye contact with Willie, all of a sudden, everything’s okay.’ ”

“I swear to God, being around Willie is like being around Buddha,” Kris Kristofferson tells Patoski.

Patoski’s approach is more journalistic than interpretive–he chronicles Nelson’s personal magnetism and creative prowess without attempting to explain their appeal or explore their deepest wellsprings. Here the subject is one of the greatest living songwriters, but the book leaves us with precious little sense of the inner life that produces the art. Although this is no hagiography, Patoski also seems to have fallen under Nelson’s soothing, feel-good spell. Patoski doesn’t shrinking from the detailing the collateral damage of Nelson’s way of life–the failed marriages, the suicide of his troubled son, the drug addiction of his teenage daughter–but absent from the book is any sense of the moral weight of the wreckage.

What Patoski does deliver is a grand, page-turner of a journey through one remarkable 20th century life in music–from shape note gospel singing and Western Swing in the Hill Country of depression era Texas, to the postwar Nashville music mill, to the birth of redneck rock and the Austin music scene, to gig singing Amazing Grace at Bill Gates’ wedding.

It helps that Nelson’s real life is shaped like a classical Odyssey. Born in Abbott, TX in 1933, Nelson hit the road as a 15-year old guitar picker–gigging at night and picking up work during the daylight hours as a radio personality in the early days of radio from Waco to Houston to Vancouver before settling in Nashville in 1960 where finally success of a sort arrived.

Beginning with Faron Young’s hit recording of Nelson’s Hello Walls and quickly followed by Pasty Cline’s reluctant recording of Crazy, Nelson-penned hits set new standards for sophistication in country songwriting. (Cline hated the way Willie sang, and Patoski’s account is full of early stories about bands who wouldn’t let Willie sing because his jazzy, behind-the-beat phrasing left rhythm sections befuddled.)

But Nelson yearned for success as a performer. The records he madein the early 1960s for Liberty and for Chet Atkins’ RCA Nashville factory were excellent–some of them even charted. But mostly sales were limited outside of Nelson’s native Texas. Then, two days before Christmas in 1969, Willie’s Ridgetop ranch outside of Nashville caught fire. Nelson’s nephew called to say the house was burning. “Pull the car in the garage,” was Willie’s response. “Let them have it.” It was time to end the odyssey and return home to Texas.

“Nashville was the roughest” Nelson wrote in Me and Paul, one of a new batch of songs Willie was writing that were different from the hits he wrote for others. Me and Paul was literal, unadorned autobiography, the kind of song only Willie could sing (tho’ Waylon covered it), the tale of the on-the-road struggles of Nelson and his best friend/drummer/armed bag man Paul English.

Willie’s new music wasn’t the sort of stuff you heard on the Opry during the first Nixon administration. In those years country and rock marked ideological poles in the emerging culture war. Willie straddled both sounds and both cultures. In 1966 he was already performing Yesterday for rednecks in Texas roadhouses. Me and Paul’s autobiographical quality and tale of a drug bust resembled nothing so much as the Grateful Dead’s contemporaneous FM hit Truckin’. Willie never really fit in Nashville. His lifestyle was different–part gypsy, part hippie, and a whole lot hillbilly (the Ridgetop ranch had become a kind of Hillbilly Kennedy compound/commune for band and extended family members). His sound was different–mixing jazz and rock with country in a style that was at once futuristic and tied directly back to Depression era Texas. And his albums, particularly after pscyhedelics, were different. His final album for RCA–Yesterday’s Wine–was a fine collection of original songs (including Me and Paul) framed by a portentous, half-baked (or maybe totally baked) voiceover dialogue in which God informs Nelson that he has been chosen to tell the Earth the story of “imperfect man.”

By accident or divine design, Nelson’s 1970 move to Austin TX delivered him to a budding “progressive country” scene where his music fit–a like-minded community of musicians and fans for whom his redneck hippie personality seemed natural. Over the next five years he wrote and recorded a string of career-defining albums, helped kick start Austin City Limits (the longest running American television show devoted to live music), and became a one-name celebrity.

Most celebrity bios peter out after the subject’s career peaks. But Nelson’s emergence in Austin only marks the midway point in Willie’s remarkable personal tale. It’s not that there’s a grand arc to Nelson’s last 35 years. But there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of amazing stories bout the man most of which are screamingly hilarious. As many great Willie stories as Patoski packs into the book, one suspects there are at least two or three more volumes of Willie stories that could be told.

* * *

One of the best things about Patoksi’sbook is the direct connection it illuminates between Willie’s music today and the music of the Depression era and Texas where Nelson was born and raised. Like chili, music in Texas is a unique border blend. Shape-note gospel singing and old time fiddle tunes drifted in with hillbillies from the Appalaichans. Tejano music rolled across the Rio Grandefrom Mexico. Polka arrived with Czech immigrants. Ragtime and boogie woogie filtered down from St. Louis and Kansas City re-emerging from both whorehouses and sanctified churches as barrelhouse piano. Jazz rumbled in from Louisiana like rain from a gulfcoast storm.

They called this Texas stew Western Swing. It was a style of music that was legitimately country and legitimatelyjazz (played by white men who had come up performing in blackface in traveling medicine shows). And it emerged in Ft. Worth Texas right around the time Nelson was born with the Light Crust Doughboys–the early supergroup of the style, a band that included singer Milton Brown and fiddle player Bob Wills, the men who would go on to lead the genre’s two top bands.

Nelson began his performing career shadowing Willis in a western swing band led by his sister (with whom he still performs) and her first husband. And Willis became Willie’s performing role model.

“He would hit the bandstand and never leave it for four hours,” Nelson recalls of Wills to Patoski. “…His band watched him all the time, and he only had to nod or point the bow of his fiddle to cue band members to play a solo. He was the greatest dancehall band leader ever. That man had the magnetism or whatever a man has, which is every eye in the house glued on them all night long.”

Two-step stomps, songs with jazzy harmonies, and liberal group improvisation–the stuff of western swing–remain hallmarks of Nelson’s style to this day, and the natural ease of a lifetime steeped in the music informs Nelson’s most recent CD release, Two Men with the Blues, a fantastic live collaboration between Nelson (with his harmonica player Mickey Rafael) and Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center quintet captured by Blue Note records.

The repertoire is a mix of Nelson classics (Night Life, Rainy Day Blues), Hoagy Carmichael tunes (Georgia, Star Dust–Carmichael has no greater living interpreter than Nelson) and blues of varied provenance (like Basin Street Bluesfamously recorded by Willis among a million others). Wynton Marsalis’ cultivated devotion to prewar jazz allows the music here to fit Willie like a custom cut Brioni suit. There’s no chance of that Willie’s improvised, off the beat phrasing could throw this crew, and Willie responds with his jazziest vocal performance on record, rarely singing a melody straight. Willie’s guitar solos are wonderful here too, although, truth be told, at 75 and suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome after decades on the road, Willie’s not the guitarist he used to be and there are plenty of better examples of his chronically underrated guitar soloing elsewhere in the Nelson discography. Pianist Dan Nimmer is a stand out here. At 25, he’s already a monster, proving himself a brilliant vocal accompanist AND a great soloist.

The CD’s best performance comes on My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It–an early jazz staple written by pioneering New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams and recorded by both Louis Armstrong (who got early work as a Williams sideman) and Hank Williams. Not only do Willie and Wynton clown their way through great vocal performances, but the band plays remarkably well–comfortable with the old-time beat. Drummer Ali Jackson plays one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard, a break so melodic you can just about sing along with it.

In a promo video prepared for the CD release Willie said: “Labels were invented to sell the music. You had to know what to call it before you could sell it so they called the blues the blues, and jazz is jazz, bluegrass, gospel, whatever. But some music encompasses it all. So what do you call that? And that’s pretty much what I like to play.” Mission accomplished.

* * *

One thing which IS epic about Willie Nelson is his discography. A music search on Amazon reveals 1258 Nelson items, Rhapsody offers more than 2500 Willie Nelson songs. Willie is bothroad dog and studio rat, a natural born picker who will record anything he gets the notion to record with any other musicians who happen to be around at any time of the day or night (though sessions at the Perdenales Country Club were typically called for a start time of “golf thirty,” or a half and hour after the golfing day ended, usually at sunset). It helps that Nelson owns two recording studios–one built in the clubhouse of a bankrupt 9-hole golf club he purchased outside of Austin, another built in the back of the saloon he owns in nearby Luck, TX.

If you’re a first timer looking for a one-off career retrospective purchase you won’t do better than Sony’s cross-licenced, career spanning One Hell of a Ride, a 4-CD set released this April. But that ain’t the best way to hear Willie Nelson. The best way to hear Willie is recorded in his natural habitat–a live audience in from of him, a great band behind him.

My favorite live Willie recording is Live at the Texas Opry House, available only as disk 3 of The Complete Atlantic Sessions. Recorded in the summer of 1974 but left unreleased when Atlantic shut down its country music operation that winter, the recording captures Nelson as he finally emerged in Austin playing a repertoire of new, personal songs; Nashville era classics; and rocked-out arrangements of old time Bob Wills tunes. With his sister Bobbie newly joining the band to add authentic barrelhouse piano, and guest star Johnny Gimble adding some exquisite melodic fiddle, Nelson finally had the kind of honky tonk, jazz, rock band he needed to put his music over. If I had to chose one Willie Nelson album to take to a desert island it would be this one.

If you were amassing tunes for a Willie retrospective playlist you’d have to start with the pre-Nashville 1959 single Night Life/Rainy Day Blues (two songs which remain staples of Nelson’s repertoire), available for download from a number of sources including One Hell of A Ride. Released by Paul Buskirk and his Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson because of contractual obligations, the record captures all of what’s best about Nelson and prove him fully formed at the start even if it would take another dozen years before the audience would catch up.

Willie’s purgatory years in Nashville are best represented by two records. And Then I Wrote, Nelson’s first album as a leader. Recorded for Liberty in Los Angeles in 1961 the disk offers his polished takes on the hits he had written for others including Crazy, Hello Walls and Funny How Time Slips Away. Seemingly unavailable in any format currently, The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Sessions Plus More remains widely available on the aftermarket. Crazy: The Demo Sessions offers 15 barely adorned Nelson publishing demos from the early 1960s. Also indispensable is the earliest extant Willie Nelson live recording, Live Country Music Concert, available today only as a download from Rhapsody among other sources. This 1966 recording (plus some overdubbed guitars) from Fort Worth features a ripping version of I Just Destroyed the World as well as Nelson’s early cover of Yesterday.

The music Nelson recorded for Atlantic in the years immediately following his 1970 move to Austin is all essential. Most of it is available on the ironically incomplete Complete Atlantic Sessions. Shotgun Williewas Nelson’s most personal album to date and the first to be recorded with the heart of his touring band. The record mixes autobiographical originals with Bob Wills covers and Nelson’s first recording of Whisky River, (written by friend and protege Johnny Bush and destined to open every Willie concert for the next 35 years). Willie brought an old hymnal to the Shotgun Willie sessions in New York and paused every now and then to open the book and lead the band through the likes of Will the Circle Be Unbroken and When They Call the Roll Up Yonder. An intended gospel album, The Troublemaker, never saw the light of day on Atlantic but was released in 1975 by Columbia after Willie had moved to that label. (Opry House renditions of some of the gospel tunes are offered as bonus tracks on the Columbia Troublemaker CD.) Phases and Stages, recorded in Muscle Shoals with the famous rhythm section there extends a late-RCA single about the break up of a marriage into a suite of songs, half from the man’s side, half from the woman’s. It’s great. Nelson’s most underrated album.

Red Headed Stranger, Nelson’s stripped down narrative album about a preacher who kills his cheating wife, her lover, and another woman before finding redemption through new love, is the record which broke Willie nationally in 1975. It includes his first pop crossover hit, the old Fred Rose chestnut Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. 1978’s Stardust, recorded with Memphis organist Booker T. Jones, was both ahead of it’s time and behind it–pop singers issuing sets of songs from the great American song book would become de rigour post-Willie.

I wouldn’t want to be without recordings of some early 1980s Willie originals–Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, for example, or On the Road again. Both can be found on Columbia’s Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be).

Since Nelson became an American institution 30 years ago his discography has been dominated by duets and all-star collaborations. Some have been the kind of commercial boilerplate that seems to mark the terminal stage of a living legend’s career. Others have been classic meetings between peers (Poncho and Lefty with Merle Haggard, Seven Spanish Angels with Ray Charles, The Highwayman with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson). The latest collaboration with Wynton Marsalis is a successful collaboration of a different sort–a meeting of artistic peers.

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