Willie-NelsonTo summarize and dissect the multi-decade-long career of Willie Nelson is certainly not an easy task, especially when it comes down to one of the last icons of American music, an entertainer whose past has profoundly marked the last half century, but whose present always continues to reserve new surprises, fending off the danger of representing and perpetuating clichés. Willie Nelson has been able to stand the test of time as a brilliant songwriter and singer through times and places that have seen him as an ‘outlaw’ and ‘mainstream’ musician, having inevitably experienced periods of inactivity and reflection. He has managed to gradually reinvent himself as a country man and crooner between pop and soul/jazz, sometimes even in unlikely duets (even criticized by certain newspapers), showing intelligence and a certain ‘savoir-faire’ which underlined his deep and unchanged love for music, of all genres. In this article we aren’t proposing to unimaginatively go through his entire career, there are already a lot of these around, both on paper and ‘on line’, but to focus on the most important moments of the life of this teacher, a point of reference for many of those who have made music, tied to the roots of the American sound. Willie Hugh Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas in April 1933 and quickly grew up listening to country music and the traditional sounds of Central Europe (mainly from Germany and Bohemia, from where many immigrants to Central Texas originated). His early years see him taking on many types of different jobs, ( book-seller, disc jockey and teacher). A key year for his career is 1959, when he decided to move to Nashville, where his meeting with Ray Price opened the doors to the ‘music business’, firstly as a bass player in his band and then as a songwriter. It is in the Music City that Willie Nelson began performing with his own band, The Record Men, and became known as a composer, reaping great successes, but also some concerns for not faithfully following the sounds which were in vogue at the time. Songs like “Night Life”, taken from Ray Price, “Crazy”, masterfully performed by Patsy Cline, “Hello Walls”, a classic by Faron Young and “Funny How Time Slips Away”, brought to success by Billy Walker, are just a few examples of the writing abilities of a young but already mature Nelson, songs that come to the attention of fans and critics.
tumblr_mm217dKcxn1rtynt1o1_1280Despite these great classics, during the sixties, Willie Nelson began to be impatient with the so-called ‘Nashville Sound’ and his arrangements, which he considered redundant and sometimes kitsch, and, because of a commercial success which was no longer flourishing as in the beginning, he decided to retire to his native Texas. Soon after, however, the lively, dynamic and exuberant atmosphere that could be felt in Austin, with a new and young audience, accustomed to the usual rock sounds of traditional country, brought him to compose and play again. With his new image, more rock and folk, and his music, rougher and genuinely Honky tonk country sounding, Willie earned a prominent place in the new ‘outlaw’ music scene. Meanwhile, Atlantic, having noticed the new potential of Willie Nelson, signed a contract with him, thus beginning the happiest and most rewarding period of his musical career. In 1973 he released “Shotgun Willie”, and in the same year he returned to the top of the country charts thanks to the cover of “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” by Bob Wills. Two years later came the move to Columbia and the release of a series of masterpieces, a must for those who want to get to know this artist: the amazing concept album, “The Red Headed Stranger”, the classic, “Wanted:The Outlaws!”(published by RCA) which introduced songs by Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, the record made with the other ‘outlaw’, Waylon Jennings, “Waylon & Willie” are albums that consecrate his popularity, which crosses various genres, placing him at the top of the country charts, as well as the rock charts.
nelson6f-2-webhe 80’s was the decade of collaborations: Willie Nelson is now a widely established star and these duets only confirm his status. A recording with Merle Haggard (“Pancho & Lefty”, 1983) and two others with Waylon Jennings (“Waylon & Willie II” in 1982 and “Take It To The Limit” in 1983), whilst in the mid 80’s saw the time for a supergroup, with the now inseparable Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, songwriters of a couple of excellent albums. A few years later came a slight decrease in interest from the new young country music fans, years that saw the birth (or rebirth) of the ‘new country’ movement which brought to the attention of the fans, new major names like Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and many others who, in different, but equally fresh ways, brought back the traditional country music sounds to the top of the charts. The comeback came in 1993 when Willie Nelson intelligently relies on an ‘alternative’ and new producer called Don Was, who came out with “Across the Borderline”, which, in my opinion, is one of the finest records Willie Nelson ever made, splendidly sung with a positiveness and intensity that had been missing for years. During these years, Willie enters the Country Music Hall Of Fame and decides to pursue his career through a series of ‘experiments’, which in many cases, availed his career: the production by another brilliant producer such as Daniel Lanois, certainly far from the sound we are used to when talking about Willie Nelson (“Theatre”, 1998), the recording of an instrumental album (“Night And Day”, 1999), the return to the roots of old-time country with “The Rainbow Connection” in 2001. It is during these years that we can appreciate the kaleidoscopic and complexed personality of Willie Nelson, his perspicacity in pursuing new paths between the past and present, the reunion with the unforgettable Ray Price in 2003 with “Run That By Me One More Time” to the surprising approach to the reggae sounds of “Countryman” in 2005.
97a6a0b43d05992ea549cb16278ff817When it comes to Willie Nelson, the surprises never end, and during the last decade, a tribute album to the native Texas, “You Do not Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker” which celebrates one of the best kept secrets of the Lone Star State, the collaboration with Ryan Adams and his band the Cardinals in “Songbird,” the long-awaited joint effort with Asleep At The Wheel, another great act of love towards his native state, the unstoppable charm of the duets of “Lost Highway”, the two great works of art conceived with the group of jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, (“Two Men With The Blues” and “Here We Go Again: Celebrating The Genius Of Ray Charles”), have all contributed to make him even more open to all kinds of music genres within the American ‘songbook’. Today, at the age of eighty-two, after endless sessions and concerts, he has no intention of passing on the crown of legend of American music. Always intent on working intelligently and free of restrictions, be it tying knots with the past or trying out new experiences. “Django & Jimmie”, the latest Cd, is another masterpiece; a new chapter in the long friendship with Merle Haggard which has corroborated a renewing enthusiasm for the never dormant truth, another example of a unique and fantastic life. (Remo Ricaldone)