I’ve been spending an inordinate amount with Willie Nelson lately, mostly because of basketball.
I enlisted Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album when Duke lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament and I threw myself a tournament disappointment pity party back in March. Next, after scoring a pair of his records — Stardust and Willie Nelson and Family Live — at Goodwill a month or two ago, I started watching San Antonio Spurs playoff games on mute with his music as accompaniment, hoping that Nelson’s Texanity would help Tim Duncan and company keep up their winning ways. (It’s been going pretty well — the Spurs are tied 1-1 with the Heat in the Finals.) Then NPR had to go and post a First Listen of Nelson’s first album of new material in almost two decades, Band of Brothers.
Does Willie Nelson even like basketball? I have no idea. What I do know is that all this time with my redheaded brother from another mother has left me with a few, mostly unrelated impressions that I’d like to share in bulleted form:
- I wrote in February about reflexive reactions to certain sounds, like how hearing bluegrass instrumentation always puts me at ease: Nelson’s guitar Trigger has that same effect. It’s reliable. So many things change that you wish would stay the same, but the sound that comes out of that nylon-string Martin is set in stone. Since 1969, the year Willie got Trigger, wars have been fought, nations have appeared and vanished, the Berlin Wall came down, the Internet was invented, the world’s population doubled from 3.5 billion to nearly 7… through it all, Willie Nelson’s guitar has sounded exactly the same. It’s not just reliable — it’s monolithic. His dexterity doesn’t seem to be wavering either, as Band of Brothers makes room for plenty of flourishes and pointed commentary spoken through Trigger’s raspy, unafraid voice.
- Stardust is an absolute treasure. It’s damn near perfect. “Georgia On My Mind,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Blue Skies,” “All Of Me,” “Unchained Melody” — they should have pressed it to gold and shot it into space on one of the Voyager probes. (Side note: Did you know that Carl Sagan wanted to include the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” on the Voyager gold record, but EMI refused? How messed up is that? George Harrison could have enjoyed 20 years of the pseudo-immortality that comes with knowing that one of your songs is destined to be heard by some alien civilization millions of years from now, but nooooOOOOoooo.)
- Willie Nelson himself is a national treasure. I was looking at the picture that greets you when you open up the gatefold Willie Nelson and Family Live album, and he’s not exactly a young dude in that shot. He’s got gray hair, wrinkles, etc… THAT RECORD CAME OUT 43 YEARS AGO. At 81, Nelson is still going — writing new songs, soloing, making people like me smile by radiating a warm, steady kindness — it’s amazing.
- I’m enjoying Band of Brothers a great deal. After two or three front-to-back listens, I’ve definitely found some keepers — “Guitar In The Corner” and “The Songwriters” feel like instant classics — but I’m having trouble with “Wives And Girlfriends,” on which Nelson sings about juggling the affections of women. I know that narrative goes way, way back, probably to the beginning of songwriting, but I wonder if it needs to be retired. I’ve heard people say the same of murder ballads, but at least those have a gravity that pulls you into the story — women-juggling songs strike me as pointlessly shallow. What’s even stranger is that Jack White’s (otherwise fantastic) new album starts with a track — “Three Women” — that treads the exact same ground. Is this 2014? It sure doesn’t feel like it. Maybe that’s the point?
- Around the same time I snagged those two albums at Goodwill, I also got my hands on a copy of Bette Midler’s debut, The Divine Miss M, an action-packed album that documents her cabaret style wonderfully (her version of John Prine’s “Hello In There” is A+ stuff). After spinning the record a few times, it hit me — Willie Nelson’s shows (as I understand them/have observed from Palladia and YouTube) are like a laid-back, country version of cabaret. The conversational tone, the covers of standards, the swift movement from song to song, the occasional medley — it’s not that far off from what Midler was doing at the start of her career. I’m no expert on country or cabaret, so take this comparison with a grain of salt, but there’s definitely a relationship there. If I ever make it back to Nashville, I’ll be sure to spend some time in the honky-tonks on Broadway and report back on what I find.
I couldn’t find any tracks from Band of Brothers on Soundcloud (you can stream the whole thing over at NPR), but here’s a live version of “Roll Me Up” that Nelson recorded at Third Man Records. Hope you enjoy.
Willie Nelson & Friends — “Roll Me Up” (Live at Third Man Records) [Soundcloud]