Monday, December 7, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob - Week 37: Willie Nelson

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

When I was maybe about ten or eleven years old, I went through a country music phase. This is a part of my musical development that I'm less and less ashamed of as I grow older.

Country music gets a bad rap even among non-elitist listeners, let alone the music snobs. "I enjoy every kind of music…except country," is a common claim, implying that the speaker enjoys polka, yodeling and even John Cage. But not country.

There are a few artists who somehow escape this stigma. Johnny Cash, for instance, is pretty much universally adored, despite being a country artist. A few others slip through the cracks to actually gain some modicum of respect - this week's very own Willie Nelson, for example. These artists all sing tragic, emotionally charged songs , beautiful and stirring.

This is the respectful side of country music - the introspective, melodic songs without that overproduced Nashville pop song polish. The Dark Side comes with the hokey novelty songs, like Trace Adkins' "Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk". This is the stuff that usually gets associated with the label of "country music" - the image of a country singer who enjoys friends, family, beer, and Jesus, who is just a "good ol'" country boy with old-fashioned rural common sense. This image is very carefully manufactured by the record industry, of course, and it is mainly what's responsible for nonsense like "Redneck Woman" or "Country Boy Can Survive". Even worse is when country falls into sheer kitsch, such as "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy", or neo-conservative anger, as in "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue". (Though, to be fair, Toby Keith is an Obama supporter).

Country music has always been divided between these two camps - the raucous populist redneck alcoholism on one side, and minimalist, contemplative, melodic alcoholism on the other. Even back in the 1940s, Hank Williams Sr. recorded just as many goofy novelty songs as he did teary ballads. Most songs lean toward one side or the other, and there really isn't a lot of middle ground.

I suppose my point is that country music is a Big Tent, just like any other genre of music, and it's silly for people to dismiss the whole enterprise. The country music on the radio or CMT might not appeal to you, but that would be like judging all rock music based on Nickelback, or all hip-hop based on Soulja Boy. The lowest common denominator always seems to rise to the top with any kind of art, but there's still plenty of diamonds in the rough. I'm willing to bet most music fans can find at least one country artist to appreciate.

Of course, I'm a big fan of the corny novelty side of country music as well. But that's an argument for another day.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: The country station I listened to as a kid played the modern poppy kind of country during the day. But at night, the DJs would break out the old country greats, and I grew accustomed to some of Willie's most popular singles this way. However, I had never listened to a complete Willie Nelson album until this week.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Red-Headed Stranger (1975) everyday this week. Other than that, I listened to Phases and Stages (1974) three times, and Stardust (1978) twice. Acknowledging the importance of his singles, I also listened to several different selections from "Greatest Hits" albums throughout the week.

WHAT I LIKED: Willie Nelson can write one hell of a song. Even outside his whole recording career, he would go down in history as one of the best songwriters in the business (Exhibit A: He wrote "Crazy", made famous by Patsy Cline). His songs are never very complex, but this plays to their strengths; in fact, they're so brilliantly simple that you wonder why you didn't write them yourself. Their simplicity (and many times, the sparse instrumentation) gives his songs a sense of timelessness; the listener gains the feeling that this music has been part of the American woodwork for centuries, and Nelson is just now unearthing it.

In the same way, Nelson's voice is steady but strangely emotional at the same time. Listening to Stardust (an album of covers of old pop standards), it's impressive how much new perspective Nelson brings to these songs - songs that I would have claimed had been done to death. He manages to find emotional nuance in the unlikeliest of places. Like all country stars, of course, he is at his best expressing the tragic, remorseful and pitiable (see "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain").

Finally, Nelson has some crazy concept-albums that actually manage to work somehow. Red-Headed Stranger, for instance, is about a preacher who kills his adulterous wife and rides through the desert haunted by the memories of their happy past. The first side of Phases and Stages is about a wife planning to leave her husband, the second is from the husband's point of view, all with a recurring motif indicating the cyclically destructive nature of human relationships. Do these sound like horribly pretentious and goofy ideas? Somehow, against all odds, Willie Nelson manages to make both of them work (with the exception of the unfortunately corny "Bloody Mary Morning" on Phases and Stages). He has the distinct ability to take the tragic and make it intensely personal; loneliness and regret echo through both these albums. Most country musicians are all about the singles, but I'm impressed that Nelson can be an "album" artist as well.


Reading up on Willie Nelson and listening to a lot of his stuff, it became very apparent to me how calculated and deliberate his redneck pot-smoking hippie rebel persona really is. This is not a bad thing; most artists engage in putting on a persona to one degree or another. But Nelson's has particularly worn thin, especially since the early nineties when he became more of a tabloid figure than an active musician. We get it. You're a rebel. Move on.

There are a lot of missteps and misfires, both individual songs and albums, scattered throughout Nelson's catalog. But the dude's been so prolific over the decades that this sort of thing is almost inevitable. My advice: ignore the blunders, and pick up a Greatest Hits album or two (he has quite a few now).

Finally, Willie Nelson is not recommended listening to anyone hoping to be in a cheery mood. Especially the concept albums. Nelson may be a fun-loving hippie, but he's a fun-loving hippie with a keen eye for heartbreak, tragedy and longing.


I learned that I miss this sort of country music. Is there a modern day Willie Nelson? Somehow, I don't think so. Red-Headed Stranger, goofy, conceptually-questionable Red-Headed Stranger, went double platinum in the 1970s. I doubt think country music's modern day audience would appreciate it. Frankly, I'm surprised that country music's audience of the past did appreciate it at all.

I also learned that it may not be Willie Nelson's fault that his property was repossessed by the IRS in the early nineties. Far from the incident being a part of Nelson's oft-cited rebelliousness, it looks like it's actually because accounting firm Price Waterhouse messed up his finances. Price Waterhouse settled a lawsuit with Nelson for an undisclosed amount in 1993.


Willie Nelson has been performing with the same guitar, "Trigger", for over 40 years. The old thing is falling to pieces, and Nelson's insistence on using guitar picks have started to chip holes in the soundboard. But, as he himself says, "If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them on the radio or even at last night’s show, I’d always be a copy of myself and we’d all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me — in each place and time — than I’ll always be an original."

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Willie Nelson has 78 studio albums, 7 live albums, and 15 compilation albums, not even counting his collaborations with other musicians. Even if I were to spend a year, I don't think I could fully cover Willie Nelson.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "City of New Orleans"

This may not, in fact, be his "best" hit, but it's the one I found myself returning to each morning. It's a great song to listen to as you're driving to work.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Hands on the Wheel"