Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy Birthday Willie!

Today, Willie Nelson turns 75.

He has an odd reputation at this point in his career. He is famous, but more for his marijuana advocacy than his music. He's obviously one of the great country singers and songwriters (and in the history of country music these are often very different things) of all time. But from what I can tell, young people don't listen to his music in the same way that they do for Cash. They both have that hip outlaw image. Maybe it's because Willie's music doesn't have the same sense of rebellion and anger as Cash. There's no "Folsom Prison Blues" in Willie's catalog, that's for sure.

It's too bad because Willie has put out some fantastic music. Now, not very much of it has been recently. His album of Cindy Walker songs (one of the great country songwriters) was really good. But before that, we are looking at Teatro, which came out in 1998. But periods of horrible music never stopped people from loving Cash (the entire 1970s and 1980s).

There are a series of must-own Willie albums. Many people I respect consider Red Headed Stranger to be the best album ever. I can't go quite that far, but it's close. Teatro is truly fantastic. Me and Paul is deeply underrated. Across the Borderline and Spirit are solid albums from the 1990s. Many stand by his covers collection Stardust or his early outlaw album Shotgun Willie, though neither are real favorites of mine. A collection of his early tunes that became hits for others is important to have. "Night Life" became a huge hit for Ray Price, not to mention "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and "Hello Walls" for Faron Young, among others.

I'd like to discuss a very underrated album, Phases and Stages. Released in 1974, at the beginning of the outlaw period, it never became iconic like Red Headed Stranger, but I think it is the more successful album. It may not be better than Red Headed Stranger but it works better. They were both concept albums. But in Red Headed Stranger, the concept seems lost about halfway through. The songs are fantastic, the sparse arrangements are haunting, and Willie sounds fantastic, even if he did expunge my favorite verse from "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."

In some ways I like Phases and Stages better because it has a more personal feel. Unlike in Red Headed Stranger, Willie wrote all the songs for Phases and Stages. Building on his recent divorce, he composed a song cycle that is split into two halves. The first half is from the woman's point of view, the second from the man's. A woman leaves a man because he has cheated on her. Perhaps because of Willie's history, we are made to feel sympathetic with both sides. This is somewhat uncomfortable, I mean, the bastard did cheat on her, even if "It's not supposed to be that way/Don't you know that I love you." Who cares if you love me, right?

Like in Red Headed Stranger, you don't get a full story. Rather, it's just snippets. The woman leaves, she tells her husband to "Pretend I Never Happened." Then, the woman's little sister is excited because "Sister's Coming Home." She quickly recovers during "Down at the Corner Beer Joint." Her half of the cycle ends with "(How Will I Know) I'm Falling In Love Again." She will be fine and hopefully with a better man. The man's part begins with "Bloody Mary Morning," the album's hit single. An up tempo number, we get a pretty good idea that all those hangovers led to some unfortuante behavior. He also recovers of course and moves on, though I don't necessarily get the sense that he has learned a whole lot from his divorce. And neither did Willie it seems, as he is on marriage #4.

The other great thing about Willie is his musical experimentation. I read a story on him once about a concert in New York. He brought up this high school piano teacher and had her play a bunch of songs. Not his songs. Just classical piano music. The audience was impatient to say the least. But you can't boo Willie! He was into her for some reason. He figured it was his damn show and he was going to do what he wanted. His reggae album of a few years was god awful bad, but at least I had to respect the fact that he was trying new things at his age. On the other hand, he single-handedly transformed country music in the 1970s, especially with Red Headed Stranger. He went against his studio, who freaked out about releasing an album that consisted almost entirely of acoustic guitar and piano. The genre was never the same.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Willie. May you live, be healthy, and produce interesting music for another 75 years!