Willie Nelson has announced several Florida concerts next March, including three shows with special guest Dwight Yoakam.
Pompano Beach, FL
St. Augustine, Florida
by Mark Rowland
Photograph by Jay Blakesberg
Not far from the Santa Monica Pier one sunny afternoon, Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson were hanging out on Willie’s tour bus, listening to Nelson play … reggae. More precisely, they were listening to a tape of a record he’d just completed with producer Don Was, featuring reggaefied versions of great Willie Nelson songs like, “Three Days,” and “One in a Row,” along with a few classics of the genre like “The Harder They Come”
“Don Was could hear me singing reggae,” Nelson explained. “Cause I wasn’t too familiar with it. I just didn’t know it. But he could hear me doing my songs to a reggae rhythm.”
“That’s ironic,” Yoakum said, “’cause I’m doing a covers album, and I was gonna cover a Peter Tosh song. And listening to his stuff, there was a real emotional affinity to what they were doing in reggae, some of the early stuff, and what country was doing then.” There’s a certain melancholy essence with what you write and with some of those melodies. I think Don must have picked up on that.”
“Well,” Nelson replied, “you can take a really sad lyric and you put this rhythm behind it and it sort of leavens it a little bit, so the lyric doesn’t knock you down so much — you don’t want to get drunk and slash your wrists, you want to dance.” “You want to hear another one?”
Five minutes into their first joint interview ever, and Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam have staked out common ground in the Southern Caribbean. Somehow that shouldn’t surprise. After all, both musicians widened the frame of country music’s possibilities by combining a deep reverence for that music’s past with an idiosyncratic vision of its future.
Both made their mark despite initial indifference if not hostility from the Nashville establishment, fomenting their insurrections on the dance floors of Austin and Southern California, respectively, and putting the “W” back into C&W in the process. Within that milieu, it can easily be argued, both became the most influential singer/songwriters of their generations.
Yoakam, who grew up in the era of the ’60s rock concept album, spends years meticulously putting together records with his producer Pete Anderson. His effort shows; on each he’s found ways to expand his musical vocabulary, culminating with his latest effort, Gone, an album at once wildly inventive and polished to a blinding sheen.
Nelson, by contrast, grew up in the old school of Texas troubadours — write songs, make records when you can, hit the road. Since he cut his first sides nearly forty years ago he’s carved out a career of mythic proportion, and he’s never really showed down. ” I think that’ s just my personality and my character,” he says. “I’m not supposed to be sitting around much. I get bored real quick when I’m not doing something.”
Not to worry — along with the reggae record, Willie’s completed a trio album of original songs with sister Bobbie Nelson on piano and Johnny Gimble on fiddle, also scheduled for release later this year. He’d just returned from a tour of Australia with the Highwaymen before this interview, and as soon as it ended he cruised down the coast to begin a serious of duet shows with Leon Russell. He’s started work on a blues record, too.
“You know, if you listen to the people in each country you go into, it all sounds very much the same,” he was saying. “African country, Jamaincan country, the Swiss — have you been to Switzerland yet?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Yoakam.
“There’s some great country cowboys up there. Jamaicans go more with the heartbeat, their rhythms do. These guys were telling me that reggae came into existence by way of our country radio. That they were picking up the radio stations years ago, but they wouldn’t hear the bottom — so they put their own rhythms over what they heard. Now the biggest music in Jamaica is country and one of the biggest guys is Jim Reeves.”
Yoakam laughed. “Hey man, get a big sailboat and get ready to tour. You could be king there!”
Nelson nodded, “Well,” he said evenly, “it’s worth a shot.