Is Willie Nelson the Top Balladeer? (New York Times) (September 9, 1981)

WHY is Willie Nelson, who wears his long, graying hair in braids, dresses like a hippie and was singing honky tonk music in Texas roadhouses as long ago as the l950’s, America’s most admired pop balladeer?

Kenny Rogers sells more records with his saccharine love songs and stagey whisky-rasp, and Frank Sinatra is certainly still a force to be reckoned with, but it is Willie Nelson who has turned chestnuts like ”Georgia on My Mind,” ”Stardust” and ”Mona Lisa” into recent pop hits, and Mr. Nelson draws a more diverse audience than either Mr. Rogers or Mr. Sinatra. The last time he performed in New York, pot-smoking rock fans were sitting next to middle-aged businessmen and their wives and a few grandmothers, and all of them were hanging on to Willie Nelson’s every word.

The release this week of ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” (Columbia records) offers some clues, both in the music it includes and in what it omits. On first hearing, Mr. Nelson’s dry, reedy tenor can sound deceptively thin, but listening to his hits back to back, one soon notices a sinewy strength that’s barely hidden behind his apparently vulnerable sound and casual delivery. One also notices that most of his hit records have used a sound, a kind of musical formula, that refers to several traditions, including country music, rock, folk and middle-of-the-road pop, without really belonging to any of them. Their most characteristic sound is a softly strummed acoustic guitar, a wailing harmonica played by his band’s most prominent soloist, Mickey Raphael, and Mr. Nelson singing, straightforwardly and with just a hint of melancholy, about faded loves, rejection in love, and men who are drawn to the open road and can’t seem to help themselves, men who live like cowboys not because they want to but because that’s what they are. A Land of Cowboys

Cowboys – there’s a clue. America needs its cowboys. There’s a cowboy in the White House, a cowboy who likes living on his ranch and gives press conferences with his boots on. There were latter-day cowboys in ”Urban Cowboy,” one of the most successful films and record-album soundtracks last year. There are more and more countryand-western clubs opening, and more and more city slickers in western shirts and boots to go to them, even in Manhattan. And Willie Nelson is a cowboy.

He’s still a convincing cowboy at the age of 48. He crisscrossed Texas for years, playing in roadside honky tonks. He peddled his songs in Nashville, and some of them, most notably ”Crazy” and ”Funny (How Time Slips Away),” became country standards. But record producers in Nashville didn’t think he could sing, and when he did get a chance to record, he was saddled with string orchestras and inappropriate material. By the time he finally became a full-fledged country star, in the mid-70’s, he had been branded an ”outlaw” by Nashville’s conservative country-music establishment, and although he has long since become a pop star, with a fistful of platinum albums and singles and several film roles to his credit, he still projects that outlaw image.

This is a curious thing. What one sees is an outlaw – a cowboy gone wrong. What one hears, especially on Mr. Nelson’s recordings of ”Stardust” and other standards, is a weathe red but reassuring voicesinging the old songs as if they really matte r to him, against a simple, folksy musical backdrop. Apparently, American pop consumers won’t buy records of songs like ”Stardust” when they are performed by entertainers who project an old-fashioned, sophisticated showbusiness image, but they will buy them wh en the singer is a longhaired, pot-smoking rebel. The countercul ture of the 60’s has become the mainstream culture of the 80’s, an d Mr. Nelson is the one American popular singer who gives the impress ion of being part of both the counterculture and the mainstream at the same time. Back to Honky Tonk

Interestingly, ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits,” a double album that includes two previously unreleased performances, has only one of his performances of pop evergreens on it -his hit version of ”Georgia on My Mind.” The rest of the album concentrates on hits that are clos er to country music and to country rock. There are several live performances recorded with his wonderfully idiosyncraticband, which l ayers electric guitars and back-country church-style piano over he avy bass and the two-beat cowboy drumming of Mr. Nelson’s long time sidekick, Paul English. There are tributes to Mr. Nelson’s honk y-tonk roots, including a fine reworking of Lefty Frizzell’s ” If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” and two numbers, ”Fa ded Love” and ”Stay a Little Longer,” that were associated wi th the late Bob Wills, ”King of Western Swing” and probably the most popular Southwestern entertainer or all time. Mr. Nelson’s most celebrated duet with his fellow country ”Outlaw” Waylon Jennin gs, ”Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” is here, too.

So ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” is really the best of Willie Nelson, country singer, an album for his hard-core fans. Perhaps he feels that with his albums of pre-World War II pop standards and his movie appearances, he has been neglecting the people who made his reputation in the first place. At any rate, he is still a winning country stylist. And it is somehow reassuring, at a time when most country entertainers can’t wait to get that first pop hit and start wearing tuxedos and playing Las Vegas, to find one who knows who he is and what he comes from. Maybe that’s why his fans accept the long hair and the rumpled clothes; they are outward indications that no matter how successful he becomes, the inner Willie Nelson is not about to change.

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