by Nathan Rabin
In my favorite scene in the otherwise middling Notorious B.I.G. biopic Notorious, the corpulent wordsmith (played by amusingly named newcomer Gravy) tries to atone to his stern, country-music-loving mother for his drug-dealing, school-ditching ways by buying her the corniest-looking album he can find: Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits. It’s a moment rich with irony, for Shotgun Willie was/is the coolest motherfucker on the planet.
B.I.G.’s mother says she loves listening to country music “because it tells good stories.” Amen. Willie Nelson became a towering American icon because he told good stories. The same is true of Notorious B.I.G. The emotional directness of country and hip-hop lends itself to ambitious narratives and autobiographical storytelling.
You cannot be a good American and not like Willie Nelson. It’s one of the prerequisites for citizenship. There is actually a multiple-choice question on applications for U.S. citizenship that reads:
What do you think of Willie Nelson?
A. I don’t care for him or his music. Also, he promotes the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana, which I find offensive.
B. Eh, he’s okay, I guess.
C. He is a goddamned national treasure. All hail Willie! Whiskey River take my minnnnnnnd…
Answering A or B earns would-be Americans a one-way trip to the gulags of Siberia, whether they come from Russia or not. I’ve always liked Willie, but I started to love the holy fucking fuck out of him when I picked up the promos for his box set, One Hell Of A Ride, out of the A.V. Club promo pile about a year ago. How had I gone my entire life without hearing songs like the following?
I was beyond smitten. I found myself asking, “Where have you been all my life?” But Willie’s awesomeness wasn’t exactly a secret. Willie has been around since the beginning of time. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the yin and the yang, Milli and Vanilli. Sorry if I got a little hyperbolic there. There’s something about Willie that inspires over-the-top devotion. His voice has ricocheted non-stop through pop culture for the last three and a half decades.
Nelson was just an integral part of a world I hadn’t paid much attention to. It’s inspiring and daunting to realize that no matter how rapaciously you consume pop culture, there will always be vast universes of art and entertainment out there you’d love if you only gave it a chance. You could live to be older than Methuselah and still only experience a fraction of the awesomeness the world of pop culture has to offer.
Ride made me want to dig much deeper into Willie’s past and country music as a whole, even if I had to embark on some sort of elaborate yearlong online project to justify my quest. Ride consequently served as a terrific gateway to country geekery, just as Willie’s beloved marijuana is a gateway that inevitably leads to injecting heroin into your eyeballs and selling your newborn for crack money.
Ride is a wonderful place to start with Willie, though it seems perverse to recommend a compilation for such a consummate album artist. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of material Nelson released can be intimidating to newcomers, and Ride does a good job cherry-picking the highlights of Nelson’s unimaginably ginormous catalog. Willie has a hip-hop approach to recording and releasing new material. He records fast, voluminously, and indiscriminately, on countless labels, major and independent.
Willie will record a duet with anyone. Then again, why limit yourself to a song when you can record an entire collaborative album together? (Or two. Or three.) Willie’s the kind of guy who’ll record an album of duets with Louis Farrakhan in the morning, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the afternoon, and Yitzhak Perlman in the evening. Willie don’t give a mad-ass fuck. Even T-Pain is all, “That man needs to be more selective in terms of who he records with.”
If Johnny Cash presided over a vast sonic kingdom of darkness, then his fellow Highwayman Willie Nelson is all about good vibes and positive vibrations. If reading about Cash is harrowing, immersing yourself in Nelson’s life and music is heartwarming, even life-affirming. Verily, Willie is like a God. At least that’s the conclusion hagiographer Joe Nick Patowski reaches in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. In a three-page stretch, Nelson is compared, without irony, to Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and Jesus. In Patowski’s worshipful telling, even Nelson’s faults are rooted in his virtues—his excessive generosity, his unshakeable belief in the goodness of human nature, and his willingness to trust people he shouldn’t.
Nelson liked telling stories so much that much of his ’70s heyday was devoted to telling narratives so big and expansive that a single song couldn’t contain them. So he released one perversely downbeat concept album after another until miraculously, one of them made him a huge star. Because Nelson’s career is too sprawling to do justice to in a single entry or two, I’ll be making Willie’s ’70s concept albums the focus of the fourth week of Nashville Or Bust.
If it’s a mark of insanity to do the same thing repeatedly but expect a different outcome, then Nelson must have been half-mad to peddle Red Headed Stranger, an ambitious, melancholy concept album, to an industry and public that roundly rejected his last two, 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine and 1974’s Phases And Stages.
Nelson’s predilection for concept albums began with the mind-meltingly odd Yesterday’s Wine, a spacey oddity about a man looking wistfully back at his life at the behest of his heavenly bosses. It opens with the following stiffly recited spoken-word banter between its narrator (let’s just call him Willie Nelson) and his otherworldly overlords:
It might be germane to note that at this point in his career, Nelson had fled the formulaic, homogenous world of Nashville, grew a beard and long hair, developed a shockingly non-regrettable fondness for bandannas, and cobbled together an idiosyncratic worldview that combined old-school Christianity, humanism, a New Age spiritual discipline known as “Astara,” and progressive politics. Also, he was smoking a shit-ton of weed.
Nelson tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. It wasn’t until he traded in Nashville for the hippie scene in Austin that he found himself and his voice as a performer. Nevertheless, the world was not yet ready for Yesterday’s Wine, a downbeat collection of story-songs about the passing of time and a man/cosmic being taking a good long look at his back pages with fondness and regret.
The album begins with Willie Nelson being, um, sent to Earth so that the Voice Of The Imperfect Man can be made manifest, and it ends with its narrator contemplating his impending death/funeral with aching anticipation on “Going Home.” Nelson was only 38 when he recorded Yesterday’s Wine,yet it feels intentionally elegiac, the work of a wise old soul in a middle-aged man’s body. Its sustained tone of wistful regret is expressed most eloquently in the title track…
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