Willie Nelson and Miles Davis

Culturekiosque Publications
Mike Zwerin
May 28, 1998

Miles Davis wrote and recorded a tune named “Willie Nelson.”    And the country singer Willie Nelson had nothing but praise for Miles.   Before Miles died, they had been rumored to be planning some sort of project together.   What did the “Prince of Silence” have in common with the hip white country singer?

They both liked to get stoned in their ways.  But the ways were quite different so we’ll discount that.  They had the same manager, Mark Rothbaum, but that was only part of it. They had the same record company.  Their albums – Miles “We Want Miles” and Willie’s “Always On My Mind” (both CBS) – revealed some deep common denominators:  Understatement, grainy texture, restrained tension, staying power.   Neither of them made disposable music, their records will be around for a while.  And both had their own way of reinventing well-known melodies on their own terms.  Nelson’s, “Georgia” and Mile’s “If I Were a Bell,” for two examples.

Miles was not the first jazz musician to be influenced by country music.  Charlie Parker was a Hank Williams fan.  When a friend asked why, he said, “Listen to the stories, man.  These cats really know how to tell a story.”   Both Miles and Willie were storytellers.   Mile’s “Jean-Pierre” is a children’s story without words.  And his version of George gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” needs no lyrics to communicate departed love.   Willie Nelson sings about the same subject:   Once I had a love undyin’, Didn’t keep it up, wasn’t tryin’, Life for me was just one party and then another….And then one night she said, The party’s over…

Nelson’s “Always on my Mind” was on the best-siller list for 23 weeks, his ‘Greatest Hits’ for 48.   “In the Jailhouse Now,’ with webb pierce, was also on the charts.   Willie and miles both recorded often; two or three albusms a year.   too often, they tended to compelte with their own record.   Each mixed standards with original material. Willie’s album “Always On My Mind” includes Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Willie’s “Stardust” was not supposed to be a hit, Miles’s version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” either.

Both cultivated an outlaw image. They became superstars by following neither corporate nor aesthetic rules.

Nelson began singing in Texas honky-tonks in the 1950s. He moved to Nashville in the ’60s, but his songs were too hard-edged for the increasingly syrupy country music industry. He could not adapt to Nashville formulas.

Some cowboys thought he was too much of a city slicker with his ponytail and talking about Miles Davis and all.   He moved to Austin.  He moved to Austin, Texas, where he and his friend Waylon Jennings (who wrote ‘Ladies Love Outlaws”)  developed a reputation for bringing country music back to its sources.

“Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…  Waylon Jennings aid that his idea of heaven is that after you die you spend eternity in Willie Nelson’s house.

Kris Kristofferson joined the Austin outlaws, who wrote and sang about deeply felt subjects – survival, for example.   This appealed to hillbillies and hipsters alike.  The Outlaws caught on big in the ‘yos.

Since he first played with Charlie Parker in 1947, Miles Davis had been changing; always moving into unexplored territory. He once said he was “cursed” by his need for change. The law stayed the same, he changed. He was an outlaw too.

About stage manners. Miles turned his back on the audience and would not play encores. Willie once cancelled a show in Virginia, returning his five-figure advance because the local sheriff threatened to have him arrested if he drank on stage.

During a concert for the inmates of the Missouri State Penitentiary, Nelson wore his trademark bandana even though a bandana is a symbol of non-conformity in prison. He also wore a “Nuke the Prisons” T-shirt. And of course he’s the guy who forgot the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” during the 1980 Democratic convention.

Listening to a Miles Davis album, Chet Baker said: “That sure is romantic music.” And it’s true – Miles had in fact never played bebop, cool, fusion or funk. He had always been a flat-out romantic.

Willie too. He finds his romance on the road, singing about it in what is probably his best known song: “On the Road Again.” (“Goin’ places that I’ve never been/Seein’ things that I may never see again…Makin’ music with my friends…”)

Like true romantics, both of them loved to disappear – Willie on the road, Miles just disappearing. With Byronic waves of their capes, they kept fading into the mists in the middle of some secret, heroic caper. Always to reappear again with new stories to tell.

4 Responses to “Willie Nelson and Miles Davis”

  1. Tom says:

    I’m listening to Miles’ “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” boxed set, and there are 6 different “Willie Nelson” takes totalling about 1 hour. That got me to searching the net for the “why” of the title, and I think you’ve definitely hit on a big part of the commonality between Miles & Willie. I don’t totally agree w/ you, specifically about Miles never playing bebop, cool, fusion or funk. But I do think the romantic is there, even in his last recording, the hiphop-inspired “Doo Bop.”

    I recently heard an interview w/ jazz bassist William Parker in which he responded to a question about interacting with musicians from different genres, and Parker said something I think is true & important – that if you put truly honest and gifted musicians from any genre into a room together, they will make quality music.

    Anyhow, thanks for this posting – even if it took me 4-plus years to find it.

  2. LindaLee says:

    Tom, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You made me want to go listen to that music.

    best,
    Linda

  3. stan says:

    At 18 first LP was bitches brew,george clinton,hendrix……..then in 1972 went to Auston wit some friends from Maxwell. AFB,Montgomery Ala….saw Willie…..case closed….Miles/Willie……..then Wynton jumped on the bandwagon……as Jerry,Bob Weir said……What a long strange trip…….wouldn’t change a thing……..Very succint observation on two greatest American Musician…..thanks,Stan

  4. LindaLee says:

    Thank you, Stan.

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