An indispensable outlaw’s Great Divide
He’s recorded hundreds of albums and sold millions of them, and garnered oodles of awards and honors — including memberships in the Songwriters and Country Music Halls of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the lauded Kennedy Center Honor. He also recently ensconced the nation with a breathtaking rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the America: A Tribute to Heroes TV special. Through it all, Willie Nelson still frequently releases several discs a year, often blurring traditional country music lines along the way. With The Great Divide, due February 5 via Lost Highway, Nelson furthers his already historic career – and gets a boost from th e likes of Rob Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, and others.
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“It was originally scheduled for September and they decided to wait until 2002, “Nelson tells ICE via telephone from Hawaii. “I’m glad they did.” The album is spaced apart form the three uniquely themed discs Nelson delivered in 2001: Rainbow Connection, a children’s album released on Island; a set of duet with guitarist Jackie King, The Gypsy and a collection of songs by artists on Nelson’s Pedernales imprint entitled Joy.. The new CD revolves around broken relationships, traveling musicians and personal philosophies.
The full tune stack: “Maria” (second single, featuring Rob Thomas), “Mendocino County Line” (first single, with Lee Ann Womack), “Last Stand in Open Country” (Kid Rock), “Won’t Catch Me Cryin’,” “Be There for You” (Sheryl Crow), “The Great Divide,” “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “This Face,” “Don’t Fade Away” (Brian McKnight), “Time After Time,” “Recollection Phoenix” and “You Remain” (Bonnie Raitt). The Great Divide was recorded primarily in Los Angeles, with the exception of “Mendocino,” when the Red-Headed Stranger headed to Nashville to record with Womack and Krauss. Raitt is the only artist Nelson has collaborated with previously — the two worked together on “Getting Over You” for Nelson’s “Across the Borderline (1993).
Welcoming the involvement of a wide variety of musicians, producers and songsmiths, Nelson acknowledges that The Great Divide was very much a cooperative affair. Matchbook Twenty producer Matt Serletic oversaw the project: “Matt was the one who thought of the artists and callled them,” Nelson says. “Matt does all the arranging. I just turned the whole thing over to him. He had free reigh to do what he wanted to do. It took alot of pressure off me.” After Nelson laid down the tracks, Serletic spent an additional three months reworking the vocal, orchestra and other parts.
Nelson had not worked with Serletic prior toThe Great Divide; it was matchbox twenty crooner Rob Thomas who introduced the two: “I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do for the project, and I was talking with Rob Thomas. he had some songs, he’s been using Matt, so he asked me what I thought about it. I said, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” (Nelson and Thomas have been friends ever since Thomas approached the veteran and expressed the respect he and his mother shared for Nelson.)
Indeed, a dash of the Great Divide cuts are written by Thomas: “Maria,” “Won’t Catch Me Cryin’” and “Recollection Phoenix.” ” He already had those written,” notes Nelson. “We started tow right one untitled song together, but since he had such good ones and the time was short, we just went ahead and did those three.” heralded Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin also writes or co-writes a batch of songs (“Mendocino,” “Last Stand,” “This Face”), and the final cut was written for Nelson by Nashville’s Leslie Thatcher and Donald Wallace Poythress. Nelson penned only one himself – the title track – with jazz player Jackie King.first-ever chart hit back in 1968 (with The First Edition), and a Top 5 one at that. (It also appears on Nelson’s Rainbow Connection. The other cover is Cyndi Lauper’s ’80sclassic “Time After Time,” which jazz legend Miles Davis also turned into a concert staple before his death. Nelson admits that he had not originally planned on performing the Lauper cut: “Rob was the one who suggested I do that one. I did it a little bit different than what she did, with he same chord progressions but I tweaked the melody a little bit.”
The title tune is an apt example of The Great Divide’s central theme and collaborative nature. “When he [Jackie King] first brought me the chords,” Nelson says, “he wanted me to do an instrumental. I liked the progression so much, I said, “Well, let me see if I can write some lyrics.’” Nelson claims the song is about “a relationship that’s lost in the Great Divide. The division comes between a man and a woman.”
More songs on the album resonate wtih the same theme: “Maria” is about the “real cute way a man and woman fuss and fight and make up,” says Nelson; “Mendocino” deals with a yhoung couple’s love affair that falls apart; “Last Stand” is another love song that features the chorus “Now its’s our last stand in open country/ This is my lance chance to be with you”; and “Won’t Cathc Me” is about yet another dissolved relationship – “You won’t catch me cryhin’ over you/ I think I’m leavin’ all that I’ve been through.” One of the exceptions is “Be There for You,” which Nelson initially performed with Sherly Crow at the Country Music Awards. “That’s oen of the more positive songs on the album,” he says. “It’s one of the few where the couple are still together.” cites other tracks that diverge thematically: “I think ‘This Face’ is more of a universal-type song. I don’t see it as much about relationships as personal philosophy.” A select lyric: “You cant’ buy a sympathetic mirror/ Honesty’s an answer you can’t fight.” “Don’t Fade Away” follows the same train of thoguht, which he also likesn to his Sinead O’Connor collaboration on ‘Across the Borderline, “Don’t Give Up”. “REcollection Phoenix” deals with a traveling musician who wanders around the Southwest.
It may come as no surprise that, despite the upcoming release of The Great Divide Nelson already has three other discs in tehw works. A Don Was produced reggae album is on tap and will feature covers of “Sitting in Limbo,” “The Harder The Come” and potentially, a Johnny Cash tune. A number of Nelson originals will also appear on the disc. “I did a lot of my songs with gi8*-+eggae rhythms,” he says, “a bunch of obscure songs that probably no one has ever heard of, like “Undo the Right” and “Something to Think About.” A lot of songs I had written back in the ’60s and ’70s that never came out.” Nelson hopes to use another vintage cut, “One in a Row,” as the album title. Also on deck is a traditional country collaboration with the legendary Ray Price, as well as a jazz disc he recorded in Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas.
But first, Nelson will devote some time to support The Great Divide. He is set to perform “Maria” with Rob Thomas on Lat Night with David Letterman, “Mendocino” with Lee Ann Womack on The Tonight’s Show with Jay Leno and some dates at Irving Plaza in New York. Whether in the studio or on the road, Nelson’s poised to continue his heroic streak through 2002. “I threaten to retire in the middle of every tour,” he closes. “I swear this is the last one. Then I’m off for a couple days, and I’m ready to go back.”