Free Willie

A gospel album on a Denver record label is the latest step in the rehabilitation of Willie Nelson's career.

Willie Nelson is right where you'd expect to find him: on a tour bus, heading from one show to the next. He's 63 years old and wears every one of his adventures on his leathery features. But he still has a guitar and a voice, and he fully intends to keep using them both.

"I don't believe that there's only a certain number of songs in me," he says in a tone that's deeper and more rugged than the one he generally uses while singing. "That's kind of like saying you only have so many breaths that you can draw. I think there's no limit--one should never limit himself to anything. You shouldn't say, 'I only have one song in me' or 'I have a hundred.'

"If you're a songwriter, that's what you can do. You can write one a day or ten a day, or whatever. Now, whether they're any good or not, I'll leave that for somebody smarter than me to figure out. Like the public."

The populist bias that comment conveys is certainly a part of Nelson's character, but it hardly defines him. Sure, he wants to attract a large audience; those phases when he's enjoyed mass popularity have been among his happiest and most productive. But that doesn't mean he's willing to shave his beard and snip off his braids to fit prevailing fashion. He's made a living for decades doing what he damn well pleases, and he shows no signs of wanting to change that policy. So if the Nashville establishment doesn't want to embrace this craggy, pot-smoking individualist right now, that's fine by him.

Nelson's resolve echoes through How Great Thou Art, a new album just issued by Denver-based Finer Arts Records. Featuring Willie's vocals and guitar playing, sister Bobbie Nelson's piano and the bass thumps of Jon Blondell, the disc is defiantly spare--a collection of gospel favorites such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" (plus "Kneel at the Feet of Jesus," which Willie wrote in 1962) that were performed without the assistance of printed music or lyric sheets. Memory was enough for this threesome.

Well, not quite: They also needed access to Nelson's own Pedernales Recording Studio. And in 1993, when the album was cut, procuring the latter wasn't easy. "You may remember that the IRS came and took my studio from me," he notes, referring matter-of-factly to the tax problems that left him all but penniless during the early Nineties. "They had it for a while, and so did some other people, and then I got it back. And I got some new equipment in there, and during the very first session we did, we recorded 'How Great Thou Art.' It's always been one of my favorite songs, but I had never recorded it before." For Nelson, his decision to rectify this situation had everything to do with timing. The suggestion that it must have been especially satisfying to sing a song in tribute to something even more powerful than the Internal Revenue Service provokes a hearty laugh. "Absolutely," he declares.

The three-year delay between the recording of this material and its release by Finer Arts was not prompted by disputes with either Sony, his previous label, or Island Records, which just put out Spirit, a new, more mainstream album that stands up to Nelson's very best work. "My gospel music is not encumbered by any legal contracts," he says. "Island doesn't have any gospel label, and when I was with them, Sony didn't have one, either. So all through the years, I've had the freedom to take my gospel stuff anywhere I wanted to. And since I'd done some business before with Finer Arts, it seemed like a good idea to go with them."

Refusing to remain in a single corporate corner is standard operating procedure for Nelson. Over the past several years Nelson has dealt with many different record companies, including Liberty/SBK, which put out his Healing Hands of Time platter in 1994. In addition, he saw the release of two boxed sets in 1995: Revolutions of Time...The Journey: 1975-1993, a three-CD package on Legacy/Columbia, and Willie Nelson: A Classic & Unreleased Collection, a three-disc opus on Rhino that Nelson originally pitched in person on the QVC home shopping network during the depths of his scrap with the IRS. These retrospectives are sweeping, yet there remains much more to his legacy than even these projects can cover. After all, Nelson keeps extending it.

He's had plenty of help from Bobbie. She was two years old when Willie came along in 1933; he was the second of four children born in Abbott, Texas, to Ira Nelson, a blacksmith, and his wife, Myrle. But Ira's taste for wandering ensured that the family didn't stay united for long. He and Myrle divorced, with Willie and Bobbie winding up in the care of Ira's folks, William and Nancy. These circumstances further bound the siblings together, and their relationship has remained strong ever since. Bobbie is a longtime member of her brother's band and receives equal credit for Art because, Willie says, "she's as important to it as I am. We played gospel music all our lives; I remember she and I playing 'How Great Thou Art' in church and in school and in different places when we were kids. So without her, at least 50 percent of the album would be gone. That's why it had to be equal.

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