Free Willie

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

The dry spell during the Eighties was a long one. As that decade dragged into the next, the hits had stopped coming, and even Nelson's constant touring couldn't keep the tax man at bay. His money troubles had at least a couple of positive side effects; they kept his name in the news when his album sales were in the basement and prompted a gusher of good feelings from longtime admirers who would be key to his financial recovery. A Fayetteville lawyer purchased Nelson's ranch, located near Dripping Springs, Texas, so that Willie could live there again. Likewise, college football coach Darrell Royal bought the singer's studio and golf course, then leased it back to him for next to nothing. Even IRS agents were charmed by Nelson. When he went to the agency's Austin office to settle his debts, he was flooded with autograph requests from employees there. He signed several on blank tax forms.

Artists also rallied to help Nelson, both out of admiration for his work and because they wanted to repay his generosity. (Farm Aid, his annual benefit for beleaguered farmers, has lived on when many other good-hearted stabs at fundraising have faltered.) The most prominent example of this was Across the Borderline, which Columbia released in 1993; it was produced by Grammy winner Don Was and included contributions from Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and many other famous people. Unfortunately, the overused duet format put many observers in mind of the very albums that had led them to turn Nelson off in the first place. It and other comeback attempts withered on the vine.

At this point, the same fate seems likely to claim Spirit; less than two months after its release, the CD's sales are already in decline following a launch that was only moderately successful. What's especially distressing about this situation is Spirit's quality. Featuring thirteen songs all composed by Nelson, the album is a spare, no-nonsense package in the tradition of Red Headed Stranger. The small band--Willie and Bobbie are joined by fiddler Johnny Gimble and guitarist/vocalist Jody Payne--delivers deceptively simple ditties like "She Is Gone," "Your Memory Won't Die in My Grave" and "I'm Waiting Forever" with sensitivity and understanding. And vocally, Nelson is at his very best. Often, he seems not to be doing much at all, but the accumulation of his efforts demonstrates just how rare his gift is.

Although his demeanor seems adamantly laissez-faire, Nelson is self-aware enough to know if he's done good work. Appropriately, he's pleased with the tunes on Spirit. "'I Thought About You, Lord' and 'Too Sick to Pray' are songs I don't think I could have written when I was younger," he says. "I felt like they were a great improvement over some of the songs that came from wherever my spirit has traveled. They come from a good spot."

So pleased is he by Spirit that he's not overly concerned that mainstream country radio isn't paying much attention to it. "I've lived with that all my life--that's not really anything new to me. I went for a long period before 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain' got airplay where I was working, making music, drawing crowds and having a big time, but radio had sort of drifted away. And that's when the outlaw thing came, and then all of a sudden we were back in the game again. Then that passed, and now there are other groups that are more popular--which is great. Anybody who can draw audiences and play music and entertain people, whether they call themselves blues or country or whatever, deserves some credit. Some of these young guys, like Alan Jackson and Marty Stuart, are real pros, and they'll be around for a long time."

Other country performers of Nelson's vintage have little nice to say about the new crop of C&W stars. But Willie is either too canny or too sanguine to grumble. "I think on radio, there's always been a lot of bullsh--I mean a lot of trash. But every now and then you'll hear a gem, and those are the ones that will pass on through the years. I can remember times when the taste of the guys who programmed radio stations didn't run with mine, and that was before what they do now--which is program them by a computer or something. But I still think it's possible to promote your own records these days. I can still call a disc jockey, go to a radio station, take my guitar, play a couple of songs. So there's still ways to get around the guys who are supposedly running the music business."

If Nelson resents having to put on dog and pony shows just to get his music on the air, he doesn't show it. "I think it's good for me to have to work that hard," he insists. "That keeps me involved in all aspects of making a record and all aspects of playing music. It's not enough to know how to play a guitar. You've got to know how to turn that into keeping you from having to work in a factory somewhere.

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