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.

"It's amazing to me, but she and I never had any problems at all, and we still don't. We've always been the closest. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong, and I'm sure she feels the same way about me." When asked what traits of Bobbie's he wishes some of his ex-wives might have had in greater abundance, he guffaws so lustily that he nearly drops the telephone. "She has a lot of great qualities," he finally chokes out. "She has great beauty, talent, brains. That's a triple threat right there."

Grandfather William's 1939 death meant that Willie and Bobbie had to rely on each other more than ever. Fortunately, their love for a variety of music, ranging from Bob Wills's Western swing to the show tunes of George and Ira Gershwin, gave them common ground. When Bobbie married Bud Fletcher, a fiddler with a band called the Texans, in 1946, it wasn't long before Willie was also part of the lineup. (He'd made his professional debut three years earlier, playing guitar with a local polka combo.) He kept making music throughout his school years but was forced into odd jobs, like tree-trimming, to keep clothes on his back. Following a stint in the Air Force in 1951, he found more enjoyable work at a Pleasanton, Texas, radio station. He served as a disc jockey at various outlets, including one in Vancouver, Washington, until the late Fifties, when he quit over a salary dispute. Returning to Texas, Willie wound up selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

Throughout this period, Nelson was writing songs, but aside from a single from 1957, "No Place for Me"/"Lumberjack," which sold around 3,000 copies, he wasn't having much luck. That began to change three years later, when his "Family Bible" became a national hit for entertainer Claude Gray. Even bigger smashes followed, including 1961's "Hello Walls," recorded by Faron Young, and "Funny How Time Slips Away," by Billy Walker, as well as Patsy Cline's classic 1962 rendering of his composition "Crazy." But Nelson's projects fared worse when he was the one singing them. He put together a slew of albums during the Sixties, first for Liberty and later for RCA, where his protector was Chet Atkins. But even Atkins couldn't shelter him forever; by the early Seventies, with twelve artistically interesting but commercially flaccid long-players behind him, he lost his RCA contract. He later moved to Atlantic and issued a critically acclaimed record (Shotgun Willie) that actually moved a few copies--though not so many that the label was eager to retain his services.

Moving on to Columbia in 1975, he cut Red Headed Stranger for $20,000. But instead of going in the tank, its lead single, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," climbed to the top of the C&W charts and established Nelson as the creator of a new musical form: outlaw country. Suddenly he was hot, and he took advantage of the opportunity by releasing a blizzard of albums. Outlaws, a 1977 anthology that he shared with Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter, made a significant impact on the rock marketplace, accelerating interest in such Nelson recordings as 1977's To Lefty From Willie (a tribute to Lefty Frizzell), 1978's Stardust (a collection that included country covers of Broadway favorites) and the 1979 Christmas release Pretty Paper. Along the way, he even became a movie star of sorts. Honeysuckle Rose, a 1980 film in which Nelson co-starred with Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving and Slim Pickens, was a box-office success despite its rather formulaic approach, while the more obscure 1984 flick Songwriter, co-starring Kris Kristofferson and Rip Torn and directed by the accomplished Alan Rudolph, is a frequently hilarious tale that still holds up today.

Somewhere along the line, though, Nelson's momentum began to flag. The reason had to do in part with his willingness to release anything and everything he could, whether it was worthy or not. He shared albums with Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and Hank Snow, and he dueted with pretty much anyone who asked. The most absurd of his partners was Julio Iglesias; their rendition of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" became a top-five smash in 1984 even though it may be the worst track Nelson has ever made. More frustrating for fans, Nelson went through long periods during which he didn't bother to pen any of his own tunes. He chalks up these periods of writer's blocks to his prolific nature during the Sixties.

"It had a lot to do with the fact that my early years of recording ate up a lot of songs," he says. "When you put ten songs on an album and you put out thirty albums, well, there's three hundred of your best things gone. Or at least they've gone through the first cycle. You can always come back and do them later, but you've got to give them time. And those times were when I would do a Lefty Frizzell album or a Stardust album--to just bridge myself from one spot to another in my career until I could write some new stuff.

"Sometimes I get guilty because I haven't written in a while, and I'll make myself sit down and write something. But usually it's not that great, because it's forced. The ones that I finish are worth doing, usually. If I see one that I don't think is any good, I'll throw it away before I finish it, because I wouldn't want to have to sing it every night in case I needed to. But the best stuff I write comes whenever I least expect it."

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.

"One thing I learned is that if it's good, it's not going away. Songs like the Stardust album, some of the stuff on the Red Headed Stranger album, the George Jones stuff, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams. That stuff hasn't gone anywhere."

And Nelson keeps going, and going, and going. His touring schedule has hardly slackened in decades, and he's in the midst of planning this year's edition of Farm Aid, scheduled to take place October 12 in Columbia, South Carolina. As usual, the bill juxtaposes Nelson and other country stars with rockers like Neil Young and John Mellencamp. According to Nelson, "We want to have all aspects of music and people there as much as possible. We want to do rock and roll and country together so that we can represent all the farmers."

Does he enjoy this kind of mix? "Oh, I enjoy mixing it up in just about any part of life," he confirms, his words accented by a well-placed cackle. "I enjoy putting things together and seeing it all work. I enjoy seeing 100,000 people coming together in one place and getting along and clapping their hands and singing along, whether it's to 'How Great Thou Art' or 'We Don't Smoke Marijuana in Muskogee' or 'Whiskey River.'

"All three of those songs are just as positive to me. Because I think all music is gospel.

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