On April 30, Willie Nelson turned 70, celebrating with the release of his latest greatest-hits collection. The Essential Willie Nelson (Columbia/Legacy), a two-CD set, has an intriguing 1970s-vintage cover shot that sets exactly the right tone for forty years of selective tracks. Nelson’s unkempt long red hair and scraggly beard frame his thin, almost Bob Hope nose. His mouth twists slightly, a smile just short of a sneer, in sardonic, knowing reaction to the world behind the camera. His eyes, couched in wrinkles and bags, stare straight and deep into the lens, and suggest hard-to-fathom distances and recessions at the same time as they focus you into connecting. This interaction, evasive, seemingly casual, direct and subtle, represents the essence of Nelson’s sly, almost unobtrusive art.
The Essential Willie Nelson demonstrates once again that the Red-Headed Stranger’s nonchalant, gospel-flavored, jazz-inflected voice and guitar have remained essentially themselves for decades despite a wild variety of musical backdrops: bare-bones string bands, sleekly glossy Nashville productions, twangy 1970s Outlaw country-rock, jazzy standards with strings, gospel-laced soul.
Maybe that breadth helps explain why Nelson’s recurrent duets with Ray Charles are almost always so charged–and so much fun. After all, only Charles and Bob Dylan have traveled as sure-footedly across as far-flung a constellation of genres and expectations as Nelson has and still remained themselves; Charles and Nelson have long shared material and appearances. (A 1984 show at the Austin Opera House, captured on The Willie Nelson Special [Rhino Home Video], features excellent versions of “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and the old hillbilly fave “Mountain Dew.”) Part of this odd couple’s magnetism stems from the fact that they represent opposite poles of the American spectrum. Charles, the consummate besuited black professional trained in the tough world of low-rent, postwar r&b, whose nonpareil voice influenced countless singers, is a hard-bitten recluse who heads a thriving business dynamo and a drilled band. Nelson, the white country-music renegade who tried pig farming for a while when his career soured, comes onstage in hippie-cowboy-Indian costume, calls his band Family and is the epicenter of the self-consciously laid-back Austin music scene (his disciples include Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and alt-country outfits like Uncle Tupelo) he helped seed and feed for the thirty years since he first strode onstage at Armadillo World Headquarters. Even on an off night, Charles can suddenly burst whatever frames the ragged, churchy elasticity of his scuffed and soaring trademark voice. Nelson stays introspective: Lacking Charles’s explosive interpolations, he subsumes his surroundings, enticing the audience into his voice’s unexpected contours.
Think of Charles as Louis Armstrong’s direct descendant, and Nelson as a cross between Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. Their duets are like oil and vinegar, always about to separate if not stirred up, delicious because they don’t. Thanks to the gospel-jazz core of their artistic personalities, their encompassing self-assurance in their craft’s portability of application, they make singing symbolic of existential struggle. It helps that they both love what Charlie Parker loved most about country music–storytelling.
Like Charles, Nelson absorbed the breadth of American music by living it. Born in poor Texas cotton country, Nelson and his sister Bobbie, who still plays piano for him, were raised by their grandparents, devout people and gospel-music fans who encouraged their grandchildren to pick up instruments. By the time the boy was 7 he was writing songs. “I was raised and worked in the cotton fields around Abbott,” he has said, “with a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Mexican-Americans, and we listened to their music all the time.” So blues and Mexican ballads underpin Nelson’s phrasing and narratives, along with the hillbilly and Western swing (13-year-old Willie once duetted with Western swing founder Bob Wills) that his radio picked up from Nashville and the border. Following a quick hitch in the Air Force and a tempestuous marriage to a Native American woman, Nelson moved in 1953 to Fort Worth, became a country deejay and played bars, mixing honky-tonk and preaching. (Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English originally played with the Salvation Army.) In 1956 in Vancouver Nelson made his first record; it sold 3,000 copies. Then he wrote and sold a couple of hits, which got him a publishing contract and brought him to Nashville.