After decades of stubborn denial, I finally embraced Willie Hugh Nelson to my bosom as an American institution.
With the exception of Dolly Parton, Nelson is the most recognizable country-music artist on the planet, but what sets him apart from almost every other celebrity is his laid-back vibe. Said vibe seems to have enabled Nelson to glide into all manner of hallowed institutions ( from the Oscars to the White House ) while accompanied by the expected ( Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard ) and the unexpected ( Julio Iglesias, Pops Staples ). That he has become an unlikely movie star says a lot, but his discographywhich has influenced artists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Ray Charles and The Pet Shop Boys ( Nelson's cover of "Always On My Mind" is so well loved that many assume that he wrote it )speaks for itself.
Seems that everybody loved Nelson, except me. I will fess up that I have always had a hearty appreciation for quality country music and, yes, Cline, Johnny and Rosanne Cash, Roger Miller, Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley are all in my record collection. Still there was no Nelson record, and I have to say there was something about his music that I did not get. Alas, all that sweaty resistance melted away once I sat down at The Venue at The Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, on Sept. 18 and let the man do his job.
With no new record or agenda to push, this was a relaxed roll out of old favorites ( many hits by him, several he wrote for others and a fistful of covers by departed friends ) with no flash, cynicism or pretention. In short, this was clearly the show that my stubborn, cold, closed heart needed to see.
The set list did not come with much in the way of surprises, which was fine by me and the nearly sold-out room. People heard a freewheeling "On the Road Again;" a subtle "Still is Still Moving to Me;" a patient and near-melancholic take on Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain;" heartbreaking and mournful versions of his "Hello Walls" and "Funny how Time Slips Away;" a chunk of sloppy rowdiness in "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" and "Mamma's Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys;" and a jolly shout-out to Hank Williams Sr. with a bopping "Hey Good Looking," "Jambalaya ( on the Bayou )," "Move It On Over" and the still-relevant "Busted." "Good Hearted Woman" was jovial and punchy but his re-possession of "Crazy"a song that has become forever associated with Patsy Clinerevealed to me why I could never embrace Nelson wholeheartedly.
Cline sang "Crazy" not only with that million-dollar voice but with a noticeable tremble in her tone that turned the song into high drama. Her take is a classic without question but Nelson's version, at this reading, displayed his gifts in an altogether different manner while giving the well-worn chestnut a whole new life. Nelson's "gift" is what sounds like an unrehearsed spontaneity in tumbling words off his tongue with an unpredictable skill which can sound like he is rambling.
At age 82, Nelson's voice still has that honeyed warmth and steeliness, and he uses it without much effort. The kicker with "Crazy" was that Nelson's decidedly "undramatic" take was far more haunting then Cline's. Where she sounded like she was peeling the paint off the walls ( or about to ) in agony, Nelson's version projected a quiet, desperate implosion that bordered on madness. He clearly doesn't have the vocal fireworks of Cline, but he does have a quiet genius for interpretation that has an altogether different effect.
The thing that I could not "get" about Nelson is his lack of drama and his romance of the subtle without calling attention to itself. ( In other words, I was "listening" to the wrong things with him. ) With him surrounded by The Family Band and playing some positively ear-altering solos on his trusted guitar "Trigger" ( which looks as old and beat-up as its owner ) for a full two hours, it was impossible to escape his craft, talent, brilliance and genius. When he left the stage after an encore I stood there clapping with the rest of his audience, but I bet they did not feel like the noodle that I did.
Heads up: RedEye cover boys Meat Wave will be playing The Empty Bottle on Dec. 12 while new queer fave Ryn Weaver plays the Park West on Nov. 12.